Tuesday, 22 March 2016

[#4] Anthony Bale, ‘Afterword: Violence, Memory and the Traumatic Middle Ages’ in Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson (eds.), Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts (York, 2013), pp. 294-304.

The great English historian G. M. Trevelyan famously wrote that

“The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cock-crow.” (Trevelyan: 1949, 12)
Nowhere does the phenomenon which Trevelyan highlighted manifest itself more obviously than in the heritage industry, which seeks to keep the past relevant in the modern world. In many ways the heritage industry contributes to a sense of cultural memory, actual or imagined, which in turn works to construct our sense of self. In the case of Anglo-Jewish history, the impact of local heritage is becoming particularly obvious in the light of increased interest in the long term history of Jewish communities in particular areas: notably Berkshire (Romain: 2013), Hampshire (Kushner: 2009) and Winchester and York (Griffths: 2012). In the essay which is being considered here, Anthony Bale provides a fitting end to a wonderful edited collection: Christians and Jews in Angevin England. Bale chapter starts by considering Clifford’s Tower as a souvenir of the medieval which has been adopted, and sanitised, in the modern world in order to reflect what a modern audience expect to see. Subsequent to this, Bale considers the significance of signs which have been produced to mark the Jewish heritage in particular areas and the politics associated with them.

            For me, this is an incredibly important essay because I think that as historians we are all too ready to conclude that history can only be transmitted through the written records – this is especially problematic for medieval historians (and even more so historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry). As a result of this, Bale’s consideration of Clifford’s Tower is particularly important, not least because, in many ways, this bailey (which was constructed after the Expulsion of 1290) has become the image which represents the Jewish ‘experience’ in medieval England and has accordingly contributed to the cultural memory of York specifically and England generally. However, while Clifford’s Tower, and sites like it, is undeniably evocative, to assume that when we look at the carefully manicured grass which surrounds the keep and take the structured tour around the Tower, we can in any way understand the experience of the 150 desperate Jews who were forced to take the most difficult of decisions on 16-17 March 1190 would be nonsensical. In many ways the reality is irrelevant because the carefully choreographed image of the Tower presents the desired image of the past and those who view it will take what they want from that image. As Bale goes on to point out, this tailored representation of the past is much more obvious when one looks at the signage which has been produced during the course of the twentieth-century which Bale argues was designed to portray a linear development from the medieval past to the modern period (i.e. using medieval as a synonym for archaic or barbaric as compared with the ‘enlightened’ age in which we now live).

            While, on the whole I find Bale’s essay enjoyable and thought provoking, I do have one major issue with it. The chapter appears at the end of a splendid volume upon the context and implications of the York massacre of 1190, and concerned as it is with memory, I find it perplexing that there is not a single reference (or even an inferred suggestion) to the myth which has arisen in York in recent decades that a herem is in place in the city of York which prevents the establishment of a Jewish settlement there (completely ignoring the fact that in the decade after the massacre of Shabbat ha-Gadol a Jewish community was re-established in York which was to become the richest community in England for a time). While Bale is not the only scholar to fail to tackle this issue, it is nevertheless frustrating that historians continue to ignore this issue which has become a central aspect of York’s cultural memory in relation to the Jews (even if it is has no bearing on the medieval historical reality). However, I have recently been informed, by one of the contributors to this volume, that there is a scholar currently working on this tantalising, and intriguing, omission. Hopefully that research will appear in the near future which addresses this point.

Work cited:

Griffths, Toni, ‘The State of Jewish Memory in York and Winchester’, PaRDeS, 18 (2012), pp. 67-78.

Kushner, Tony, Anglo-Jewry since 1066: Place, locality and memory (Manchester, 2009).

Romain, Jonathan, Royal Jews: A Thousand Years of Jewish Life in and Around the Royal County of Berkshire (Maidenhead, 2013).

Trevelyan, G. M., An autobiography and other essays (London, 1949).

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