Wednesday, 30 March 2016

[#6] William Prynne, A Short Demurrer to the Jewes Long discontinued Remitter into England (London, 1656).*

* While this text is now available through EEBO that is a less than ideal platform and as such the edition that this review is based on is housed in the special collections of the John Rylands Library.

There is often the tendency within historical writing to reference to latest, most cutting edge, research. While, I am not against this per se, I think that the Issues in Historiography series produced by Manchester University Press, which confronts ‘highly charged dialogues, disagreements, controversies and shifting centres of interest’, has highlighted the need to consider how other generations of scholars viewed the history which we consider (http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/series/issues-in-historiography/). The obvious examples in the case of medieval Anglo-Jewry, in terms of older material, would be the work of D’Bloissiers Tovey (1738), who has justifiably been described as ‘the founding father of Anglo-Jewish studies’ (Mundill: 2003, p. 55) or Joseph Jacobs (1893), whose work is still required reading for those working on this period. Tovey’s work in particular drew on the work of two previous scholars, William Prynne and Thomas Madox, whose work is now rarely considered, and it is the former writer whose work is considered here. When considering Prynne’s Short Demurrer it is important to bear in mind that he was writing at the time of the Readmission debates and as a result of the fact that he was opposed to allowing the Jews to return to England, his text reflects that. That being said, Prynne’s work is a remarkably erudite piece with many of the features of historical scholarship that are recognisable today – and many of his arguments are not dissimilar from those which were maintained well into the twentieth-century scholarship on the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry.

The first half of Prynne’s Short Demurrer consists of a history of the Jews in medieval England. As far as his sources, Prynne drew heavily upon the main chroniclers of the period. However, as a result of the this reliance on the chroniclers, Prynne did not attempt to gain any detailed understanding of the Jewish life in medieval England which could have been gleaned from the governmental sources – though this is hardly surprising given that many of them would be crammed into the record office in the Tower of London until the following century. In any event, the chroniclers, with their often critical approach to the Jews served Prynne’s arguments best. As a result of this reliance on the chroniclers, some dates are obviously wrong, such as Prynne’s suggestion that the William of Norwich case occurred in 1160 (p. 6) rather than in 1144. However, this was an easy mistake to make when basing the summary of events on the chroniclers accounts, particularly in the absence of the Life and Passion of William of Norwich which would only be discovered in the late nineteenth-century.

Within the context of Prynne’s purpose of demonstrating why the Jews should not be readmitted to England, it is not surprising that he takes every opportunity to portray them in the most negative light. For example, in the case of attack upon the Jews at Richard I’s coronation was brought about as a result of the fact that a number of Jews, in violation of Richard’s prohibition on their attendance, ‘secretly got into the Church and Palace; who being discovered one after another were well beaten, and thrust out of the Church and Court by the Kings Officers and Christians.’ That being said, Prynne does not take the stance that the Jews deserved what they got, as one might expect given the nature of the text, but rather is highly critical of those perpetrators of the massacres. The second half of Prynne’s history very much follows the discussion set out in Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora which is hardly surprising given that Paris provides one of the most comprehensive chronicle accounts of the Jewish ‘experience’ in medieval England. This is further explained by the fact that in 1640 a new printed edition of the Chronica was produced by William Watts (the first printed edition having been made available in 1571 by Archbishop Mathew Parker) (Lloyd and Reader: 2004).

            Ultimately, while I would never seek to displace Tovey from his deserved place of reverence among historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry, I think that perhaps a more polytheistic approach might be adopted, with a triade of early writers (William Prynne, Thomas Madox and D’Bloissiers Tovey) being considered the founding fathers of the discipline. Certainly, I disagree wholeheartedly with the emphasis on Tovey who overshadows two of my favourite ever writers. Moreover, I think that given the remarkably detailed history which Prynne managed to assemble here it should not be ignored because in the general details it covers all of the details that modern histories would touch upon, though without the detailed analysis, means that this piece should not (and cannot in my opinion and writing) be ignored.

Work cited

‘Issues in Historiography’, Manchester University Press Website, at http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/series/issues-in-historiography/ accessed on 23 Mar. 16.

Jacobs, Joseph, The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records from Latin and Hebrew Sources Printed and Manuscript for the First Time Collected and Translated (London, 1893).

Lloyd, Simon and Reader, Rebecca, ‘Paris, Matthew’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), available online at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21268?docPos=1 accessed on 30 Mar. 2016.

Mundill, Robin R., ‘Edward I and the Final Phase of Anglo-Jewry’ in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (Woodbridge, 2003, rpt. 2012), pp. 55-70.


Tovey, D’Bloissiers, Anglia Judaica, or the History and Antiquities of the Jews in England (Oxford, 1738).

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