Friday, 15 April 2016

[#13] Robin R. Mundill, ‘The Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community: Organization and Royal Control’ in Alfred Haverkamp et. al. (eds.), Jüdische Gemeinden und ihr christlicher Kontext in kulturräumlich vergleichender Betrachtung: von der Spätantike bis zum 18. Jahrhundert (Hannover, 2003), pp. 267-281.*

* My tutor at the University of Manchester, Dr Stephen Mossman, who works on late medieval Germany, reliably informs me that a rough, though not totally accurate, translation of the title of this German edited collection is Jewish Communities and their Christian Contexts in Comparative Perspective of Cultural Milieux from Late Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century (his rough translations are to be taken as exponentially better than my best attempt).

As regular readers of the blog (or those who have been subjected to my many eccentricities in other ways) will know, I was lucky enough to be spend the formative years of my research into medieval Anglo-Jewry working under the gentle tutelage of Robin Mundill whose mentoring has impacted immensely upon my approach to history generally and this subject specifically. This means that I tend to side with Robin in the majority of historiographical cases and, consequently, that while I usually strive to read academic literature with a critical eye (something which I’m rather good at, as those historians who suffered the ignominy of having their work subjected to the nib of my acid pen as I proof read their work will testify to), my spectacles are somewhat rose tinted when it comes to Robin’s work, particularly those pieces which were published in the fifteen-years after 1987. As a result I am willing to forgive Robin many things which I would use to crucify other historians, so my comments below should be read in such a light. (In my defence: I don’t know a single historian who doesn’t attribute their own success to the impact that a mentor(s) and, as a result, treat them more kindly than they would other scholars.) Therefore, when I say: ‘this is a particularly good article produced by an exceptional historian’, as I do now, you can interpret that how you will – and, as always, the best thing to do would be to read the piece in question for yourself and decide accordingly.

There is often the tendency to assume, given the extent of governmental control of Anglo-Jewry during the thirteenth-century, that all aspects of Jewish life were regulated by the State. However, this article by Mundill demonstrates that, in many ways, the internal workings of daily Jewish life were automatous from the machinery of government. This is a facet of Anglo-Jewry which is likely to become much more obvious in the coming years as a result of the work being done on the Hebrew source material by scholars like Pinchas Roth, whose work I have reviewed previously (review #10). I think that this will provide an important point of context given that Mundill’s essay under review here was informed, almost entirely, by reference to the Latin source material – though in 2003, when the essay was published, few would have thought it necessary (or even possible) to adopt a different approach. This article is effectively divided into two sections. The first expounds upon what we can learn from the extant (mainly Latin) source material about the daily life of the Anglo-Jewish community, while the second part considers the interaction of the Jews with the structures of Christian government (and vice versa). I think that it’s fair to say that the second aspect of the article is stronger than the first – as anybody who knows Mundill’s work would expect. In the first section, Mundill argues that the synagogues were central to Jewish life in medieval England. In addition to being places of worship, Mundill convincingly demonstrates that they were also used for communal / social regulation (and the officers of the synagogue played important roles in that regulation), education of children (though he doesn’t say so, I believe that this was for both males and females – though the former received education to a higher level), the imposition of law (kosha law, for example). As a result of this, the significance of the synagogue (whether it was an individual building or just a room in the house of a wealthy member) to daily Jewish life in medieval England. The second section effectively recounts the procedures for governmental regulation of the Jews, terms of just and the collection of taxes, but what is most interesting about this section is the way in which Mundill demonstrates, on the basis of the Canterbury evidence, that a) Jews had quite a lot of influence over this and b) that these structures, in many instances, were not all that dissimilar to the treatment of Christians (something which has taken on significance over the last decade of scholarship in the light of the work of scholars like Elisheva Baumgarten – e.g. Baumgarten: 2007).

While this essay was ostensibly adapted for publication in Mundill’s The King’s Jews (2010, chapter 3), I think that this essay is well worth reading. This is not least because, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that it was produced during a transitional period when medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship was moving away from the purely political, legal and economic analysis of previous generations and instead started asking questions relating to the Jewish ‘experience’ in medieval England from a number of inter-disciplinary angles.

Work Cited:

Baumgarten, Eleshiva, ‘“A Separate People”? Some Directions for comparative research on medieval women’, Journal of Medieval History, 34 (2008), pp. 212-228.


Mundill, Robin R., The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England (London, 2010).

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