Wednesday, 27 April 2016

[#20] Emma Cavell, ‘Death in Gloucester: the strange case of Solomon and Comitissa Turb’, Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice: Britain and Ireland c. 1000-1750, online blog, 11 Dec. 2015, available online at accessed 27 Apr. 16.*

* Nota bene: If you want to read the references discussed in Cavell’s piece for yourself then The Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, vol. 1, has been digitised here: I haven’t checked this version specifically, but in my print copy (reprinted in 1971) the page references are pp. 33, 42, 42-43, 45, 50, 51 (or at least these are all of the references that I could find quickly, but from memory I think I’ve missed a couple).

I’ve always had an interest in women’s history, which has recently developed into an interest in gender history (which I believe is often hijacked by women’s history). I suspect that this could be one factor which has resulted in me carrying on with medieval Anglo-Jewish history because gender manifests itself in the extant source material for the Jews radically differently than in the Christian source material. While it would be anachronistic to suggest that there was a gender balance, I don’t think that it’s going too far to suggest that, in many instances, the gender disparity was not as obvious in the public sphere as it was for Christians at this point. However, among mainstream historians of medieval women’s history, during the High Middle Ages, there is a tendency to ignore this fact to the detriment of their studies. For example, in Louise Wilkinson’s book Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire despite the fact that there was a thriving Jewish community in Lincolnshire, there is only, as far as I can tell, a single reference to the Jews in the book (2015, p. 10, fn. 68) – it also happens to be the only error that I could detect in the book given that the Jews were expelled in 1290 not 1291. Therefore, I think that it is splendid that the Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice project actually includes somebody working on this area because a) it is an incredibly neglected facet medieval women’s history and b) as something which is the focus of my research, it’s always nice to know that other people are also doing the same thing.

            Emma Cavell is not the first person to draw attention to the Solomon Turbe murder case because of the astounding level of detail which it contains (see, for example, Hillaby: 2001, pp. 65-66), but I think that Cavell’s is perhaps the most successful exploration because of the amount of consideration that she gives to the case. Indeed, whereas this, and many other cases, are often treated as novelties in medieval Anglo-Jewish scholarship, Cavell has given due care and attention to these remarkable entries, the benfits of this approach can be seen in the finished result. For me, what is intriguing about these entries, aside from the level of detail, is the fact that the protagonist, who initiates these legal proceedings against Abraham Gabbay, is Comitissa. It is not overly surprising to see a woman initiating proceedings in the court of the Exchequer of the Jews, as Victoria Hoyle has demonstrated (2008), however I think that it is the gender interplay which is fascinating – something which is beyond the scope of Cavell’s discussion but is nevertheless intriguing. This piece provides a coherent discussion not only of the case in question, but also of the standardised aspects of the case and for me that is one of its great strengths. That being said, I do think that Cavell failed to address one significant element of the case: what it meant to be a witness at this point and how Christian and Jewish standards differed – this is a particularly important oversight (in my opinion) because Comitissa’s case effectively hinged upon what she heard rather than what she saw.

            To conclude, I find this to be a highly enjoyable piece which makes the case which is under consideration much more accessible to a general readership and despite the fact that the hyperlink at the end of her piece does not appear to work, there are other ways to engage with this case. Moreover, the fact that this piece appears in conjunction with a mainstream history project is very encouraging for the outcomes as a whole and I look forward to following the developments of that project. Finally, given that this is a website entry, there’s absolutely no reason why you, dear reader, cannot go off and read this piece for yourself rather than paying attention to my ramblings.

Work Cited:

Hillaby, Joe, ‘Testimony from the margin: the Gloucester Jewry and its neighbours, c. 1159-1290’, Jewish Historical Studies, 37 (2001), pp. 41-112.

Hoyle, Victoria, ‘The bonds that bind: money lending between Anglo-Jewish and Christian women in the plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, 1218-1280’, Journal of Medieval History, 34 (2008), pp. 119-129.

Wilkinson, Louise, Women in Thirteenth-Century Lincolnshire (Woodbridge, 2015).

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