Saturday, 28 May 2016

[#28] Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London, 2009), esp. pp. 85-88, 125-128, 170-171, 226-228.

Academic Entry:

Not appropriate.

General Entry:

After writing a review of Dan Jones’ book Realm Divided [#15], I received a number of messages requesting that I review more popular / narrative history. There is, I am afraid, remarkably little of this on my bookcase, however, having just re-read this biography of Edward I by Marc Morris I thought that I would write up a few comments on the key sections of that book which consider the Jews. I should stress that my comments do not extend to the book in its entirety – in and of themselves, medieval kings do not capture my imagination or excite me, so I would inevitably do a disservice to Morris’ excellent biography were I to attempt to do so. It would, however, be impossible to write a biography of Edward I without reference to the Jews and there are several key sections in this book where Morris touches upon them. Given that these sections draw are heavily influenced by the work of Robert C. Stacey and, to a lesser extent, Gavin Langmuir, it hardly need be said that, from a historiographical point of view, I disagree with a number of Morris’ conclusions, in line with the arguments which have been promulgated by the late great Robin Mundill and, in this particular instance, I shall not regurgitate these arguments (not least because this is not a specifically Jewish study and as such there would not have been space to get into the historiography and Morris has presumably selected the arguments which he found most convincing).

            In the first major foray into a discussion on the Jews, Morris provides a summary of the Jewish presence in England, particularly during the reign of Henry III. For me, this is also the least successful of the Jewish sections. That is not to say that there is anything technically wrong with it, merely that I feel that it misses the reality of the Anglo-Jewish experiance. For example, it is pointed out that upon their deaths, the property of Jews should default to the Crown (as it would with any other usurers), and while this is legally true, in reality the convention emerged (and was largely observed) that the heirs of a Jew would pay one-third of the value of their estate to the Crown instead in order to retain control of it – something which was not all that different from Christian methods of inheritance. This is followed, about fifty-pages later, by a discussion of the Statute of the Jewry which conforms to traditional narratives of the Statute and in this section Morris provides a brief but erudite summary of the impacts and implications of the statute. A similarly competent discussion is provided of the coin-clipping allegations of 1278-1279, though I think that more could have been said on the proportionality of the impacts upon the Jews. Finally, as one would expect there is a discussion of the Expulsion. (It should be noted here that, having learned my craft from the man who, quite literally, wrote the book on the Expulsion, it would take a superhuman, and impractical level of detail for me to think that this topic was examined in sufficient detail.) For me, this was much to brief discussion of the Expulsion. That being said, what is produced, though succinct, does cover the finer points which a reader would need to gain an understanding of the event, including comparative events on an international and domestic level. In its detail this passage follows the narrative which was promulgated by Robert Stacey (Stacey: 1997) which I struggle to come agree with for obvious reasons.

            To conclude, this is a splendid, chronological survey of the reign of one of England’s more colourful medieval monarchs. The level of the scholarship, in my opinion, is amplified by the fact that it engages with issues, such as the Jews, which fall outside traditional mainstream history. Ultimately, the nature of the book prohibits a wider discourse on the Jews but what is there is, on the whole, of a high standard and I would highly recommend this book. Sadly, I do not have a copy of Morris’ biography of King John but it would be an interesting exercise to see how the two compare (given John’s treatment of the Jews, I would expect some good material on this in that book as well).

Work Cited

Stacey, Robert C., ‘Parliamentary Negotiation and the Expulsion of the Jews from England’, Thirteenth-Century England, 6 (1997), pp. 77-102.

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