Thursday, 16 June 2016

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

This review has been completed as a response to David’s, from Birmigham (UK?), request for an accessible introduction to medieval Anglo-Jewry. See also review #8.
Academic Entry:

A thematic textbook which considers the key themes of medieval Anglo-Jewish life from 1066 until 1290.

General Entry:

It is a great pleasure to be able to review this book for this blog – not only is it the book that inspired my love of medieval Anglo-Jewry (for better or worse) but also was written by my friend and mentor and I discussed this text extensively with him. I’ve read this book somewhere in the region of a dozen times, in full (and many more times in part), since I was first introduced to it as my A-Level textbook in 2012. For me this book embodies not only a great deal of superb scholarship but also Robin’s spirit – it combines academic integrity with a writing style that makes it accessible to all. Moreover, the sentiment which is embodied within this book is truly inspiring. In Robin’s, ever eloquent, words it was his:
hope that reading about the medieval Jews of England will demand questions, foster understanding, but above all will make the reader reflect on the follies of bigotry, hatred or persecution. My fervent hope is that all should try to be more accepting, tolerant and open in all that they do among all those they rub shoulders with.
I cannot, of course, speak for everybody else, but my reading of this book has certainly impacted me in this way. For me, this is a very intelligent book in that it provides a thematic introduction to the history of medieval Anglo-Jewry. Appearing just four years after Richard Huscroft’s book (2006) which provides a chronological overview of the same subject, the two texts work incredibly well with each other. Moreover, the chapters which Robin selects are incredibly insightful and go to the heart of the historiography. These chapters range from the distribution of Jewish communities (cap. 1), to their business activities and internal structures (caps. 2-3), Christian-Jewish relations (caps. 4-6) and Expulsions, both local and general (cap. 7).

            There is an elephant in the room with regards to a consideration of this book: Professor Stacey’s more negative review of the book (2011) – I shall put my cards on the table and say that I disagree with this review. However, part of the reason for this disagreement is that I know Robin’s published work exceedingly well, having recently surveyed it for something that I am working on, and with this knowledge it becomes clear that Robin’s write up has let him down and some issues merge in with each other, when in his other work they are clearly separated. Therefore, in some areas you have to understand Robin as much as the text and issues being covered. Having said that, for all its flaws, Robin is still an exponentially better historian in this book than I could ever hope to be, and I think for the vast majority of readers this will be sufficient. One overarching criticism that I have of this book, and it is something that me and Robin debated at length, is that it is a very good introduction but it could have been so much more in terms of a scholarly piece. Admittedly, it would have been difficult to cater to both a mass and an academic audience but if anybody could have done it, Robin could. Therefore, I (and Robin did as well) think that this book should be built upon by a more academic textbook – though I think that if I were to consider that task it would be from a chronological rather than a thematic approach.

The significance of the audience does have major implications for the text though. For example, in his chapter on the Jews and the economy, Robin focused on the activities of Aaron of Lincoln rather than engaging with an overarching discussion of these activities – though an epically good book will appear next year which discusses these trends. This theme of focussing on the sensational and the sublime is something which permeates every element of this book, and with my academic hat on it irritates me immensely, but from the perspective of a general audience is very good. Having said all of that, I would recommend this book to anybody, and everybody, as such is the calibre of the text that you will take something from it.

Work Cited:

Richard Huscroft, Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution (Stroud, 2006).

Robert C. Stacey, ‘Review of The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England’, Reviews in History, available online at accessed on 16 June 2016.

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