Review: Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora” [Part 2]: “Medieval English Anti-Semitism”

Go to Part 1. 

In part one of this essay we laid the groundwork for an examination of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora by considering the background of the author, his background as a follower of the Frankfurt School, and his role in defending and advancing Jewish interests. We now move on to a discussion of the historical content of the text. The following analysis will first provide the reader with Julius’ narrative of the Jewish experience in medieval England. The latter half of the essay will be devoted to dissecting his narrative, and pointing out its myriad flaws, misrepresentations, and fabrications.

Julius on Jews in Medieval England.

Julius sets out his history of Jews in medieval England by establishing a common theme in Jewish ethnic activist history writing — complete Jewish passivity and the employment of what I term ‘the victim paradigm.’ As I explained in my earlier work on the 19th century Russian disturbances, “it is the notion that Jews stand alone in the world as the quintessential ‘blameless victim.’ To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm.” To Julius, the history of Jews in medieval England is one in which an innocent Jewish population is victimized by “a predatory State, an antagonistic Church, and an intermittently but homicidally violent populace” (p. xli). Julius writes that the period witnessed “a war against the Jews” (p. xli). The lives of the Jews, from the moment of their settlement in the country in 1066, were according to Julius “always difficult, often intolerable” (p. xli).

Julius paints a portrait of a community like any other, diverse in its interests and occupations. Certainly, admits Julius, there were “some great financiers,” but money-lending played no great part in Jewish life, and there were also “physicians, traders, goldsmiths and ballad-singers” (p. 106). Julius claims that “they were not segregated from their Christian neighbors” (p. 107). He urges us to avoid “the misconception that the typical Jewish milieu is a commercial one, and that Judaism itself is especially hospitable to moneymaking” (p. 123).

Julius attributes the first serious disruption to this precarious existence to the appearance of the “blood libel,” which according to Julius emerged out of the irrationality and inherent malice of the Christian population (p. 123). The Crown then joined in and “turned the extorting of money from England’s wealthiest Jews into a project” (p. 123). Observe the victim paradigm at work when Julius argues that “the history of medieval English Jewry is thus in large measure the history of the persecution of medieval English Jewry” [original emphasis] (p. 123). He states that “in medieval England, Jews were defamed, their wealth was expropriated, they were killed or injured, they were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating regulation, and they were, finally, expelled” (p. 108). Violence “came from above and below” (p. 108), “neither Jewish life nor Jewish property was ever wholly secure from attack. … Even their most commonplace, least consequential, of social encounters with Christians was freighted with danger for Jews” (p. 119). Victimhood, passivity, lack of agency.

Julius argues that the State victimized Jews by supporting “extortion, by judicial sanctions for false charges, by its tacit support for mob violence and its refusal to prosecute the murderers of Jews” (p. 119). The Church “practised violence and incited others to violence by its pursuit of persecutory legislation, by its preaching, and by other coercive measures” (p. 119). Mob violence was “radical, merciless, and quite often skillfully directed” (p. 119). Julius offers no references, citations, or evidence in support of these claims.

Much of Julius’ polemic on this period concerns the “blood libel,” a phenomenon he completely fails to contextualize or explain. He relies on dismissing it as “the paradigmatic instance of a total fabrication,” without asking why a local population would a) fabricate evidence against Jews in the first place and b) why it took the form it did and emerged when it did. Since answering such questions are key to the understanding of any historical issue or period, Julius’ entire section on this is flawed not only factually, but methodologically. He attributes the anti-Jewish riots of 1189–1190 to “a broad enthusiasm for the Crusades” (p. 119), without offering grounds for making such a statement, and writes provocatively that he imagines the crowds of non-Jews “robbing, raping, burning, and killing — all the time, self-righteously” (p. 119).

The Crown, argues Julius, weighed down England’s Jews with “burdensome taxation,” levied on the basis of personal greed and a malicious theology which deemed them “God’s rejected people” (p. 125). They were subject to the whims of kings who would request vast loans and tallages [a kind of land tax]. The English Church persecuted Jews by telling Christians not to use Jewish doctors, by telling them not to borrow money from Jews, and by the priestly engagement of Jewish religious figures in theological debates. Edward I was particularly nasty, states Julius, because he “issued instructions to Jews to attend Dominican sermons” (p. 139).

Julius writes that in 1290 Edward I expelled a “weakened” and “intimidated” Jewish population from England, once it was no longer financially useful to the Crown. A depressing and, for the uninstructed reader, a pity-inducing narrative indeed.

But an entirely false one.

Jews in Medieval England.

Even back in 1894 there was a sufficient amount of this documentation for W. Bacher to write that “no country in Europe possesses for the history of the Jews in the twelfth century so rich a stock of documentary material as England”[1] Despite the availability of vast amounts of primary documentary evidence, Julius consulted not one original source for his discussion of medieval English Jews, instead borrowing heavily and selectively from other writers. As G.R. Elton, the great English rationalist historian, said in his classic The Practice of History (1961) “knowing what other historians have written is vital to a proper job” but “the first demand of sound historical scholarship must be stressed: it must rest on a broad-fronted attack upon all the relevant material.”[2] Julius doesn’t just fail to tackle all of the relevant material that has been unearthed in the course of centuries – he doesn’t tackle any of it. With the exception of one or two entries, Julius’ list of over one hundred footnotes for his discussion of Jews in medieval England consists exclusively of books written in the 1980s and 1990s by historians of the kind described by Elton as purveyors of “anti-positivist criticisms” – that is, a school of historians who claim theory trumps evidence, and thus for whom it is “virtually axiomatic that historians never work with the materials of the raw past.”[3] Of course, anti-positivism was the major strain of Frankfurt School thought which infected the writing of academic history in the 1960s, and persists to this day.[4] Its proponents believe in conducting their research in the realm of the imagination rather than the archive.

Let us first deal with Julius’ claim that this Jewish community was diverse in trade and profession, and that money-lending was a very minor part of it. Unlike Julius, A.M. Fuss consulted the available records and information for his 1975 article on “Inter-Jewish Loans in Pre-Expulsion England”  and concluded that English Jews “were primarily engaged in money-lending, rather than trade or commerce. … In fact the charters issued by Kings John and Richard specifically provide protection for their money-lending activities.”[5] P. Elman writes in the Economic History Review that “the obvious function of the Jews in regard to the general population was that of money-lending.”[6] B. Lionel Abrahams used vast quantities of archival evidence in his 1894 Arnold Prize-winning article on “The Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290” and was able to conclude on the basis of this evidence that when the Jews first settled in England “they brought with them money, but no skill in any occupation except lending it out at interest.”[7] Another article states that there is no evidence, among this abundant literature, “to suppose that the English Jews of this period got their living in any considerable numbers in any other art or craft. … It is therefore probable that the capital with which the community started in the country was very considerable.”[8] In the thousands upon thousands of pages of documents we have on this community (the residential data, the taxation information, the details of their personal accounts etc.) we don’t find a professionally diverse and dispersed population, but instead a close-knit, inter-related, and extremely well-organized group of money-lenders and financiers. Julius would not like us to have the “misconception that the typical Jewish milieu is a commercial one,” so he shamelessly distorts the historical record. As to whether this is a deliberate distortion, in his discussion of ‘occupational diversity’ he cites page twenty-six of H.G. Richardson’s The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (1960). The previous page, that is page twenty-five, gives a lengthy description of the vast Jewish money-lending enterprise.[9]

Julius claims that Christians and Jews were living side by side and that they enjoyed the little things in life together until the psychotic Christian population became homicidal. B. Lionel Abrahams paints a rather different picture. Using town plans and residential data, he found that Jews “occupied, not under compulsion, but of their own choice, a separate quarter of each town in which they dwelt.”[10] He writes that they “rejected meat as unfit for themselves, but considered it good enough to be offered for sale to their Christian neighbors.”[11] They lived as “semi-aliens, growing rich as usurers, and observing strange customs.”[12] They stood outside of the feudal society, built on an aristocratic militant confraternity, itself founded on oaths and fealty.[13]

Julius complains about heavy, relentless, and burdensome taxation and loans squeezed from the Jews, though I very much doubt he has ever laid eyes on the relevant documents. P. Elman, who has, writes that “apart from the quasi-regular and normal legal sources of income, which the English as much as the Jews were required to pay, the king claimed from a Jews a number of occasional contributions, especially loans and tallages. In the thirteenth century, which is the vital period for our purpose, the loans were insignificant in number and amount [emphasis added].”[14] Further, there “is no evidence of the levy of any collective tallage upon them until the year 1168, and then the number did not exceed 5,000 marks.”[15] When the tallages were brought in, they only applied to land that Jews had seized in lieu of the unpaid loans of the barons (see below). Further, Jews were excused from Crown taxes[16] and unlike the Christian population, in their movement around the country transacting business Jews were “free of all tolls and dues.”[17]

If we were to have before us today a thirteenth-century English peasant, he would find much to dispute in Julius’ claim that it was the Jew who stood at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. In fact it has been well established that Jews occupied the position of a privileged elite, under royal protection. B. Lionel Abrahams, upon examining centuries of royal charters concluded that “from their first arrival in the country, they had enjoyed a kind of informal Royal protection.”[18] Later, Henry II “gave and secured to the Jews special privileges so great as to arouse the envy of their neighbors,”[19] granted them the use of their own courts, and “placed them under the special protection of the royal officers in each district.”[20]

In charging high rates of interest and preying upon the indebtedness of the lesser barons and the freeholders, Jews were successful in acquiring vast numbers of estates, which the king then gradually acquired by accepting them in lieu of tallages.[21] The Jews had a free rein to carry on their regular, and highly profitable, money-lending activities as long as they continued in a mutually beneficial partnership designed to facilitate “the transfer of land from the small  landowners to the upper stratum.”[22] Unsurprisingly, Jews thus came to be seen as a hostile elite. They were viewed as such not just by the peasantry but by the barons, who chafed under their interest rates and at their inability to strike at those under royal protection. Irven Resnick writes in a 2007 article for the respected journal Church History that Jews were the “agents of hated royal fiscal policies,”[23] as well as the usurers of the masses. The Crown was aware of this and took measures to increase security for Jews. A lot has been made about Jews first having to wear a badge identifying them at this time. What is far less often publicized is that these badges were first introduced by the English Crown, according to an article in the Jewish Quarterly Review, to better “facilitate their recognition by their protectors.”[24] This partnership stands quite opposite to the picture painted by Julius, in which the Crown would even refuse “to prosecute the murderers of Jews.”[25] In fact this statement is itself a complete fabrication. One of the most notable things about the expulsion was that during the event itself, and long after the Crown viewed the Jews as useful, there remained a gratitude for services rendered. Zefira Rokeah writes that the Crown “endeavored to ensure the safe passage of Jews during the expulsion itself and punished those who robbed them or abandoned them to their death.”[26] Julius knows this of course — he cites several times, though selectively, from the exact chapter I have just quoted from.[27]

Julius claims that the English Church was inherently bent on persecution because it viewed Judaism as a heresy, and in doing so gives Jews an entirely passive role. In this he borrows heavily from mainstream Jewish writing on this subject,[28] and he cites extensively from Zefira Rokeah who is one of the main proponents of this notion. For example she writes that “England was among the most orthodox countries in religious matters. Heresy was both exceedingly rare and decisively dealt with when it appeared. It was not found necessary to import the Inquisition into England, although the Dominicans were present and capable of acting as its agents.”[29]

There is one basic and fundamental problem with the Jewish rationale on this however. Heresy can only be committed by ‘one of the flock’ and Jews were never seen as part of the flock.  In fact, compared with the heresies of sects like the Cathars, which flourished at this time, Abrahams writes that “Jewish unbelief was seen as harmless.”[30] Put simply, the Jews were outsiders of no import or concern to the Church.

In the early years of Church-Jew interaction, relations were actually positive. We know from documents that the English Church was borrowing money at interest from the Jews, “pledging church vessels, books, and vestments as security for their loans; even relics were used in this way. … The Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln alone financed building projects in nine Cistercian abbeys as well as the cathedrals of Lincoln and Petersborough.”[31] Relations eventually ceased not because of theological differences, but under the direction of the bishop of Lincoln who complained that interests levels for these loans had become “exorbitant.”[32] J.M. Rigg concluded following a survey of Church correspondence that “religion had little or nothing to do with the expulsion,”[33] and that “the clergy of England during the period under review evinced far less hostility to the Jews than the laity.”[34] When the laity began to suffer under Jewish usury, relations further deteriorated, and the Church moved to end Christian-Jewish contact altogether. When these efforts failed and Jews had spread into new towns across England, protected by royal guards, tensions grew. Because an attack on the Jews was seen as an attack on the king, some pretext had to be sought. A religious pretext, which might offer the protection of the Church, was thought viable, and in this atmosphere the allegation of ritual murder emerged.  Gillian Bennett, a fine historian of medieval England and an expert on the use and reception of folklore, concluded in 2005 following years of research into these allegations that “where accusations of ritual murder where made in this period … it is more probable that they were cause celebres around which anti-Jewish feeling could crystallize, rather than the cause of anti-Semitism in the first place.”[35] A pretext — a ‘safe’ pretext under which one could forge an attack on a hostile, heavily protected elite. Of course, the peasantry under-estimated the reaction of the sovereign — following a riot against Jews in York in 1190, many rioters were hanged by orders of the king.[36]

Thus, rather than Julius’ “war on the Jews,” the period saw the partnership of Crown and Jew against the barony and the peasantry. Only when the cautious Edward I ascended the throne did the situation change. The barons were becoming increasingly restless — a restlessness that Edward was sure would eventually target him. During the interregnum of Henry II and Richard I, the brief period before the new king declared ‘the peace,’ successful raids had been carried out by the barons on the archae — heavily guarded buildings which housed records of what they owed Crown and Jew.[37] Tallages consistently revealed the astonishing level of Jewish wealth, and as J.M. Rigg states: “Doubtless the discovery this made of their opulence had grown, had much to do with the outbreak of anti-Semitism which followed.”[38] Edward thus decided to cut his losses while the going was good — for both him and the Jews. As Rigg concluded, given the realities of the period “it would be absurd to find fault with him for dismissing them from the country. … Nay, it is even probable that their expulsion was a blessing in disguise.”[39] Also, if Jews had such a terrible time in medieval England, perhaps Mr. Julius can explain why only twenty years after the ‘expulsion’ Jews started petitioning for their return?[40]

To conclude our analysis of Julius’ discussion of the Jews in medieval England, it is worth contextualizing it and highlighting its role in the broader landscape of the writing of Jewish history. To take just one example, the claim advanced by Julius, that the medieval Jewish community of England was diverse in trade and profession, has absolutely no basis in fact, and is a mere creation intended to whitewash a dark spot in the Jewish past. All the evidence we have points to almost complete involvement in money lending. In the 1970s, however, Salo Baron in his Economic History of the Jews conjectured that it was diverse, laying the theoretical groundwork for future writers to embellish. He argued that, “the extant rich documentation on Jewish moneylenders in medieval England has almost completely diverted the attention of scholars from the pulsating life of what was probably the non-moneylending majority of English Jews [emphasis added].”

Baron had nothing to go on in making this claim, and certainly no justification at all for claiming that the majority of Jews in England were not engaged in money lending. In fact, this statement contradicts most of his discussion of Jewish economic activity in England, in which he argues that money lending was the “lifeblood” and “the very economic foundation” of the community.

However, Baron’s intercession was enough for a 1988 chapter in Anti-Semitism Through the Ages in which Zefira Rokeah cited Baron but made it sound like he had discovered hard evidence to prove his theory. Rokeah obscurely alluded to “manuscript evidence” in the main body of text, but hidden in her footnotes it becomes clear that this ‘discovery’ was just more paperwork on money lenders — nothing at all to do with the imagined majority of diversely employed Jews. Despite approvingly citing Baron’s conjecture, and embellishing it further, no evidence at all had yet been found to substantiate it.

Moving forward to 2010, our own Anthony Julius played his part in the whitewashing of Jewish history by citing Rokeah as evidence for his assertion that medieval English Jewry was definitely economically diverse. At no point in this sequence was new evidence introduced — it was simply Jewish academics citing each other and relying on the scholarly apparatus of citation alone to bestow legitimacy on their claims. But by this simple method, in three books (and over 40 years) the truth was smothered, and we went from a view of a predominantly money lending community, to a complete re-write of history in which the community was barely involved in money lending at all. Just imagine all the future scholars who will, knowingly or not, cite Julius, and thus perpetuate this fabrication in their works. 

Andrew Joyce’s review of Trials of the Diaspora will continue at a later date.

[1] W. Bacher, “The Jews of Angevin England: Documents and Records from Latin and Hebrew Sources,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 6:2 (1894), 335-374 (p.335-6).

[2] G.R. Elton The Practice of History (London, 1961), p.88.

[3] Ibid, p.79.

[4] J. Marcus, Foundations of the Frankfurt School of Social Research (New Brunswick, 1984), p.15.

[5] A.M. Fuss “Inter-Jewish Loans in Pre-Expulsion England” Jewish Quarterly Review, 65:4 (1975), 229-245 (p.229).

[6] P. Elman, “The Economic Causes of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290” The Economic History Review, 7:2(1937) 145-154 (p.145).

[7] B. L. Abrahams, “The Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290” Jewish Quarterly Review, 7:1 (1894), 75-100 (p.76).

[8] “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.10).

[9] See H.G. Richardson, The English Jewry under Angevin Kings, (London, 1960), p.25.

[10] B. L. Abrahams, “The Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290” Jewish Quarterly Review, 7:1 (1894), 75-100 (p.76-7).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p.78.

[13] “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.7).

[14] P. Elman, “The Economic Causes of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290” The Economic History Review, 7:2(1937) 145-154 (p.145).

[15] “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.10).

[16] Ibid, p.11.

[17] B. L. Abrahams, “The Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290” Jewish Quarterly Review, 7:1 (1894), 75-100 (p.84).

[18] Ibid, p.78.

[19] Ibid, p.81

[20] Ibid.

[21] P. Elman, “The Economic Causes of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290” The Economic History Review, 7:2(1937) 145-154 (p.145).

[22] P. Elman, “The Economic Causes of the Expulsion of the Jews in 1290” The Economic History Review, 7:2(1937) 145-154 (p.145).

[23] Irven Resnick “Review: Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution by Richard Huscroft” Church History, 76:3 (2007), 634-636 (p.635).

[24] “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.14).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Z.E. Rokeah “The State, The Church, and Medieval England,” in S. Almog Antisemitism Through the Ages (New York, 1988), p.104.

[27] Julius, Trials of the Diaspora, p.654, 656, 657.

[28] See for example, D. Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism (London, 1992), R.S. Wistrich, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (London, 1991), and M. Perry Antisemitism: Myth and Hate from Antiquity to the Present (New York, 2002).

[29] Ibid, p.101.

[30] B.L. Abrahams “The Expulsion of the Jews from England (Concluded)” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Apr., 1895), pp. 428-458, (p.458).

[31] Ibid, p.112.

[32] Ibid, p.113.

[33] J.M. Rigg “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.19).

[34] Ibid.

[35] G. Bennett, “William of Norwich and the Expulsion of the Jews”, Folklore 116:3, 311-314 (p.313).

[36] J. Gillingham, Anglo-Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference, Volume 25 (Woodbridge, 2003), p.145.

[37] B. L. Abrahams, “The Expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290” Jewish Quarterly Review, 7:1 (1894), 75-100 (p.82).

[38] J.M. Rigg “The Jews of England in the Thirteenth Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 15:1 (1902), 5-22 (p.14).

[39] Ibid, p.21.

[40] Z.E. Rokeah “The State, The Church, and Medieval England,” in S. Almog Antisemitism Through the Ages (New York, 1988), p.118, note 6.

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