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The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre, and Exodus in Medieval England, by Robin R. Mundill. New York and London: Continuum, 2010. 240 pp. $39.95.
The original text of Magna Carta sealed by King John in 1215 includes two clauses concerning Jewish moneylending, both attempts to protect a debtor’s family from having to pay interest after his death. The fact that the rebellious barons considered protection from usury one of the liberties of the free men of the kingdom is central to the story of the Jews in England from 1066 to 1290. The “King’s Jews” were under the direct rule and protection of the crown: they became immensely wealthy through finance, they provided income to kings through taxation and they incurred the wrath of their Christian debtors.
Robin Mundill’s fine volume is an overview for the general reader of a great deal of innovative scholarship from the last twenty-five years on Christian-Jewish relations in England. Works by Robert Stacey, Zephira Entin Rokeah, Joe Hillaby, and Anthony Bale have reconsidered, among other things, records produced by the Exchequer of the Jews, literary representations, and religious conversions. This new scholarship includes Mundill’s own excellent book England’s Jewish Solution, which focuses on the political measures leading up to Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from the island. While Mundill tries to cover most aspects of medieval Anglo-Jewish life in The King’s Jews, the book is more informative and lively in those chapters that consider the rise and fall of the Jewish financiers.
Mundill begins his narrative with the Jews’ “Colonisation,” their arrival in England with William the Conqueror and their eventual settlement in towns throughout England. As he notes, Jews could never truly assimilate into the English population and therefore never lived far from royal castles and the safety they provided. In two of the six following chapters, Mundill writes about the religious life of medieval English Jews, touching on their social organization, the functions of synagogues, books, traditions, and rabbinic responsa (by Rabbenu Tam and Meir of Rothenburg here). He also gives a good account of how the Jews successfully resisted the pressures to convert to Christianity exerted by both the kings and the Church in the thirteenth century. Much of the information in these chapters is necessarily drawn from scholarship about continental Europe, where much more evidence about all aspects of medieval Jewish culture survives. Unfortunately, Mundill cites almost only secondary sources, even where primary texts would be most helpful to the reader.
The King’s Jews, however, is not really about Judaism; it is about how and why the Jews rose to such prominence in medieval England. In his opening discussion of the economy, Mundill explains the financial instruments developed by the great Jewish moneylenders and the contract or starrum (from Hebrew shetar) used to record debts in Hebrew and Latin. Usury was always a problem from both creditor and debtor, and their contracts hid it by not recording the amount of loans. Mundill moves from a discussion of the Jewish London “magnates” and their fortunes in general to the specific case of Aaron of Lincoln (d. 1186), the greatest of them with wealth estimated in current-day terms at £21.6 billion (according to The Sunday Times). At his death King Henry II took over his debts and established an “Exchequer of Aaron” (later the Exchequer of the Jews) to collect them, without much success. Mundill uses Aaron to show the range of the Jews’ debtors (kings, archbishops, abbeys) and the growth of the bureaucratic machinery dedicated to administering Jewish finance. He also includes a wonderful chart of the various offices of royal bureaucracy on p. 45.
In a chapter that takes up the often-discussed topic of how English debtors’ resentments of wealthy Jews led to anti-Jewish violence, Mundill sensibly writes that “[h]istorians have to peel back a layer of semantics and to reach their own conclusions about both spin and smear” (p. 67). Forgoing all other terms in favor of “Jew-hatred,” he advances no new theories but deals with the violence locally and in a religious context, from the ritual-murder accusation against Jews in the case of William of Norwich in 1144 to the massacres of 1190 associated with the third crusade to the ritual-murder case of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255, for which 19 Jews were executed. Mundill seems intentionally to avoid putting too much emphasis on how Jewish finance might have added to the narratives of hatred already in place.
In the final sections Mundill is at his best, as he builds on his original research on Edward I from his earlier monograph. He shows in painstaking detail how the great monasteries like Canterbury Cathedral Priory as well as certain Christian “entrepreneurs” benefitted from assuming Jewish debts by acquiring vast amounts of land. Then, with aplomb, he describes how Edward I’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, and his two chancellors Thomas Merton and Robert Burnell all hugely enriched themselves by taking over properties encumbered by Jewish debts right up to and beyond 1275, when Jews were forbidden to engage in usury. From the 1275 Statute of Jewry, Mundill maps out the rapid decline of the Jews under Edward, who apparently planned to expel them from the beginning of his reign. Ultimately, Mundill attributes the expulsion to both political and religious forces: the Jews were no longer a source of royal revenue and they had still not converted. By edict, the Jews were to leave England by November 1, 1290; we have almost no records of the exiles. As Mundill says, most must have gone to France, where they were always part of the larger French-Jewish culture. At the end of this sad tale, though, he points to a wonder of diaspora: there was an English deed preserved in the Cairo Genizah.