Documenting Oxford

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Oxford Jewry

Pam Manix & Silke Schaeper

This article was originally published in: Christ Church Library Newsletter vol. 4, issue 3, Trinity 2008, p. 1-5; ISSN 1756-6797 (print), ISSN 1756-6800 (online) and is reproduced here without illustrations with the kind permission of the authors and Christ Church College.     Click on the link to access a downloadable pdf of the original issue with the illustrations.

From around 1080 until the expulsion order of 1290, Oxford was home to a thriving Jewish community, which had come to England with the Normans from Northern France (Hebrew Tsarfat) A wealth of archival records has enabled historians to draw up detailed maps of properties in the former Jewish quarter and to learn the names and occupations of their owners.

The main street of the Jewish quarter was St Aldates, then called Great Jewry Street. Jews were property of the King, who protected them and profited from their economic success. Jews were prevented from participating in many trades and professions, being unable to swear Christian oaths. However, as doctors, landlords, pawnbrokers, moneylenders and teachers of Hebrew, Oxford’s Jews played an important role in the life of the University. There was academic exchange between learned local Jews and university Hebraicists such as Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste.

Jews also lent money to scholars, often taking manuscripts in pawn, which lead to occasional student riots when too many books ended up in the Jewry. The Jews lent larger sums with properties as collateral. Contracts between Jews and Gentiles, also referred to as starrs (Hebrew shetar= Bill) were drawn up in Hebrew and in Latin, and a number of these have survived in Oxford college archives (Christ Church, Corpus, Magdalen, Merton, Oriel, St John’s).

The house of Moses, son of Isaac, was given to the town in 1228 by the King, for the building of a new Guildhall, and successive Oxford Town Halls have been on this site ever since.

The medieval synagogue was located in the area of Christ Church’s Tom Quad gate. The Jewish burial ground was outside the eastern city gate, near the river Cherwell, on meadows that are today part of Magdalen College and the Botanic Garden.

In 1268, an Ascension Day religious procession was disrupted going through the Jewry, many Oxford Jews were arrested and the community was ordered to pay for a large stone cross to be erected as a penalty. It is quite likely that the large carved stone base now in the Museum of Oxford is the remains of that cross.

After 1275, when all forms of usury were forbidden to Jews, their economic situation worsened dramatically. In a country-wide purge, many were accused of coin clipping, and some Oxford Jews were executed. The Queen, exercising the king’s wardship of the Jews, confiscated many Oxford Jewish properties. Allowed to only own the houses they lived in, Oxford Jews were forced to sell their remaining assets at a loss.

New waves of crusading zeal and the demand to convert the Jews welled up in the 1280s. In 1288, in preparation for his own crusade, King Edward had expelled the Jews from Gascony.

By 1290 the English Jewish community had been financially exhausted, and was of little use to the crown. In 1290 Edward I expelled the depleted Jewish community from England, more or less in return for a £100,000 tax grant from Parliament, and succumbing to popular pressure fuelled by debt, resentment and mounting religious intolerance.

Allowed to take only the chattels they could carry, the decimated population of Oxford’s Jews, which had been reduced to women and a few elderly men, left for Northern France. Philip Augustus followed the English lead and expelled all Jews from Northern France in 1306.

The last trace of any medieval Oxford Jew is found on a list of Jews living in Paris in 1296, where Meir of Oxford (a.k.a. Myer of Cricklade) is recorded as “Mahy de Quiquelarde, L’englais”. A number of Oxford colleges, such as Balliol, Merton and Christ Church, were endowed with properties originally owned by medieval Oxford Jews.

Although it can be argued that the Medieval Oxford Jewry is the best-documented 13th century Jewish community in the world, none of the above information is currently available to visitors of the city centre. Plaques on Blue Boar Street and at the Botanical Garden are scanty, another one near the remains of Osney Abbey is inaccessible and inaccurate. Information in the Museum of Oxford, located in the heart of what was the medieval Jewry, is patchy and incomplete.

OJC heritage committee founded in 2006

During celebrations of the Jewish New Year in September 2006, the Oxford Jewish Congregation commemorated the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to England. Members of OJC set up a heritage committee with the aim of bringing the history of Oxford’s Jews, in particular their medieval history, to the attention of a wider public.

As a first step, the committee has involved itself in lobbying for the installation of blue plaques and memorial inscriptions, the enhancement of existing plaques and the production of public display boards related to Oxford’s Jewish history.

As a second step, the committee is exploring venues for a permanent museum display and has established contacts with the Ashmolean Museum, the Museum of Oxford, Oxford Town Hall, Merton College, the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford Castle. It has met with representatives of Oxford City Council, Oxfordshire Museum Services, Oxford Preservation Trust, and with local and Jewish museums, in order to plan, design and budget for a permanent exhibition and educational activities for which it will have to raise funds.

Preliminary survey of Hebraica and Judaica

In preparation for future museum displays and educational activities, the OJC heritage committee is collecting information on primary and secondary sources relating to Oxford’s Jewish history, enlisting the generous support of medievalists, Orientalists, paleographers, museum curators, art historians and bibliographers. It has also embarked on a survey of manuscripts and printed Hebraica and Judaica held in Oxford collections. In a place like Oxford where theological, Oriental and Hebrew studies flourished in a predominantly Christian environment, one expects to find large collections of Hebrew and polyglot Bibles, Hebrew Bible commentaries, books on Hebrew grammar, dictionaries, and to a lesser extent – Rabbinica, (including Latin translations) and other Judaica in Latin.

By shedding light on former owners, donors, and authors of marginalia, provenance research could be helpful in documenting contacts between Oxford scholars and local Jews.

Bodleian Library

First port of call in Oxford must be the Bodleian Library. Thanks to early donations and a very astute policy in the 19th century it is today home to one of the most important collections of, Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books in the world. The Bodleian is special in that its Hebrew collections stem from both Christian and Jewish Hebraist collectors. The majority of these are described in printed or electronic catalogues (S. Schaeper, “‘That the titles of all your Hebrewe bookes may be aptly taken’ : printed Hebraica at the Bodleian Library and their cataloguing 1605-2005”, acquisitions Bodleian Library Record 19:1(2006) pp 77-126.

Although none of the Hebrew manuscripts owned by the Bodleian are pertinent specifically to Oxford Jewish history, a number of colleges have deposited Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian that are. Uncatalogued manuscripts, printed catalogues for non-Hebrew manuscripts, and documents and correspondence held in the library archives still await investigation.

In total, the Bodleian is thought to hold some 30,000 books printed in Hebrew characters, including books in languages other than Hebrew printed in Hebrew characters. According to a database report obtained in April 2008, OLIS currently lists electronic records for some 12,500 Hebrew publications in a total of 15,700 volumes, mostly books published after 1927, the cut-off date for A. Cowley’s Concise catalogue of the Hebrew printed books in the Bodleian library (1929). These figures relate to “real” Hebraica, that is works published mainly in the Hebrew language, with Hebrew imprints, and not to works containing only short passages of Hebrew, translations from the Hebrew, dictionaries and other polyglot works. OLIS records for works printed in Hebrew characters in languages other than Hebrew (such as Aramaic, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino) would need to be traced separately.

Early printed Hebraica – cataloguing cooperation

Roughly estimated, the Bodleian holds more than c 7,000 separate early printed Hebrew works, often in multiple copies. This figure includes the famous Oppenheimer collection. Most of these works are not listed on OLIS, neither in the pre-1920 database, nor

in the main catalogue. Thanks to an innovative cataloguing cooperation between the Bodleian and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft between 2002-2004, it was possible to catalogue around 5% of these works to OLIS antiquarian standard.

Interestingly, the founders of the two famous libraries, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), and August Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg (1579- 1666), were both keen Hebraists with good contacts to local Jews. During the project, 360 of the Bodleian’s early printed Hebrew and Aramaic works, 646 volumes in total (including numerous duplicates), have been catalogued on OLIS, to OLIS antiquarian standard. Descriptive bibliographic information was produced both in Hebrew characters and in transliteration, using Unicode.


In February 2007, the OJC heritage committee sent out a letter to the heads of all Oxford colleges, asking for information on documents and artifacts of Hebrew and Jewish interest in their archival and library collections. Helpful and informative replies have come in over the course of the last year, all information has been collated and is now awaiting detailed follow-up.

The majority of records for early printed books currently available on OLIS has not been produced by the Bodleian Library, as one would expect, but by College libraries. Peripatetic cataloguers from the Early Printed Books Project have worked in many

Oxford College libraries and at the Bodleian, often with external funding, creating descriptive and analytical electronic cataloguing records to the exacting antiquarian standard required by OLIS.

A number of colleges now employ extra staff to continue with retrospective cataloguing work. For the purpose of the OJC survey, copy-related data compiled for these early printed books, such as data on provenances, descriptions of marginalia, bindings, and fragments found in bindings, can be of particular interest.

A report obtained from OLIS in April 2008 shows that 34 Oxford colleges have so far catalogued around 2,140 “real” and related Hebraica, in a total of around 6,000 physical volumes, including duplicates.

A large proportion of these College records, c. 1,500 works in 3,300 volumes, including duplicates, were printed before 1850, and have therefore been catalogued to OLIS antiquarian standard. Only 180 among the 1,500 pre-1850 College-Hebraica records found on OLIS today are “real” Hebraica, c. 300 volumes in total, including duplicates.

The following colleges have up to 50 antiquarian Hebraica on OLIS: Brasenose, Hertford, St Hugh’s, Keble, Lady Margaret Hall, and Wadham. The above table gives the misleading impression that St John’s holds the largest percentage of Hebraica among the Oxford colleges.

St John’s is simply one of the few, if not the only, college libraries in Oxford that has completed the electronic cataloguing of its historic collections of early printed books. Only if and when all early printed books in Oxford are catalogued on OLIS, a goal that is bound to take a long time to achieve, will one get a fuller picture allowing for more accurate comparison.

Lacking the funds for retrospective cataloguing, many college librarians continue to rely on hand- or typewritten shelflists and index cards for accessing their early printed book collections. Although, for instance, only one Hebrew incunable record currently appears on OLIS (from Merton), we know from ISTC that at least 9 Hebrew incunables are found in Oxford colleges: Christ Church: 3 eds. + 1 dupl.; Merton: 4 eds.; Exeter: 1 ed.; Queens: 1 ed.

Not yet surveyed

The following collections with Hebraica and Judaica have not yet been included in the survey: the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Oriental Institute Library, the Taylorian Institute Library (Yiddica), and the Middle East Centre Library at St Antony’s.

Pam Manix & Silke Schaeper  M.Phil (Cantab.) M.L.S. (Hebr. University)  Woodstock, St John’s College, Oxford

Useful URLs

Oxford Jewish Congregation:

Bodleian Library, Hebrew Collections, in general: 


Bodleian Library, Hebrew Collections, in detail:
Bodleian Library, Oppenheimer collection:
Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, catalogue of printed Hebraica:

Early Printed Books Project, Libraries outside the Bodleian:

The authors would like to thank the following colleagues for their kind assistance: Dr. Peter E. Pormann, University of Warwick; Geoffrey Neate, database applications & project manager, Sara Burnell, operations support, Systems & E-research service, Oxford University Library Service; Juliet Chadwick, sub-librarian; Exeter College, Oxford; Martyn Minty, librarian, Oriental Institute, Oxford; Fiona Piddock, librarian, Lincoln College, Oxford; Janet McMullin, assistant librarian, Christ Church, Oxford; William Hale, Cambridge University Library (formerly retrospective cataloguer, Christ Church, Oxford) and Vanessa Lea, operations officer, Museum of Oxford

About OJH

Our aim is to raise the profile of the history of Jews in Oxford from earliest records through to the modern day.

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