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“Invisible in Oxford: The ‘Public Face’ of Medieval Jewish History in Modern England”

Elisa Narin van Court

Colby College


In an essay published in 1992, Colin Richmond, sitting in the famed Botanical Gardens of Oxford, details the many ways in which Jews and Jewish history are almost entirely absent from the histories of England. Unless the scholarship is explicitly concerned with ‘the Jews of London,’ ‘the Jews of Medieval England,’ or a similar title that indicates the narrow and focused range of study, the word Jew is rarely found in scholarly indexes or texts.
Richmond’s concern with the absence of Jewish history in English history was provoked by his realization that he knew that the lovely gardens in which he sat had once been the medieval Jewish cemetery, not from the book Medieval Oxford written by a renowned historian of Oxford, but from Cecil Roth’s The Jews of Medieval Oxford.   And although the academic landscape has improved in the decade since Richmond’s essay appeared, a significant invisibility continues to mark medieval Jewish history in the larger context of English history. Not surprisingly, this relative ‘invisibility’ of Jewish history in British historical scholarship is mirrored in the non-scholarly, ‘public face’ of British history as it is represented in historical and heritage sites and materials, guidebooks and other informational sources for travelers and tourists, and in the very memorials themselves that both ‘mark’ and elide, by codification or a supreme lack of contextualization, the ‘reality’ of Jewish heritage and history in England. Manufactured for the consumption and edification of foreign tourists and British residents alike, the ‘public face’ of Anglo-Jewish history is a complicated and vexed social production that, in its own fashion, tells us “a great deal about Englishness” and, perhaps, Jewishness—precisely what Richmond claims for the absence of Jewish history in English historical scholarship.

A decade after Richmond sat in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens, I stood at the entrance to Oxford’s Botanical Gardens, unaware of Richmond’s essay but similarly puzzled by the placement and wording of the plaque that somewhat tersely marks the historicity of the Gardens. Resident in Oxford, or more specifically at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies some miles away in Yarnton, I had learned that the Botanical Gardens had been the Jewish cemetery, not from any of the many guidebooks I had consulted, not from the many over-views of historical Oxford I had thumbed through, but from the leader of the Centre. Indeed, in a later survey of the available guidebooks, and there are dozens of them, I found only one that mentioned, almost parenthetically, that the Gardens were on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery. At the time, though, I was standing in puzzlement because I couldn’t find the plaque that I had been told commemorates that historical fact. (Since that time, I’ve had seven students study abroad in Oxford and out of the seven, only one was able to find, with some guidance from me, the elusive plaque). I approached the kiosk of the Gardens where two Botanical guides stand ready to welcome visitors and answer questions and inquired about the plaque. One of the guides responded helpfully, “oh, yes, it’s right around the corner there, if you go back outside the entrance, to the other side of the arch, down that small alley—it’s even got the original Arabic and everything!”—indeed. I had come to Oxford to study the medieval ‘other’ and discovered that the ‘other’ remained ‘other’ in most every particular. The plaque itself is remarkable not only for its occluded position, but for what it does and, importantly, doesn’t say. Beneath three lines of ‘Arabic’—that is, Hebrew, are the words: This Stone Marks the Site of the Jewish Cemetery Until 1290. That’s it. Nothing about what happened in 1290, the first wholesale expulsion of Jews from a country, nothing about the fate of the Oxford Jewish community or even of the bodies themselves that once populated the now hallowed grounds of the Botanical Gardens. After some moments in front of the plaque, I returned to the kiosk and asked the helpful guides if any excavations had ever been undertaken. The response was a horrified—“oh, but the plants!”—and with that exclamation I embarked upon a new course of study, related to my work with medieval representations of Jews, but modern in focus and less concerned with scholarship than with public representations of the Anglo-Jewish medieval past. This paper is a travelogue of sorts, anecdotal but no less significant for that. English self-fashioning depends as much upon its public presentation of its medieval past as it does upon its scholarly. Indeed, the ‘public face’ is arguably far more influential, being widely disseminated for specialist and non-specialist, resident and visitor, alike. I call this “Invisible in Oxford” because for all intents and purposes medieval Anglo-Jewish history is invisible in Oxford—but a very visible invisibility is not the only mark of medieval Anglo-Jewish presence. I returned to England last summer to begin a study of the ‘public face,’ the social production of Jewish history in some of the more obvious sites—not only Oxford, but York, Norwich, and Lincoln—all of which are historically significant locations for the medieval Anglo-Jewish past. And in ways remarkably similar to my work with medieval narratives, where I argue against long-held assumptions of a monolithic and univocal anti-Judaism, I find the ‘public face’ to be varied, nuanced, and complex, ranging as it does from invisibility to spectacle, from absence to cynical public exploitation. What follows, then, are the first fruits of my research.

During my first residency in Oxford in 2003, I was able, with some trouble, to take a walk of Jewish sites guided by a member of the Oxford Jewish Congregation. There is a “Map of Oxford Jewry, Medieval and Modern” conveniently provided in David Lewis’s book The Jews of Oxford, written to commemorate the 150th. Anniversary of the modern Oxford Jewish Congregation and published by that organization. Yet it was apparent even then that knowledge of the medieval Oxford Jewish community is confined to (and in some ways constricted by) the modern Jewish community. This was nowhere more evident than in my interactions with the Museum of Oxford on St. Aldgate’s street.

The Museum of Oxford is mostly concerned with the town’s history, not the University’s, and on the stone-wall that marks the border between street and museum, there is an inscription, dated 1931, that reads:









(Tom Tower is the famed tower of Christ’s Church).

The inscription thus announces the historicity of the immediate area, indeed, it is thought that some of the existing structures were Jewish dwellings. Around the corner from the entrance to the Museum of Oxford, down a small lane called Blue Boar Street, there is another plaque on the wall of the museum building itself, dated 1995, that replaced one defaced with anti-Semitic language (the details of which no one was able to tell me). This plaque reads: “This extension to the Townhall stands on land at the centre of the Anglo-Saxon town, later the heart of the Medieval Jewish quarter.” Thus the Museum of Oxford is framed, as it were, on two sides with references to it standing in what was the medieval Jewish section of town. Nonetheless, if you enter the Museum, which is divided into rooms, each representing a particular period or community in the city of Oxford’s history, and ask to be directed to the section that details the history of Jews in Oxford, the docent will tell you that there isn’t one—indeed, all three docents I spoke with expressed some surprise that I would ask—oblivious, I suppose, to the plaque which fronts their building. And in the copious literature provided by the Museum, not one mentions, even in passing, the medieval or early modern Anglo-Jewish community. Yet, as the plaques and cemetery indicate, there was a well-established Jewish community in medieval Oxford that played a visible role in the economy and development of the city. The first Jews settle in Oxford in 1075, and the earliest surviving record of Jews in Oxford is a reference to an incident in 1141 in which King Stephen burned the Oxford house of Aaron Isaac and “threatened to burn down the rest of the Jewry, if immediate funds (to support his ongoing civil war against his cousin Matilda) were not forthcoming.” Clearly, if threats could be made to burn “the Jewry,” the Jewish community was both fairly extensive and established. Indeed, in her Cambridge thesis, Pam Manix ‘maps’ the Jews of medieval Oxford and details the considerable dwellings and other buildings owned by the Jews in key mercantile locations in the city. As wards of the King, however, the properties (and the lives) of the Oxford Jews were liable to seizure, which is precisely what happens during the decline of the Jewish community between 1269 and the Expulsion in 1290. Not only are there records of the severe tallages levied against the Jews and Jewish properties, and prohibitions against buying and selling, the last remaining means by which the Jewish community generated income is outlawed in 1275. From 1275 onwards deed references to Jews “resonate monotonously like a gallows drum,” of confiscated property and executed Jews, usually by hanging. But even earlier there are notable records concerning the medieval Jewish community: in 1210 much of their property is confiscated by King John; in 1222 a University deacon, Robert of Reading, converts to Judaism and marries a Jewess. He is burnt alive. Also in 1222 the Council of Oxford orders the Jews to wear a yellow star on all clothing (one of the first recorded examples of compliance with the edicts of Lateran Four in 1215); in 1244 Jewish homes are attacked and looted by Oxford students. This was hardly an insignificant period or community in the history of Oxford.

Indeed, while it flourished, the medieval Oxford Jewish community owned shops and possibly, coffee houses, dwellings and butcheries; they lived amongst the Christian community, had at least one Synagogue (which is converted into a tavern after the Expulsion and is now part of Christ Church), participated in the economic and cultural life of Oxford, and were granted the first Jewish cemetery outside London’s city limits (you can still walk the unmarked Deadman’s Walk that led from the Jewry to the cemetery). After the Expulsion, but even before the Re-Admission under Cromwell, the “first reappearance of Jews in Oxford is connected with the revival of Hebrew studies in England,” as scholars and theologians searched for Jews to teach Hebrew and “assist in the purchase and cataloguing of Hebrew books.” In the mid-1500s ‘convert’ Jews are assisting Sir Thomas Bodley in his collecting and cataloguing of Hebraica (Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library is now considered to have one of the most extensive holdings of Hebrew manuscripts and books in the world); and by the mid-1600s professing Jews are teaching Hebrew and translating texts in various colleges of Oxford. Given the relative wealth of records and accounts of medieval and early modern Jewish community, we may wonder why, with the exception of plaques that mark without context or historical detail what ‘was,’ there is no public account of medieval Oxford Jewish life in the displays and literature of modern Oxford. Enshrined and elided in the pastness of plaques, the medieval Jewish community is otherwise invisible in the city of Oxford.

Expanding upon my Oxford research, last summer I set out to explore the ‘public face’ of medieval Anglo-Jewish history in three other communities. York, Lincoln, and Norwich are key sites in medieval Anglo-Jewish history: York is the site of a massacre of the Jews and the Kiddush Ha-shem of more than a hundred York Jews; Lincoln and Norwich are the sites of ritual murder accusations against the Jewish communities, indeed, Norwich is the site of the first ritual murder accusation in Europe in the medieval period. In their socially produced ‘public face’ of medieval Jewish history, York’s engagement with its Jewish past is the most visible, even if it tends towards a kind of historical marketing, Lincoln is clearly bifurcated, and Norwich is in what can only be called some form of historical denial.

York had a well-established Jewish community by early in the 12th century and by mid-century, the York community “grew in wealth and numbers and became one of considerable importance,” particularly to the crown. Jewbury Road signage remains to this day, just outside the ancient walls of the city, and marks the boundaries of the medieval Jewish cemetery that was rediscovered in the 1970s when the area was excavated for the construction of a parking garage. The construction continued, notwithstanding the medieval burial ground, but, as a plaque on the parking structure notes, some of the remains were re-interred in the presence of the Chief Rabbi and representatives of the Jewish community in 1984. Unfortunately, the plaque, while clearly visible, is placed where cars, not pedestrians, for the most part, pass. Notwithstanding the problems of plaque placement and the parking structure as a whole being built on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery, York honors, indeed, it markets, its medieval Jewish history in its retention of street signs testifying to Jewish presence and properties: Jewbury, Jubbergate with its medieval house that may have been a Jewish dwelling, and Finkle and Coney Streets, the latter perhaps being the site of Benedict the Jew’s house. (An interesting side note is how Jews are referred to—taking a page from medieval history, they are Benedict the Jew, Isaac the Jew, etc.—a kind of verbal and written marking that establishes ‘difference’ even as it acknowledges presence). And there is a walking map of York’s medieval Jewry available.

York’s modern recognition of medieval Jewish presence may be explained, in part, by the place York has in Anglo-Jewish history—it is the site of an infamous massacre of the Jews at Clifford Tower in 1189—so infamous that even Christian chroniclers at the time wrote about it with repulsion. Clifford Tower looms large in the imagination and its usefulness as spectacle and tourist attraction is fully, if mostly sensitively, exploited. Many of the public materials concerning York in general, and Clifford’s Tower, in particular, mention the massacre—although they do so in a variety of forms and with a variety of emphases that range from the York City Centre Map that notes that it burnt down when the city’s “Jewish population took refuge from persecution inside,” to an English Heritage handout that proclaims “Bloody massacre,” “Royal stronghold,” and “Extensive views” on its cover; you have a representative sampling in your packets, including those that allude briefly to the massacre and those that ignore the massacre in favor of the ‘majestic views’ afford from the tower.

At the Tower itself, the Heritage Guides are very informed about the details of the massacre, and yet one of their placards announces “Bloody Massacre” in a listing that includes “Gift Shop”—a fine adjudication between exploitation and commerce. But the English Heritage booklet for sale in the gift shop contains two pages of detailed history concerning the York Jewish community and the massacre, including a photograph of the plaque, placed in 1978, that memorializes the massacred Jews. And if there is a measure of commercialism and spectacle in the ‘public face’ of medieval Jewish history in York, the citizens of York, both Jewish and non-Jewish, resisted the kind of commercialism we in the States are accustomed to when, citing historical concerns, and specifically the memory of the massacre of the York Jews, they blocked an aggressive attempt to have the area surrounding the Tower developed into an extensive shopping mall. Today, Clifford’s Tower is a reminder of religious and racial intolerance and is used as an educative force where yearly Holocaust Memorials take place, in addition to yearly commemorations of the Anniversary of the massacre.

The ‘public face’ of medieval Jewish history in Lincoln is diverse and sometimes disturbing. Lincoln is the site of one of the numerous Ritual Murder (blood libel) accusations in medieval England, ‘little’ Hugh supposedly slain by Lincoln Jews in 1255, and Lincoln Cathedral contained a shrine to ‘little’ Hugh for many centuries that was ‘desecrated’ in the Reformation, rebuilt, and only recently removed. Lincoln was also the home of Aaron the Jew, as he is called in records, one of the wealthiest Jews in England (a fact that is mentioned in most of the public materials that discuss Jewish community, and there are not many—yet one even notes the amount of debts owed him at his death). Thus medieval Lincoln Jewry is defined by two damaging stereotypes: riches and ritual murder, even if the latter is, in the words of one pamphlet, “now discredited.” If many of the public historical materials do not mention Lincoln’s medieval Jewish community, those that do, do so in the context of two famous and very visible buildings on Steep Hill (the street that leads to Lincoln Cathedral). The two buildings, dating from the late 1100s, are known as “Jews House” and “Jews Court”—Jewish properties before the expulsion, one a dwelling and the other, “Jews Court,” is thought to have been the synagogue. The buildings are admittedly amazing for their Norman architecture and the effect of coming upon them while climbing the appropriately named Steep Hill is powerful—visible and marked proof of Jewish presence in medieval Lincoln. And yet, the very marking of the buildings, “Jews House,” “Jews Court,” emphasizes ‘difference’ and ‘absence’ even as it testifies to ‘past’ presence. The marking is part celebratory, part historical, but it resonates uncomfortably with the visible badges that medieval Jews were forced to wear on their clothing. A further complication is provided by “Jews Court” having been ‘marketed’ in the early 20th century as the site of the crucifixion of Little Hugh, with his body disposed of in a well at “Jews Court” that an enterprising Lincoln citizen dug and sold tickets to view. The fraud was exposed in 1928, but people continued to visit the site for decades; indeed, visitors still ask to see the ‘well.’

Lincoln Cathedral poses another sort of public historical information problem altogether—if the marking of the Steep Hill buildings is vexed, the Cathedral deals with its history as the site of the shrine to the crucified Little Hugh by not dealing with it at all, at least not in any of the publications, maps, and pamphlets available. Little Hugh’s status as a Christian martyr ensured that his shrine was a popular pilgrimage destination for centuries, yet Lincoln Cathedral’s saint is another Hugh, a 12th century bishop who was, according to one Cathedral publication, “famous for his care of the poor and defence of the Jews” —a nicely orchestrated counterweight to the ritual murder accusation of the ‘little’ Hugh. But in none of the literature, some of which is astonishingly detailed in its description of statuary, choirs, vaults, stained glass, and carvings, is there any mention of the centuries old shrine to ‘little’ Hugh. The shrine itself has been removed, but the circumstances of its removal are unclear and I won’t speculate until I’ve had the chance to look at the archives this summer. What stands in place of the shrine is a small, framed piece of paper, entirely out of place and looking as if it should say, “this exhibition closed for renovation.” Indeed, the site looks as if it is under renovation: the absence of the shrine with its marked and scarred marble as visible, in some ways, as its presence must have been. The small piece of paper contains an illustration of the shrine that was there and a disclaimer concerning “trumped up stories of ritual murders of Christian boys by Jewish communities,” written by a Dean of Lincoln in 1959. This scar on the otherwise elegant interior of Lincoln Cathedral is a fit metaphor for the ritual murder accusation itself. And I should note that it is almost invariably within the context of the ritual murder accusation that Lincoln Jews are mentioned at all in the literature of Lincoln, a disturbingly limited discourse made emphatic with legendary overtones and a context that suggests these tales were, as the booklet “Historic Lincoln” claims, “common to many cities throughout Europe.” More significant still, none of the public materials mention the outcome of the ritual murder charge: ninety Jews were arrested and held in the Tower of London, charged with involvement in the ritual murder, and nineteen were hanged in the first judicial execution for ritual murder. The oddly bifurcated gestures of Lincoln’s public face vis-à-vis its medieval Jewish community clearly needs more research, and we need a more complete understanding of the Cathedral community’s attempts to deal with the legacy of ‘little’ Hugh. The ‘public face’ of medieval Jewish history in Lincoln is, in part, highly visible, but the visibility itself is a complicated social production that invites scrutiny, as does the city’s acknowledgement of its ritual murder accusation that tends to reinscribe the myth of Jewish ritual murder without detailing the historically ‘real’ outcome for the Jewish community.

Finally, if Lincoln’s representations are vexed, those in Norwich are virtually and literally invisible. In a country of infamous firsts concerning Jewish persecution: the first known compliance (in Oxford) with Lateran Four’s edict that Jews wear distinguishing badges or patches on their clothing; the first wholesale expulsion of the Jews from a country, Norwich holds the dubious distinction of being the site of the first ritual murder accusation in medieval Europe. Young William of Norwich is the Christian boy supposedly crucified by Norwich Jews in March 1144, and this first ritual murder accusation is historicized in Thomas of Monmouth’s Vita et Passio—life and passion of William of Norwich. The account was written almost five years after the supposed crucifixion, based upon heresy and “unlimited credulity,” yet the circumstances of its ‘creation’ did not impede the establishment of an enormously popular cult of William, whose ostensible martyrdom leads to visions and miracles in Norwich. The myth is varied in its tellings and retellings, and the subsequent visions and miracles assure the Cathedral’s status as a pilgrimage destination for centuries. In other words, the tale of young William, related orally and inscribed in a passion narrative, brings what we could call ‘pious notoriety’ to the city of Norwich and plays a considerable role in its religious life and development. On the basis of the mythic narrative several Norwich Jews, including one of the leaders of the community, were murdered.

Notwithstanding the popularity and historical significance of this medieval ‘incident,’ Norwich’s enormous, multi-million dollar, multi-media and interactive Museum “Origins,” which details 2000 years of Norwich history, and is located in the center of the city in the “Forum,” along with the Millennium Library and the Tourist Information and Visitor Centre, is absolutely silent on the subject of William, ritual murder, and the medieval Jewish community. Comprehensive and thorough in its coverage of Roman artifacts, Saxons, Angles and Jutes, Danes, Normans, Dutch, and even Americans, “Origins” is mum about its homegrown cult of William and the charges that led to his being memorialized as a Christian martyr. In response to my inquiry about young William, one of the assistants at “Origins” said, “oh, you mean the little boy who was crucified in the woods by the Jews—no, I don’t think we have anything here about that”—an astounding and unthinking testimony to centuries of bigotry and credulity; equally disturbing was my interaction with one of the Research and Reference Librarians in the Millennium Library who was unable to tell me anything about the Cathedral shrine to William (although he knew the story), and who explained the thundering silence in “Origins” by saying that ‘consultants’ were mostly responsible for the contents. In a comprehensive museum display intended to represent 2000 years of Norwich history both to residents and visitors, medieval Jewish history is entirely elided in a stunning act of historical erasure.

What are we to make of the varied ‘public face’ of medieval Anglo-Jewry in modern England? I certainly cannot claim a centuries old anti-Semitism peculiar to England alone, although as Todd Endelman notes, if overt and violent anti-Semitism is relatively rare after the early modern period, there is a particularly English response to Jewishness expressed in “humorous asides and off-hand comments,” “light-hearted sneers,” and a “subtle and diffuse” pressure to become more “English.” Nor is England alone in its vexed ‘marketing’ of its Jewish history. As Ruth Ellen Gruber notes in her recent book, Virtually Jewish, in countries across Europe where Jews, if they are present at all, make up a tiny fraction of the population, Jewish culture and history is being recreated, enacted, and marketed. Not all of these virtually Jewish recreations are motivated by commercial exploitation, but there is a “troubling ambivalence” in the way history and memory are resurrected in the public market place to satisfy local and political agendas. In England, the ‘public face’ of medieval Anglo-Jewry, that complicated social production that varies from invisibility to what Barrie Dobson calls “the simplified language of English Heritage and modern mass tourism,” is troubling in what it says and even more troubling in what it doesn’t say. If English self-fashioning and modern Anglo-Jewish self-fashioning depend, in part, on their representation of history and memory, we can only conclude from these initial researches that self-fashioning, culture, and national identity remain as problematic as they have always been—an unsatisfying conclusion, to be sure, particularly in the light of a BBC poll taken in 2004 which found that forty-five percent of the four thousand English respondents, and sixty percent of women and young people, did not know what Auschwitz was. Yet until more research and a thorough analysis is brought to bear on the ‘public face’ of medieval Jewish history in modern England, in conjunction with an understanding of Jewish community response, broad claims concerning national identity, Englishness and the cultural outsider status of Jewishness, are the only ones we can make without falling into dogma. For now, we are left to wonder at the implications of invisible in Oxford and marked in Yorkshire, with the understanding that the variety of modern response is a reflection and continuation of medieval English response to its Jewish population—varied, ambivalent, and disturbing in any of its manifestations.


1. Colin Richmond, “Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry,” in The Jewish Heritage in British History: Englishness and Jewishness, ed. Tony Kushner. Frank Cass Company, 1992; rpt. in Sheila Delany, ed., Chaucer and the Jews. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. All page citations are to this edition.

2. Richmond, 213.

3. Richmond, 214.

4. David M. Lewis, The Jews of Oxford. Oxford: Oxford Jewish Congregation, 1992.

5. Pam Manix, “Oxford: Mapping the Jews,” in The Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages (tenth to fifteenth centuries): Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Speyer, 20-25 October 2002. Turnhout: Brepols, 2004. 406.

6. Manix, 411.

7. Jewish Communities prior to 1290 in South East England, Jewish Communities and Records-UK, www.jewishgen.org/JCR-UK/pre-1290/1290communities/se1290.htm

8. Lewis, 3.

9. Lewis, 4.

10. Jewish Communities prior to 1290 in Northern England, Jewish Communities and Records-UK, www.jewishgen.org/JCR-UK/pre 1290/1290communities/north1290.htm

11. Jewish Communities prior to 1290 in Northern England, 2.

12. www.yorkcastle.com/pages/news.html, 1-2; www.yorkcastle.com/pages/jewish_history.html, 1.

13. Chris Olney, Lincoln, An Illustrated Walk Down its Famous Hill, (Tucann, 2005), 19.

14. Olney, 23.

15. Bernard Sullivan, “Jews Court, Lincoln,” pamphlet of The Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 2.

16. Sullivan, 2; Maureen Birch, Lincoln’s Medieval Jewry and Up-Hill Norman Houses, Tucann, 37-41.

17. “Welcome to Lincoln Cathedral,” pamphlet from Lincolnshire County Council.

18. www.newadvent.org/cathen/15635a.htm, 1.

19. www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/pre-1290/1290communities/east1290.htm, 4.

20. Todd Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002), 262; 260.

21. Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2002). 22.

22. Barrie Dobson,”The Medieval York Jewry Reconsidered,” in The Jews in Medieval Britain, ed. Patricia Skinner, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003), 146.

23. Alan Crawford, “‘I’m not shocked, I’m disturbed’ A Crying Shame,” Sunday Herald, January 23, 2005. www.sundayherald.com/print47227,


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