Hebrew Documents from Medieval England

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  A lecture at the official opening of the relocated Hebrew and Jewish 

Studies Centre of the University of Oxford  8th Dec 2014

by Prof Judith Olszowy-Schlanger,  

Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne / IRHT Paris

With thanks to Prof Olszowy-Schlanger for her permission to publish her text

This lecture will look at documents written in Hebrew by the Jews in medieval England.  It builds on the work of Neubauer, 
Roth and Loewe, all Oxford scholars who all worked on medieval manuscripts, and it is a very important topic of particular 
relevance to Oxford, since the Jewish community in Oxford was one of the oldest Jewish settlements in England. 

We have just finished a new facsimile edition of all extant and identified medieval charters and documents containing Hebrew script. 
 [J O-S said afterwards that she will be sending a copy to the OCHJS so it will be available in the library.]

Madame Colette Sirat [http://colettesirat.com/index.php/en/ ] once said that manuscripts are for Jews like cathedrals for Christians, since for many communities they are the only tangible remains. 

Dealing with legal documents is hard because it is difficult to read the often very personal handwriting, but they are all historical sources and have been published.  The 258 documents we know of today were published by Meyer Davis during the Anglo-Jewish Exhibition in London in 1887 and have been the basis for the study of Jewish medieval manuscripts. [catalogue online – google Meyer Davis Anglo-Jewish exhibition]

When studying a manuscript, it is as important how it is written as what is written – for all manuscripts, not just legal documents, so both the physical aspect and the text itself; Paleography, codicology and diplomatics. 

The Jews in England were highly literate, by which I mean that not all knew how to read and write, but that their very existence was based on bureaucracy, reading and writing, documents. 

Everybody, not just scholars, grammarians and sages, needed to be literate for legal purposes, commercial purposes and in daily life.  Books, but especially documents accompanied the lives of Jewish individuals throughout the short history of the Jews in medieval England. 

The community was very small. Scholars agree that the community numbered three to four thousand individuals at its peak in the 13th century.  There were lots of scholars and lots of manuscripts produced.   

The English Jews were among the wealthiest people in medieval Europe.  The population of England was c.5 million according to historical demographers, but still by the 1240s the financial assets of coinage held by Jews accounted for 1/3 of the entire capital of the country. 

The main way the Jews survived was by giving loans at interest and for the Jews being able to loan with interest was a precious privilege granted by the king, because in 12th to 13th century the entire country was based on credit.  For Christians it was forbidden to lend on interest.  For Jews it was permitted as long as the interest rate was reasonable, which was defined as 2p per £ per week i.e. 43% p.a. 

By the end of the 12thcentury, when the church strengthened its opposition to money lending, the local Flemish and Anglo-Saxon moneylenders were displaced by the Jews, so the Jews had become very comfortable, led by 10-15 very wealthy families.  Finance required administration, bureaucracy and documents, so that is why documents were produced and they are the only tangible remains of many communities.  When Bartholomew of Cotton recorded the Jews leaving, it was ‘Una cum libris suis’ – each one with his book.  We have 316 extant documents, 258 on parchments and 58 on wooden talis.  

We find traces of English Jews in Paris and Provence in court records.  

Joseph Schatzmiller [ https://history.duke.edu/people/joseph-shatzmiller ] reports that Jews from England were in Provence and 50 years after the expulsion during an argument about synagogue prayers one of the Provence Jews was recorded as saying ‘You were expelled from England for coin-clipping and it serves you right!’

In the corpus of 316 documents the 258 parchments take different shapes.

Firstly, chirographs – these are documents in a specific shape in 2 or 3 copies on the same parchment separated by cutting in zigzag or scallop shapes.  Along the cut is a word in French in Hebrew characters ‘Divisa’.  The cutting gives an additional form of validation and this was used all over Europe since Anglo-Saxon times.   This was the form used by Jews in preference to any other and it was imposed by the king for Jewish documents in particular.  

So how Jewish are the Jewish documents from England?  We see acceptance by the Jews of a format of documents and specific legal documents that is foreign to Jews.  The Jews are ‘servi Regis’, serfs of the king, though this is not necessarily to be regarded as negative.  Of course it would have been better to be a knight or a noble but how it was to be a serf depended who the master was.  Serfdom was based on a contract between two people.  Being serfs to the king made the Jews free in relation to other people.  It had disadvantages, but so did being serfs to a lord.  The feudal principle was served by received privileges.  The privileges were:  no customs taxes; the right to lend money on interest (except after the Statutum de Judaismo of 1275); the ‘protectio’ of the king.  The ‘protectio’ was a legal concept of what any overlord owed his serfs, a guarantee of protection, which is why the Jews ran to the sheriffs’ castles (the king’s representatives) when in danger.  It didn’t always work and when the king was weak, the Jews were persecuted. 

In 1258 and 1266 during the Baron’s revolt when Simon de Montfort attacked the king because of his lack of respect for the Magna Carta, the Jews were considered agents of the king.  The mob attacked the Jews but also attacked the legal documents recording debts to be repaid. 

All assets of the Jews belonged to the king for their lifetime, but at their death, the lord was their heir – the same as with other serfs, who could not transmit their inheritance.  However, the Jews were privileged over other serfs because they could pay just 1/3 of everything including unredeemed debts and take possession of 2/3 of an estate which they could dispose of according to Talmudic Law. 

By 1190 Richard the Lionheart discovered the country was in a bad economic state and instituted the Archa system.  The chests were placed in the most important towns, also the most important Jewish towns, in England. 

Richard I’s chronicler, Roger of Holden, describes how the system worked – officers ‘chirographers’ in each town took charge, Christians and Jews, and 3 had to be present at any one time. 

Richard had 2 copies of each transaction made, one for the archa and one for the Jewish creditor as proof that someone had borrowed money.  Later these were done in triplicate, with one for each party.  They were put in the archa and there was a document in the archa on which each document was registered.  

The archae were governed centrally from Westminster by the Exchequer of the Jews, barons and officials responsible for all transactions.  

Documents today come from the archa of the king written according to Talmudic law to confirm with Jewish tradition, but also following the administrative requirements of the king.  For the king it was enough for documents to be chirographs, but for Jewish tradition, they needed the signatures of two witnesses.  Hence the different formulae were added together, so we find that English / Latin chirographs are not signed, but Jewish ones are. 

Secondly, the Carta form of document.  This is a rectangular form, usually more personal and is a licence.  It does not exist in Jewish tradition.  The license is written for the chirographers to say that ‘this debt has been repaid so please take it out of the archa and cancel it’.  Why does the creditor want to destroy evidence of a repaid debt?  Because there was a tax on unredeemed bonds and the king would send his officers to Oxford to record all unredeemed bonds. They are in Hebrew but didn’t exist in Jewish tradition.  We have c.40 in England and they have a very fixed formulary for the chirographic system. 

I believe some Christian officials could read Hebrew but there was always a translator present.  People who dealt with documents had to know other languages.  The Jews had to know Latin and some Christians knew Hebrew. 

Latin Charter with a Bilingual Label Canterbury Ch/Ant A 68 

In 1218 in accordance with the 4th Lateran Council of the Catholic church badges were implemented (the yellow tablets of the law), but under Henry III Jews could pay not to wear the badges.  Everything was negotiable.  The real moneylender was the King.  If people couldn’t pay up on time, the Jews would negotiate to extend the period of the loan etc.   However from 1242 and every 2 to 3 years Henry III would come to the Jews for money.  Sometimes the Jews would hand over the documents and the Kings representatives would do the debt collection themselves, the best option for the Jews.  However later the Jews were pressurized by the king to collect, they got a bad deal from the people they had lent to who couldn’t pay so much so quickly and the debtors felt pressurized by the Jews.  The Christians had to pay quick because the Jews had to pay quick.  How was this got over?  Through gifts to ecclesiastical institutions.  The knight would make a gift and the institution would repay his debt and then the Jews would write a quitclaim to the new owner ‘I have no claims on the land mentioned in this document’.   This is England not France, there has been no revolution and destruction so we still have the archives. 

Bilingual lease of land in Northamptonshire for a Jewish Cemetery BL Add.Ch 71355

This is the only document from Northampton.  It is important because it is completely bilingual and is about rent from the priory.  Also, it is a duplicate of a document lost in 1265 in the Barons War so it is possible to see that the price increased 2x since the original document. 

Documents in Latin with a Hebrew note e.g. Harley Charter 43A 61B text in Latin in Hebrew characters.

When part of a debt was repaid, a receipt would be issued, when the whole was repaid, a quitclaim. 

On the verso there is an informal Hebrew note.  BL Add. Ch 1251 Hebrew receipt on verso of a Latin acquittance.  A name of the person responsible for the pogrom in York with in Hebrew ‘chaya raa’ or evil animal, which is also a biblical quotation. 

National Archives Kew (olim PR6 E4021 3A, Tray 4: three facets of same wooden talis

Receipt in the form of a stick.  There are 58 with Hebrew inscriptions and 200 without Hebrew inscriptions.  The different sizes of notches denote e.g. pence, shillings and (biggest) pounds. 

In 1242 the King invited the heads of the Jewish congregations to Worcester and made them responsible for collecting money for his tallages.  The wealthiest Jews paid ¾ of the tax.  The Hebrew inscriptions indicate the name of the person.  

In 13th century we have Christian fakes of Jewish documents.  

The 243 documents came from 10 different places, in type, 2/3 are credit, c.1/3 relate to real estate and there are a few personal documentes. 

On a graph showing the number of documents by decade, we see the peak of preserved documents is the mid 13th century, the period of the taxation when the Jews needed reimbursement very quickly so produced lots of documents. 

For all taxes the Jews paid an overhead.  This tax for the King was called a ‘matana’ / donum – a gift.

However, on top of that they would given 10% to the Queen ‘Queen’s gold’ because she had lost all her money. 

1260s document reads ‘If I don’t respect the terms of the document, I’ll pay 3 marks to the king and 2 marks to the queen’. The Jews hoped to get the queen’s support [?]

British Library Add 71355 c. 1270 
The relationship with the king was privileged.  Taxes were imposed and destroyed the Jewish communities but when the king was not there it was a disaster – the Jewish communities were attacked and harmed. 

WAM 6794  – so despite everything the Jews still wrote on this doc.  ‘Adoneynu ha melekh Henry sheyihyeh!’  ‘Long Live the King!’

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