Oxford during the Middle Period – The exclusion of the Jews 1290 – 1655
After Edward I expelled all Jews from England in November of 1290, the only ethnic Jews to have remained in Oxford or elsewhere were, supposedly, those who converted. There have been erroneous assertions that there was an Oxford Domus Conversorum (see Skelton etching below)
This early 19th century engraving by Joseph Skelton, undoubtedly taken from the earlier sketch below, erroneously ascribes the name Domus Conversorum to this 12th century Oxford Jew’s house which had survived until 1751.Two neighbouring Oxford Jewish houses on Great Jewry (St. Aldate’s Street) paid ground rent to the London Domus Conversorum, one a particularly grand house known as “The House with the Stone Chamber”, built by Isaac of Oxford in the 12th century and owned by the great David of Oxford in the 13th, which most likely is the house portrayed in these images. It stood more or less where the southern half of the present City Hall now stands.
However, there never was a Domus in Oxford, and the house in question merely owed land-rent to the London Domus Conversorum which had been founded in 1232 by King Edward’s father, Henry III. (see English Jewish Heritage, Exclusion Period entry in main menu.)
Some Oxford Jews, and particularly some elderly widows may have converted as 1290 ground down to its inexorable end, rather than face a long journey into exile with no surviving family to accompany them. We rarely are able to follow or even identify former Jews once they have converted, because in Oxford as elsewhere, these converts immediately are referred to in the records solely by their new Christian names. (There were earlier exceptions in Oxford—we know that “Aubrey le Converse” was Jocepin, son of Isaac of Oxford, who converted in an attempt to get out of problems with tax arrears and save his father’s “House with the Stone Chamber” from confiscation—and the infamous petty criminal Josce Bundy unsuccessfully feigned conversion to curry some leniency from the Law…but more usually, original Jewish identities were instantly buried under new Christian names and thus lost to us in the records.)
The earlier sketch by Bartlett (right) of the same medieval Jewish house identifies it not as the Oxford Domus Conversorum, but as the former City Hall, demolished in 1751 to make way for the previous city hall to the one presently standing. If this attribution is accurate, it may mean that the Jewish property given by the king to the city in 1228 for a new City Hall to replace the outgrown Guild Hall on Great Bailey Street (now Queen Street) was not demolished in 1228, as has been assumed by many historians. This large, stone-built house would itself probably have been grander and more spacious than the old timbered, wattle-and-daub Guild Hall, and it could very easily have been converted directly into the new City Hall in 1228 where, astonishingly, it would appear to have survived in that capacity until 1751!
There are no records of Jews, converts or otherwise in Oxford for over two and a half centuries following the Expulsion in 1290. (And the only record that we have of any former Oxford Jew relocated anywhere on the Continent in the years after the Expulsion, is to be found on a single 1296 list of Jews living in Paris, where the entry “Mahy de Quiquelarde lenglais” would appear to refer to Meyer of Cricklade, one of the
large clan of Lumbard of Cricklade, a family of Oxford Jewish agricultural commodities traders who kept residences in Oxford and upriver on the Thames at Cricklade, Wiltshire.)
Oxford, with its University and the many monastic and mendicant study enclaves associated with it, was always interested in the study of Hebrew in the context of Bibilical studies. Christian scholars completely dominated Hebrew studies in Oxford during the medieval period, although undoubtedly before 1290 personal consultation and even friendships between individual Christian scholars, such as Roger Bacon and the Oxford Jewish scholar Magister Moses, were known to have existed. However, belief that converted or crypto-Jews were somehow involved in the teaching of Hebrew in Oxford in the two or three centuries following the Expulsion is completely unsupported. It was even alleged by 19th century Anglo-Jewish historians that the University had secreted an enclave of crypto-Jewish scholars on (now) Pembroke Street in the centuries right after the Expulsion but there is absolutely no foundation for this.
It would not be until the late 16th century, that we first find actual evidence of Jewish scholars coming to Oxford to teach Hebrew. A learned Polish Jew named Philip Fernandus, taught in both Oxford and Cambridge in the 1590s. Fernandus had converted first to Catholicism and then to Protestantism long before coming to England, yet he eventually applied to the London Domus Conversorum for support in 1598. The Jewish convert James Wolfgang, quite possibly the same person known as James Levita, taught Hebrew at Oxford shortly after 1600.
Jewish/convert status was not always so clearcut. The Jew Jacob Barnett, whose country of origin is not recorded, was teaching Hebrew in Oxford c.1609-1613 under the aegis of the Christian regius professor of Hebrew. Jacob had functioned freely in Oxford as a Jew for some years, however he became the friend and secretary to the brilliant visiting Huguenot polymath Isaac Casaubon,
who himself had been a magnet for religious/conversion controversy for many years. Jacob’s conversion came to be expected, supposedly after Jacob himself had shown interest in converting, but when he did not show up for his christening, Jacob was first imprisoned, and then banished from the kingdom in 1613. Jacob’s christening in the University Church, Oxford, had been a highly staged event and, when he did not show up, lead to the University preacher, rather inevitably, rendering a sermon on “the perfidy of Jews”.
In 1626 an Italian Jew, Antonio Maria de Verona (presumably a convert, or posing as one, given his name) came to Oxford where no one less than Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, requested that he be treated well. Henrietta Maria, like her mother Marie de Medici, greatly interested in Hebrew medicine and mysticism and had had life-long connections with Italian Jews and Crypto-Jewish physicians and Cabbalists at her mother’ court.
Marie de Medici
Antonio Maria de Verona may have been directly responsible for introducing aspects of Cabbalistic themes into Stuart Masques written for Henrietta Maria. Another Italian Jew, Alexander Arniedi taught Hebrew at Oxford in the 1630s.
However, Oxford’s two popularly best-known Jewish residents late in the so-called Middle or Exclusion Period were not directly connected to the study of Hebrew in the University.
In 1651 Jacob the Jew, said to have been an immigrant from Lebanon, opened the first coffee house in England, in Oxford at the Angel Inn (where The Grand Café is now). Levantine Jews had only recently brought coffee from Turkey via Venice. A second competing coffee house was opened across the street on the corner of Queen’s Lane (where the Queen’s Lane Coffee House now stands) by another Levantine Jew, a Syrian named Cirques Jobson, in 1654. It is interesting to note that chocolate, which at this time took the form of a stimulant drink, was also first served to the public in these two Oxford coffee houses-and that it was reputedly Sephardic Jewish confectioners connected to the court of Spain who had transformed the bitter New World Aztec stimulant ‘xocolatl ‘ into a chocolate beverage that appealed to European tastes through experimentation with sugar, milk, Madeira and even egg yolks.
Both Jacob and Cirques Jobson were fully acknowledged to be Jews trading in Oxford well before Oliver Cromwell had been successfully petitioned, by the Sephardic Jewish community in exile in Holland, to allow Jews back into England in 1655.
Pam Manix (2009)
Queen’s Lane Coffee House
Auberton-Potter, N. and Bennett, A., Oxford Coffee Houses, 1651-1800, Oxford (1987)
Gorilovskaya, Nonna, ‘The Mostly Sweet Tale of Jews and Chocolate’, Talk of the Table, Moment, May 1 (2009)
Joseph Jacobs and M. Abrahams, Domus Conversorum, The Jewish Encyclopedia (2002)
Joseph Jacobs, Jacob Barnett, The Jewish Encyclopaedia (2002)
Joseph Jacobs, Philip Ferdinand, The Jewish Encyclopedia (2002)
Joseph Jacobs, Oxford, The Jewish Encyclopedia (2002)
Adolph Neubauer, Notes on the Jews of Oxford (1890)
Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon (1875)
Cecil Roth, The Medieval Jews of Oxford (1951)
Cecil Roth, ‘The Middle Period of Anglo-Jewish History’ TJHSE, 19 (1955-59)
Cecil Roth, ‘Jews in Oxford After 1290′, Oxoniensis, xv, Oxford, (1950)
Cecil Roth, History of the Jews in England, (1941)
Marsha Keith Schuchard, Restoring the Temple of Vision (2002)