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Journal of Jewish Studies, VOL. LV, NO. 1, pp102-117 Spring 2004

Two New Starrs Relating to the History of Merton College, Oxford

Peter E.Pormann Merton College, Oxford

The early history of the University of Oxford, and more particularly of Merton College, is intimately linked to the history of the Jews in England before their expulsion in 1290. This link is especially evident in the starrs, or deeds of conveyance, which date from this period. A. Neubauer has already published the Hebrew text of three of these documents relating to land purchases made by the Founder of Merton College, Walter de Merton. By a quirk of fate, I have come across two hitherto unknown starrs, or deeds of conveyance, relating to the early history of the college which I propose to edit and translate here. I originally found these starrs in an eighteenth century copy (with Latin translation) in a manuscript in St John’s College, Oxfordpp; they were made by J. Gagnier (1670?–1740) who became the Lord Almoner’s Professor of Arabic in Oxford in 1724. These documents, along with a Latin deed of conveyance relating to the same transaction, provide interesting evidence about the part the Jewish community of Oxford played in the earlier days of the oldest university in England.

Since the starting point of my enquiry were Gagnier’s papers in St John’s which led me to try to unearth the originals, I begin my discussion with the material history of these starrs in section I. Following that, I shall edit and translate the Hebrew text and discuss some linguistic features (II). I also transcribe the Latin translation of them made by Gagnier (III). In IV, I shall present an edition and translation of a Latin deed relating to the same transaction. Finally I shall discuss these texts in their historical context (V). The purpose of this paper is twofold: to tell the history of the Hebrew documents themselves, and to show what contribution these documents can make to the history of the Jews in Oxford in the thirteenth century. Sections I and III serve the former purpose, while sections II, IV and V try to achieve the latter.

In order to understand how the life of the two Hebrew starrs discussed here differs from those published by Neubauer, it is necessary to describe how they were stored and catalogued. Today, the ‘Neubauer’ documents, which are held in the collections of Merton College, share one physical characteristic: they are stitched to Latin deeds relating to the same transaction. The stitching must have been done at quite an early date, maybe straight after the drafting of these documents, or in 1287–1288 when a college clerk produced a liber ruber containing ‘summaries of at least 358 charters or deeds’ which the college possessed. Not only were the Hebrew and the Latin deeds stitched together, they were also formally linked by an identical Latin letter inscribed at the bottom or on the verso of each parchment. These letters indicated where the document was stored, since each letter referred to a pyx (or box) kept in the college archive and recorded in the liber ruber. For example the Hebrew deed no. 2423 has an R in blue ink on it which appears in the same ink and hand on the corresponding Latin deed. Similarly, an M is used to mark both the Latin and Hebrew parts of document no. 1146. In both cases, the Latin and the Hebrew documents are folded and stitched together, and subsequently kept in the pyx R andM respectively.

Unlike those edited by Neubauer, the two starrs in question here were at some stage separated from their Latin counterpart: they have separate shelf marks and are kept in different places in Merton College archives. The Hebrew deeds have the shelf mark Merton College, Oxford, Archives, D.1.58 (i), while the shelf mark of the Latin deed is no. 2349. In spite of their currently separate locations, there is some convincing evidence that they were originally kept together.Given this, it is interesting not only to describe these documents but also to try to unravel why and how they were separated.

The two Hebrew starrs are written on a relatively small piece of parchment (15 13 cm2): the text of the first deed takes up 5 12.5 cm2 and the text of the second 3.5 12 cm2. There is a space of 1 cm between the two deeds. The Hebrew script is extremely small, significantly smaller than that of the ‘Neubauer’ starrs mentioned above; most letters hardly rise to the height of 1 mm. Both starrs are rendered in a medieval cursive hand, and are autographed by Josce, son of Bendit. The original station in the journey of this Hebrew parchment was almost certainly the pyx labelled V which also contained the Latin document no. 2349. Both the Hebrew and the Latin documents are labelled with an identical red letter V, and the entry in the liber ruber of 1288 shows quite clearly that they were kept together in pyx V:
tus quos Primula soror ipsius Willelmi ei reddere solebat. et homagio Paschasii
fratris predicti Willelmi. et sex acris terre quas ad opus fratris ipsius idem Willelmus
retinuit. et est duplicata. cum quodam starris in carta et reponitur in V.

A deed by William of Leicester, made toWalter deMerton and after the latter’s
death to the House of the Scholars of Merton about all his [i.e. William’s] land
in Gamlingay and half the advowson of the church of the same village; except
18 pence rent which Primula, the sister of the same William, used to pay him
[i.e. William] and the homage of Paschasius, the brother of the aforementioned
William and six acres of land which William kept for the use of his brother.
There is a duplicate.With some starrs in the deed. It is stored away in [pyx] V.

Thus the Latin deed had been wrapped around the Hebrew piece of parchment, and although the latter is flattened now, one can still see the folds which bear witness to its original location.

The Hebrew starrs were subsequently separated from their Latin counterpart, and found their way to the desk of J. Gagnier, a prominent Hebrew and Arabic scholar in Oxford , in the first half of the eighteenth century, who copied and translated them. His transcription and translation are item 51 (fos 61–65) in the manuscript 253 in St John’s library, Oxford. This manuscript is a collection of curiosities: pages from books in Oriental languages, drawings, notes and so forth which John Pointer (1668–1754), sometime chaplain of Merton, bequeathed to St John’s. Each of the Hebrew deeds is carefully copied, presumably from the original, by J. Gagnier, and then translated by him into Latin. On fo 61r Gagnier entitles theses papers as follows:

The Copy of a Hebrew Conveyance of Land in Gamlingay from William of
Leicester, to Walter de Merton, the Founder of Merton College, Oxon. In ye
time of K. Hen. 3d. The Founder purchasing Land of a Jew, The Jew wou’d
have ye Leases drawn in his Own Language. These Leases now translated into
Latin by M. Gagnier.

Gagnier wrote the text and his translation on sheets of paper which are ruled for the Hebrew. His hand in Hebrew is clear and that of a Western scholar, showing little or no signs of cursiveness. When these pages were written is not entirely clear. Gagnier came to Oxford in 1703 and died in 1740; when and why during this period he wrote them is anybody’s guess. His overall command of Hebrew is good, although we find some minor errors and omissions in both the transcription and the translation.

The Hebrew deeds must have returned to Merton shortly thereafter. At least 20 years after Gagnier’s death, John Fowell (1725–1803), who was the chaplain ofMerton in 1750 and was awarded aDDin 1762, sent our Hebrew deeds together with an undated letter to Joseph Kilner (1721–1793). The content of the letter is as follows:

Addressed to: The Rev’d Mr Kilner, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.
Imprimis is Dr Kennicot in Oxford? if not be pleased to return the enclosed
by the bearer. If he is could you get him to translate it for me either into Latin or
English?—and let me have again whilst you are here. It is supposedly a Jewish
Starr or Acquittance respecting the Conveyance of an Estate at Gamlingay in
Cambridgeshire fromWill. de Leycester to our Founder and to his College after
him—upon wch the Jew had before some demand. It was made I believe anno
52. Hen. III. that is in the year 1267. or 1268.
The Doctor will be pleased to be very exact as to the style of our Founder if
he is (as I suppose he is) mentioned in it whether as !”# Sir Gautier de Merton
&c., and likewise as to the date if there is any.
Rev. Dr. Fowell

The ‘Dr Kennicot’ mentioned in the letter is the Benjamin Kennicott (1718–1783), who achieved fame through his work on the textual tradition of the Hebrew bible, of which he produced a number of important editions. He must have ‘been in Oxford’ at the time when Kilner received the letter, because the Hebrew deeds stayed in his possession. It was only in 1966 after Lambeth Palace bought his bequest that they came back to Merton. The librarian Dr Bill found the piece of parchment together with the letter, and returned them to the college, where they are kept today.

In the first deed, Josce, son of Bendit declares that money which William of Leicester owed him (Josce), is now owed toWalter deMerton. The history of the debt is as follows: William of Leicester owed the money to Abram, son of Vives. This Abram was married to a woman called Esther in the first, and perhaps ‘Ontier’ in the second deed. This Abram must have died while the debts were not yet paid back. His wife Esther married again. Her new husband, Josce, son of Bendit, received the debts as part of the dowry. There were two debts, the first for £43 which was payable at Christmas 1263, and the second for 16 mark which was payable one year earlier, at Christmas 1262. The first deed is dated 23 May 1268, and was witnessed by Josce’s son Bendit, and a Chayim de Nikol (i.e. Lincoln).


The translation of the text of the first deed runs as follows:

I signing below make an irrevocable pledge that I have sold and transferred
from myself, my heirs and all my assigns to Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter] de Merton,
former chancellor of our Lord, the King, and to his heirs and his assigns any
right, claim, and appeal, which I had or could have regarding the debt of forty
three pounds which William de Leicester from Gamlingay owed to Abram son
of Vives, former husband of my wife Esther; the time of payment was Christmas,
the forty seventh year of the reign of our Lord, King Henry [III], son of
King John. And [another] debt, sixteen mark, which is in the name of the aforementioned William de Leicester and the aforementioned Abram; the time of
payment was Christmas, the forty sixth year of the aforementioned reign. I have
received the same aforementioned debts, together with my aforementioned wife
Esther, in dowry; all the same debts—capital and interest which accrued to the
day of making this contract—all this I have irrevocably and forever sold and
transferred from myself, my heirs, and my assigns to the aforementioned Sir
Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs and his assigns; [I have done this] like
someone who has an absolute claim to a debt and is faithful, and according to
the order [?] of our Lord, the King, the liberator [?], made in London according
to the law of the kingdom. So that from now on the control [y¯ad ] of the aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs and his assigns shall
be completely like mine, and their action concerning the aforementioned debts
shall be completely like mine with regard to acquitting and remitting; giving
and selling; allocating and ordering; and compelling the debtor [sc. to pay] both
capital and moveable goods and collecting the aforementioned debts; that is to
say, in accordance with the law and judgement of the Jews, and I swear that no
other receipt or quitclaim has been made previously regarding the aforementioned
debts, in whole or in part; nor shall I be able from now on and in the
future to make any arrangement regarding the aforementioned debts, in whole
or in part, unless it is with the authority and permission of the aforementioned
Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton]. I agree and take it upon me—for myself
and my wife Esther, for all the heirs of the aforementioned Abram, her former
husband, and for our heirs and our assigns—to safeguard, defend, and acquit
all the aforementioned debts, capital and interest accrued to day, to the aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs, and his assigns against
the Jews of the ‘Island land’, man or woman, and everybody [else]. Act’ [i.e.
actum ‘made’] Wednesday, the Week of Pentecost [Whitsun], in the fifty second
year of the aforementioned reign. I have signed what I have pledged, I, Josce,
son of Bendit [Y¯os¯ı ben Bend¯ıt. ]; Bendit, son of Josce, [Bend¯ıt. ben Y¯os¯ı; i.e. the
son of the former], witness; Chayim [H. aiy¯ım ] de Nikol [i.e. Lincoln], witness.

The second deed deals with the land mortgaged as security for these debts.
Josce, son of Bendit, declares that he transfers toWalter deMerton his title to
the land in Gamlingay (Cambridgeshire) and all the appurtenances previously
mortgaged to Abram, son of Vives, and first husband of Esther. This deed is
undated, but signed by the same two witnesses and written on the same piece
of parchment, and therefore it is safe to assume that they were drafted at the
same time.


The translation of the text of the second deed runs as follows:

I signing below make an irrevocable pledge that I have acquitted and remitted
to Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter] de Merton, former chancellor of our Lord, the
King, and to his heirs and his assigns any right, claim and appeal which I had
or could have regarding the capital, tenements, and appurtenances which the
aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton] now holds from William de
Leicester in the village of Gamlingay. Henceforce neither I nor any of the heirs
of Abram, son of Vives, [former] husband of my wife Ontier [?], nor any of our
assigns; none of us can lay claim to, or appeal against [the conveyance of] the
aforementioned capital, tenements, and appurtenances in any way, not [even] by
[producing] a deed of any debt which the aforementioned William of Leicester
and Gamlingay owed to the aforementioned Abram or my wife Ontier [?], or to
myself and my heirs, from the creation to the end of the world. As for any bond,
portio [of a deed ], or any other instrument in the name of the aforementioned
William de Leicester and Gamlingay, and in the name of the aforementioned
Abram or my wife Ontier [?], and in my name or that of any of our heirs is
found, which was made before this deed, I pledge that it is null and void, and let
it count for nothing. For the aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e.Walter de Merton]
has done as I wished with all the debts which the aforementioned William [de
Leicester] owed to Abram or my wife Ontier [?], from the creation to the end
of the world. I took it upon me—for myself and my heirs—to safeguard, defend,
and acquit all the aforementioned capital, tenements, and appurtenances,
which the aforementioned William [formerly] possessed, and which the aforementioned
Sir Gautier [Walter de Merton] now holds, against all Jews in the
world, man or woman, so that they cannot ask for any debt from the aforementioned
William, in the bond, portio, or any other instrument from the creation
to the end of the world. I have signed what I pledge, I, Josce, son of Bendit [Y¯os¯ı
ben Bend¯ıt. ]; Bendit, son of Josce, [Bend¯ıt. ben Y¯os¯ı; i.e. the son of the former],
witness; Chayim (H. aiy¯ım) de Nikol [i.e. Lincoln], witness.

The two texts contain some interesting linguistic features that are worth noting. On the level of morphology, the texts presented here have many of the hallmarks typical of insular documents of the thirteenth century described by Davis in his work, Hebrew Deeds of English Jews Before 1290. I can mention but a few of them here: ” is often written plene, while “” is used to render the consonant ‘y’; transliterate ‘w’; e.g. for ‘William’ (maybe under the influence of French ‘Guillaume’). Christian holidays are transliterated rather than translated; e.g. noël for Christmas, pentecoste for ‘Whitsun’. Some English technical legal terms have standard translations; e.g ‘bond’; ‘portio’ [sc. of a bond]; ‘pound’. Four abbreviations occur.

Moving on from morphology to syntax, we find, again, some shared typical features in these two deeds. One is a large amount of repetition and redundancy in order to achieve precision and avoid ambiguity. Examples of repetition abound in these two deeds. Hendiadys like; different verbal formulae for ‘to protect’ occur more than once. If one compares this to the judicial terminology of the Latin deed transribed in section IV below, one can see that many of the legal formulae and syntactical structures in the Hebrew have counterparts in the Latin.

As we have seen in the first part of the present contribution, the parchment containing the Hebrew documents edited above interested a number of Oxonian Hebraists during the eighteenth century. This was a time when Hebrew Studies emancipated themselves from the subject of divinity, with which they were closely linked. The most prominent scholar of the time was B. Kennicott, in whose possession the parchment with the two starrs ended up. Kennicott studied the text of the Hebrew bible keenly, and unlike many of his contemporaries, published his findings in books such as the one entitled
The Ten Annual Accounts of the Collation of Hebrew Mss of the Old Testament; Begun in 1760, and Compleated in 1769.25 J. Gagnier, who was the first to translate the two starrs into Latin, was a less prominent figure than Kennicott. Yet his Latin translation is an interesting testimony to the study of Hebrew at Oxford in the eighteenth century. It runs as follows.


First Deed:
Ego infra scriptus confiteor confessione perfectâ me vendidisse et concessisse
a me & ab hæredibus meis et a posteris meis Sir Waltero (Heb. Gautier) de
Merton, quondam Cancellario Domini nostri Regis, et hæredibus eius, et posteris
eius totum ius & postulationem et prætentionem, quæ erat mihi & potuit
esse super debitum quadraginta et trium librarum, quas Willelmus de Leicestre
de Gamelegaye debebat Abramo filio Vives (or Vios) quondam marito
Asty Mister; quarum solutionis tempus fuit ad Noel (Natale Domini) Anni
quadragessimi septimi regni Domini nostri Regis Henry filii Joan. Itemdebitum
plusquam sexdecim ‘2 librarum quod mihi debetur nomine supradictiWillelmi
de Leicestre, & Abrami suprad[ict]i cuius tempus solutionis fuit ad Noel anni
quadragessimi sexti regni supradicti. Quae debita supradicta accepi cum Asti
Mister supradicta cum dota sponsali eius. Omnia hæc debita supradicta tam
capitale, quam lucrum quod emersit adusque diem facti contractus huius, omnia
vendidi et concessi a me & ab hæredibus meis, & a posteris meis supradicto
Sir Waltero & hæredibus eius & posteris eius venditione perfecta in perpetuum
instar eorum qui obligati sunt a sæculo, & sunt fideles, & iuxta edictum Domini
nostri Regis Liberatoris in Londres factum, secundum ius Regni. Ita ut in
posterum sit manus supradicti Sir Walteri & Hæredum eius & Posterorum eius
sicut fuit manus mea, & actio eorum sicut actio mea erga omnia debita supradicta,
ut possit dimittere, cedere, dare, vendere, & iubere & cogere debitorem
tam in fundis, quam in bonis mobilibus ad exigenda debita supradicta. Perficiam
hoc verbum meum iuxta legem & iudicium Iudaeorum. Et iuravi nullum
alium antea factum esse contractum de omnibus debitis supradictis, necque in
toto, neque in parte, neque in hoc præsenti, vel in futurum tempus posse quicquam
disponi ex debitis istis supradictis, tam in toto quam in parte nisi de licentiâ
supradicti SirWalteri & consorta eius. Atque inme suscepi prome & pro Asti
Mister & pro hæridibus Abrami supradicti quondam Mariti eius, & pro omnibus
hæredibus nostris & posteris nostris warantisare, defendere, & acquitare
omnia debita supradicta tam quoad capitale quam quoad lucrum quod emersit
usque ad diem facti contractûs huius supradicto Sir Waltero, & hæredibus eius
coram omnibus Iudæis hero sive viro sive fæminâ & coram omni homine. Actum
die quartâ in septimana Pentecostes Anno quinquagesimo secundo Regni
supradicti. Atque hoc quod confessus sumsigillo meo munivi, Jose filius Bendit.
Bendit filius Jose Testis. Chajim de Nikol [i.e. Lincoln] Testis.

The second deed:

Ego infra scriptus confiteor confessione perfectâ me dimississe et cessisse Sir
Waltero (Hebr. Gautier) de Merton, quondam Cancellario Domini nostri Regis,
et hæredibus eius et posteris eius totum ius & postulationem, quæ erat mihi vel
potuit esse mihi super fundos & tenementa & appartenentias quas supradictus
Sir Walterus tenet nunc ex Willelmo de Leicestre in oppido de Gamelegeye; ita
ut neque ego, neque quicquam [sic] ex hæredibus Abrami filii Vives quondam
Mariti AstiMontier, neque ullus ex posteris nostris, nos (inquam) non possimus
postulare et contendere pro supradictis fundis & tenementis & appartenenciis
ullâ postulatione debiti, quavis causâ aut prætextu debiti, quod supradictus
Willelmus de Leicestre et Gameleye debere possit supradicto Abramo vel Asti
Montier, aut mihi, vel hæredibus meis a creatione mundi usque ad finem eius.
Quod si reperiatur sigillum, vel diploma, vel quicunque alius actus sub nomine
supradicti Willelmi de Leicestre, & Gameleye, et nomine supradicti Abrami vel
Asti Montier vel nomine meo aut cuiuscunque ex hæredibus nostris facta ante
factum hunc contractum, profiteor illa esse irrita et cassa reputentur. quia Sir
Walterus supradictus mihi rationem fecit omnium debitorum, quæ supradictus
Willelmus debebat supradicto Abramo vel Asti Montier a creatione mundi
usque finem eius. Et suscepi in me tam pro meipso quam pro hæredibus meis
warantisare, defendere, & acquitare [63v] omnes fundos & tenementa & appartenentias
supradictas, quæ pertinebant ad supradictum Willelmum, ut supradictus
Sir Walterus teneat illa nunc contra omnes Iudæos, qui sunt in mundo sive
vir sive fæmina, qui possent repetere quodvis debitum adversus supradictum
Willelmum sub sigillo, vel Diploma, vel quolibet alio Actu a creatione mundi
usque ad finem eius. Atque id quod confessus sum sigillo meo munivi Jose filius
Bendit. Bendit filius Jose Testis. Chajim de Nikol (Lincoln) Testis.

His translation, written in the scholarly Latin of the time, is mostly correct. There are, however, some oddities. Gagnier transcribes (my wife) as ‘Asti’; he took the word as a proper name rather than a simple noun. The reason for this would seem to be that he had trouble with expressions like (the husband of my wife), and did not realise that Esther, the wife, remarried after the death of her first husband. Likewise, the similarity of the Hebrew Letters in the script of the starrs let Gagnier to transcribe the name ‘Esther’ as ‘Mister’. He translates ‘sigillo munivi’; however it does not mean ‘I
sealed’, but rather ‘I signed’. There is no seal on the document, and Jews did not normally seal their documents.

These Hebrew deeds or starrs illustrate only one legal aspect of Walter de Merton’s buying the land in Gamlingay. While he had to make sure that there were no claims by any Jew to the land he was about to purchase, there were other considerations he also had to take into account. The Christian landowner who originally borrowed themoney formthe Jewish money-lender and mortgaged his land in the process also had to cede all claims to his former property. In the case of the present transaction, it isWilliam of Leicester who wrote the corresponding Latin quitclaim, a document which, as we have seen, was originally stored together with the Hebrew deeds. In this Latin quitclaim, William of Leicester declares that he has transferred toWalter de Merton his title to the land in Gamlingay together with all appurtenances and the advowson of the village church, while keeping eighteen pence rental income which William’s sister Primula used to enjoy, and six acres of land set aside for his brother Paschasius. Unlike its Hebrew counterparts, the original Latin deed never left Merton. Text and translation follow:

Omnibus Christi fidelibus ad quos presens scriptum peruenerit Willelmus de
Leycestre de Gamelegeye salutem in domino. Sciatis me dedisse concessisse et
hac carta mea confirmasse amico meo dilecto domino Waltero de Merton illustris
domini Henrici Regis Anglie quondam cancellario totam terram meam in
Gamelegeye cum aduocacione medietatis ecclesie eiusdem uille et cum omnibus
aliis ad predictam terram spectantibus siue in dominicis redditibus seruiciis consuetudinibus seu quibuscumque rebus aliis absque ullo retinemento exceptis decem et octo denariis redditus quas [sic] soror mea Primula michi reddere consueuit
de tenemento quod de me tenet in Gamelegeye et homagio Paschasii fratris mei et sex acris terre quas ad opus eiusdem fratris mei retinui. habendum et tenendum de me et heredibus meis eidem domino Waltero ad totam uitam suam et post decessum eiusdem domini Walteri domui scolarium de Merton quam idem dominus Walterus apud Maldon in comitatu Surr’ ad perpetuam sustentationem scolarium in scolis degentium et ministrorum altaris Christi in dicta domo commorantium nuper fundauit. necnon scolaribus et fratribus dicte domus. faciendo inde capitalibus dominis feodi pro me et heredibus meis seruicia inde debita et consueta que ego ipse facere consueui et debui pro omni seruicio secta curie consuetudine et demanda in perpetuum. uolo igitur et concedo pro me et heredibus meis quod predictus dominus Walterus ad totam
uitam suam et post decessum eiusdem domini Walteri scolares et fratres predicti
in perpetuum habeant et teneant de me et heredibus meis totam terram
meam predictam in Gamelegeye cum aduocacione medietatis ecclesie eiusdem
uille et cum omnibus aliis ad predictam terram spectantibus siue in dominicis
redditibus seruiciis consuetudinibus uillenagiis seu quibuscumque rebus aliis absque
ullo retinemento exceptis decem et octo denariis redditus quas [!] sorormea
Primula michi reddere consueuit de tenemento quod de me tenet in Gamelegeye
et homagio Paschasii fratris mei et sex acris terre quas ad opus eiusdem
fratris mei retinui. faciendo inde capitalibus dominis feodi pro me et heredibus
meis seruicia inde debita et consueta que ego ipse facere debui et consueui.
pro omni seruicio secta curie consuetudine et demanda in perpetuum sicut predictum
est. et ego prefatus Willelmus et heredes mei totam terram predictam
cum pertinenciis eidem domino Waltero ad totam uitam suam et post decessum
eiusdem domini Walteri dicte domui scolarium de Merton et scolaribus
et fratribus eiusdem domus per predicta seruicia contra omnes gentes warantizabimus
acquietabimus et defendemus. in perpetuum. et ad maiorem huius
rei securitatem presenti scripto sigillum meum apponi feci. his testibus domino
Johanne de Kyrkeby,Waltero de Odiham, Rogero de Donecastro, Thoma Tayllard,
Rogero fratre eius et Ricardo de la More de comitatu Buckingahamscire.
Johanne Pesemer et Thoma de Mackneye de comitatu Berrscire. Johanne de
Herierd et Nicholo de Thedden de comitatu Suhantunescire Ricardo de Brademer
et Willelmo Dudekyn de comitatu Surr’ et aliis.


To all Christians to whom the present deed comes, William of Leicester says
greetings in the Lord. Know that I have given, granted and by this my charter
confirmed to my beloved friend Walter de Merton, former chancellor of the famous
Lord Henry, King of England, all my land in Gamlingay, with the moiety
of the advowson of the church of the same village, and all other things regarding
the aforementioned land, be it demesnes, rents, services, customs, or any
other things, without any reservation; except eighteen pence rent which my sister
Primula used to giveme [as income] fromthe tenement which she holds ofme
in Gamlingay; [and except] the homage of my brother Paschasius; and [except]
the six acres of land which I kept for the benefit of the same brother; [all these
things I give] to have and to hold of me and of my heirs to the same LordWalter
for all his life, and after the death of the sameWalter to the house of scholars de
Merton which the same Lord Walter has recently founded near Malden in the
county of Surrey in order to support the scholars living in the schools and the
servants of the altar of Christ dwelling in the recently founded aforementioned
house, as well as to the scholars and brethren of the aforementioned house; by
rendering to the chief lords of the fee in my and my heirs’ stead, in perpetuity,
the services which are due and accustomed therein, which I was accustomed
to do and to owe for all services of suit of court, custom and demand; I wish
therefore and concede, for myself and my heirs, that the aforementioned lord
Walter for his entire life, and after the death of the same lord Walter the aforementioned scholars and brethren, shall have and hold in perpetuity of me and
of my heirs all my aforementioned land in Gamlingay, with the advowson of
moiety the church of the same village and with all other rights pertaining to the
said land whether in demesnes, rents, services, customs, villeinages or any other
renders whatsoever, without any reservation except 18 pence in rent which my
sister Primula is accustomed to render to me from the tenement that she holds
of me in Gamlingay and except the homage of Paschasius my brother and six
acres of land which I retained to the use of that same brother, doing therein
to the chief lords of the fee for me and my heirs the services owed and accustomed
therein which I myself was obliged and accustomed to do for all service
of suit of court, custom and demand in perpetuity as is aforesaid. And I, the
aforementioned William, and my heirs warrant, acquit and defend against all
people [this grant of] my entire aforesaid land with appurtenances to the same
lord Walter for his entire life and after his death to the said house of the scholars
of Merton and to the scholars and brethren of the same house of the same
Walter. And for the greater security of this matter I have had my seal appended
to the present writing, before these witnesses: John de Kirkby, Walter de Odiham,
Roger de Doncaster, Thomas Tayllard, Roger, his brother, Richard de la
More, from the county of Buckinghamshire, John Pesemer, Thomas de Mackney,
from the county of Berkshire, John de Herriard, Nicholas de Thedden from
the county of Hampshire, Richard de Brademer and William Dudekyn, from
the county of Surrey and others.

Although Jews were never members of the University of Oxford in the formal sense during the Middle Ages, they were involved in some aspects of the students’ and scholars’ life. Jews lent money to students who, not unlike nowadays, were often hard pressed for cash. Some of the students even used their textbooks as deposits although this practice was later prohibited and prosecuted. As time went by, the Jews were more and more hampered in the exercise of their professional activities, especially during the second half of the thirteenth century; money-lending became increasingly restricted. But there was one area in which Jews continued to play an important role at least until the early 1270s: the rental market. Housing was a problem in the buzzing university town, and some Jews were quite prominent landlords. The most famous was Jacob, son of Rabbi Moses of London, from whom Walter de Merton bought some properties.

Despite this active role within the life of the university, Jews came under mounting pressure from different quarters. The theological and political rhetoric against them developed to such an extent that some modern scholars talk about medieval English antisemitism. Yet Jews were also the victims of growing legal uncertainty, and often forced to sell their possessions. R. S. Stacey poignantly described this situation:

To pay their taxes, Jews were forced either to hand over their uncollected bonds
directly to the crown, or else to sell the bonds ‘short’ on the open market. Either
way, the bonds tended to wind up in the hands of King Henry’s own friends and
relations, who promptly foreclosed upon the Christian debtors.

Walter de Merton was one of those close enough to the king to profit from this legal uncertainty, if not personally, then at least for the benefit of his new foundation. He was a shrewd and astute businessman who had as the chancellor of the king gained substantial experience in legal matters. He had, more specifically, an intimate knowledge of the Court of Exchequer of the Jews, and this allowed him to spot many of the precarious debts alluded to above.

Therefore,Walter deMerton, being concerned about endowing his foundation, ‘theHouse of the Scholars deMerton’, as best he could, bought up many of these debts, often from people who had found themselves on the wrong side during the Civil War when Henry III’s son Edward (later king Edward I), defeated Simon de Montfort. In the present case,William of Leicester was unable to pay back debts which were originally due in 1262 and 1263, that is to say on the eve of the war for reason unknown to us; in 1268 William was so desperate that he sold, or was forced to cede, his own land, keeping only the small sources of income which were allocated to his siblings, his sister Primula and his brother Paschasius. We can only speculate why Abram, son of Vives, the original creditor, and his successor Josce, son of Bendit, allowed William not to repay his debts for the five years or so fromwhen they were due originally, although this may have had to do with the increasing difficulties in collecting debts which Jews experienced from the 1250s onwards.

The timing of these transactions is also interesting in another respect. Just six days before the date of the first deed, there was a certain amount of upheaval in Oxford. On Ascension Day, 17May 1268, the Chancellor had led a procession of university students and staff through Oxford carrying a cross.


Allegedly, a Jew, who is not named in any of the sources, snatched the cross and smashed it; turmoil followed, and the Christian population ransacked a number of Jewish houses. The Jews were then all put in jail, and ordered to pay compensation for the destroyed cross. The only Jews who escaped these measures were Jacob, son of Moses, of Oxford, and his sons who all happened to be in London during the incident. Like Jacob, who often did business with Walter deMerton, Josce, son of Bendit, was also in London.Although there is no solid evidence, one can speculate about whether the selling of a bad debt by a Jew in London (Josce, son of Bendit) to Walter de Merton is linked to these events. Certainly the possibility cannot be ruled out that Walter struck some sort of deal offering protection to his Jewish trading partner in return for cheap land.

The legal side of this transaction, as far as William of Leicester is concerned, is brought to a close on 1 July 1268 with a final concord confirming the conveyance. Yet this is not the last time we hear of this purchase. In a second version of the statutes ofMerton College, dating back to 1270,Walter mentions his possessions in Gamlingay; this is one of the new possessions not included in the first version. Furthermore, there is an entry in the plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews for the year 1272. Rigg translated the entry in the following way:
Walter de Merton, by his attorney, offered himself on the fourth day against
Josce, son of Benedict, touching a plea, that he acquit him as to the King of
Germany of £80 demanded of him to the use of the said King on account of
Abraham, son of Vives. Walter, being already under distraint, makes default
of appearance; wherefore mandate to the Sheriff as before, that keeping safe,
&c., the chattels to the value of 20s, by which he had distrained him, he distrain
by more chattels, if more he may find, &c. and have his body before &c.
The Sheriff sends word that the said Josce is not at York, but at London, and
therefore nothing is done. Wherefore as before, for Michaelmas three weeks.

This is rather difficult legal prose. The preceding English translation of the original Latin Plea Roll means the following: Walter’s attorney brings an action against Josce, son of Bendict (or Bendit). Walter demands that Josce pay £80 to the king of Germany (i.e. King Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall). The £80 correspond, with interest accrued, to the sum of money paid for the properties in Gamlingay. Previously, Richard, who had been promised the possessions of the Jewry in 1262, had brought an action against Walter, probably because Richard had a claim to the possessions of Abraham (or Abram), son of Vives. Richard alleged that the land in Gamlingay belonged to him, and that Josce, son of Bendict, had had no right to sell it toWalter de Merton, since he (Richard) had a claim to it. But as the starrs published here show, Josce had pledged that there was no other claim on the land in Gamlingay. Therefore Walter de Merton wanted Josce to pay the debt to Richard and thereby warrant him (Walter) his possessions, as he (Josce) had pledged to do in the deed of conveyance. Josce was already under distraint in a different matter. Josce did not appear in court, his assets could not be seized by the Sheriff, because Josce was in London, not in York where the action was brought.

Based on the error by Rigg mentioned above (n. 40), Roth interpreted the text differently: ‘it must be another Walter de Merton, I think, . . . ’, that is to say, he thought that the former chancellor would hardly have been under distraint. But given the content of the Hebrew deeds published here, it cannot be disputed that the Walter de Merton mentioned in the plea roll is the founder ofMerton College. This legal action, brought on the basis of the deeds of conveyance published here, hints at, and forebodes, the difficult legal and economic situation in which the Jews in England found themselves in the 1270s and 1280s, finally leading to their expulsion.

Walter de Merton himself restricted the ability of the Jews to lend money further and further from January 1269, and the Jews finally lost their ability to rent out property altogether in 1271. So it is clear that they were put under ever increasing constraint fromdifferent quarters, whileWalter deMerton and his foundation continued to prosper. Another 20 years and the Jews would have to leave the country altogether, while the ‘first English college to exist de jure as well as de facto’ in the foundation of which the Jews were indirectly involved, turned out to be the model for most other Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The documents published here thus bear witness to the participation of the Jews, be it modest, in  the emergence of the collegiate system in Oxford.

* I would like to thank J. Barton, J. Dueck, Dr J. R. L. Highfield, DrM.M. N. Stanfield, and Dr T. Stern, as well as the anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts of this article; I record my gratitude to the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford, and the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford, for their permission to publish the documents edited here for the first time.



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