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Jews in Medieval England


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Jews in Medieval England

I’m updating this post, in large part because of a comment a reader left about my use of the word ‘pogrom’ in Footsteps in Time, having not heard the word before. A ‘pogrom’ is defined as: “An organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews.”  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Pogrom

Jews lived in England during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but not as an organized community. This page states:  “When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to move to England. The Jews came mostly from France with some from Germany, Italy and Spain, seeking prosperity and a haven from anti-Semitism. Serving as special representatives of the king, these Jews worked as moneylenders and coin dealers. Over the course of a generation, Jews established communities in London, York, Bristol, Canterbury and other major cities. They generally lived in segregated areas by themselves.”

From the charter by King John (1201), for which he received 4000 marks:  “John, by the grace of God, &c. Know that we have granted to all the Jews of England and Normandy to have freely and honourably residence in our land, and to hold all that from us, which they held from King Henry, our father’s grandfather, and all that now they reasonably hold in land and fees and mortgages and goods, and that they have all their liberties and customs just as they had them in the time of the aforesaid King Henry, our father’s grandfather, better and more quietly and more honourably.”  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/kingjohn-jews.html

This goodwill, if it ever existed, had disintegrated by the time of Edward I of England (1239-1307).  As a king, he casts a long shadow over the thirteenth century and historians have generally viewed him favorably, in large part because they view his reign as good for England as a country (meaning he was stubborn, vibrant, and never backed down from a fight), if not anyone else.  But one of his most heinous acts, in addition to conquering Wales, was the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Edward, and his father before him, began with a series of pogroms designed to reduce their ability to secure a livelihood. He and his predecessors encouraged the Jews to become physicians, merchants, bankers, and traders but they were not allowed to own land. Through apprenticeship and education, which was of supreme importance to the Jewish community, many Jews accumulated a great deal of wealth, in disproportion to their routinely uneducated gentile counterparts. Of course, this engendered animosity among gentiles, who saw only the wealth, and not the effort to attain it.

Map of Jewish expulsions and resettlement areas in Europe. 1100-1500: http://fcit.usf.edu/HOLOCAUST/gallery/expuls.htm.

This did not stop the gentiles from borrowing money from the Jews, however, and Edward allowed the Jews in England to charge interest on loans. In turn, Edward would exact huge taxes from them.  As the taxes became more burdensome, it forced them to both raise the interest rates which they charged their debtors, and to call in those loans when taxed to excess. If the Jews refused to pay Edward, they were punished. In 1278, Edward arrested 600 Jewish men upon charges of coin clipping and hanged 270 of them. Edward then claimed their wealth for himself, to the tune of over 16,000 pounds. http://www.jewishhistory.org.il/history.php?startyear=1270&endyear=1279

That equaled 10% of the annual income of the entire realm. The money Edward took from the Jews compensated for the huge expenses involved in defeating Prince Llywelyn of Wales (see how this is all interconnected?).

Once Edward had taken all their money, he had no more use for them, and began to pass more laws restricting their activities. They had to wear specific clothing and badges, could not own land, practice money lending, join any guild or business, or pass on their assets to their children. In 1290, Edward completed his pogrom against the Jews and expelled them from England (although a few paid bribes in order to be allowed to stay). England is the first country in Europe to do this, though France and Germany follow suit in short order.

Which is why Spain had so many to persecute 200 years later during the Spanish Inquisition. And why, by 1935, millions of Jews lived in Poland, which welcomed them after the Black Death.


Medieval Coinage

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When Edward I hanged Jewish merchants for coin clipping in 1277, confiscating their goods and disinheriting their children, he was making a comment not only on the state of his own treasury, but on the economics of medieval life. Over the previous centuries, coinage–having been scarce once the Romans left Britain–had become more and more important in trade throughout England.

Edward the Elder (c. 902-925 AD) ordered: “there be one money over all the king’s dominion, and that no man mint except within port. And if the moneyer be guilty, let the hand be struck off with which he wrought that odense, and be set up on the money-smithy; but if it be an accusation, and he is willing to clear himself, then let him go to the hotiron, and clear the hand therewith with which he is charged to have wrought that fraud. And if at the ordeal he should be guilty, let the like be done as is here before ordained.”

William of Malmsbury wrote in 1140 AD: “Dearth of provisions, too, increased by degrees, and the scarcity of good money was so great, from its being counterfeited, that, sometimes out of ten or more shillings, hardly a dozen pence would be received. The king himself was reported to have ordered the weight of the penny, as established in King Henry’s time, to be reduced, because, having exhausted the vast treasures of his predecessor, he was unable to provide for the expense of so many soldiers. All things, then, became venal in England; and churches and abbeys were no longer secretly, but even publicly exposed to sale.” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1240stephen-badmoney.html

The small silver penny (pfennig) or denarius was the most common coin throughout the Middle Ages. The pound, which was 20 shillings, and a shilling, which was 12 pence, also was in circulation. The English kings began to mint a larger silver penny, known as a groat (big), beginning in the 13th century. It was worth four of the smaller pennies. All coins were made of silver until 1252, when gold coins (florins) began to be produced in Florence. The use of silver was soon cut down (debased) to very small amounts in coins and replaced with copper. http://www.gold-traders.co.uk/gold-information/medieval-money-and-coins.html

In the Chroncles of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur) is states for 12 79: ”

In this year king Edward had his money changed, and the halfpenny and the farthing were made round. And then was verified the soothsaying of Myrddin when he said, ‘The form of exchange shall be split, and its half shall be round.'”

Throughout the Middle Ages, money was rarely used in Wales in any quantity, even through the time of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Instead, cattle was one of the primary sources of exchange: “Glyn Davies in his History of Money quotes linguistic evidence to show just how ancient and widespread the association between cattle and money was. The English words “capital”, “chattels” and “cattle” have a common root. Similarly “pecuniary” comes from the Latin word for cattle “pecus” while in Welsh (the author’s mother tongue) the word “da” used as an adjective means “good” but used as a noun means both “cattle” and “goods”.”

“the evidence amounts to one virtually certain coin, one very doubtful coin of a doubtful prince, one well-attested lost piece of Llywelyn the Great and some lost triangular curiosities. With Norman and Angevin mintings in Wales, the evidence, though still uncomfortably scanty, is much more circumstantial.” (page 201). English coins may have circulated in Wales to some extent before the conquest, but even as late as the 14th century payment in cattle was still very common.” (See Davies, R.R. The age of conquest: Wales 1063-1415. Oxford: O.U.P.,1987).


Archaeologists are generally working on the assumption that native rulers did not mint their own coins, having knowledge of only one instance (Llywelyn the Great).  “The changing nature of commerce in early medieval Wales has been highlighted by a re-assessment of Viking-age hack-silver and coins in the light of recent finds (Redknap 2009b). This has shown how the Viking-age silver economy in coastal Wales mirrors the progression in Ireland and elsewhere – a transformation from a late ninth/early tenth-century bullion economy to a more sophisticated one in which coin began to be retained. Besly (2006) has also summarized all single Anglo-Saxon coins from Wales, as part of a wider survey down to the thirteenth century.”  http://www.archaeoleg.org.uk/pdf/reviewdocs/earlymedreview.pdf