The Middle Ages and Jewish History in England until the Modern Age
The crusades resulted in a brutal period in Jewish history resulting in intense persecution. Countless lives were cruelly taken, and this was condoned by the respective Popes. There was a small number of Jewish people in England as far back as Roman times though only in small numbers and not as an organised community (80-1066).[i] Meanwhile, the first Jews in England arrived in England in 1066 following the Norman conquest and to escape persecution from other parts of Europe.
The Catholic Church determined that ‘Christians’ were forbidden to be employed as moneylenders, so this became a Jewish occupation. Jewish people were also accused of outrageous acts such as blood libels and ‘desecration of the host’. Jewish people would often be used as a scapegoat for unfortunate incidents. Way back in Nero’s time, he accused the Christians for causing the infamous fire in Rome (many of whom would have been Jewish) and it was the Dreyfus affair which was the critical event that caused Theodore Herzl to take action for the Zion cause and his dreams of Jewish homeland. Reminiscent of the Nazi ruling, Jewish people were forced to wear yellow badges. Just like the ghettos in the time of the pogroms, Jewish people were later forced to live in designated communities.
In 1290, Edward 1 expelled the Jewish community from England, the only European nation to do so at that time. In 1492 the Spanish Inquisition resulted in Jewish people either being forcibly converted, killed, or fleeing for their lives. There is some evidence of small numbers of Jewish people fleeing from Spain to England following the Inquisition, though they might often have had to practise Judaism in secret. William Shakespeare is widely considered Britain’s greatest writer of all time though ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shylock is the antagonist and an undesirable moneylender. Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jewish people in 1656 granting them religious freedom and synagogues were established.
In ‘History of Judaism’, Martin Goodman writes about the shifting demographics of Jewry.
‘Whether from such expulsions, or for trade or other reasons, the demography of Jewish settlement shifted constantly throughout the Middle Ages. Some Jews from Germany moved east, settling in Poland, Lithuania and Russia, taking with them a distinctive Jewish German which was to develop into Yiddish. Many Italian Jews emigrated in the last centuries of the first Millennium CE, with some choosing to go north and other across the Mediterranean to North Africa. Charlemagne settled Italian Jews in Mainz in the eighth century. And Italian scholars took their learning to the Rabbinic schools in Fustat (south of Cairo) and in Kairouan in the same period. Italian Jews themselves were in close contact with Palestine, acting as a conduit for the transfer of Palestinian religious traditions into Northern Europe.’[iii]
Evidence of British Jewry history can sometimes be found in place names such as Jewry Street in Winchester or ‘Old Jewry’ which was the ghetto in Medieval London and the ‘Jew’s House’ in Lincoln. More recently, although there is still a Jewish community; Bournemouth was a more popular Jewish holiday destination and in the ‘Moon on the Square’ public house there is a tribute on the wall to various famous people including Benjamin Disraeli the first Jewish English Prime Minister who visited Bournemouth for health benefits.
Throughout the Middle Ages support for the Jewish people from various nations or people groups was pretty sparse and persecution was sadly the norm. Even at the time of the Reformation, though Luther was initially favourably disposed towards the Jewish people he changed his views later on causing great harm which in turn influenced others. In the 19th Century some notable and famous evangelical preachers such as Charles Spurgeon, J C Ryle and Robert Murray McCheyne and men of great political influence such as Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce had a great love for the Jewish people and looked forward to the Messianic Age. Christian Zionism grew quickly and was the precursor of Evangelical Philo-Semitism today.
[i] United Kingdom Virtual Jewish Tour https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/united-kingdom-virtual-jewish-history-tour
[ii] Martin Goodman A History of Judaism (Penguin, 2017; Milton Keynes), p238