Holocaust Memorial Day: 27th January 2012, 2-3pm
York Jewish History Trail led by IPUP Interns and Professor Helen Weinstein, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Meet 2pm at the steps of the Yorkshire Museum YO1 7FR. Free event and no booking necessary.
Click here to download Map (pdf)
Traumatic Histories: The Case of Jewish York
One of IPUP’s research interests is the exploration of how traumatic pasts are represented in the public sphere and what the effects are of retelling such deeply unsettling stories on how communities view themselves in the present. Eight hundred years ago, the history of York’s medieval Jewish community was marked by one such rupture – these events are of particular interest to IPUP, because of its ties with heritage sites in the city.
This page, written and compiled by IPUP Associate Chris Sparks, begins an exploration of that past. Its purpose is threefold: It gives a short, acccessible introduction to the events of 1190. It explores encounters between the present and this traumatic past in modern York, and it reports on a recent re-examination by academics at a major international conference. At the bottom of this page you can find links and references to further reading.
When we interrogate the past about the stories it holds, we must always be aware that history's fabric does not consist of neutral impartial records, but rather layers of narratives, each of which reaches us with its own context, bias, influences and purposes. In light of this, we try to do the best we can at retelling history whilst remaining alive to the nuances of our narratives; this is especially important with events and circumstances as contentious and traumatic as this, the reverberations of which continue to echo today.
In February 2011, as part of its Navigating the Past Seminar Series, IPUP is hosting David Thomas Interpretation Officer at English Heritage, to discuss the issues surrounding the interpretation of the events of 1190 at EH’s Clifford’s Tower site.
Over just twenty-four hours in mid-March 1190, nearly all of York’s medieval Jewish population perished. Trapped in the keep of the royal castle, desperate, despairing, and abandoned by their only protectors, the male heads of household made a terrible decision. Rather than die a humiliating death at the hands of the mob outside, they would take their own lives and those of their families. Before completing this gruesome task, the keep in which they were sheltering was set ablaze, in a fire which consumed many of their bodies and possessions. The following day, a small number who had not taken part in the mass suicide threw themselves on the mercy of those outside. This proved a tragic mistake: promised their lives if they accepted Christian baptism, the survivors were in fact massacred as they left their refuge.
This is probably the most well known part of the history of York’s medieval Jewry. That history was a short one. When it was wiped out in 1190 the community was not long established, having certainly existed for only a few decades. After the massacre, Jews once again resettled in York, and seem to have been more prosperous and successful than before. Two of their number were for a time very successful moneylenders on a national scale. By 1290, however, when Edward I formally and finally expelled all Jews from his kingdom, a severe decline had set in. At his accession in 1272, the population has been reckoned to be around 150 persons. Edward’s policy towards the English Jews blew hot and cold throughout the period, probably resulting in a further decline in the years leading up to 1290.
The tragic events of those few hours in 1190 have once again been the focus of attention recently, in the form of a major international conference at the University of York – York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre. The conference was organised by Sarah Rees-Jones and Sethina Watson of the Department of History and teh Centre for Medieval Studies. It was supported financially by the British Academy, the Jewish Historical Society of England, the Royal Historical Society and the University of York. Diverse themes were explored at this conference, from the political background of the massacre and the literary influences upon its chroniclers, to the history of the Jews in medieval England more generally. The conference drew attention from national Jewish press, including articles in the Jewish News and the Jewish Chronicle; mention of the conference was also made in The Independent. Conversation now continues at the conference blog. The remainder of this page gives a brief overview of the events surrounding the massacre; the account which it gives owes a great deal to the work of Professor Barrie Dobson (see below).
The Events of 1190
The events of 1190 were extremely well documented in contemporary sources including – uniquely amongst the history of medieval English Jewry – a number of Hebrew accounts. These provide useful insight into the massacre's interpretations, but more directly relevant for a description of the events themselves are the various surviving chronicle accounts. One of these authors (William of Newburgh) was a local man. Born in Bridlington and living at Newburgh Priory, fifteen miles north of the city, William was likely to have been well informed about the events. Whilst his account (available online at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook) displays some evidence of anti-Jewish sentiment, it is – for the time – remarkably even-handed, even sympathetic to the victims, in places.
The story of the events of 1190 really begins in the previous year, at the accession of Richard I. Following the death of his father Henry II in July, Richard’s coronation was held on held on September 3rd, 1189. An anti-Jewish riot broke out after some of the Jews who had travelled to London for the occasion attempted to enter the palace of Westminster during the coronation banquet. Around 30 Jews were killed by the mob. Amongst those seriously injured was a wealthy moneylender from York called Benedict. Benedict accepted Christian baptism in an attempt to save his own life, but then recanted. He died in apostasy from both faiths.
Despite the king’s order that the Jews be left in peace, a series of further anti-Jewish riots across England in the spring of 1190 followed his departure from the country late the previous year. Christian prejudice against the Jews had been heightened by Crusade preaching and whipped up in recent years by accusations of ritual child-murder. Yet though genuine bigotry was certainly one of the reasons behind these attacks, so too was the Jews' legal and economic position. As major creditors of royal government, they were granted legal exemptions and special protection, although the price for this was their status as chattels – that is, property – of the crown. Some amongst them also became spectacularly rich. (It is often supposed that Jews were the only ones involved in medieval moneylending, but this is not in fact the case: they were simply better at it than their Christian counterparts). Wealthy but vulnerable, the Jews of England were easy targets for local interests chafing against increasing royal control.
In March, the rash of anti-Jewish rioting spread to York, where royal control had recently been weakened following the replacement of the region’s powerful sheriff. Using the confusion caused by a fire that they themselves had probably started, a group of men broke into the house of Benedict of York, killed its inhabitants, and set fire to the building. Wisely sensing something unpleasant in the air, most of the Jewish community of York took refuge the next day in the keep of the royal castle (a wooden building on the same site as today’s Clifford’s Tower), where they might expect to be protected by the king’s agents. More violence followed that night, with the forced baptism or murder of those Jews who had remained in their homes. The community in the keep then made a serious error of judgement: having lost faith in the royal constable, who had left on business, they barred him from entering his own castle. The constable then appealed to the sheriff (or perhaps his agent – a paper presented at the York 1190 conference suggested that he was not in the country at the time). An order was given that the Jews be ejected from the keep by force. Although it was quickly rescinded, this order served to incite a mob who began to lay siege to the Castle.
By the evening of March the 16th, as siege engines stood outside the walls, the events’ ending must have seemed inevitable. As we have heard, they were both tragic and fatal. Those of the community who did not die at their own hands or those of their fathers or husbands were cruelly murdered by the mob outside who had promised them leniency. The rioters then proceeded to the Minster, where they ensured that the Jews’ financial records were brought out and burned.
Heritage & Commemoration
Those interested in exploring the remains of York’s medieval Jewish history should contact YorkWalk, who run walking tours of the important sites.
York's Jewish community remains small, assessed in the 2001 Census as numbering 191 persons (this is 0.1% of the city's total population, around one fifth of the national average). The city's only synagogue closed for the last time in 1975. Around the same time, more official notice began to be taken of the community's medieval history. Few traces of this remain. The Jewbury area (discussed below) provides one linguistic trace, as does Jubbergate (Jew-bret-gate: Jew-Brit-Street). A medieval stone house whose remains can be found in Stonegate may possibly have belonged to one of York's wealthier Jewish inhabitants; houses built of this material were unusual at the time, and the Jews drew comment for their use of it.
Clifford's Tower Plaque
On October 31st, 1978, a commemorative tablet was unveiled at the foot of the steps leading to the current tower. The ceremony involved – amongst others – the Chief Rabbi, president of the Jewish Historical Society, and the Archibishop, Dean and Lord Mayor of York. Paid for through private fundraising by the Jewish Historical Society of England, it bears the following inscription:
On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith.
Isiah XLII -12
Cemetery at Jewbury
Archaeological investigations in 1982 at Jewbury (around half a mile north-east of Clifford’s tower), prior to the building of the current Sainsburys’ Car Park found a substantial quantity of human remains. As it was known that this might have been the site of York's medieval Jewish cemetery (in formal use by 1177, but probably existing before that), and on the advice of the Chief Rabbi, work was intially limited to a small number of test excavations. These excavations revealed a number of facts that caused the Chief Rabbi, and subsequently the London Beth Din, to whom the case had been referred, to conclude that the remains were unlikely to be of Jewish origin: 1) The graves were not aligned west-east (facing Jerusalem) 2) there were no Jewish tombstones found, and 3) the coffin-builders had used iron nails, rather than the wooden pegs of Jewish tradition. As examination of the remains progressed, however, it became clear that in all probabilty the site was that of the Jewish cemetery. Respecting Jewish custom and the Chief Rabbi's instructions, excavations were halted, and those remains that had been disinterred were re-buried at a specially-prepared plot on the outskirts of the original cemetery. A plaque (pictured) now marks the spot.
Web Links & Further Reading
- Readers with a general interest in the history of England's Jews should begin with the excellent bibliography prepared by the Jewish Historical Society of England.
- P. M. Tillott (ed), A History of the County of York: The City of York (1961) pp. 47-49. Available online to subscribers and members of subscribed institutions at the IHR’s British History Online Pages
- R. B Dobson, “The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190”, Borthwick papers 45 (York: St. Anthony's Press, 1974, revised ed. 1996).
- R. B Dobson, “The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews in York,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society 26 (1979): pp. 34-52.
- The two articles above are reproduced in the following: available from the University Shop: R.B. Dobson, The Jewish Communities of Medieval England: The Collected Essays of R.B. Dobson (Borthwick Institute Publications, 2010)
- J. M Lilley, The Jewish Burial Ground at Jewbury, Archaeology of York 12:3 (York: Council for British Archaeology, 1994).
- William of Newburgh’s account of the 1190 massacre is published in translation at The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, here.
On traumatic pasts:
- LaCapra, D. 2004 History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca), 106-144
- Logan, W. & K. Reeves (eds.) 2009 Places of pain and shame: dealing with ‘difficult heritage’ (London)
- Pickering, P. & Tyrell, A. (eds.) 2004 Contested Sites: Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (Aldershot)