The relevance of a medieval anti-Jewish massacre to our present society

Posted on 12 March 2015

A report from an MA in Public History graduate on "learning from the past" in the present.

Leonie Wieser

Leonie Wieser
MA in Public History, 2013

How can past events inform our present actions and thoughts? One of my main interests is the use of the past in the present. I aim to investigate how far the idea of “learning from the past”, a commonplace statement, is enacted in our society.

This was the focus of my dissertation in 2013 for my MA in Public History: "A Consideration of the Contemporary Public Relevance of the Massacre of the Jews of York in 1190".

I investigated how people living in York today, from different faith groups and none, negotiate the relevance of this massacre. In answer to my questions, all participants voiced some notion of learning, of the importance of knowledge of the past in order to prevent potential present and future violence.

I think, however, that abstract stories of events are unhelpful for a critical understanding of their relevance. An example of this is the memorial plaque at Clifford’s Tower, which commemorates the Jews and Jewesses who died for their faith during the massacre in 1190. The records from the event are unclear as to whose precise actions led to the death of 150 people. One report speaks of Jews on the morning after the massacre, who had survived the attack and prayed for their lives to be spared. We do not know how many, if any, were not ready to die for their faith, but it shows us that complex human decisions were involved in the run-up to this event – decisions and uncertainties it is hard to express in one 46-word memorial plaque.

People I interviewed offered diverse viewpoints and deep insights into the event. Even though most had only an elusive idea of what had happened, they brought up expansive questions about it, questions they cannot see answered in the public commemoration, such as:

  • Why did it happen?
  • Why is it important?
  • Are similar things happening today – to whom?
  • What are the links between separate historical events?
  • Should suffering or flourishing be the focus of our remembrance of the Jewish community of York?

These questions echo different approaches in scholarship.

Historians have debated the meaning of anti-Jewish violence for decades. In addition to establishing facts about past people and events, they discuss how these are related to everyday lives, what caused certain events, and what language should be used to discuss them. They aim at establishing a more complete image of the past, but as the records of the past remain incomplete, so will its reconstruction. Including a wider range of actors in debating the significance and meaning of past events can lead to broadening and diversifying historical narratives, as well as answering questions of the present. There is a need for debates, reflections, and interactions, if we want to follow the broad aim of learning from past events for the present.

Leonie completed the MA in Political Philosophy at the University of York in 2012 and the MA in Public History in 2013. She is now studying towards her PhD at Northumbria University with the Heritage Consortium. Leonie’s current research is about the negotiation of difference and diversity in past and present Tyneside. For more information, please see Leonie’s profile on the Heritage Consortium website

Leonie participated in the first Being Human Festival in 2014. Her work on Traumatic Pasts and Plural Presents was shown as part of the Within the Walls: Heritage, Public History and the Historic City exhibition.

Being Human Festival: Traumatic Pasts, Plural Presents (PDF , 4,898kb)

Photo gallery

Further reading

  • Dobson, Barrie. “The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190.” In The Jewish Communities of Medieval England: the Collected Essays of R.B. Dobson, edited by Helen Birkett, 1-52. York: Borthwick Institute, University of York, 2010.
  • Johnson, Hannah R. Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
  • Rees Jones, Sarah and Sethina Watson, ed. Christians and Jews in Angevin England: the York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2013.
  • Wieser, Leonie, "A Consideration of the Contemporary Public Relevance of the Massacre of the Jews of York in 1190." Unpublished History MA Dissertation, University of York, 2013.