Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England

Medieval Latin Christendom was a collection of distinct cultural polities, unified by the beliefs and ecclesiastical governance of Roman Christianity, and fundamentally hostile to dissenting religious groups. Yet within this framework, the Jews were permitted to form communities that retained a distinct Jewish cultural identity – an identifiable alterity that stirred Jewish-Christian conflict. While it is largley accepted that the ‘medieval period’ was a violent era more broadly speaking, the underlying causes of this violence and the extent to which such conflict was systemic is up for debate. This is what I will be looking at today – specifically, whether Jewish-Christian conflict in medieval England (and France) owes something to systemic tension, regional politics, or popular misconceptions (or any combination of the above).

The dissenting beliefs and cultural distinctiveness of the Jewish cultural minority make it unsurprising that the majority Latin-Christian population noted their alterity. When coupled with the religious and social anti-Jewish rhetoric this frequently spawned, it is also unsurprising that they were, at times, victims of persecution and violence. The examples of this that I will look at here are the 1189 burning of the London Jewry during the coronation of Richard I (r. 1189 – 1199), the 1190 Clifford’s Tower massacre in York, and the 1191 massacre of eighty French Jews ordered by their king, Philip Augustus (r. 1180 – 1223). Over the subsequent century Jewish communities in England and France were further victimised through anti-Jewish polemic, excessive taxation, restriction of profession, and finally expulsion from England in 1290 and France in 1306. Their deteriorating social status was punctuated by continued violence. This increasing persecution of Anglo-French Jews speaks to systemic conflict – an inter-cultural antagonism that had evolved over time. Yet, prior to the twelfth-century, Jewish-Christian relations had been tolerant. Jewish communities operated under the auspices of regional Christian authorities and had achieved something of a symbiosis as ‘the only legitimate dissenting religious group in all of society’ [Robert Chazan]. Further, the massacres of 1189, 1190, and 1191 that are our focus here speak to an anti-Jewish reaction at a specific point in time, in a specific cultural setting. These events suggest that Jewish-Christian conflict was as much driven by local social friction as wider cultural perceptions and, as we look at acts of Jewish persecution, we cannot ignore regional social, political and cultural contexts.

Tolerated and persecuted, Jews occupied a unique and often ambiguous place within the political and social frameworks of medieval Western Europe – a permitted non-conformist culture within a societal framework that rejected non-conformity. What I hope we will see, by establishing the place of Jewish communities within the social and political structures of England and France that both protected and rejected them, is that Jewish persecution was not entirely the result of Europe-wide systemic conflict. Rather, we should be able to paint a more nuanced picture of Jewish-Christian interaction, one which places regional political and societal tensions alongside widely-held common perceptions of Jews. What I will be emphasising throughout is the local nature of these events. What this means for us is that I will not be emphasising the role of Crusading rhetoric and money-lending in how events played out. For completeness, I will discuss them as elements of the social milieu in which anti-Semitism arose, but they have overtaken the popular narrative of medieval Jewish-Christian conflict, in which they should only form a part.

So let’s look at the position of Jewish communities within the kingdoms of England and France, before examining instances of Jewish-Christian violence. Of specific importance are: the functional roles Jews fulfilled within societal structures; how these roles evolved over time; how Jewish interaction with society augmented Christian perceptions of Jewish alterity; and as such, whether the place Jewish communities occupied within the social structures of Latin Christendom engendered Christian hostility. Though Jews had a long history in Mediterranean Europe pre-dating the rise of Christianity, their settlement in northern France, England, and other northern polities of western Christendom, were later developments. A Hebrew account of a royal program of forced conversion by King Robert of France (r. 972 – 1031) in 1007 locates established Jewish communities in that territory at the turn of the millennium, while English Jewries were not established until the late eleventh-century. According to the twelfth-century historian, William of Malmesbury, William I of England (r. 1066 – 1087) established the first Anglo-Jewish community in London during his reign, bringing them from the city of Rouen in his native Normandy. William of Malmesbury is not explicit in stating why William I brought the Jewish community from Rouen to London. The Jews of Rouen had access to a network of trans-European Jewish communities that facilitated a trade in luxury goods, which trade had made the Jews of Carolingian France regional sources of hard specie. Yet Rouen was remote in a period when London trade was burgeoning, and it seems that the entry of the Jews into the English market was intended as a way for the Norman Dukes to take advantage of the London economy, opening it to new markets and facilitating an influx of specie through trading activities. The London community was not England’s only Jewry for long: twenty-four Jewries were established in regional centres by 1189. This resettlement is particularly illustrative in demonstrating the ubiquity of Jews in the political and social structures of the medieval west. For William’s decision to relocate Jewish communities into a newly annexed territory that was prone to rebellion to make sense, they must have been drawn from a cultural sub-group that was compliant to, and integrated within, the societal structure in which it operated. By which it is clear that, by the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, the established Northern French Jewish communities were functional partners in regional governance, providing a service that necessitated affiliation with regional leadership, and a tangible presence within economic and administrative centres.

For the governing elites, the importance of Jewish communities within regional population centres relied upon their engagement in trade activities including, but not limited to, moneylending. Jews were not exclusively traders and financiers, and the stereotype of the usurious Jew must be treated with scepticism: Jewish usury was a phenomenon beginning from the twelfth-century, and not a significant economic activity of earlier Jewish communities. The increasing Jewish engagement in moneylending from the twelfth century represents a forced diversification as hostile laws stripped away Jewish rights to land-ownership and access to certain occupations. This is only party of the story though, and the promulgation of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 of a canon prohibiting usury to those who wished to remain in Christian communion must be taken into account. It was the first sally of the church against usury, and canon law would further harden – condoning excommunication suspected usurers, thus enabling the Jews as non-Christians to occupy a niche as legal moneylenders. Further, the peripatetic nature of Jewish traders and their links to other Jewish communities across Europe allowed them to act as competitive moneychangers, traders and merchants, with moneylending a natural outgrowth of their other mercantile activities. It was a lucrative occupation and increasingly through the late-twelfth and early-thirteenth centuries, the Jews became creditors to the magnate class, and so wealthy as to be among the largest individual contributors to taxation in England.

Despite the incentives for Jews to become creditors, they were not the only source of credit: Christian moneylenders remained the main creditors of western Europe into the twelfth-century. Though Christians operated in direct contravention of papal legislation forbidding the practice, they did not receive the same communal censure as the Jews for two key reasons. Firstly, animosity toward Jewish lenders rested upon ideas of Jewish alterity that predated involvement in lending. Already suspicious about the ‘heretical deicides’ in their midst, for Christians, the addition of usury to the image of Jewish alterity made the Jews more reprehensible, and helps explain the increase in violent interaction from the late twelfth-century. Secondly, small scale Jewish lending activities – their willingness to engage debts with a lowlier class of people than the large Christian lending organisations – contributed to a popular conception of the usurious Jew. The debts regional elites and those of humbler social standing owed the Jews, who rarely would have been confronted by large-scale Christian usury, entrenched an image of the Jew as the usurious oppressor of the honest Christian, a concern reflected in our sources. A 1219 law of Philip Augustus states that ‘[n]o Jew…shall extend a loan to any Christian who labours by hand, such as a farmer, a cobbler, a carriage maker, and so forth.’ The mid-twelfth-century anti-Jewish polemic, The Life and Passion of St. William of Norwich, suggests that Jewish usury was particularly vicious, implying that they accepted the clothes off Christian backs as surety for loans. While the thirteenth-century historian, Matthew Paris, though noting Jewish repression under Henry III as the king sought to profit from their wealth, made clear that the Jewish lending practices were usurious. Such rhetoric is not isolated to these examples. The creditor-debtor relationship was one that Christendom did not share with other fringe groups, and the accounts of medieval England and France speak to systemic conflict specific to the Jews from the twelfth-century.

Now there is some suggestion in scholarship that the Jews were not entirely unique as a persecuted group – though unique as a community, their affliction have been associated with those of lepers and heretics, all fringe communities increasingly targeted by Christendom as a ‘persecuting society.’ I usually avoid directly quoting scholars in our blog articles, but I cannot really provide a better counter-argument to this than that provided by Jonathon Elukin: ‘Seeing medieval Europe as a persecuting society obscures the complexities of the Middle Ages and reduces the Jewish experience to a one-dimensional narrative of victimisation.’ I find this convincing. As we have contextualised Jewish mercantile activities and how this functioned within broader society, I hope I have demonstrated that they were a fringe group only in their apparent alterity, rather than in their ostracism from society (at least up to the twelfth century). However, what I am arguing here is that we should not lump the experiences of those people at the fringes of society together; Christendom was evolving into a ‘persecuting society’ in the twelfth-century, but the persecution of each group must be seen as individualistic and nuanced.

The Jews were integral to the economic life of western Europe (though to reiterate, not only as moneylenders but as a network of merchant and traders), a fact recognised in the protections afforded Jews by noble sponsors. The position the Jews held within the social structures of medieval England and France was characterised by a direct relationship with royalty and its government. Don’t think of this as altruism by the ruling elites, but rather a recognition of the direct economic importance of Jewish economic activity: legally they were an owned people, provided the same protections afforded the king’s property. Yet this symbiotic relationship between Jews and ruling elites did not ensure their protection. The 1189 massacre in London occurred during the coronation of Richard I, despite the presence of the ruling men of the kingdom. The 1190 York massacre was encouraged by regional leaders, in direct contravention with Richard’s asserted protections for Jews after events in London. While the 1191 massacre in France was conducted under the direct supervision of Philip Augustus, whose policies were distinctly anti-Jewish. Each event was driven by different social and political tensions and is illustrative of the extent to which such Jewish-Christian violence can be represented as the systemic actions of a ‘persecuting society.’

In his history, William of Newburgh describes the attack on the London Jewry as seemingly spontaneous. The nobles of England had come to attend the coronation of Richard I, and along with them came the leading men of the regional English Jewries. The Christian attendees, misunderstanding a royal proclamation regarding the Jewish participation at the event, began to beat the Jews, rapidly forming a mob whose rumoured deeds spread through the city and, having the verisimilitude of royal acquiescence, the mobs of London ran riot. William does not count the fallen, but does note that the Jews were ‘either burnt in their houses or … were received on the point of the sword.’ William conveys a sense of condemnation for the actions of the Christians in this instance, and it does seem an act of spontaneous violence. Certainly there is no indication in the narrative that it was organised or driven explicitly by any specific resentment. Yet he does note that the widening anti-Jewish violence stemmed from ‘an agreeable rumour, that the king had ordered all Jews to be exterminated.’ It is a statement that deserves some interrogation. This ‘agreeable rumour’ necessarily had some basis in a cultural resentment of the Jews. As Christendom evolved as a ‘persecuting society’ into the 1190s, and the Jewish position in society experienced a commensurate decline, Jewish moneylending activities in England were also nearing their apex. Thus, in London, we the complexity of Jewish-Christian conflict as systemic and spontaneous factors contribute to the bloodshed. The violence was born of misinformation and rumour, it was localised, brief, and spontaneous. Yet Londoners were reacting to their own perceptions of the Jewish people and welcomed a reckoning. Anti-Jewish polemics such as the aforementioned life of St. William of Norwich had already come into circulation and the Jews were known usurers, child-killers and deicides. With such hyperbole feeding public perceptions of Jews, there would likely have been little remorse at their persecution. When the wider contexts of Christendom’s development into a persecuting society, and the growth systemic anti-Jewish sentiment, are considered alongside regional perceptions of, and reactions to, Jewish otherness, Richard’s coronation appears to have been the ideal confluence of events to elicit an anti-Jewish response.

Anti-Jewish violence as a reaction to Jewish economic activity was more explicit in York, as were the predominance of regional concerns. It should first be noted that the proximity of the events, and Philip Augustus’ 1191 massacre, do speak to an undercurrent of anti-Jewish feeling. The Crusading call to arms had engendered some animosity toward the heretic Jews within Christendom, resulting in anti-Jewish violence such as the infamous Rhineland massacres of 1096, and the murder of some thirty Jews in Blois in 1171. The rhetoric of Crusade was evident in York, where William noted the Christians justified that slaughter in part because the Jews were Christ’s crucifiers: the besiegers cried ‘death to the enemies of Christ.’ Yet perhaps more telling was that William explicitly stated that men of high rank in York who owed money to the ‘impious usurers’ promoted the violence, and further that after the massacres, the people proceeded to the place where the debt records were kept and destroyed them. It should not be supposed that the rioters calmly rifled through the files, selecting and destroying the documents relating to Jewish money-lending, this was an opportunistic chance to annul all debt accounts. Yet the Jews were a convenient target and, more importantly, a convenient excuse by which the destruction of the accounts could be justified. No doubt also inspired by the example of London, the people of York had risen against their Jewish population, yet without the spontaneity. This was a planned event, which lives in infamy due to its brutality and tragedy, undertaken with a view to reset the debt record of York. The Jews, fleeing in the face of the Christian mobs, sought refuge with the governor of the royal castle now known as Clifford’s Tower. A series of misunderstandings subsequently left the Jews in charge of the tower, but lacking the governor’s support. Besieged, rather than face the retributive mob, the Jews of York committed suicide en masse. Jubilant, it was from this scene of tragedy that the York mob marched to destroy the debt record. Richard was enraged at this event: it was a direct contravention of his royal authority (remember, the Jews were his ‘property’). Having already made his ire known after the London massacre, the main perpetrators of the York massacre fled in the face of his renewed wrath, while the remaining Yorkish nobles were fined. His action in the face of this anti-Jewish violence is interesting in the light of the fact that, within a year, his brother-monarch in France would have conducted his own massacre.

Philip ordered the deaths of around eighty Jews in response to an alleged murder. Rigord’s entry is brief but telling, describing the Jews as performing a parody of Christ’s passion upon their victim. It is a ludicrous claim, but one that demonstrates the willingness to believe in the alterity of the Jews and their roles as the killers of Christ being in some way a malevolent evil that resided in their people. It is more difficult to establish exactly what Philip sought to achieve. He certainly ran an anti-Jewish administration, though he ensured that through this he profited from them and, unless Philip truly believed the murder allegation, it may simply have been that he wished to claim the wealth of the Jewish community. As the king’s property, the Jews may have been protected, but were also subject to the king’s caprice. At the heart of Jewish persecution in western Europe was Jewish wealth. Whether obtained through trade or moneylending, the wealth of Jews was confronting to the Christian majority and augmented Jewish alterity. Though the twelfth-century represents a system-wide transition into a ‘persecuting society,’ it also reflected a transition of Jewish economic practices into moneylending. Neither factor precludes the other: creditors are rarely thought of well, and that these creditors were seen as culturally separate singled them out as a target of persecutive violence.

That systemic conflict was a characteristic of Jewish-Christian interaction is, hopefully, clear. Yet it was not the defining characteristic of Jewish-Christian interaction in medieval England and France. Conflict between the Jewish minority and Christian majority evolved from what was, initially, a relationship of tolerance, if not affection. While the suggestion that this reflects a more general shift in social ideologies to a ‘persecuting society’ is not without merit, the specific alterity of Jewish communities, evident in their religion, culture, and economic activities, invited distinct anti-Jewish persecution. Jewish moneylending practices were persistently singled out in legislation and popular rhetoric, and the formation of a popular conception of the usurious Jew must be taken into consideration when accounting for violent Jewish-Christian interaction from the twelfth-century on. The avarice and vindictiveness of regional political and social tensions, born of Christian resentment of Jewish creditors, was on display in the York massacre of 1190. Further, as seen in the incident in London in 1189, anti-Jewish violence could be spontaneous and localised, stimulated as much by events as by latent conflict. Within such violent interactions that have since become synonymous with the treatment of Jewish communities in Latin Christendom, each event displays distinctive and complex characteristics in line with regional political and social motivations. These complexities problematise the popular conception that Jewish-Christian interaction throughout Europe were characterised by systemic conflict – a generalised Latin Christian predilection toward persecution. What we see is something of a more nuanced societal framework, one in which in Jewish-Christian interaction was at times characterised as tolerance, one which evolved a degree of systemic conflict into the twelfth-century, and one which required regional political and societal tensions to flare into violence.

-Matt Firth

Select Resources

As the full bibliography for this article comprises over thirty items, I have provided only a selection of key materials.

  1. Feature image: Clifford’s Tower, York [OC – Matt Firth]
  2. Anna Sapir Abulafia (ed.), Religious Violence Between Christians and Jews: Medieval Roots, Modern Perspectives, London, Palgrave, 2002.
  3. Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom: 1000-1500, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  4. Jonathon Elukin, Living Together, Living Apart: Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations in the Middle Ages, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  5. Ephraim of Bonn, The Jewish Martyrs of Blois, Susan Einbender (ed. and trans.), in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, Thomas Head (ed.), London and New York, Routledge, 2001, pp. 537 – 560.
  6. Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315 – 1791, New York, Athenium, 1974.
  7. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250, 2nd edn, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006.
  8. Rigord, Gesta Philippi Augusti, select translation by Paul R. Hyams available at
  9. Patricia Skinner (ed.), Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2003.
  10. Thomas of Monmouth, Life and Passion of St. William of Norwich, Augustus Jessopp and Montague Rhodes James (trans.), John M. McCulloch (ed.), in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, Thomas Head (ed.), London and New York, Routledge, 2001, pp. 515 – 536.
  11. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (eds and trans), 2 vols, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998.
  12. William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum, in The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, part 2, Joseph Stevenson (trans.), London, Seeleys, 1856, pp. 395 – 672.

If you liked this post, follow this blog.

See our bibliographies for further resources; note that not all sources for this article have yet been added.

One thought on “Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England”

  1. This leaves out of account some colossal privileges granted to Jews. While Henry II was forcing freemen into frankpledge groups of twelve men who would police each other and guarantee each others’ debts and make a man ‘fidedignus’ (law-worthy), so that a man’s word in court would be accepted only if the ‘duodecima manus’ (the twelfth hand) swore to something, Jews were exempt from this. In a Christian court of the Christian king a Jew, taking an oath upon a Torah (‘his own book’) could outwear a frankpledge group of twelve Christian men. Jews were moreover ‘ab omni consuetudine liberi’ (from all taxation free), being liable only to a tallage by the king, and they could charge interest at the rate of 46%. A Jew who foreclosed on a defaulting debtor could enjoy the profit of the property for a year and a day, after which it could be ‘bought out of Jewry’. Usually those who had funds sufficient for this were bishops. So the Church loved the arrangement as much as the Crown, as both were enriched by it. Some of the animosity against Jews was actually resentment of the establishment, of which Jews were the agents closest to those victimised.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.