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John Tolan: England's Jews. Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century (= The Middle Ages Series), Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2023, VIII + 252 S., 9 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-5128-2389-9, USD 45,00
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Mordechay Lewy
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Mordechay Lewy: Rezension von: John Tolan: England's Jews. Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press 2023, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 9 [15.09.2023], URL:

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John Tolan: England's Jews

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The author's claim to fame is his writings dedicated to the complex perception of Christian Europe towards Islam in the Middle Ages. Tolan's analysis of how ethnic-religious minorities fared in a monolithic Christian environment also became his calling as a historian. A plethora of books and articles in the last three decades include his impressive contribution to remind us to accept the Islamic "Other" within present-day European society. No doubt, the American born Tolan, who teaches in Nantes, identified this as a burning unsolved problem. The book under review is Tolan's first monograph dedicated to another medieval "Other"- the Jews, after decades have passed since his dissertation on the converted Jew Petrus Alfonsi was published. [1]

In his introduction (1-17), Tolan laments how past medievalists used to ignore the history of medieval Jewry in general and of England in particular. He adopts Robert Ian Moore's definition of medieval society as a persecuting society. Various church reforms resulted in a growing marginalisation of minority groups such as Jews. The clergy took the lead in this process, and it was not only due to their fear of fraternization with Jews. According to Tolan, the clergy felt they were in competition with another literate elite - the Jews. According to him, the borders between Christian Anti-Judaism, Racism, and Antisemitism are blurred and traces of all of them are found in the Middle Ages. Tolan explains his motivation for writing this book (10): "The story is moving and compelling because it seems to offer a mirror to concerns of our own: the demonization of minority groups in society, the manipulation of religious or ethnic hostilities by corrupt and cynical leaders. Today too, we debate about whether such prejudice has roots in popular culture or whether, on the contrary, it is imposed by elites."

For Tolan, the blood libel accusations against Jews were not a popular bottom-up response but instigated top-down by members of the clerical and political elite. Still, Tolan refrains from only writing historia calamitatum and tries to also highlight, wherever traceable, the positive interaction between Jews and Christians. Tolan fails, however, to mention Barbara Tuchman's book "The Bible and the Sword" which explains attitudes of the English elite to the Holy Land and the roots of nineteenth century British Zionism.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter one (18- 39) deals with the financial growth of Isaac of Norwich as the major money lender in England and the status of the king's Jewry (1217- 1222) under young king Henry III. The process of recovering royal domination went hand in hand with regaining the ability to function as money lenders to the benefit of the crown. Cecil Roth's definition of Jews as "the king's Milch cow" was appropriate.

Chapter two (40- 63) is devoted to the efforts to prohibit fraternization with Jews by English bishops in 1222 headed by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton. The implementation of anti-Jewish canons were limited because Jews were exempted from ecclesiastical courts. Preaching against fraternization among Christians was therefore the only effective measure at their disposal.

Chapter three (64-82) tells the story of how Henry's new vassal, the French born Simon de Montfort, challenged the royal dominion by expelling Jews from Leicester. Simon adapted the Capetian legislation in which the Jews were serfs of the regional magnates and not under royal dominion. The unique royal establishment of Domus conversorum was established in London in 1232 despite the potential fiscal loss to the royal coffers and subsequent royal neglect. The royal proclamation of the Statute of Jewry one year after to control Jewish loans was the royal response to ecclesiastical and baronial pressure to undermine his authority. The prescription ordered that "only Jews who can serve the king" would be under his dominion. All other Jews should be expelled from England. It remained a dead letter but laid the basis for later severe restrictions.

Chapter four (83-115) highlights the Hebraic studies in Medieval Oxford. On the positive side, Tolan accounts an unpolemical cooperation between Jewish and Christian scholars in Hebraic studies which culminated in the Dictionary of biblical Hebrew. The tranquil process of Jews teaching Hebrew Psalms to Christians in England stood in stark contrast to the 1240 Talmud dispute in Paris which was followed by burning the Talmud. Here, Henry III did not respond to Pope's Gregory IX request to do the same, whereas Louis IX willingly followed the Pope. Tolan remarks that scholars of mendicant orders have later introduced the polemic dimension of biblical interpretation. It might be partly true, but he strangely ignores the seeds of polemics against the Talmud which had been laid by Petrus Alfonsi. Tolan dismisses (191) Richard Southern's argument that Grosseteste owed his anti-Jewish sentiment to his "peasant's violence and passion". It was due to Grosseteste's clerical education. His Hebraic studies testified the change from Augustine's relative moderate attitude that the Jews erred, to a ploy of the rabbinic denial of Christ in spite to their own better knowledge.

Chapter five (116-138) is about the statutes of the Jewry and the infamous blood libel of Hugh of Lincoln. (1253-1255) Henry III acted erratically in Lincoln (the swift execution of a suspect) and in London (the execution of nineteen and release of sixty suspects). His juridical inconsequence is the result of pressure from citizens and barons on one hand and the king's brother and some Dominicans (in favour of Jews sic!) on the other.

Chapter six (139-159) explains that anti-Jewish violence (1258-1267) was part of the impact of the baronial revolts. Chapter seven (160-186) is dedicated to the events leading to the expulsion in 1290. While scholars tend to highlight the role of king Edward I in expelling the Jews, Tolan focuses on Henry III whose long reign (1216-72) stood for the peak of Jewish integration but also the impoverishment and decline of English Jewry. The chapter ends with a Hebrew liturgical poem "Put a Curse on My Enemy". Jews in Medieval England and France did not leave behind historical accounts of their own calamities for posterity. They sublimated their grief into eschatological poems of divine revenge.

Tolan acknowledges his debt to the results of medieval scholarship in his book. Why, then, should one read his study if it lacks original research? He sums up a dramatic process in a readable style, directing it not only towards the experts but towards the average person interested in medieval history. What occupies him most is the neglect of the medieval presence of English Jewry which fell into oblivion. According to Tolan, this is the source of the deeply rooted antagonism towards Jews which still prevails in English society. This is what makes his book so valuable to the reader.


[1] John V[ictor] Tolan: Petrus Alfonsi and His Medieval Readers. Gainesville 1993.

Mordechay Lewy