Looking for lost hope in the 1275 Statute of the Jewry

A record of an inexpert surprise.

The 1275 English Statute of the Jewry vainly offered England’s Jews a new opportunity. I quote from the 1810 translation of the law, reprinted with explanatory glosses in Adrienne Williams-Boyarin’s translation of the Siege of Jerusalem, :

And the King granteth unto them that they may gain their living by lawful Merchandise and their Labour; and that they may have Intercourse with Christians, in order to carry on lawful Trade by selling and buying. But that no Christian, for this Cause or any other, shall dwell among them. And the King willeth that they shall not by reason of their Merchandise be put to Lot or Scot [“subject to Municipal Taxation”], nor in Taxes with the Men of the Cities or Boroughs where they abide; for that they are taxable to the King as his Bondmen, and to no other but the King.

Moreover, the King granteth unto them that they may buy Houses and Curtilages [“Lands and buildings attached to houses”], in the Cities and Boroughs where they abide, so that they hold them in chief of the King; saving unto the Lords of the Fee their services due and accustomed. And that they may take and buy Farms or Land for the Term of Ten Years or less….and that they may be able to gain their living in the World, if they have not the Means of Trading, or cannot Labour; and this License to take Lans to farm shall endure to them only for Fifteen Years from this Time forwards. (qtd from Boyarin 177; her glosses)

Given the nastiness of the thirteenth century, I’d hazard that by 1275, England’s Jews were too devastated by repeated confiscations and acts of Judicial murder to thrive, even with these opportunities extended. And certainly what the 1275 Statute offers isn’t any great shakes: Jews are still a class apart, still the king’s special subjects, and therefore certain to continue bear the brunt of any anti-royal resentment and certain to continue to suffer as the king tries to appease his subjects. But in a England in which Jews had been confined to financial jobs (largely, as I understand, as pawnbrokers) and compelled to function as a medium for the King to extract taxes indirectly from his subjects, it’s astonishing to see Jews offered the chance to become farmers, merchants, and perhaps even artisans, to work like England’s Christians: rather, compelled to take the chance, since the law forbids Jews “henceforth…[from] lend[ing] any Thing at Usury” (174). It’s even more fascinating to imagine the conversations that led to the writing of this law (perhaps this work has already been done). Of course, the Statute didn’t take: England expelled its Jews in 1290 — but I imagine an alternate history in which the Christians allowed them to stay on, provided them the means to get started on a new way of life, and to integrate (if the law relaxed somewhat) without conversion. It’s a fantasy of a past that might have been better, and a recognition that if the past could have gone differently, so can our future. Historical inevitability shakes a bit.

omitAnother odd bit of history here: I went looking for the law online. I found a copy of the Statutes of the Realm on archive.org, as expected, although the 1870 rather than 1810 edition. I looked around 1275, where the law should be, and found….nothing. Why? Because the law was repealed in 1846, between 1810 and 1870.  Further information is available here, from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

1846.—9 & 10 Vic., cap. 59. An Act to relieve Her Majesty’s subjects from certain penalties and disabilities with regard to their religious opinions. (Sec. 2. Jews are to be subject to the same laws as Protestant dissenters with regard to their schools, places of religious worship, education, and charitable purposes, and the property held therewith.)

This means, then, that the 1810 Statutes isn’t just a collection of olde tyme laws but rather a living document, with real laws, stretching from what my students (and maybe you) think of as hoariest antiquity into the time, say, of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843).

News to me, anyway.

For more, or if you want to leave me a comment, see this twitter conversation.

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