Friday, March 14, 2008

The Frenchness of Medieval Jews in England

Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England has been copyedited; the contributors and I are deep in the process of accepting, rejecting, and tinkering. I'm fiddling with the talk and attendant PowerPoint barrage I'll be presenting at U Penn next Tuesday (and at the University of Maryland at the end of April). My packet of proposed hires for next year is due along with the thousand administrative odds and ends that, once put to rest, will allow me not to step foot in my office during the entirety of spring break. That's a long of saying: Nothing new here today, folks.

BUT, connected to a post I recently wrote that
loosely tied medieval French to Hebrew, here's something more historical that makes this union more explicit. The following is an early version of what eventually appeared in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles (go there for the bibliography and footnotes, which I am not reproducing). It's about the lingering Frenchness of the Jews in England, and how this tinge of the Franci may have absorbed some indigenous animus initially directed towards the Normans.

The Jews of Norwich
[Besides the native English and conquering Normans,] a third community precariously inhabited this city of uncertainties, a group both alien and alienated. Within the powerful Norman minority was a more tenuous francophone community, the Ashkenazic Jews who had begun to make permanent settlements in England in the days of Conqueror. Having followed the international trade routes which linked Norwich to their communities in Normandy and the lower Rhineland, these Jewish immigrants had been resident in the city for no more than a decade when the events narrated by Thomas [of Monmouth, in his Life of St William of Norwich] occurred. Although the Norwich Jews lived among the Christians rather than in a separate Jewry, according to V. D. Lipman's extensive research their habitations were for the most part located in what Domesday had called the city's novus burgus, the French borough of Mancroft, founded in the shadow of the castle:
To the south and south-east of the market place lived most, though not all, the Jews of medieval Norwich. They lived between the castle and market … Thus they were in the midst of the most populous part of the city; and near to the centres of royal and civic authority … It is noticeable that these groups of houses are all near the new market place in the new 'French' settlement and that they are also within easy reach of the castle, which was the headquarters of the representative of royal authority specially charged with the oversight and protection of the Jews, and which also served as a refuge for them in times of disturbance.

The Jewish community was at once marginal and central: small in number, nonparticipants in the rituals that bound Christians to each other, but as moneylenders the lifeblood of Norwich's commercial prosperity. They were geographical and economic intimates with the Franci de Norwic [Normans], a people with whom they shared a language and in many cases an origin , since most English Jews prior to 1154 arrived from Normandy.

Although they must have known some English and a modicum of Latin to conduct effective business, French was the vernacular of the Jews, a domestic and conversational tongue spoken among themselves and with Christians of the upper classes. Because it was the language they employed at home, English Jews tended to bear francophone appellations, often translations of their Hebrew names. Contemporary Jewish literacy consisted of facility in Hebrew, sometimes in Latin, and invariably in French. Norwich's cathedral, castle, and new borough might be inhabited by people of Norman heritage who conducted many of their interactions en fran├žais, but these residents of the city likely thought of themselves as English. Anglicization did not penetrate England's Jewish communities as it did the households of former Normans. The Jews remained a French-speaking people who continued to cultivate ties with their relations on the continent, especially Rouen. At a time when the kingdom of England was literally becoming more insular (Normandy was temporarily lost during Stephen's reign), the Jews maintained strong connections to the continent, making them an international group resident within a dwindled national community.

Even to francophone Christians, the Jews seemed a people set forever apart. Whereas for most citizens of Norwich the centers of community were the local church and the city's cathedral, the Jews attended their synagogue and did not live according to the ritual calendar that gave the Christian year its structure. The long solemnity of Lent and Easter, the festivity of Christmas, the multiplicity of holy days that called the city to communal prayer, celebration, or repentance meant nothing to a people who still awaited their messiah and who could not believe in the sacred magic of the saints. Few as they were, the Jews formed a national community more than a local one -- evidenced, for example, by the fact that they sent their dead to London to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. They enjoyed royal protections not available to local citizens; they continued to speak French in an environment that was becoming increasingly dominated by English; even their households were different, Jewish women more fully participating in domestic governance and public business than Christian women did. The Jews seemed ultimately to be alieni of a different order, disturbingly uninterested in or incapable of the assimilation [into a singular English community] that their neighbors in the new borough of Norwich were undergoing.

Linguistic, religious, and cultural otherness rendered the Jews easy targets for animus and anxiety that endured in the wake of the city's profound social, structural, architectural transformation. As the first Jewish settlers arrived in Norwich, the wooden fortifications of the Norman castle had just been replaced with a stone keep. The cathedral church, monastic buildings, and bishop's palace were likewise nearing completion or had just been finished. Jurnet, Norwich's wealthiest moneylender, had a stone house built for his family in the 1170s and employed the same masons who had previously toiled on some of the cathedral buildings. Emily Rose speculates that this house was meant to replace the wooden domicile in which [the boy 'martyr'] William had supposedly been crucified, allowing Jurnet to raze the now notorious building. In the decade following William's death this house was perhaps on its way to becoming an unofficial pilgrimage site where observers hoped to spot the boy's blood on the timbers, just as Thomas of Monmouth had done. Jewish homes in the new borough's marketplace provided a constant visual reminder of the shift in the city's economic and social gravity. This transferal of power would have accelerated after the Jews arrived in the 1130s, catalyzing further mercantile and monetary activity. Norwich's Jewish population appeared, in other words, just in time to embody every Norman transformation wrought upon the fabric of English Norwich. Perhaps that is why when the supposed messenger arrives to offer the boy William a position in the archdeacon's kitchen, his mother cannot tell whether the man who leads away her son is a Christian or a Jew (1.4). In her English eyes and to her English ears, all the francophone residents of the new borough -- whether attached to the cathedral or practicing an alien faith -- are foreigners. As much as their difference in creed, it must have been the Jews' lingering Frenchness that triggered historical resentments having much to do with the lingering memory of the effects of the conquest.


Anonymous said...

I'm very much looking forward to seeing this piece in print (and hope the "theorizing" presentation goes well, by the way). I'm very much taken by your comments on the "Jews' lingering Frenchness" and its ramifications for post-Conquest cultural memory. This is later than the period you are looking at, but have you considered the *conspicuous* Frenchness of Chaucer's Prioress? She transmits a notoriously anti-Semitic tale resonant with French "Miracles de Nostre-Dame" and (for what it's worth) she is Chaucer only expressly stated French-speaking narrator; on top of that, she speaks a local, insular version of French and not a Parisian one. If you haven't seen it already, the most recent volume of "Speculum" contains an article on Hebrew letters in Mandeville manuscript of Charles V. Again, this is later than the period you are working on -- but given that Mandeville himself is "neez et nourriz en Angleterre" (sp?) this venue might provide another way to think about the legacy (lingering?) of Jewish/Francophone connections beyond the period you are describing.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Jonathan, for your good wishes at Theorizing. I'm very much looking forward to the event, and will say hello to your old haunts for you.

What I've posted has been published already, in fact: it's from the last chapter of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain, though the form it takes there is slightly different from this one.

As to he Prioress's francophone/francophiliac aura, what a great point you've made. I'd like to think about it quite a bit more, since it is so much later and -- in an England that is Judenrein -- I'm not sure to what degree Frenchness and Jewishness can still intersect. But then again, as Robert Stacey's work has shown, francophone names and household language probably characterized most Ashkenazic continental Jews through the late Middle Ages. The Mandeville observation only adds to the intrigue. I like the line of thought, and no doubt will carry it in the back of my head for while. Please let me know if anything further occurs to you on the subject. Thanks, Jonathan!