York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre was organised by Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson of the Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of History.

The conference was supported by the British Academy, the Jewish Historical Society of England and the Royal Historical Society. The Borthwick Institute republished the essays of Barrie Dobson on anglo-jewish history for the occasion: The Jewish Communities of Medieval England . We are publishing a collection of essays relating to the theme of the conference and developing further related research projects.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Lorraine Attreed on R. B. Dobson's Collected Essays

From: The Medieval Review

Birkett, Helen, ed. The Jewish Communities of Medieval England:

The Collected Essays of R. B. Dobson. Borthwick Texts and Studies

39. Heslington: University of York, 2010. Pp. xxvii, 174. £25.

ISBN: 978-1-904497-48-6.

Reviewed by Lorraine Attreed

College of the Holy Cross


This collection of works by a major contributor to our knowledge of

medieval Jewry brings together six of Barrie Dobson's exquisitely

researched and analyzed papers, all of which had been previously

published. Had it only done that, it would have served a valuable

function, as not all of the periodicals and collections represented

here find space in smaller academic libraries (such as my own).

Published on the eve of Dobson's eightieth birthday, the work

celebrates his contributions to the field and displays the ways in

which they have inspired a new generation of historians.

That inspiration, and the new paths that are being taken, are viewed

from two perspectives: that of Dobson himself in an introduction to

the volume, and in an appreciation written by a fellow scholar. But

perhaps the greatest value can be had by simply reading through the

essays in the order presented (in chronological order, with one

unexplained exception), to watch the development of Dobson's

interests, the connections he made, the expansion of sources

available, and the ways in which events in his personal and academic

life (such as his move to Cambridge in 1988) influenced his topics and

perspectives. There is repetition here, and corrections of statements

that later seemed unfortunate or excessive, but of greater interest is

the growth of Dobson's judgment and discernment, marked by the

combination of reason and empathy familiar to all who know him.

The appreciation by Joe Hillaby, President of the Jewish Historical

Society of England 2006-2008, complements Dobson's own commentary on

his career, the latter matter-of-factly entitled "The Jews of Medieval

York in the Context of Some Other English Jewish Communities." While

Dobson's roots in northern England certainly help explain his interest

in Durham and York, topics of his earliest publications, it was

attendance at Cecil Roth's lectures at Oxford that sowed the seeds of

later interests. What began as the casual inclusion on his syllabus

of a lecture on Anglo-Jewry became focused over time on York's Jewish

population and the massacre at Clifford's Tower in 1190. This led to

his first publication on that event in 1974 sponsored by the

University of York's Borthwick Institute of Historical Research. The

placement of a memorial tablet in 1978 at the site of the massacre

expanded the reach and impact of Dobson's research, touching not only

contemporary Jewish studies but also the transmission of historical

knowledge to the public through the means of bodies such as English

Heritage. His concern over the potentiality for oversimplification

inherent in mass tourism is matched, and balanced, by his scholarly

commitment to see that the lives of medieval Jews should be as

celebrated as the anguish of their deaths.

The resources for the study of those lives in medieval England are

both abundant and opaque. In nearly every essay, Dobson cites Roth's

"ingenious manipulation of a famous phrase of Winston Churchill...:

never in the field of medieval English history is it 'possible to

assemble so much about so few' as it is about Jews of the thirteenth

century" (151). Supervised by a royal government accomplished in its

recording of matters of great interest to its officers and ignoring

many of the issues that matter to historians today, the lives of

England's medieval Jews may remain only dimly understood. Dobson has

never been discouraged by such conclusions, however, and it is

salutary to see at the end of his introduction his gentle but decisive

dismissal of scholars who wish to treat sources only as texts with

flexible meanings and to cease searching for the truth of those lives.

However cautiously he had to tread, and limited the conclusions he

could support with evidence, Dobson never abandoned the pursuit of the

fullest illumination possible of lives distant from us but never


The first reprinted essay in the collection is the revised (in 1996)

edition of "The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190."

[1] The revisions included updates to the scholarship cited in the

notes, the author's assurance that "nearly all he wrote...in 1974 is

what he would still write now," (33) and a description of the 1982-83

excavation of the medieval Jewish burial ground at York (although a

more detailed analysis of its findings is included in the final essay

in the collection). The first few pages provide background on the

presence of Jews in England after 1066, and the major sources and

historians by which we know of their lives before the expulsion of

1290. The gradual move from London to the provinces brought Jews to

York by the 1180s, and their comparatively recent arrival and lack of

time to be fully assimilated in civic society provides context for the

ferocity of the attack on them on Shabbat ha-Gadol, the night

of 16 March 1190. The need for their financial services, by rural lay

and ecclesiastical landlords as well as individuals of more modest

means, provided the Jews with reasons for settling in York. Such need

also stoked resentments, exacerbated by the death of Henry II and the

heightened emotionalism of Richard's early reign and crusade

preparations, which York's royal officials had no experience in

quelling. Employing both Hebrew and English sources, Dobson

chronicles the events of February and March, as violence spread from

Norfolk northwards until it arrived in the city and persuaded the Jews

to seek protection in the royal castle. Miscommunication,

understandable terror and distrust, the rabble-rousing actions of a

Premonstratensian canon on the scene, and the arrival of siege

machines combined to bring the community to its anguished decision of

mass-suicide on the eve of the great Sabbath before Passover. The few

who survived begged for mercy and promised to accept Christianity, but

were killed as they left the castle the next day. The king's horror

at news of the attacks and its violation of public peace resulted in

lasting measures both to protect the servi camere nostre and to

keep better track of all Jewish bonds and records of their financial

transactions. Dobson concludes the work with a careful study of who

was responsible for the violence, focusing on indebted country

landlords whose greatest fear was the loss of their lands offered as


fear that came to pass in the thirteenth century when

heavy and frequent royal tallages forced Jewish creditors to demand

repayment under harsher circumstances. At this stage of Dobson's

research, the return of Jews to York by 1196, the establishment of an

archa there to register debts, and the growth of the

community's prosperity in the early thirteenth century are topics

handled briefly.

A fuller treatment of those final decades is found in the second

reprinted essay, "The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews of

York," first published in 1979. [2] In contrast to the twelfth

century, this period offers an abundance of sources generated by the

royal and Christian government that protected, tallaged, and

eventually expelled the Jews. As noted earlier, that abundance does

not necessarily ease the historian's task in discerning the nature of

the York community's financial recovery and increasing penury by the

1250s and 1260s. York's Jews became more isolated in the region when

Newcastle expelled its Jews in 1234, although Dobson identifies 1255

as a great divide. That year witnessed the great financier Aaron of

York's bankruptcy, the ritual murder case of Little St. Hugh of

Lincoln, and the king's mortgaging of all the Jews of England to his

brother. Although northern gentry families continued to borrow from

the Jews, the loans were modest (£50-60), and by the 1270s Christians

obtained an increasing portion of the profits of lending by both

direct and indirect means. As a result, only a handful of York Jews

could contribute much to tallages and their hold on urban property

declined precipitously. Property seizures in the coin-clipping

prosecutions of the 1270s, as well as in the final confiscation after

1290, resulted in little joy for the urban and royal officials who

benefited. Such arguments might lead other historians to determine

that the Expulsion occurred because the Jews no longer provided

financial satisfaction to the king, but Dobson avoids such narrow

conclusions. The English society that allowed a small core of Jews to

recover and thrive in the decades after the 1190 massacre no longer

existed a century later, lashed as it was by increasing hostility of

the Church in general, the mendicant orders in particular, and a

populace all too willing to believe the blood libels.

Dobson's move to the University of Cambridge in 1988 provided him with

an opportunity to explore the populations of another English

provincial town. Elected President of the Jewish Historical Society

of England in 1990, "The Jews of Medieval Cambridge" formed his

Presidential Address. [3] He begins with a generous appreciation of

Canon Henry Paine Stokes, first President of the Society (1914-16) not

to be a Jew, whose Studies in Anglo-Jewish History attempted to

preserve all surviving references to the Cambridge Jewry. The

collection, however, proved smaller and shallower than that for

Oxford, and chroniclers of Cambridge's Jews have not approached the

fullness of Roth's account. Fragmentary records suggest that the

community prospered during the twelfth century, although here as

elsewhere their success stemmed from "the almost insatiable appetite

for small-scale and initially short-term loans on the part of the

county's local, often very local, landowners," scattered in

neighboring villages. (113) The community dissolved in 1275 when the

Queen Mother demanded the expulsion of Jews from her dower towns, and

much of their property fell into the hands of civic officials,

eventually to find its way into the holdings of the first colleges.

Dobson communicates with sensitivity the likely feelings of a group

witnessing the beginnings of university formation but unable to

participate in its intellectual life.

A term as President of the Ecclesiastical History Society in the early

1990s gave him the opportunity to set the theme for the Society's

scholarly conference, "Christianity and Judaism." His address, "The

Role of Jewish Women in Medieval England," heralded a new approach for

his own scholarship while paying tribute to fundamental work on the

same topic presented (to no great appreciation) almost sixty years

earlier. [4] Dobson cites some specific cases that allow him to

illuminate the social and economic freedom of Jewish women, while

acknowledging that the written records that remain most likely took

notice of them only when they conducted business by written contract,

had large inheritances, or became involved in criminal behavior.

Dobson's interest in the topic continued with publication of "A

Minority within a minority: the Jewess of Thirteenth-Century England"

in 1996. [5] As in all of his works, Dobson calls readers' attention

to valuable data found in unlikely places: a list of names of

converted Jewesses suggests ways to analyze residence or patronage;

the compiler of materials in a ritual murder case turns out to be a

converted Jew who provides insight into Cambridge's early community;

analysis of the skeletal and dental remains from York's Jewbury

excavation finds Jewish women to be healthier and longer-lived than

their Christian counterparts. However strong the patriarchal nature

of Jewish communities, it nonetheless allowed their females to find

protection, respect, influence and personal freedom.

The most recent work in the collection, "The Medieval York Jewry

Reconsidered," touched on a number of issues important to Dobson while

refining his approach to the sources. [6] Although he celebrates the

contribution made by the Jewbury archaeological excavation, and

cautiously praises the inclusion of medieval Jewry into modern mass

tourism, he asserts his commitment to history based on written

sources. He reminds readers that the massacre at York was recorded by

both Jewish and Christian sources, and provides a detailed study of

chronicler William, canon of the Augustinian priory of Newburgh twelve

miles north of the city. Only a writer of Dobson's elegance could

manage to construct an analysis of Newburgh that included the work of

both Bishop Stubbs and that of historian Peter Biller, his former

colleague in York's history department. Here as elsewhere, Dobson

recognizes and praises recent scholarship of historians such as Robert

Stacey, Robin Mundill, Paul Brand, and the late Suzanne Bartlet. This

collection is a valuable addition to the historiography of England's

medieval Jews, its prose marked by elegance, empathy, and profound




1. The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190,

Borthwick Paper No. 45 (York: Borthwick Institute, University of York,

1974, revised edition 1996).

2. "The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews of York,"

Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society 26 (1979): 34-52.

3. "The Jews of Medieval Cambridge," Transactions of the Jewish 32 (1990-92): 1-24.

Historical Society of England

4. "The Role of Jewish Women in Medieval England," in Christianity, ed. Diana Wood, Studies in Church History 29 (Oxford,

and Judaism

1993), 145-68. The Reverend Michael Adler's paper "The Jewish Woman

in Medieval England," was delivered as a Presidential Address to the

Jewish Historical Society of England in 1934 and published in The (London: The Jewish Historical Society of

Jews of Medieval England

England, 1939).

5. "A Minority within a minority: the Jewess of Thirteenth-Century

England," in Minorities and barbarians in medieval life and, ed. Susan Ridyard and Robert G. Benson, Sewanee Medieval


Studies 7 (Sewanee, TN: University of the South Press, 1996), 27-48.

The title of this collection is given incorrectly in the Birkett


6. "The Medieval York Jewry Reconsidered," Jewish Culture and 3 (2000), reprinted in The Jews in Medieval Britain:, ed. Patricia


Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives

Skinner (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2003), 145-56.

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