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Handbook of Medieval Culture: Fundamental Aspects and Conditions of the European Middle Class


The story of how the medieval English Jews lived their lives in eleventh-, twelfth-, and thirteenth-century England intersects with the realities of the Jews' historical situation. Thinking about the contingent realities of Jewish lives brings us to the Christian community's view of Jews and the Jews' own view of themselves and how the Jews themselves navigated the fraught culture of medieval England. A powder keg, of sorts, resulted after the Normans claimed the seats of power in 1066. This combustible site that was medieval England in the eleventh century involved the English (that is, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic tribes) who had arrived in the fifth century; the Norman French who took control over the country in 1066; and the Jews who were imported into England by the Normans (Cohen 2006; 2004; Roth 1964).

Each group performed their roles well: the English were angry about their subjugation; the Normans displaced the English and set the Jews to work in assisting with the development of an Anglo-French empire; and the Jews recognized their powerlessness and worked fastidiously in their role of servitude (Edward I 1810, 221a; Stow 1992,217- 18). As serfs, the Jews occupied a hybrid identity that was sometimes-English, sometimes-French, and sometimes-Jewish but never whole, always an "erroneous, inauthentic, not one's own" (Radhakrishnan 2003, 318).

For the most part, the Jews of England attempted to balance two spheres, living lives of complex identity politics framed by a battle ground between the self-as-Other and the self-as-Jewish. These sites materialized in the global and local spheres, involved the public and the private civic worlds, and resonated as either Anglo-French or Jewish. The global performance of Jewishness played out in the public sphere: these Jews made a living in the Anglo-French economy, often as moneylenders; these English Jews knew the Anglo-French language, had Anglo-French names, and were familiar with the ways of the Christians, their customers (Lipman 1967; Roth 1964; Richardson 1960; Bartlet, 2009, 19). The local sphere was a private one: these Jews knew Hebrew, had Jewish names, followed the laws of the Jewish community, and found their personal passions fulfilled as writers, "artisans, fishmongers, cheesemongers, teachers, vintners, scribes, household attendants, physicians, goldsmiths, merchants, ladder-makers, fencing-masters, landlords, peddlers, innkeepers, cross-bowmen, sergeants-at-arms, and synagogue officials" (Krummel 2011, 46).

The combination of a public and private English Jew speaks to the besieged nature of these two identities trying to thrive in one alienated person. This chapter presents the culture and writing of the medieval English Jew.

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De Gruyter



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Berlin, Germany

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