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English Jews in the Times of Tosafot

Reviewing: “England’s Jews: Finance, Violence, and the Crown in the Thirteenth Century” by John Tolan. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2023. English. Hardcover. 264 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1512823899.

This scholarly book offers an in-depth look at the Jews’ place in English history during the 1200s. The author meticulously researched the topic and provided exact dates as well as names of people and places within the context of the events that are described. Although that sort of attention to detail can make the book somewhat overwhelming, the comprehensive index makes it easy to find specific topics.

Two major overarching topics that the book delves into are the Jewish involvement in the money-lending industry in England (a topic that has always been controversial) and how the Jews were precariously positioned in the rigid class of Medieval England. In discussing the second point, the author stresses how successive kings of England consistently referred to the Jews possessively as “our Jews,” and sought to assert their direct authority over them. However, as often happened throughout history, the Jews served as pawns in a greater power struggle between the Plantagenet Kings of England, English and French noblemen, the local English clergy, and the Pope in Rome.

Besides discussing the occasional massacres in which English Jews were killed, the author provides detailed accounts of the “punishments” levied against Jews for simply being Jewish, including special taxes called tallages and inheritance taxes (“Death Taxes”), making them wear distinct clothing, and forbidding Christians from working as maids and nurses in Jewish homes.

The book discusses the various limits placed on the Jews’ ability to lend with interest as well as the policy of outright debt forgiveness for monies owed to Jews. Interestingly, this book documents how an ordinance that compelled Jews to wear special embroidered tablets to show their Jewishness was sometimes enforced by local grocers who refused to sell food to most Jews who did not follow those rules; this practice was sometimes not enforced on certain Jewish individuals or communities who paid for special exemptions.

The author also substantiates how Church officials commonly fabricated stories about Jews who were accused of unfair lending practices, insulting the Christian faith (especially desecrating the host and the cross) and kidnapping Christian babies to circumcise them or kill them (“fake news”).

The book covers the Jews’ relationship to the Magna Carta and hones in on specific Jews who were active in lending money (such as Isaac of Norwich, David of Lincoln/Oxford, and Aaron of York). Although the primary focus of the book is on the reigns of King Henry III and his son Edward I, other important figures from English history (including Stephen Langton, Robert Grosseteste, and Simon of Montfort) are also discussed in the context of their role in the treatment of the Jews.

Another interesting point emphasized in the book is how the Jews’ situation and treatment in neighboring France was often even worse than in England itself, where anti-Jewish sentiments were generally stronger and more official. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, Jews were expelled from France multiple times. One of the factions pushing for the expulsion of Jews was Church officials, who wanted to separate Jews from Christians to avoid social and sexual fraternization between them.

Overall, this book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Jews’ place in English history during this time period. The author has done an outstanding job of meticulously and critically piecing together information from documents and rolls of chancery records, plus other archival sources, to provide a comprehensive account of the Jews’ role in English society during this period. The book ends with the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 under King Edward I, bringing the story to its logical, yet unfortunate, conclusion.


Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the editor-in-chief of The Rachack Review, an online forum for book reviews on Jewish Books. He is also the author of highly-popular work Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press), and the Jewish Press’s “Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh” column. He can be reached via email to [email protected]

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