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Travel for medieval purposes

30 November 2010

Giles Gasper on two visions of England


The King’s Jews: Money, massacre and exodus in medieval England
Robin R. Mundill

Continuum £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

The Itineraries of William Wey
Francis Davey, editor and translator
Bodleian Library £27.99
Church Times Bookshop £25.20

THE KING’S JEWS and The Itineraries of William Wey offer two contrasting, but equally fascinating, visions of the Middle Ages, and of medieval England in particular. Robin Mundill and Francis Davey present lively and engaging treatments of their respective subjects.

The King’s Jews surveys the life of the Jewish communities of England, from their first, incontestable, ap­pearance after the Norman Con­quest to their expulsion under Edward I in 1290. The patchy wit­nesses for the earlier presence of Jewish communities are rehearsed, but the bulk of the evidence suggests that it was with the Norman Conquest that the first sustainable communities made their appearance — communities that were, as a result, French- (and Hebrew-) speaking.

Adopting a broadly chronological approach, Mundill presents chapters focused on key themes: colonisation and confinement, the economy, the position of Jewish communities in a growing English state, saints and martyrs (Christian and Jewish), re­la­tions between Christians and Jews, and Church and Synagogue, and, finally, dissolution and diaspora.

A tremendous amount of evidence is presented, especially legal and financial documents. Individuals such as Aaron of York, who can be shown in more evidential depth, are used to good effect. Jews in high-medieval England were regarded as the King’s property; a great deal of the documentary evidence emanates from the Exchequer of the Jews, for example. One of the dominant themes of the book is the intricacy of the bonds holding together the English kings and the Jewish communities that they protected.

Broadly speaking, relations between Christian and Jewish communities worsened from the later 12th century; the Jews of England suffered also from the general shift in Christian attitudes towards them, provoking fearful, negative, and, all too often, violent reactions. However, Mundill chronicles, so far as he is able, the whole life of the Jewish commu­nities in England, who, while they may have belonged to the King in the secular world, occupied a spirit­ual and cultural world of their own.

This Mundill describes and analyses, and in turn presents a more three-dimensional view of a visible, but not immediately acces­sible, minority, of crucial importance to Norman, Angevin, and early Plantagenet England.

Wey’s Itineraries concern the later medieval period. Compiled in the mid-15th century, they consist of accounts of his three pilgrimages made in 1456 to Santiago de Compostella, 1458 to Jerusalem (via Rome and Venice), and 1462 to Jerusalem (via Venice alone). Wey was not alone in leaving such records — a number of his contem­poraries, including Margery Kempe, did so — but that takes nothing away from the interest of this vol­ume.

Wey, as Davey outlines in his helpful introduction, was born in Devon c.1407, became Fellow of Exeter and Eton Colleges, and lastly Prior of Edington, Wiltshire, whence he retired in 1467. Wey’s Itineraries are a treasure-trove of information on late-medieval travel and devotional practices, and present a variety of material to the reader. Narrative accounts of his journeys and the places he visited, notably Jerusalem, Venice, and Rome, are accompanied with notes for the reader and the future pilgrim on the churches and relics to be found in each location.

Additional information is pro­vided on the distances between cities, dietary advice (for example, in the Mediterranean ports one should “be very careful of the fruits because they often loosen the bowels and, in those parts, lead to death for Englishmen”), notes on currency exchange, and lists of useful phrases.

Wey provides a “Rough Guide”, of sorts, for pilgrimage in the later medieval period. The material is presented in both Middle English and Latin, and in an ordered though picaresque fashion. Davey provides a convenient synopsis and an informative commentary for each section of the various Itiner­aries.

The Itineraries are, however, more than guides. They provide another insight into how later medieval people navigated their world, literally and spiritually. The vivacity of the shrines and the relics he encountered shine through, accompanied by a sense of physical distance alongside spiritual journey, and, perhaps, a sense of English identity, not least in his keen interest in St George.

Davey has provided a clear translation and a well-researched commentary that will allow modern readers to sense something of the adventure and devotion that motivated a 15th-century pilgrim.

Dr Giles E. M. Gasper is a lecturer in the Department of History at Durham University.

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