River Jews: medieval Jews along the Thames as a microcosm of Anglo-Jewry

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History can be as much about frustration as information. That certainly applies to the early records of the Jews of England. We do not know, and probably never shall, who was the first Jew ever to set foot on English soil. It is likely that individual Jews arrived as far back as Roman times, whether will? ingly as traders or by force as slaves. Some may have been here only tem? porarily, others for longer. However, it is impossible to talk of a settled Jewish community until the late eleventh century, when William of Normandy, who became William I of England in 1066, brought Jews from his French terri? tory to help colonize his new kingdom.

William encouraged Jewish migration here for two reasons. First, it was useful having people here who were both French-speakers and loyal to him. On the Continent, Jews tended to be an urban population, not tied to the land and farms, much more mobile than most sections of society, and so were more amenable to travel. Second, many of them performed a useful economic func? tion as moneylenders. This was not a matter of natural aptitude but of bibli? cal interpretation. The Bible permits moneylending in principle, but stipulates several times that 'you shall not lend upon interest to your brother' (Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 25:35, Deuteronomy 23:20). The word 'your brother' was understood in rabbinic law to mean a fellow Jew, to whom, as an act of kindness to members of the same faith community, one should not charge interest, although one could do so to outsiders. Canon Law, however, interpreted the expression 'your brother' to apply to anyone, and held the verses to be an outright ban on levying interest. This may have been admirable in principle, but did not work in practice, as there was a constant demand for loans, small or large, at all levels of the social hierarchy; yet few people were prepared to make loans without charging interest, both so as to make a profit and so as to compensate for defaulters. With Christians being forbidden to enter such arrangements, here was an important economic vacuum.

At the same time, medieval Jews were barred from many other occupa? tions: they could not farm, as they were not allowed to own land outside towns. They could own houses in urban areas, whether for their own resi? dence or to be let to others, although after 1271 this was limited to properties they lived in or let only to Jews. Many artisan jobs were closed to them as they could not join the guilds, which had a Christian character and where the admission ceremony involved swearing an oath in the name of Jesus Christ. The coincidence of these factors led many Jews to engage in money lending. It was an occupation that brought them problems in the long term, for people welcome moneylenders when in need of a loan, but tend to resent them when repayment is due. Anti-Jewish feeling became an inevitable by?

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