The Jews in the English Universities

Articles Image

Regarding the admission of the Jews to the English Universities, there is a legend which has established itself as history. They were, it is said, entirely excluded from the opportunities of higher education in this country until the nineteenth century was well advanced: the first breach in the old system was made by Nathan Lazarus Benmohel who, graduating at Dublin in 1836, was the first conforming Jew to obtain a degree in any university in the British Isles: and they were empowered to become full members of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge only by the Universities Tests Act of 1871. But this account, accepted implicitly or explicitly by all the standard works,1 is utterly misleading.

The connexion of the Jews with the two great English University towns goes back to the Middle Ages, and certain theorists have maintained that they played some part in their development as seats of learning.2 There is not a particle of evidence, and barely a particle of plausibility, to support this view. Nevertheless, the intellectual ferment which conditioned the Universities in their early days cannot but have been heightened by the fact that Jewish communities existed around them. These included persons of the intellectual calibre of Rabbi Benjamin of Cambridge;3 Berechiah haNakdan of Oxford,

1 Cf., for example, Jewish Encyclopedia, xii, 379. A. L. Sachar, History of the Jews, p. 194.

2 E. G. Boase, Oxford, p. 25. J. R. Green, Stray Studies, p. 339. Jewish Encyclo? pedia, viii, 672, xii, 378, etc.

3 Stokes, Studies in Anglo-Jewish History, pp. 53, 114, 132, 136, 149, 195. Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s., xix, 27-8.

author (as is now almost certain) of the famous Fox Fables;4 Moses ben Isaac haNessiah, the philologist and grammarian, perhaps the only person in England at the time with some knowledge of Arabic;5 Jacob of Oxford, learned member of a very learned family;6 and David of Oxford, a bibliophile and follower of Maimonides.7 It is remarkable, indeed, that all the most notable Anglo-Jewish writers of the Middle Ages either resided at, or had close personal connexions with, one or other of the two University towns. One can hardly imagine that eager students would not have sought the company of these scholars and discussed with them points of common interest, or that communications between men like Walter de Merton and Jacob of Oxford (who sold the other property which constituted the nucleus of his College) were rigidly restricted to business matters. Relations between the Oxford scholar Roger Bacon and the local Jews are indeed suggested by a statement of his own, unfortunately not quite as definite as one might have hoped.8 However, all this together is barely sufficient to justify the assumption that the Jews played the slightest part in University life in its more specific sense.

4 I hope to be able to deal with this problem and to present the fresh evidence that has accumulated in a future paper.

5 Moses haNessiah was grandson of the woman financier Comitissa of Cambridge, and was perhaps a resident of that

Become a member to read the full article
Become a member today

£7

24 hour access to JHSE online resources

Instant access to over 700 articles View the original articles as a PDF
Learn More

£40

Annual JHSE Membership

Members are entitled to a free copy of the latest Jewish Historical Studies, free access to our online resources and associate membership of the UCL Library in London.  In addition, they receive the JHSE Newsletter, special offers on books for sale and pay less to attend our series of lectures and other public events.
Learn More

£20

Student Membership

The JHSE want to encourage students to engage with Jewish history.  Apply for a Student Membership with your university email account and once we have verified your status you will soon have all the benefits of being a full JHSE member.
Learn More

£80

Associate your Institution with the JHSE

Give your members access to JHSE online resources and special offers on book sales.  Use your institutional email account when applying, and once your status is verified we will explain the scheme.  Preferred payment is by credit or debit card.
Learn More
0

Your Cart