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3 posts categorized "Medieval history"

27 July 2020

Anglo-Jewish deeds from medieval England- a treasure trove for historians

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This blog presents a less known facet of the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript holdings, but which nonetheless constitutes a genuine treasure trove. I am referring to deeds - termed also as ‘bonds’, ‘charters’, ‘grants’ - which form part of a small, yet exceptionally significant collection of Anglo-Jewish historic documents, acquired initially by the British Museum, that are now kept in the British Library.

Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 CE (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

These documents, written in either Hebrew or Latin, and more often than not in both, attest to business interactions between Jews and non-Jews in medieval England, and bear witness to the existence of a dynamic Jewish population prior to its expulsion in 1290. A substantial number of charters came from aristocratic libraries formerly owned by the Earls of Harley, Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Marques of Lansdowne, to name just a few. A lesser amount were acquired from private individuals through donation or purchase.

An interesting, common trait manifest in these charters is the use of Latin Gothic lettering and Hebrew Ashkenazi documentary script, as evident in this Harley example. Another shared characteristic is the material on which the deeds were written, namely parchment. Due to its strength and durability, parchment was perfectly fit for purpose.

Jews in medieval England: an overview

There is no real evidence of a Jewish presence in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 1070, keen to boost England’s economy, William the Conqueror (William I, reigned. 1066-1087) invited Jewish merchants and artisans from Rouen in Normandy to come to England. His principal aim was to collect dues and taxes in currency rather than in kind, and to that end he needed competent financiers to do business with the indigenous population and supply ample quantities of coinage to the royal Treasury.

Few occupations were open to the Jews who settled in Norman England. Apart from a very small number of scholars, physicians and merchants the majority were engaged in moneylending with interest, an activity barred to Christians.

The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Until the end of the 12th century, successive English monarchs granted the Jews protection and certain privileges which enabled them to prosper and acquire wealth, but this period of relative wellbeing ended with the death of King Henry II in 1189. Under King Richard I and his successors, the Anglo-Jewish communities suffered extreme outbursts of violence, ritual murder accusations, and untenable, repressive measures that culminated in their banishment by King Edward I on 18th July 1290. Jews were not permitted to return to these shores until 350 years later when Oliver Cromwell allowed them to re-settle.

Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v)
Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

The Exchequer of the Jews

Medieval English rulers regarded the Jews and their assets as personal property, imposing on them heavy taxes to finance wars and crusades and to bolster the royal coffers. The King tolerated their presence as long as they could serve his interests. Despite their being a minority of barely 0.25% of the total English population, the King’s Jews provided roughly 10% of the total crown revenue.

The office of Exchequer of the Jews, which operated from 1194 until the banishment in 1290, was established by Richard I to administer and control the taxes and law-cases of the Anglo-Jewish population. This government office ensured that copies of bonds (chirographs)[1] quitclaims (also called starrs or releases annulling debts to Jewish creditors) and attestations (formal confirmations by signature) were safely locked in special chests (archae) that were installed in major towns. The archae were regularly checked by royal officials in Westminster, who then advised the monarch whether he could impose additional levies and tallages (arbitrary taxes) on his Jewish subjects.

Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 CE (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail) of the Jews)
Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Add Ch 1251 dated 1182, is the earliest and undoubtedly the most historically important charter in the collection. Written in Latin, with a Hebrew acknowledgment of Solomon of Paris on the back, it records a £4 debt settlement of Richard de Malebis. Malebis (or Malebisse, denoting mala bestia or ‘evil beast’) was a Norman landowner heavily indebted to Jewish moneylenders. In 1190, in order to get rid of his debts, he instigated a savage mob attack on the Jews of York and their assets. Together with his accomplices, he burned documents specifying money owed to the Jews that had been kept in the York Cathedral for safety. The riot went completely out of control culminating in the massacre of 150 Jewish souls.

Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1r )
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1v)
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 (Add Ch 1251, ff. 1r and 1v)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Since Norman England had no established legal practices covering moneylending and other financial dealings, Jewish moneylenders employed their own legal system and terminology based on talmudic law in charters written before 1290, such as the deeds discussed here. The phrase נחנו החתומים מטה מודים הודאה גמורה (Nahnu ha-ḥatumim matah modim hoda’ah gemurah … ‘We the undersigned hereby fully declare that…’) which is still employed in modern day contracts, is a case in point. The use of Hebrew attests to a high degree of literacy among Anglo-Jews, but even more importantly proves that Hebrew was accepted in the fiscal world of Norman England.

Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 CE (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)  

Add Ch 16384 is a Hebrew quitclaim with a Latin docket (an abridged record of the Hebrew text), written for Joseph ben Moses and Moses ben Jacob, releasing Peter de Bending and his heirs from all their debts. It is dated ‘St Peter Gule of August of the year twenty one of the reign of our lord King Henry [Henry III] son of King John’, corresponding to 1st August 1237. Other sources note that Peter de Bending was a heavily indebted landlord whose debts were redeemed by the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, which also repossessed his property. During the period 1150-1250, many monastic institutions in England were actively involved in the repossession of mortgaged lands.

Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 CE (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Lansdowne Ch 667 was acquired by the British Museum in 1907 with the collection of Sir William Petty, 1st Marques of Lansdowne (1737-1805). It represents the foot of a chirograph of a Hebrew deed for a house in the parish of St. Peter in Mancroft Street, Norwich, owned by Oshayah son of Isaac of York known as Ursel le Eveske of Norwich, son of Deulecresse that was sold to William son of Roger of South Walsham and his heirs. The Jewish witnesses to the transaction were Abraham of York, Isaac son of Deulecresse, Elias son of Elias, Jacob son of Jacob, Moses of Conisford.

Among the non-Jews witnessing the sale were Simon le Paumier and Robert de Bee. Norwich officials who were present that day included Adam de Toftes, Jacques Nade and John Bate. The deed was attested to by Ursel son of Isaac and is dated 9 Tevet 5041 which corresponds to 2nd December 1280. The sale is preceded by a release of rights to the house by Ursel’s wife Miriam, who owned it בעלילת דין כתובה (‘because of the rights of the ketubah’, i.e. as part of her marriage settlement).

It is interesting to note that it was not unusual for medieval Jewish women, either married or widowed, to own property and engage in business and finance. Indeed many traded locally or became moneylenders to the gentry and church officials.

This charter has been included in the British Library exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word that has been postponed until further notice.

The Anglo-Jewish charters have been digitised as part of the major, externally funded Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, 2013-2020. They are accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Further reading

Huscroft, Richard, Expulsion: England’s Jewish solution (Stroud: Tempus, 2006)
Mundill, Robin, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 99-100.
Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith,  Hebrew and Hebrew-Latin Documents from Medieval England: A Diplomatic and Palaeographical Study. Monumenta Palaeographica Medii Aevi. Series Hebraica (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), nos. 178, 179, 184, 186 & 181 (in order of appearance in the blog)

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[1] A chirograph was a legal document copied several times on a single piece of parchment with the word “Chirograph” written across the middle. It was then cut through in a scalloped pattern. This process ensured that the parties to an agreement were each given a copy of the written transaction, which could be easily validated should the need arise; the serrated edges reduced the risk of forgery.

04 November 2016

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic

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In a recent post in our Medieval Manuscripts blog (Every People Under Heaven), Cillian O'Hogan wrote about the early 13th century Harley Greek Gospels and the 12th century Melisende Psalter and its ivories which are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a stunning exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. With some 200 exhibits from 60 lenders from all over the world, the exhibition tells the story of Jerusalem, a polyglot city and cultural centre during the Crusades, the rule of the Ayyubids and the Mamluk Empire. In this post I will highlight one of our Arabic loans, Add.MS.11856, a translation of the four Gospels, copied in Palestine in 1336.

Add_11856_f001-2
Double page opening to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 1v-2r)
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Portrait of St. Matthew followed by the translator's prayer and introduction to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 2v-3r)
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Although the Bible may have been translated into Arabic as early as the late seventh century, it was during the eighth and especially the ninth centuries that translations were made under Christian patronage. These were produced in the multilingual monastic communities of Palestine. The earliest surviving dated manuscript of the Gospels in Arabic is dated 859 and is in the library of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai (Griffith, p. 113). In his 'Abridged List of the Arabic Gospel Manuscripts' Hikmat Kashouh (below, pp. 55-8) lists 18 copies in the British Library collections of which the oldest, Add.MS.14467, dates from the 10th century. Add.MS.11856 is a copy of what became known as the Arabic Vulgate version which, translated from Greek, Syriac and Coptic, developed by the 13th century and remained the standard Arabic version until modern times.

Add_11856_f059r
Opening to the Gospel of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59r)
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Add_11856_f059v
Portrait of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59v)
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Our manuscript, Add.MS.11856, was completed on 20 Jumada I AH 737 (25 Dec. 1336) and includes four portraits of the evangelists, a double page illuminated heading at the beginning and three single page headings at the start of the following Gospels. The copyist was Yūsuf ibn Walī al-Dawlah Mīkhāʼīl ibn Faḍl Allāh, the Treasury scribe (kātib al-khizānah). Originating in Palestine, the manuscript had various owners, one being the early Albanian writer and national hero Peter Bogdani (ca. 1630-89), Archbishop of Skopje and alumnus of the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, Rome, to which he subsequently presented it. It was acquired in 1841 by the British Museum as part of the collection of Samuel Butler (1774-1839), Bishop of Lichfield.

Add_11856_f095r
Opening to the Gospel of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95r)
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Add_11856_f095v
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)
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Perhaps the most striking feature of this manuscript is its illumination and decoration which clearly demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the community in which it was written. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of its author holding a copy of the book, but whereas these portraits are based on Byzantine models, the opening and the introductory leaves to each Gospel are richly decorated in a carpet page design - so called because of its close resemblance to intricately woven carpets - which is in keeping with Qur'ans dating from the Mamluk period. The opening of each Gospel consists of two illuminated bands containing the title above and below while the central panel is filled with an abstract geometrical pattern. Decorative rosettes in the margins complete the design.

Add_11856_f157r_2000
Opening to the Gospel of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157r)
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Add_11856_f157v
Portrait of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157v)
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The exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven is open at the Met. until 8 January 2017. If you don't have the opportunity to go in person, there is a detailed catalogue available by the exhibition curators Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb.

This manuscript has now been digitised and will shortly be available on our Digitised Manuscripts site, so watch this space for more details!


Further reading

W. Cureton and C. Rieu, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars secunda, codices arabicos amplectens. London: British Museum, 1846-71, pp. 11-13.
Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, Jerusalem, 1000-1400 : every people under heaven. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.
Hikmat Kashouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: the Manuscripts and their Families, Berlin: De Gruyter, c2012.
Sidney H. Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: the Scriptures of the "People of the Book" in the Language of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, c2013.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies, with thanks, for help, to Colin Baker
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07 April 2016

The British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript now online

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The British Library’s oldest Qur’ān manuscript, Or.2165, dating from the eighth century, has now been fully digitised and is available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Among the most ancient copies of the Qurʼān, it comprises 121 folios containing over two-thirds of the complete text and is one of the largest of known fragments of an early Qurʼān written in the māʼil script.

Or_2165_f007v
The end of Sūrah 7 (Sūrat al-A‘rāf, ‘The Heights’) and the beginning of Sūrah 8 (Sūrat al-Anfāl, ‘The Spoils of War’). The heading in red ink gives the title of the Sūrah and says that it contains 77 verses (British Library Or.2165, folio 7v)  noc

This manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1879 from the Reverend Greville John Chester (1830-1892) as noted on a fly leaf at the back of the manuscript. Chester was an ordained clergyman interested in archaeology, Egyptology and natural history and made numerous trips to Egypt and the Near East, where he acquired objects and manuscripts, which are now in the collections of major UK cultural and library institutions. It is very likely he acquired this Qur’ān when he was in Egypt.

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Acquisition details recorded at the end of the manuscript (British Library Or.2165, endpaper)  noc

The earliest Qur’ān manuscripts were produced in the mid-to-late seventh century, and ancient copies from this period have not survived intact and exist only in fragments. Or.2165 contains three series of consecutive leaves (Sūrah 7:40 – Sūrah 9:96; Sūrah 10:9 – Sūrah 39:48; Sūrah 40:63 – Sūrah 43:71) from the so-called mā’il Qur’ān, which is about two-thirds of the Qur’ān text and is one of the oldest Qur’āns in the world. It probably dates from the eighth century, and as far as can be ascertained, was produced in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabic word mā’il (by which this Qur’ān is known) means ‘sloping’ and refers to the sloping style of the script – one of a number of early Arabic scripts collectively named ‘Hijazi’ after the region in which they were developed. The main characteristic of mā’il is its pronounced slant to the right. It can also be recognised by the distinctive traits of some of its letters, for example, the letter alif does not curve at the bottom but is rigid, and the letter yā’, occurring at the end of a word, turns and extends backwards frequently underlying the preceding words.

   Fig 1               Fig2
Left: the letter alif; six small dashes mark the end of the verse
Right: the letter yā’; the Sūrah heading in red ink was added later

In early Qur’āns there are no vowel signs, and this early style of script is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks to distinguish between letters of similar shape. Verse numbering had also not yet been established; the end of each verse was indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The sūrah headings were added much later in red ink in the recognisable space purposely left blank to distinguish between the end and the beginning of chapters. Red circles surrounded by red dots to mark the end of every ten verses were also added later.

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The beginning of Sūrah 12 (Sūrat Yūsuf, ‘Joseph’) showing the verse markers and also the red headings and circles which were added later (British Library Or.2165, folios 23v-24r)  noc

As with all early Qur’āns, the text is written on vellum and would have been bound into a codex or muṣḥaf – originally a collection of sheets of vellum placed between two boards. Each double sheet was folded into two leaves, which were assembled into gatherings then sewn together and bound as quires into a codex.

The importance of Or.2165, in addition to all other known early Qur’ān fragments, cannot be overestimated. They provide the only available evidence for the early development of the written recording of the Qur’ān text and help towards our understanding of how early Qur’ān codices were produced.        


Further reading

Rieu, Charles, Supplement to the Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts, London, The British Museum 1894, Item 56, pp. 37-38.
Déroche, François and Noseda, Sergio Noja, Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique I, Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzi, Volume 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or.2165 (f. 1 à 61) de la British Library, Lesa, 2001.
Baker, Colin F., Qur'an manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, London, 2007, pp.15-18.

Colin F. Baker, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections
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