I took a tour today of Oxford’s medieval Jewish quarter guided by a colorful woman from New Hampshire named Pam Manix. Pam is pretty much the world’s current authority on this topic, and it was an exciting tour. She has an article up about Oxford’s Medieval Jewish past here. I took some pictures and thought I’d share some of them along with a brief history.
The Jewish quarter made up almost a fourth of the city (almost everything below High Street and Queen’s Street, and west of Magpie Lane here) and constituted everything downstream (or down-sewage-canal) from the city’s tanneries and slaughterhouses. Scholars conclude that mercantile Jews first came to Oxford with William the Conqueror. The first textual mention is from the chronicles of Brother Nigellus from 1141 when King Stephen burned down Aaron f. Isaac’s home and threatened to burn down the entire Jewish quarter if they did not fund his campaign against Empress Matilda. These were rough times, but when Matilda’s son, Henry II, became king, things lightened up a bit. Things lightened up so much, however, that numerous Jewish fortunes were made from lending money on credit, which caused a lot of hostility among the strapped English. The second richest man in Britain, next to the king, was a Jew from Lincoln named Aaron.
The following picture shows a wall, parts of which are original to the 13th century Jewish quarter, and contemporary houses from just north of the quarter.
At about this time the whole Blood Libel hoax was being perpetuated, and, among other things, the practice of money lending was forbidden. At one point, the only thing Jews were allowed to do was operate as pawnbrokers.
The following photo is of the rebuilt 13th century home of Moses of Oxford. The restoration is based off of the original foundation, but shows several historical layers. In the left corner you can see the original wall of the house next door, which actually uses the original entry, sitting five feet underground.
In the last half of the 13th century things were getting very bad for the Jews. They were in dire economic straits and crusader zeal was putting more pressure on them. Many resorted to coin clipping (clipping the unminted portion off of coins), which resulted in the hanging of hundreds of Jews across England when the crown got wind of it. Finally, in 1290, the Jews were expelled from England, only to settle in France and then be expelled from there in less than 20 years.
The next picture is of the grounds at Christ Church College, which is entirely built upon the southern half of the old Jewish quarters. Next is “Deadman’s Walk,” which is so named because it was the original road that went to the Jewish cemetery near the river. Somehow the name managed to stay in place even after the Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College were built on top before the Jews were expelled. Pam tells us the wall along the left is partially original.