Canterbury
Marcus Roberts

History

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CANTERBURY

The Canterbury Jewry came into being in the mid 12th century in a city that was major market center and was situated on an important route to London and the Kent ports.

Canterbury was an ancient and important spiritual center, being the See of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of all England.

Indeed the original community came into being and assumed prominence during the period in which Thomas a Becket the 'turbulent priest' was martyred and a great cult and center of pilgrimage was growing up around his enshrined body in Canterbury Cathedral.

It is unsurprising that one of the most important Jewish communities of medieval England came into prominence here in the middle-ages. The community was large by medieval standards probably consisting of some 100 Jews at is zenith in the 12th and 13th centuries and with some 20 Jewish occupied properties. It was also rich, providing home to some of the major Jewish financiers of the day such as Benjamin ben Meir, one of the six richest Jews in England. The community was also home to some of the most important Anglo-Jewish scholars of the period such as Rabbi Aaron of Canterbury.

The importance of the Canterbury Jewry is also suggested in that it had a Beth Din, a rabbinical court for settling religious questions and disputes as well as providing judgements in law suits brought between Jews. The evidence also seems to indicate that the community had a Talmudic academy as well. There was a Magister or 'Master' Aaron at Canterbury who was sent to the Jew's 'Parliament' at Worcester in 1241. The term 'Magister' is usually taken to indicate the head of a Talmudic Academy or at least a scholar of some erudition who supervises the study of students at the house of study.

The Jewry was 'typical' in that it was formed a loose enclave (with some outlying properties in the near vicinity) in the commercial heart of the city. This 'enclave' was focused on a block of land facing the High Street and backed by Stour Street, Jewry Lane and Whitehorse lane - the latter an early modern name for what was an extension of Jewry Lane.

The Jews themselves called the area they lived 'Jew's Street'. The principal houses were directly opposite or adjacent to the probable site of the Cambium Regius or the 'Royal Exchange'. The Royal Exchange was a significant institution as it was one of just two places in the entire country where silver and plate could be officially brought and sold. Close to this was also the Mint thought to be situated near the junction of Stour Street with King's Bridge and High Street.

The existence of these organizations, clearly shows the commercial importance of this small section of the city adjoining the Jewry. It may be noted that the Jewish community in London may have been associated with the minting and or at least the exclusive initial distribution of local lead trade tokens as all of lead tokens excavated originated from the London Jewrys. This possibility is also feasible here, especially when it is considered that a local converted Jew (Nicholas a moneyer who is mentioned as early as 1181) worked in the mint in Canterbury. We also know that Jews were particularly associated with the trading of bullion in exchange for silver coinage and tended to live close to mint-exhanges.

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