Marcus Roberts


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No doubt the object of this story was to warn against the spiritual danger and enticement to wickedness represented by the Jews. The spilling of the 'holy' water and the three-fold (trinitarian?) splitting of the bucket were symbolic that holiness could not abide the Jews. More significantly the 'setting in life' of the story can only be an actual anxiety of what Jewish identity represented, this could only occur where there was actual social integration of Christians and Jews, and where Christians could actually be lead spiritually astray.

Like so many of the other communities the Canterbury Jewry rose to its zenith in the first half of the 13th century. Thereafter it suffered an irrevocable decline to the final conclusion of medieval Jewish life in 1290. However incidents of anti-Semitism increased throughout both halves of the 13th century. There were the usual false accusations against members of the community and ever increasing pressure to convert, as hostility grew along with the royal exactions on the Jewry as well as confiscations.

In 1222 Archbishop Stephen Langton at the Synod of Oxford published a general edict designed to curb Jewish life. He ordered such strictures as the wearing of the badge of shame, a ban on the building of any more synagogues, forbidding Jews to enter church buildings, or to keep their goods there, among other measures.

However, he and the Bishops of Lincoln and Norwich, exceeded themselves when they also ordered the cutting of all communications between Jews and Christians in their diocese. This even included forbidding Christians selling Jews food under the very threat of excommunication! If this injunction had been implemented it would have meant starvation and the end of the Jewish communitiies in those diocese. The guardian of the young king, Hubert de Burgh, was forced to step in and order that anybody refusing to supply the Jews of Canterbury would be arrested at once, excommunication or no.

While there were relatively few anti-Semitic outbreaks against the Jews in Canterbury (as in Oxford) they did occur and some were grave. The Canterbury Jewry suffered particularly during the Baron's war, when in 1261 both clerics and laymen broke into the houses of Jews, destroying doors and windows with axes and attempting to set fire to the Jewry. Many Jews were violently assaulted and as a result King Henry ordered an enquiry to discover the malefactors.

There was a second outrage in 1264, when one of the rebels against the King, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, captured Canterbury. He went on to sack the Jewry perhaps with the main intention of destroying all the evidence of debts contained it archa. The result was that the Jewry was dispersed. It is unclear if there were fatalities. What is known is that two years later, in 1266, the community had returned to Oxford and 18 leading local Jews signed a treaty of self-defence, in which they sought to protect themselves against, 'liars, improper persons, or slanders'.

After the Barons' War, the final decline of the Jewry came in earnest and Caleman a local Jew was murdered. Two Jews were murdered in the shire at Frenningham. Properties were confiscated, and the Jewry suffered badly in the coin clipping accusations of 1278. The whole community was temporarily imprisoned in the castle and six of their number was hanged. While they were imprisoned some of the towns' people took the opportunity to seize the goods of the incarcerated Jews. However those who stole the chattels of the Jews became subject to excommunication by the cathedral clergy, since all of the Jewish property had been forfeit to the king, as was routine in these circumstances.

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