Lincoln Cathedral Jewish Heritage
© Marcus R. Roberts (2015). Production of original printed trail funded by the HLF and we gratefully acknowledge the support of the Muriel and Gershon Coren Charitable Foundation.

Bookmark this page |  E-mail this page to a friend

Lincoln Cathedral is famed for its great Christian heritage but its unique Jewish heritage and links to the famous medieval Jewish community in Lincoln, is still largely unknown.

This Jewish community of Lincoln was one of the most important in England in its time and the names of some of its leading personalities are still celebrated, including the famous scholar Rabbi Berechiah of Lincoln, and Aaron of Lincoln, who helped make the fortune of the Cistercian monasteries in the north and even loaned the money needed to build the Bishop's Palace.
This community made a vivid impression on the very fabric of Lincoln Cathedral, which is rich in Jewish associations and influences, shown in its art, architecture, artefacts and hidden symbolism of the Cathedral. Parts of the decorative design of the Cathedral may have direct Jewish influences, while the remains of the Shrine of Little Hugh are still one of the most controversial relics of medieval anti-Semitism in England.
This Trail was Featured in Simon Schama's, 'The Story of the Jews' documentary'

The Cathedral is remarkably rich in Jewish associations. It clearly demonstrates that there was much more to the relationship between the Cathedral and medieval Jews than simple hostility and that the relationship could sometimes be benign and even positive. Whilst it is even claimed (erroneously) by a host of historians that the present (rebuilt) Cathedral was raised with loans provided by Aaron of Lincoln, Aaron did in fact fund many major religious buildings and cathedrals including the building of the adjacent Bishop's Palace and the Bishop's residence in London, even if not the Cathedral itself.

The links to the Jewish community are evidenced in artworks depicting Judaism, Jews, stories about Jews with some drawing on Jewish tradition. The artwork from the late 11th century and the 12th century has positive or neutral depictions of Jews, or uses of Judaic imagery, that contrast with the more controversial or hostile images from the 13th century, when Jews were increasingly marginalised and persecuted. Scholarly opinion agrees that most of the hostile religious imagery concerning Jews occurred from the 12th century onwards, in areas where medieval Jews lived. This was particularly so in the north where a number of towns and cities, such as York and Lincoln, had a troubled Jewish history, but also in the east in Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and the south and south-east, in Oxford and Canterbury, among other locations where anti-Semitic imagery has been recorded.

These hostile images occurred for complex reasons as the Church in Rome sought to curb heresy across Europe. Jews were also victims of anti-Semitic propaganda and violence related to the Crusades. Also, the edicts of the Council of Oxford in 1222 forced English Jews to wear the Jewish badge (as their dress or appearance was too similar to the rest of the population) and restricted relations with Christians (not dissimilar to the 1930s Nuremberg Laws). The kings of the period increasingly acted to impoverish the community and to take away their livelihood. Periodically there were attacks against English Jews and the recurrent false ritual child murder accusations.

Perhaps the most significant and unique artworks in the Cathedral are sculptures on the West Front which are based on Jewish legends, both straight from Jewish tradition as well as through assimilation into Christian tradition. What is remarkable is recent evidence that there may even have been a direct Jewish input into the design of the frieze itself, which suggests a possible dialogue with the local Jewish community.
We know that some medieval Christian scholars were skilled in Hebrew and in the 12th century in particular some consulted with Jewish rabbis and scholars, and read their religious and secular books, particularly in regard to interpretation of the Bible. We also have firm evidence of at least one other contemporary or near contemporary instance, at Bourges, where a (converted) Jew had a part in designing the themes for an exterior frieze at a French Cathedral. There was also an anonymous theological dispute between a Jew and Christian in a work entitled, Dialogus inter Christianum et Judaeum de fide catholica, which was dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln (1123-48). This 'dispute' may be a literary invention rather than the record of an actual event, but the dedication certainly suggests an interest in this form of Christian-Jewish interaction in Lincoln. Bishop Grossteste of Lincoln's later work, the 'Testament of the Twelve Patriachs' (1242), is believed to have been written specifically with disputation with Jews in mind.

The Cathedral is also rich in art and sculpture depicting the Old Testament in particular. Old Testament material seems to have been valued. The Cathedral also used Judaic elements in its ritual in the late 11th century and early 12th century, along with other major cathedrals and abbeys, which also used religious apparel and regalia based on those of Biblical Judaic ritual. Some used rich vestments and ornaments based on those of the Aaronic priesthood. Lincoln is asserted to have had a seven branched candelabrum (see J. Wickham Legg, 'Inventories of Christchurch Canterbury...') based on the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem. One example, at Christchurch in Canterbury, was a great menorah fashioned of gold. A golden lamp stand with seven oil lamps is depicted in glass at York (see p. 40) and appears to be based on contemporary stirrup lamps. This does not provide direct evidence of the Cathedral's then contemporary relationships with its local Jewish community, but does suggest a strong Judaic tradition and sympathies in the church which might have favoured dialogue with Jewish scholars.

The shrines, tombs and representations of Christians, who in their lives were important to the Jewish community, are to be found in the Cathedral. They include St Hugh of Avalon, a saviour of Jews in 1190, in both Lincoln and Northampton; and Bishop Grosseteste, a student of Hebrew, who encouraged the study of Hebrew, but also urged rigorous treatment of Jews.

Grosseteste advocated the study of Hebrew in the University of Oxford, and wrote to the university to commission the publication of new Hebrew and Latin parallel texts to help clerics learn Hebrew, which was vital for medieval Biblical exegesis. Some of these works produced by the Christian and Jewish scribes survive in Oxford and his encouragement was very important to noted Franciscan Hebraists, such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Lyra (the 'ape of Rashi'). As to actual Jews, he was ambivalent and hostile. Even though he forbade killing Jews, he advised instead a programme of persecution against them so that they would live miserable lives.
The background of the philo-Semitism of Bishop Hugh, and Grosseteste's notable interest in Hebrew (and promotion of work with Jewish scribes in Oxford) indicates the possibility of some formal or informal exchange of learning between the Lincoln Jewry, or other contemporary Jews and the Cathedral. While there is no specific documentary evidence for this at the Cathedral, the physical evidence of the iconography in the Cathedral suggests otherwise and tradition states Grosseteste was taught Hebrew by a Rabbi.

The shrine of Little Hugh is the most controversial tomb in the Cathedral. It is a relic of 13th century persecution of Jews, sponsored by John Lexington, the brother of Bishop Lexington and the King. In 1255 the Jews of Lincoln were falsely accused of the ritual murder of a local boy. Bishop Lexington became embroiled in the judicial murder of 18 Lincoln Jews at the Tower of London, with his brother and the King being the prime movers for these allegations.
It seems that the evolution of the fabric and iconography of Lincoln Cathedral was influenced by the relationships between local Jews (and wider Jewish traditions and learning) and the Christians, and the art and fabric of the Cathedral was highly topical and literally sensitive to the impress of its times, perhaps even to the presence of a numerically small group of local Jews. It also demonstrates there is no simple formula in understanding the relationships between the two communities, but that the possibility of positive dialogue and relationships was even present and operative in the medieval period.

These artworks and relics serve as a testimony to the historical and continuing essential relationships between Jews and Christians. They provide an opportunity to help tell the story of the Jews of medieval Lincoln and explore the historical relationships between Christians and Jews in Lincoln and elsewhere. They help us explore issues which affect us today, in terms of inter-faith relations, and issues of how we treat our 'neighbour', and to dispel myths and misconceptions. The preparation of the Cathedral Jewish trail and the revision of the signage on the Shrine of Little Hugh, has been an important interfaith encounter between the Cathedral Christian community and the Lincolnshire Jewish community. The LJC and JTrails have been very appreciative of the extensive help and good will of the Cathedral in this project and the preparation of this trail.

Read More

Places of interest

Post a Comment
Submit to this trail