Marcus Roberts


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The Community is Established

The community was established in Lincoln by 1159. The City was an obvious place for a Jewish settlement as it was a cathedral city, the Cathedral having the largest diocese in the country covering a vast swathe of England. It was a major route and market centre made it even more important, as it dealt with the wool staple. Lincoln was moreover one of the leading cities of the realm, frequented by king and court.

Archeology has revealed one very important fact about the circumstances of Jewish settlement in the City. Excavations show that from around the mid to late 12th century there was a shift in building practice with a pronounced move from wood to stone, and to a much lesser extent, it is thought, mixed wood and stone. This is significant as it has been interpreted as showing that Lincoln (as well as other towns and cities in England) suddenly entered a period which was both politically and socially stable and growing economically.

In Lincoln, this sudden stability and growth, with the increasing emergence of a burgess class, would have encouraged Jewish settlement. It is obvious that an economic boom in an important place like Lincoln would have presented many opportunities to Jews from elsewhere. As it turns out the Jews in the City were among some of the first 'pioneers' to build the new stone houses of the town, as both the famous 'Jew's House' and the Norman House (thought to be another Jewish house) date from this period. It is most likely that the Jews played a significant role in the growth of Lincoln. Apart from the large number of Jews living and conducting business in Lincoln, others from outside invested in Lincoln real estate.

Since stone was comparatively cheap and available in Lincoln, the ownership of stone houses was not necessarily restricted to all but the richest classes. Therefore it is probably correct to conclude that the upper and perhaps some of the middle strata of the Jewish community often occupied these new stone houses.

The Jews largely settled in the St Martin's Parish, south of the Cathedral and close to the protection of the nearby Castle as well as being in the commercial heart of the city. The commercial centre was dominated by the Strait (then Micklegate) and High Street, and to a slightly lesser extent the adjoining Grantham Street (Brauncegate). This was where many of the Jews lived, worked and worshipped. Numbers of Jews, however, were to be found in several other parishes; St Mark's, St Benedict's, St Cuthbert's, St John, St George's, St Michael-on-the-Hill.

The richest Jews built themselves stately homes of stone - classic medieval first-floor halls - some of which survive in Lincoln today, a testimony to their quality and status. While this particular style of housing was by no means exclusively used by Jews, it was particularly associated with them. Some of the best houses were described in 1290, as having 'well-built' chambers, or being 'well-built'. One Jew owned an exceptional property, '...two high Houses, well built and roofed with tiles...' Another Jew, 'had a messuage, a very good house, with a copse, and six shops...'

Research indicates that the famous first floor halls, favoured by the richest Jews, may have been heavily influenced by the architecture preferred by the Norman aristocracy of France. Thus the Jews' houses built in this style in Lincoln and elsewhere would have declared the Lincoln Jews' continental origins and links to the northern French aristocracy of the Conquest. Also the first floor hall enabled a more private mode of life for upper class families than that of the classic ground floor hall which provided little opportunity for family privacy. It was also good for security and the under-croft was an invaluable store for goods and valuables. The best and strongest of these Jewish houses elsewhere (at York) were sometimes described by envious chroniclers (no doubt with a degree of exaggeration), as palatial and being almost equal to a small castles in strength and size. The architectural setting for the rich Jewish families in Lincoln offers hints about the sort of family life they desired, business and social circumstances, as well as their origins and affiliations.

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