Marcus Roberts


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It is easy to assume (wrongly) that most of the medieval Jews were either rich or money lenders (in fact, early 'bankers' as the world of Jewish finance and investment was more varied and complex than just lending at interest) as the majority of documents from the period concern the minority of rich money lenders contributing to the king's coffers; but not all the Jews in Lincoln were by any means rich, and the inquest of 1290 reveals a whole range of different types occupying a variety of properties. At the lowest end of the scale in 1290 were small cottages, one in poor repair and also a 'mediocris domus"' - a mediocre home. There were many levels of wealth as attested to by the existence of 'poor Jewries' alongside the richer, main Jewish quarters in a number of towns and cities. Medieval Jews in fact followed a range of occupations (albeit limited because they were prohibited from joining the medieval trade guilds) aside from early 'banking' activities most were not in fact money lenders.

A hint of more intimate domestic arrangements is given for one property. Gersy the Jew had a house and, 'also a plot of land, in which his kitchen was built...' In one excavation in Flaxengate (Haraldstigh), a separate kitchen out-building like this was found. Due to the risk of fire in the middle ages, kitchens were often built against the main house as a lean-to or were entirely separately from the main dwelling. Great stone dwellings would have an out-house kitchen at the rear.

Archaeology has generally confirmed the accuracy of the reports in the great 1290 Inquest (see below) as to the type and condition of the houses. Excavations have confirmed that the best houses in town were the stone ones, including both the first floor halls and the more traditional buildings with ground floor halls. Next down the scale were houses which may have been made of both wood and stone and, finally, there were the dwellings of the poorer classes which were less permanent constructions of which little has survived.

Tiles from the greater houses have been found. The Flaxengate site finds has yielded decorative crested ridge tiles (as well as decorative finials) from halls that projected to the rear of the properties. One decorative tile in the museum appears to depict a Lincoln Jew! Less decorative tiles were from the roofs on the street frontages. This may be accounted for by the fact that the halls were the main living spaces and had higher prestige.

The examination of rubbish pits in the Flaxengate area has not thrown up any clear evidence about the Jewish presence in the area or, indeed, of Jewish diet in the time. The main findings have been that the proportion of pig bones remains quite constant, at about 10%, through time. The presence of a Jewish population (for whom the pig was prohibited) does not seem to have had an impact on this -- a result found also in other medieval towns and cities which is no doubt accounted for by the fact that rubbish pits were communal. Otherwise the only clue as to Jewish dietary habits is that, during the period of Jewish occupation, there was a sudden increase in the use and consumption of sheep, many of which were for the first time polled, i.e., had their heads removed, which would accord with Jewish practice; but none of this is conclusive.

There was a communal synagogue in the city, and as well as private synagogues and houses of study for Jewish scholars -- a pattern found in other leading Jewish communities. The communal synagogue, according to the Inquest of 1290, stood in St Cuthbert's parish. This building was on a classic back-street site, concealed by other buildings and reached through a small entry. It had a Jewish communally owned house next to it and also two dwellings over the entrance.

A deed of 1324, however, also speaks of the site of '...the Jews' synagogue' as being on land behind High Street and Hungate. This might well have been a different, private, one from that in St Cuthbert's. The presence of yet another synagogue may also be indicated by place name evidence: there was for many centuries a 'Scholegate' (now Danesgate) in Lincoln - another Jewish scola (i.e. synagogue) perhaps?

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