Marcus Roberts


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A disastrous earthquake in 1185 destroyed virtually the entire Cathedral except the Norman west front and Bishop Hugh began an extensive rebuilding project. Historians universally state that a loan was raised from Aaron of Lincoln to help fund this project to rebuild the cathedral, which continued after Hugh's death until the completion of the Angel Choir in 1280. However, to this point, I have been unable to find the original document or chronicle which supports this claim. Part of his plans included the great Transept and Nave as well as Hugh's Choir, which may be considered as appropriate points from which to consider Aaron's contribution to the rebuilding. (It is interesting to note there was a violent earthquake measuring 5.2 on the Richter Scale in February 2008 whose epicenter was in Lincolnshire, but it left the Cathedral unharmed).
On his death in 1200 there were unprecedented scenes of public grief by the Jews for their beloved bishop, which alone is sufficient justification for our treatment of Hugh as an exceptional Christian figure in Anglo-Jewish history. It is related by contemporary chroniclers that the Jews ran weeping alongside the coffin. He was canonised in 1220, but his remains were only later translated to a tomb and shrine. The saint's head was separated from his body at this time. In 1280, the Angel Choir was dedicated, with both King Edward I and Queen Eleanor present..

The end of the episcopacy of Hugh marked the culmination of the Lincoln Jewish community's rise to prominence. By 1194, Lincoln was, along with London and Canterbury, one of England's leading Jewish centers. While it was to retain its preeminent rank among the English Jewries, the 13th Century witnessed a crescendo of anti-Semitism that saw worsening persecution and destruction. This deteriorating situation terminated in 1290 with the wholesale expulsion of all English Jews in 1290 -- an early example of 'ethnic cleansing'.

Bishop Hugh of Avalon's successor, but one, was Hugh of Wells (1209 - 35). On becoming bishop, he signaled that the liberality of Bishop Hugh's reign was over. He ordered that the Jews were to be kept incommunicado and that they were not to be sold any food. The Jews were only saved by the intervention of King John. Bishop Wells' episcopacy saw other attacks on the Jews of Lincoln: in 1220, Mosse de Ballio and Sara, wife of Deulacresse were murdered and the Jewry was raided.

Bishop Grosseteste (1235-53) followed Bishop Hugh of Wells. The great Robert Grosseteste, one of medieval England's major figures, established a more moderate climate. He had a more complex relationship to the Jews, as he respected and learnt from their philosophy as a scholar and was a keen student of Hebrew. As a great theologian, he saw in them the relic of the future promise of the Gospel. Because they were in essence 'people of the book', Bishop Grosseteste forbade out-right persecution of the Jews and attacks on their persons but felt that they should be treated rigorously in other ways and should not be allowed to live in easy conditions. Grosseteste personally supporting milder forms of persecution, at points in his career, such as when he was Archdeacon of Leicester.

In 1222, just before he became Chancellor of the University of Oxford, he sent a letter (which still survives) to the University, urging the scholars there to study Hebrew and ordered the production of bi-lingual Hebrew and Latin Bibles and texts to help clerics learn Hebrew. A number of these inter-linear manuscripts still survive at Corpus Christi College in Oxford, symbols of a remarkable collaboration between Jewish and Christian scribes and scholars. He did, however, condone the imposition of onerous conditions on the Jews, since they were deniers of Christianity living in sin, though he was forced to admit in the last year of his life that the Jewish methods of charging interest was far more equitable than that of the Christian money lenders, particularly the Pope's Italian agents. He also regarded Jews as objects of potential conversion through preaching and persuasion.

In the 13th Century - despite the persecution suffered by the community - Lincoln Jewry produced several important figures. Jewish intellectual life remained very active and the Jews of Lincoln were important to the Jewish scholarship of the period. Benedict son of Moses of Nicole (probably identified with 'Berechiah of Nicole') was a leader of the Lincoln community and certainly a prominent English rabbinical scholar and authority whose opinions on Jewish law were much respected. His father was Rabbi Moses ben Yomtob of London, another respected scholar. Benedict died in c. 1256. Hagin, a brother of Benedict, was the Arch-Presbyter of the English Jews (the equivalent of today's Chief Rabbi).

There would almost certainly have been a house of Talmudic study in Lincoln. It is related in the contemporary records that the Blood Libel of 1256 implicated the Jews of the school (or schola -- note this is not a scola, synagogue) of Peitevin the Great. This reference indicates that there was a significant grouping of Jewish students 'at the feet' of this Peitevin, who was evidently a leading Jewish scholar. He was, though, unfortunately involved with the Lincoln 'Blood Libel'. This is one of the darkest episodes of medieval Anglo-Jewry's history and, before it was over, 19 members of the community had been executed for a crime they never committed.

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