Marcus Roberts


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A medieval French ballad also implicated the scholar Peitevin. He is said to have fled in the disturbances after Hugh's body was discovered, accused of being the one who originally enticed the boy. This ballad also recounts that Joppin, the other main 'conspirator', was dragged 'at horse's tails' and then hung at Canwick, a mile south of Lincoln.

The story of the boy captured the public imagination and the libel gained a wide currency. Many pilgrims came to his tomb. Contemporary accounts clearly suggest that the Bishop of Lincoln may have deliberately whipped up the hysteria. Be that as it may, a martyred 'victim' of the accursed Jews was no doubt good for encouraging pilgrimage to the Cathedral; any chance to acquire a martyr and 'saint' was not easily rejected. Before very long an ornate shrine was created around the tomb of the boy in the south choir isle of the Cathedral and miracles were duly claimed. The cult was popular, but waned after the Expulsion of the Jews of England in 1290.

Little Hugh's feast day was 27 August, but that is, fortunately, no longer observed. He was traditionally depicted, kneeling, bound in cords before the Virgin Mary. Little Hugh was never officially canonised and was a local 'saint', such as were not uncommon at the time.

Joseph Jacobs, in The Jews of Angevin England, surmised that the Blood Libel at Lincoln might have come about in more prosaic circumstances. He speculated that little Hugh had accidentally fallen and drowned in a cesspit near Joppin's house while playing. Some of the most important Jews in England had come to Lincoln to celebrate the wedding of Belleassez, the daughter of Berechiah of Nicole. When the body of the boy was eventually found in a highly decomposed state in the vicinity a day after the wedding, the consequences were terrible. Jacobs' reading of the accounts suggests that the Jews, lead by Peitevin, may have attempted to hide the body. Then, when the body was found by the Christians, Lexington was close at hand and, fuelled by prejudice, drew the, to him, obvious conclusion. Proof was added when a confession was forced from Joppin under duress.

The story of the death of Little Hugh captured popular imagination and has reverberated around Europe ever since. It appeared in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in the 'Prioress's Tale' and was also regurgitated in popular ballads and folksongs, which have been regularly performed, and even recorded, to the present. In 1975, the English folk-rock group, Steeleye Span, recorded a track about Little Hugh on their album Commoner's Crown: in their version the murderer is, 'a lady gay...dressed in green'. A number of different versions exist and are performed internationally, with the singers, ignorant of, or uncaring about, the infamy of the content, still repeating the libel.

Events after this terrible episode continued on a downwards spiral. In 1266, the Lincoln Jews were attacked during the Barons' War. The barons sacked and desecrated the synagogue and burnt records. Leo of Lincoln was executed in 1275. He was an important businessman, but one who found himself much mulcted by the king. In 1278, Bellassez, daughter of Master Benedict of Lincoln (Beraciach of Nicole), whose wedding may have played a role in the Blood Libel, was hanged in London.

From 1275, Edward I forbade the Jews of England to lend at interest, and those who had previously lent at interest had to find other ways of earning their living and many seem to have genuinely traded in corn, wool and other commodities using an early form of futures contracts where staples were purchased in advance of the crop effectively making a bet on the market prices in advance of the crop. In this period many prominent Jews in Lincoln traded in both corn and wool, with six Jewish merchants predominant in the Jewish wool business as they contracted for about half of the business in the Jewish community. Between 1288 and1290, Lincoln Jews had about 6% of the local wool market.

The final episode was the expulsion of all the Jews of England in 1290. The Jews in Lincoln left behind a large amount of property in the form of bonds and housing. There was £423 in money bonds, £601 in corn and a very large amount of £1,595 in wool, all of which went to the King. There was a large stock of housing left behind, much of it of high quality. The records show that a lot of these survived into the 15th century. Of particular interest is the Charter of Richard III to the City of Lincoln, of 1484, which presents a list of the former properties of the Jews in Lincoln, including the old Jews' cemetery. Also a petition of Edward III seems to clearly link the Jews, in the local mind, with the former economic well-being of the town and refers to their strong-rooms as 'greatest hiding-places' in Lincoln.

Across the country Jewish properties continued to be identified for many centuries as former Jewish properties on rent rolls and in property documents, or as part of an oral tradition, which appears to have happened in Lincoln as well as elsewhere. The evidence shows that the Jews continued to have a considerable impact on local folk memory, even in their absence.

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