The medieval Jewish poet who preceded Chaucer

Work of Rabbi Meir of Norwich now to be rendered into English

By Jennifer Lipman, September 20, 2012
Once upon a time: the Jewish quarter in early Norwich in a map drawn to show the area before expulsion

Once upon a time: the Jewish quarter in early Norwich in a map drawn to show the area before expulsion

Rare poems documenting the persecution of Norwich's medieval Jewish community, in the period preceding the expulsion from England in 1290, are being given a new lease of life thanks to the work of a dedicated group of residents.

The East Anglia town was one of the hubs of Jewish life in medieval Britain, along with York and London. It became notorious in 1144 when the first recorded "blood libel" occurred there, following the discovery of the bloodied body of William of Norwich on the outskirts of the town, and persecution and attacks on the Jewish community remained common in the subsequent 150 years.

It is estimated that up to 150 Jews were living in the town in the 13th century, among them Rabbi Meir Ben Eliahu, a poet known as "Meir of Norwich" who wrote at least 20 poems.

Little is known about Rabbi Meir and it is not clear whether or not he completed his writing after fleeing England, but his connection to the town is made clear in one poem, where the initial lines are an acrostic that spell: "I am Meir, son of Rabbi Eliahu, from the city of Norwich which is in the land of isles called Angleterre. May I grow up in the Torah of my Creator and in fear of him; Amen, Amen, Selah."

For centuries after his death, the poems were forgotten until they were discovered in the Vatican archives in the 19th century by Abraham Berliner, and published in Hebrew in 1887. Now, retired academics Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth, along with Jewish author Keiron Pim, are hoping to find £4,000 to fund their translation into English.

I am Meir, son of Eliahu, from Norwich, Angleterre

Few accounts of Jewish life in the Europe of the Middle Ages survive today, with the poetry of the Spaniard Yehuda HaLevi perhaps the best known literary example.

The content of Rabbi Meir's verses ranges from detailed study of Jewish religion and history, to statements of faith in God and accounts of the experiences faced by his co-religionists.

In one, titled A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile, Suffering and Ruin, he speaks of the suffering of his people: "In the land of the heavy-hearted and exhausted / we have heard the people's reproach /Silently we await the light."

Another line reads: "Put a curse on my enemy / for all are deceivers. / When will you say to the house of Jacob: 'Come let us walk into the light.' /They make heavy our yoke, / they are finishing us off. / They repeat: 'Let us scorn them!' / until the light."

"A century before Geoffrey Chaucer was at work, Meir of Norwich documented the hopes and sufferings of England's Jewish population," said Mr Pim.

"It is important to bring this Jewish literary voice from medieval England to a wider audience. He reveals his fears of persecution.

"There weren't many people documenting what happened - we know what did happen, but not from Jewish voices of the time. The poems give a different side of what we know."

Mr Crasnow, a Jewish academic who lives in Norwich, said: "This is not a great masterpiece. We have to acknowledge that - but it does reflect the pace of life in England at a time of prejudice and persecution. It gives an insight into Jewish life at the time."

He said such documentation of medieval Jewish life was very rare, with the bulk of what exists relating to taxation and finance.

"To ask for great literature is beside the point. The poems do two things; one is to reveal the history of Norwich, and the other is that they are part of the history of Jewish poetry."

Last year it emerged that the skeletons of seven people, believed to be Jewish, had been unearthed in a 12th-century well in Norwich, with scientists suggesting that they died as the victims of an "act of violence".

If you are interested in donating toward publishing Meir of Norwich's poetry, please send a cheque made payable to 'Writers' Centre Norwich' to: Chris Gribble, chief executive, Writers’ Centre Norwich, 14 Princes Street, Norwich NR3 1AE, remembering to include your name and address so that receipts can be supplied. For questions about how to donate or about the project in general then please email Chris Gribble on

Last updated: 3:07pm, September 27 2012