After 800 years, is a Church apology enough?

Sunday’s service of repentance at Christ Church Cathedral is a step in the right direction

May 06, 2022 10:24

Physical attacks, collective imprisonments, mass executions, forced expulsions and a tightening noose of anti-Jewish restrictions. I’m not referring to Nazi Germany but England in the 13th century. Yet most people’s knowledge of this history is scant to the point of non-existent.

With the possible exception of the York massacre of 1190 and the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, the shameful chronicle of Jewish persecution in medieval England remains for many a startling blank.

Which is why a special service of repentance taking place this Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford to mark the 800th anniversary of the Oxford Synod of 1222 is of both historic importance and contemporary relevance.

Organised by leading members of the local Christian and Jewish communities, the service constitutes a formal and public apology for the role of the English church in promulgating antisemitism in the 13th century and since.

Apologising for something that happened 800 years ago might seem somewhat irrelevant given the pressing challenges faced by global Jewry today. But this is to miss the point. The impact of the 1222 Synod was not only disastrous for the Jews of medieval England, it played a decisive part in the persecution of Jews throughout Europe for centuries after.

The Synod began on 17 April, the second Sunday after Easter and was convened by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Recently returned to England after his years in exile during the turbulent reign of King John, Langton was ablaze with reforming zeal. High on his agenda was the “problem” of the Jews, and in particular how freely they were intermingling with Christians. By the time the Synod concluded a few weeks later, it had passed into canon law a raft of anti-Jewish measures. These included banning Jews from building new synagogues, employing Christian servants, storing their property in churches and forbidding them “on any grounds to presume to enter churches”.

Obviously, all of these measures created many difficulties for the Jews in their daily lives. The ban on storing financial records and valuables in churches left them vulnerable to burglary, assault and looting in their own homes. The ban on Christian servants made Sabbath observance harder and deterred familiarity between Jews and Christians.

But by far the most egregious of the anti-Jewish laws of 1222 was that Jews wear an identifying badge. England was the first country in Europe to enforce this humiliating and degrading practice.

The Synod stipulated that the badge must be a representation of the tablets of the law given to Moses at Mount Sinai, consisting of “two white tablets on the chest, made out of linen cloth or of parchment … Two fingers in width and four in length”, and different in colour from the clothing it was attached to, so that “by their effect a Christian is able to discern a clear sign of a Jew”.

The Oxford Synod did not create antisemitism, but 1222 was a disastrous turning point in Christian-Jewish relations, as the Christ Church service this weekend rightly recognises. This was medieval England’s equivalent of the Nuremberg racial laws. It formalised Christian antipathy towards the Jews of England, enshrined it in Church law, and set the tone for the century ahead.

Accusations of ritual murder (the blood libel, another English invention) recurred with depressing regularity. Increasingly punitive taxation wiped out individuals and ruined whole communities. Civil war in the 1260s licensed widespread massacres. Further anti-Jewish legislation was introduced in every decade, each decree more vicious than the last, culminating in the final blow of 1290, the mass expulsion of England’s Jews. This too was an English “first”.

The unholy trinity of religion, politics and economy under Henry III and Edward I not only created a hostile environment for the country’s Jews, it forged a culture saturated in anti-Jewish myths, many of which are still dangerously potent today.

The negative association of Jews and finance, for example, was a direct product of medieval Christian prejudice coupled with an English feudal economy heavily (and untypically) reliant on Jewish money-lending and taxation.

Antisemitism is at record highs globally. In Britain, cases are rising. To tackle the resurgent scourge of antisemitism we need first to acknowledge its deep roots in the state institutions and culture of our own country. Collective national amnesia about this history is part of the problem. As long as this past remains hidden and forgotten, we’re merely pruning the weed, not rooting it out.

The service at Christ Church Cathedral this weekend is a step in the right direction, building on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plea in 2019 that “only by looking back and recognising our failures as Christians can we begin to move forward with authenticity”.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘The Jewish Journey: 4,000 years in 22 objects’ and ‘Licoricia of Winchester: Power and Prejudice in Medieval England’, to be published later this month

May 06, 2022 10:24

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