'Inspiring' new evidence shows how Jews thrived in York after antisemitic 1190 massacre

A trove of documents reveals how the city’s Jewish residents lived and worked alongside their Christian neighbours, mostly harmoniously, in the early 1200s


A thriving Jewish community began to flourish in York less than 20 years after one of the worst antisemitic massacres of the Middle Ages took place in the city, it has emerged.

Researchers at the University of York have uncovered an “inspiring” trove of documents that suggest the city’s Jewish residents lived and worked alongside their Christian neighbours in the early 1200s, mostly in harmony, and were among the most important figures in England at the time.

The tranche of information “dispels myths and challenges preconceptions” of what life was like for Jews in the years following the pogrom of 1190, when the city’s entire Jewish community was besieged inside Clifford's Tower at York Castle by an antisemitic mob.

The tower was burned down by locals after fabricated stories, which came to be known as the blood libel, spread that Jews were guilty of murdering Christian children and using their blood to perform religious rituals. An estimated 150 York Jews were murdered or took their own lives rather than renounce their faith.

Now, archival evidence suggests that after the massacre, not only did some Jews return to York but the community experienced growth and prosperity too.

Using documents from the Durham Cathedral Archives, academics have created digital reconstructions of the houses where the York's most prominent Jewish citizens lived and have pinpointed the location of the the city's first synagogue.

They have also traced how leading figures from the Jewish community cooperated with the senior clergy of York Minster in purchasing the large stone building which became the city’s Guildhall.

The research, part of the university’s StreetLife project, is available online, where the public can view digital reconstructions of the houses where key Jewish figures lived in 1210.  

They include Leo Episcopus, his son-in-law Aaron of York and Aaron’s nephew Josce le Jovene. Leo and Aaron were representatives of the Jewish community of England, and in the 1230s and 1240s the latter was thought to be the richest man in the country. Today, high-street shops including Boots, Waterstones and Next are located at the sites of these men’s homes.

It is likely that Aaron co-operated with the senior clergy of York Minster on a range of civic projects, including the construction of the Five Sisters window - previously known as the Jewish Window - in the Minster itself in exchange for land extending York’s Jewish cemetery.

York Synagogue warden Howard Duckworth said: “The amount of new information that has been uncovered by the team is truly inspiring…We have discovered a totally new history of Jews in York, which for many years has been overshadowed by the massacre at Clifford's Tower.”

He added that walking through the city now, people were able to see York “with totally different eyes”.

York recently welcomed its first resident rabbi since the expulsion of the Jews from England under King Edward I in 1290.

Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo, has been appointed to serve the York Liberal Jewish Community, with her first formal engagement being the community’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in September. 

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