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  • Chapter 8:Between Christianity and Judaism: The Identity of Converted Jews in Medieval London
  • Lauren Fogle

In 1232, King Henry III of England founded a house for converted Jews known as the Domus Conversorum. It was on New Street, which is now Chancery Lane, and it occupied the site of the old Public Record Office. This area was technically a suburb of London at the time and the converts were sufficiently separated from the area known as the Jewry, where most of London's Jews lived. The Jewry was located north of Cheapside but south of Moorgate and spread over nine parishes and several city wards. For those who know the city of London, it was roughly between the Guildhall and Bank Underground Station. The Jewry was not a ghetto. Jews resided outside its loosely defined borders and Christians lived within it. However, living and/or owning property inside the Jewry was something that would have identified the London Jews as being Jews. Another feature that identified Jews was the yellow tabula that they were forced to wear in 1218, a stipulation of the recent Fourth Lateran Council.1 Most importantly, the Jews of England were identified as the property of the king. Because of this special relationship, the Jewish community was protected and supported by the crown in England far more than elsewhere in Europe. However, this protection came with a hefty bill and throughout the thirteenth century the kings taxed the Jews of England so heavily and frequently that by the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, many of the once prosperous magnate families had been bankrupted. The overall wealth of the English Jews was so reduced that their potential financial services to the king were not enough to keep them in favor.2 Nevertheless, when one compares the experience of English Jews with those of France, Spain, and Germany, one finds that the English were far more tolerant in many ways than their continental counterparts. It is true that the Jewish communities of continental Europe were larger and therefore perhaps more feared or distrusted, but their persecution was [End Page 107] also far more intense and far-reaching. This was also the case for those Jews who converted to Christianity, and in many ways the way in which converts were treated in England (as opposed to the Continent) greatly mirrored the way in which Jews were dealt with in general.

The conversion of Jews had been going on since the birth of Christianity, but was not centrally focused or regulated in any way until the twelfth century, when successive popes issued bulls that included specific rules for how Jews should be converted. The official papal line was simple and followed the teachings of Augustine: the Jews will convert eventually and in the meantime they must be persuaded to join the true faith, but not forced. However, the somewhat tolerant papal position, though repeated often throughout the Middle Ages, was not upheld by local clergy and most certainly not by the various political and military rulers of western and southern Europe. Jews were continuously forced to convert and offered the choice of baptism or death. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the crusader riots of 1096 when the armies, bound for Jerusalem, slaughtered the Jews of the Rhineland and forced many to convert. The idea of conversion, in this context, was potent for both Christians and Jews. For Christians it was an act of piety to convert an infidel to the true faith or to kill him and his family. It was also often an act based on economics and an attempt to cancel out debts that were owed to Jews. For the Jewish community, however, conversion was a complex issue. The Jewish chronicles of these riots treat conversion as something that many Jews had to accept, for a short time, to save themselves. This in itself was no great sin, especially since a large percentage of the Jews forcibly baptized in 1096 did return to Judaism when the danger had passed. But the Jewish chronicles also greatly praise those Jews who chose death over baptism, invoking the Jewish law of Kiddush Ha...


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pp. 107-116
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