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  • Samson's Touch and a Thin Red Line:Reading the Bodies of Saints and Jews in Bury St Edmunds
  • Michael Widner

On March 16, 1190, Palm Sunday weekend, a mob massed outside Clifford's Tower, to which the Jewish community of York had fled. Rather than face the mob, most of the Jews committed mass suicide, "the fathers of each Jewish household" cutting the throats of their wives and children.1 Those who tried to escape were massacred once outside. Between 150 and 500 Jews died. While this tragedy "has become . . . the single most famous incident in the history of the medieval English Jewry,"2 other, less well-known massacres occurred contemporaneously. On March 18, two days after the York deaths, townspeople of Bury St Edmunds massacred fifty-seven Jews.3 Later that year, Abbot Samson expelled the remaining Jews from Bury on a nearly inexplicable pretext. Jocelin of Brackland,4 in his Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds, neglects to mention the massacre, yet declares the expulsion to be a sign of Samson's magne probitatis (great goodness).5 Eight years later, after a fire burned the shrine of St Edmund, the monks of Bury translated the saint's body under Samson's direction. In contrast to the scant description of the historically significant expulsion, Jocelin, in what Anthony Bale calls "an arresting passage of mysterious ceremony," lavishes narrative attention upon the translation of and Samson's interactions with the incorrupt corpse of St. Edmund, [End Page 339] king and martyr.6 Although the expulsion and the translation seem at first unconnected, I will show that a close examination of the two events reveals medieval ideas about bodily and spiritual purity that entwine the identities of saints, Christians, and Jews.

Samson's Fiscal and Political Calculations: Abbey, Bury, and Jews

Worries about St. Edmund's rights, both secular and religious, provide some plausible motivations for Samson to expel the Jews. Before Samson's election as abbot, the monastery had fallen into heavy debt to the local Jewish lenders. The debt resulted in part from the lax government of Abbot Hugh, Samson's predecessor, who permitted others in the abbey like William the Sacristan to borrow on their own authority, and in part from the monks who, in "their ambition to build and adorn their abbey in the grandest style . . . had to borrow from God's murderers," as Colin Richmond puts it.7 To house St. Edmund's remains properly demanded a magnificent building, which, in turn, demanded money not available from the revenues of the monastery. Indeed, Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers, translators of Jocelin's chronicle, call the church "one of the most splendid in Europe."8 A glance at The Kalendar of Abbot Samson of Bury Saint Edmunds also demonstrates Samson's keen, unrelenting interest in the finances of the monastery;9 Jocelin's chronicle, too, in its regular listing of revenues and holdings, often touches on financial matters. In fact, Jocelin begins his chronicle by criticizing Abbot Hugh's lack of "ability in business matters": "The abbot sought refuge and consolation in a single remedy: that of borrowing money, to maintain at least the dignity of his household."10 When Samson took over, he improved the monastery's financial position by paying off debts, stamping out independent borrowing by his monks, and increasing revenues from the abbey's holdings. [End Page 340]

Indeed, by the time of Samson's election as abbot, the abbey was "one of the wealthiest and most highly privileged Benedictine abbeys in medieval England."11 Earlier, under Edward the Confessor, who "greatly enlarged" its lands, the abbey also received "jurisdictional and administrative powers over the 'eight and a half hundreds' that came to form West Suffolk and be known as the 'Liberty of St Edmund.'"12 The Liberty, unlike most other regions nearby, was not subject to the sheriff of Suffolk. "Every aspect of royal government had to go through the abbot and his agents." In 945, Edward I granted a large amount of land to Bury, which was called the "banleuca." Bale writes, "This area was the abbot's jurisdiction in which he enjoyed all but regal powers; the...


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