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Which Medieval Jewish Stories Need to Be Told?

We find ourselves in an era of rising antisemitism both in the U.S.A. and abroad. It’s not that antisemitism ever went away, but it’s become more overt, more permissible, and more linked with direct threats and acts of violence.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been Jewish my whole life (I am Jewish on my mom’s side, and she was half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic). But it took the election of Donald Trump for someone to call me a kike for the first time. That was a few days after the 2016 election. It’s only gotten worse since then, with rampant antisemitism broadcast across our media platforms and rising in American right-wing politics; and of course all the mass murder and gun violence and a terrifying uptick in anti-Jewish violence of all kinds.

There is, of course, a longer history here. And that history and our current events have led me to reflect on recent academic findings related to medieval European Jews and how those findings are being refracted through the lens of the modern moment. 

A few months ago, a new study was published in the journal Current Biology that identified Jewish genetic markers in bodies recovered from a medieval well in Norwich, England. The bodies (17 in all) were actually recovered in 2004, but scientists just completed sequencing the genome of six of the seventeen bodies. They found that:

Four of these individuals were closely related and all six have strong genetic affinities with modern Ashkenazi Jews. We identify four alleles associated with genetic disease in Ashkenazi Jewish populations and infer variation in pigmentation traits, including the presence of red hair. Simulations indicate that Ashkenazi-associated genetic disease alleles were already at appreciable frequencies, centuries earlier than previously hypothesized.

The bodies seem to have been deposited in a single event, suggesting mass death consistent with disease, famine, or violence. The bodies were radiocarbon dated to the 11th-12th centuries and were buried with pottery shards from the 12th-14th centuries, and because they turned out to be Jewish, the researchers suggest that these individuals were killed during an infamous massacre of Jews in Norwich in 1190. This was, of course, just after the conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin and the ramp up by Richard I of England and other European rulers towards the military campaigns we now call the “Third Crusade.”1 One chronicler, as translated by Dr. Ted Booth in his article on the massacres, writes,

“A great number of youths arrived from different provinces who had taken the sign of the Lord to depart for Jerusalem. They were indignant because the enemies of the cross of Christ living in that same place possessed so much, while they having taken up so great a journey had little, from them they considered they ought to extort from the unjust possessors, that which they might apply to the urgent uses of the pilgrimage which they had undertaken…No one either from the inhabitants of the place or from those who had come to the day of the market were opposing such daring ones, in truth some were even helping them (the youths). Some of the Jews were cut to pieces.”

Norwich is also the site of the origin of blood libel myth, which came into focus (as argued by Emily Rose in her book) in Norwich in the 1140s as a strategy (Rose’s word) to justify the murder of a Jewish moneylender by a local knight, and while the 1190 massacre is not as infamous as the one in York that same year, they are linked.

Read entire article at Modern Medieval (Substack)