One of the main challenges facing the public representation of medieval Jewish history in England is the lack of tangible evidence. In this essay, Toni Griffiths, PhD student at Winchester University, provides insight into recent efforts to overcome this issue through the creation of a Medieval Jewish Trail in Winchester, where Jews thrived from the 12th century until their expulsion from England in 1290. She demonstrates the complexities faced by a city struggling to remember its medieval Jewish history.
Touring the Invisible: The Public Recovery of England’s Medieval Jewish History
By Toni Griffiths
Winchester, a historic Cathedral city, has long celebrated its royal, military, and literary connections but until recently had marginalized its important medieval Jewish heritage.
In part this is because almost no physical traces of Jewish history exist in today’s geography of the city. Moreover, the exhibitions at the two sites that might be expected to acknowledge the significance of Winchester’s medieval Jewry, the Great Hall of the Castle and the City Museum, are specifically drawn from material sources.
Only one piece of material evidence of the city’s medieval Jewish history survives: a lead token bearing a Hebrew inscription, which was found in an excavation in 1968. This token, which dates from before the mid-13th century, is hugely significant but is in too poor condition to be displayed publicly.
In 2015 however, an image of the token was chosen for the cover of the Medieval Jewish Trail – the leaflet for a new and innovative tourism project that for the first time promotes Winchester’s medieval Jewish history to the public by tracing an 18-stop walking tour of the city.
Given the lack of physical evidence, the Trail is a guided tour of places that no longer exist. It tells the story of the Jewish community through key events and characters, restoring memory and giving new layers of life to sites that have been built over and forgotten for centuries: houses where Jews once lived and worked as well as the sites of the synagogue and Jewish cemetery.
One of the main points on the Trail is Winchester Castle, which once had a “Jews Tower” where Jews could seek refuge in times of trouble. The Great Hall is all that remains of the Castle, and the current exhibitions there do not touch on the relationship between the building and the city’s medieval Jews, nor do they mention key events such as the siege of the city in 1265 by Simon di Montfort that saw the massacre of many Jews and the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses.
For one thing, the Great Hall’s permanent exhibitions focus on pictorial sources — but virtually none exist for the city’s medieval Jews. A temporary exhibition or lecture could help plug the gap in the short-term, but I’m afraid that the long-term incorporation of Winchester’s medieval Jews into the Great Hall’s public history is still some way off.
The Medieval Jewish Trail starts at a passageway where a plaque commemorates the palace of William the Conqueror, who, it notes “invited Jewish merchants to England in 1070 as money lenders and traders.”
The Trail concludes at Winchester Cathedral, a site with potent connections to the city’s medieval Jewish heritage: largely, however, through the Christian church’s anti-Semitic narrative, which in the medieval period was highly vehement.
The Jewish focus here is on the Holy Sepulchre Chapel and the paintings there that date from around 1160 and show Jews attired in the conical hats they were forced to wear. There is little information provided about these paintings, however, and even the otherwise very knowledgeable Cathedral guides are currently not equipped with training that includes medieval Jewish history or its relevance to the Cathedral.
The Medieval Jewish Trail was launched in 2015, and so far – according to the Winchester City Council – it has been received enthusiastically. Indeed, so successful has the Trail collaboration been that the City Council plans to continue developing the city’s nascent remembrance of its medieval Jewish history.
Many challenges remain, however – both subjective and pragmatic. New historical information posts giving an overview of the city’s medieval Jewish history and locating one-time Jewish sites are to be installed around the city, replacing the ones already there. But this process is currently stalled by policies on signage now under review.
Due to these and other challenges, there is presently nowhere in Winchester where people who walk the Medieval Jewish Trail can easily follow up their interest. The lack of built heritage from the time and difficulties encountered by the policies and guidelines of official organizations complicate matters, but as the trail grows in popularity so does interest in the subject, thus allowing further opportunities for tour guide training and public talks.
There is clearly more work to be done in Winchester to ensure that its medieval Jewish history is fully incorporated into the city’s heritage. A member of the City Council told me last summer that the reason Jewish history had not been previously incorporated in the city’s heritage information infrastructure was simply because “no-one had asked for it.”
Well, now we – and others – are asking.
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Toni Griffiths is a PhD student at Winchester University. She deals with Winchester and other examples in her thesis, “The Journey of Memory: Forgetting and Remembering England’s Medieval Jews.”