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January 2017 Item of the Month

From a “watershed in the history of Anglo-Jewish relations”

This month’s item looks forward to the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January, and back to the Jewish community of medieval York. In the century that elapsed between the massacre at York Castle (Clifford’s Tower) in 1190 and the expulsion of the Jews from the whole country under Edward I (in 1290), probably no member of the community in York is better known within the written record than Aaron of York. Our January document exemplifies Anglo-Jewish history of this period, being a ‘starr’ (receipt for payment of a Jewish debt) of “Aaron the Jew of York.” The main document is written in Latin, but certified in Hebrew by Aaron himself.

Image of a Quitclaim by Aaron of York to the prior and convent of Durham, renouncing his right to the lands of a former debtor, held among the Durham Cathedral Archives (ref DCD 1.1.Ebor.15b).  The Hebrew text translates as, “I the undersigned certify t
Quitclaim by Aaron of York to the prior and convent of Durham, renouncing his right to the lands of a former debtor, held among the Durham Cathedral Archives (ref DCD 1.1.Ebor.15b). The Hebrew text translates as, “I the undersigned certify that all that which is written above in Latin is true. Aaron of York son of Josce.” Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

Barrie Dobson states of Aaron:

“The career of this Croesus of thirteenth-century England can … be interpreted as a microcosm of the history of the English Jewry as a whole, as a detailed commentary on the manner in which the comparatively halcyon days of the 1220s and 1230s were transformed under the pressure of relentless royal extortion into a situation of increasing penury by the late 1250s and 1260s.”

The description of Aaron as ‘son of Josce’ led a previous generation of scholars to record him as the son of Josce of York, the leader of the Jewish community in York at the time of the 1190 pogrom – he is identified as such by Eleazar Birnbaum in his article on this and other starrs of Aaron among the Durham Cathedral Archives. Dobson is doubtless correct to conclude that ‘our’ Aaron was not one of Josce of York’s children (whom the chroniclers relate were all killed by their father, in the last hours of the pogrom), but the son of a Josce of Lincoln, moving to York in the early years of the 13th century.

In 1219, Aaron is appointed an assessor for the royal taxes (tallages) on the Jews in York, and in 1236 he is appointed arch-presbyter, or secular head of the Jews in England. In 1241, Aaron heads the list of contributors to a tallage or royal tax on the Jews, with the community in York paying nearly half the total assessment (in contrast with London’s 22% and Oxford’s 12%). In contrast, by 1255 he was completely exempted from a tallage due to his poverty, and the York Jewry sank to 7th place in the assessment of its wealth. In the same year, the blood libel against the Jews reached new depths with the accusations of kidnap, torture, mock-crucifixion and murder of “Little St Hugh” in Lincoln, leading to the execution of 19 Jews after a visit to Lincoln by Henry III. A combination of excessive taxation and increased anti-Jewish propaganda led Dobson to describe the mid-1250s as “a real watershed in the history of Anglo-Jewish relations.”

The current quitclaim is undated but must date from August 1258 or later, as it names the prior of Durham as Hugh (Aaron died in 1268). It therefore belongs on the wrong side of Dobson’s ‘watershed’, while the original debt that was secured against the lands concerned dates from 1237, when Aaron was at the height of his wealth and status. By the date of the quitclaim, Aaron seems to be trading in one of his last sources of cash, effectively assisting in the transfer of lands from a Northallerton family to the monastic community at Durham.

While he is not personally linked to the 1190 massacre at Clifford’s Tower, Aaron’s career reflects the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, How can life go on. 30 years after the York pogrom, life was certainly going on for Aaron and the York community, apparently successfully and securely. But that success was short-lived and any security a mirage. Aaron was himself in penury by the time he certified the quitclaim shown above. A generation later, England’s surviving Jews were expelled, their financial value to the king having been outweighed by anti-Jewish sentiment.


Dobson quotations taken from R.B. Dobson, ‘The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews of York’, in Transactions & Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England), vol.26 (1974-1978) p.36. His identification of Aaron as son of Josce of Lincoln, analysis of 1255 tallage and “watershed” quotation from same article.

Birnbaum article is ‘Starrs of Aaron of York in the Dean and Chapter Muniments of Durham’, in Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England), vol.19 (1955-1959) p.199-205.

Aaron’s career (subject to same mis-identification of Aaron as Birnbaum) is covered in Michael Adler, ‘Aaron of York’, in Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England) , vol.13 (1932-1935) p.113-155.

Analysis of 1241 tallage from Robert C. Stacey, Politics, policy, and finance under Henry III, 1216-1245 (1987) p.149-153.

Description of ‘Little St Hugh’ blood libel from Richard Huscroft, Expulsion: England’s Jewish solution (2006) p.101-102.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.