19 July 2024

A renewed search for
the sites and history of
the Jewish community
in mediaeval Cambridge

The main vicus Judeorum in 13th century Cambridge survives as All Saints' Passage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

When I was back in Cambridge last week, I went in search once again of the sites associated with the Jewish community in mediaeval Cambridge.

There is a tradition that the Round Church near Saint John’s College was a synagogue, and the parishes of All Saints and Saint Sepulchre were ‘in the Jewry.’ A mediaeval church in Saint John’s Street, Cambridge, was known as All Saints in the Jewry, and previously as All Saints by the Hospital, because of its proximity to the Hospital of Saint John the Evangelist.

Cambridge was one of the six principal cities of mediaeval England and one of the 26 centres in England to have an archa. These archae were official chests, provided with three locks and seals, and they held and preserved all deeds and contracts of the Jewish communities.

The archae were part of the reorganisation of English Jewry ordered by Richard I following the massacres of Jews in England 1189-1190. During the riots and massacres after his coronation, the mobs had destroyed Jewish financial records, resulting in heavy losses of Crown revenues.

The archae were introduced to safeguard royal interests in case of future disorder. All Jewish possessions and financial transactions were registered in designated cities. In each city with an archa, a bureau was set up with two reputable Jews and two Christian clerks, under the supervision of a new central authority known as the Exchequer of the Jews.

Cambridge was one of the original cities with an archa. Other centres included London, Canterbury, Lincoln, Norwich, Oxford, Winchester, Bedford and possibly Bristol, Gloucester and Northampton or Nottingham. The centres had increased in number to 27 by the mid-13th century. By the time of the mass expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, Jews had already been excluded from eight of these centres and only 19 archae were active.

The site of All Saints in the Jewry, a church in the heart of the mediaeval Jewry in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Jews are first mentioned as living in Cambridge in 1073. The first recorded medieval Cambridge Jew was Theobold of Cambridge (Theoboldus Kantebrugie). He is mentioned in 1144 as an alleged convert to Christianity and a monk. He played a crucial role in establishing the case for Saint William’s martyrdom at the hands of the Jews of Norwich, and so he became a key figure in disseminating the first-known propaganda alleging ritual murder.

Another early episode in the history of Jewish Cambridge is of a fine imposed on Comitissa, a Jewish woman living in Cambridge, for allowing her son to marry a Jewish woman from Lincoln without the king’s permission. This Comitissa was probably the mother of Moses ben Isaac Hanassiah, the author of the Sefer ha-Shoham.

There was a Jewish Cemetery in Cambridge in use from some time after 1177, and there is speculation that this may have been at the site of the Selwyn Divinity School, built in Saint John’s Street by Basil Champneys in 1878-1879.

The Jews of Cambridge do not seem to have suffered much during the riots of 1189-1190.

There is a tradition that the Round Church in Cambridge was a once synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

In the 13th century, the Cambridge Judaismus was located in the comparatively compact area of the town between the churches of the Holy Sepulchre and of All Saints in the Jewry. The main vicus Judeorum in the years before 1275 survives to this day as All Saints' Passage. The most important mediaeval synagogue probably stood there, although probably not as a separate building.

Benjamin of Canterbury or Cambridge was a rabbi and a disciple of Rabbi Tam. He is more likely to have been of Cambridge as the Latin records refer to ‘Magister Binjamin’ at Cambridge and the transliteration of Cambridge in Hebrew is near to that of Cambridge. No Benjamin is mentioned as living at Canterbury in the 12th century, but a distinguished ‘Magister Benjamin’ of Cambridge is mentioned in 1204 during the reign of King John.

Benjamin seems to have been a member of the English school of Masorites and grammarians, including Moses ben Isaac, Moses ben Yom-Ṭob, Berechiah ha-Naḳdan, and Samuel ha-Naḳdan, the last of whom he quotes.

Berechiah ha-Nakdan, in his commentary on Job, refers to ‘my Uncle Benjamin’, who was probably the same individual. He is mentioned in the list of mediaeval rabbis drawn up by Solomon Luria. Only one halakic decision of his is known: it forbids the purchase of milk from a Gentile unless a Jew be present when it is drawn. But a number of notes by a Rabbi Benjamin on Joseph Ḳimḥi’s Sefer ha-Galuy have been attributed to Benjamin of Canterbury or Cambridge. He died in the early 13th century.

The first administrative traces of the presence of Jews in the city of Cambridge seem to date from the 13th century. Henry III granted the house of Benjamin the Jew to the town as a jail in 1224. This was on the site of the present Guildhall.

Some historians suggest old synagogue was near the prison – also the site of the house of Benjamin the Jew and later the site of the Guildhall on Market Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

About 50 Jewish families are recorded in Cambridge in documents between 1224 and 1240, and Cambridge remained one of the more important of the Jewries in England in England in the 13th century, primarily because it was the seat of an archa.

Aaron and Isaac le Blund held positions of financial influence and authority within the Jewry in the 1240s, while Jacob and Moses de Clare were similarly prominent before the latter migrated to Sudbury in or before 1270.

After the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265, John d’Eyville and a formidable band forced their way on to the Isle of Ely. From their headquarters there, they ‘used Cambridge as a supply base’, blackmailing the burgesses, terrorising the canons of Barnwell Priory and allegedly holding rich Jews and others to ransom. They massacred some of the Jews of Cambridge on 12 August 1266 before they seized the town’s archa and removed it to Ely. There it presumably remained until the suppression of the dissidents on the Isle in July 1267.

Within a decade, Jews were banished from Cambridge and from the rest of the region to Norwich in 1275 at the instigation of Eleanor of Provence, the mother of Edward I. By the end of the year, on 24 November 1275, the list of Jewish archae in England selected for official inspection in the crown’s interest included Huntingdon but there is no mention of Cambridge.

Edward I issued an edict in 1290, expelling all 5,000 Jews from England and confiscating their property. The Jews who were expelled crossed to France and Flanders.

Some historians suggest old synagogue was near the prison – also the site of the house of Benjamin the Jew and later the site of the Guildhall on Market Hill. It was later given to the Franciscans, who first arrived in Cambridge ca 1226 and later had their main house in Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College.

Hebrew-language manuscripts collected by the orientalist Thomas Erpennius were donated to the Cambridge University Library in 1632. Then, 15 years later, the library housed the Hebrew books of the Italian rabbi Isaac Faragi. However, Jews did not return to England – or to Cambridge – until after the decree of expulsion was annulled by Oliver Cromwell in 1656.

Shabbat Shalom, שבת שלום

The Franciscans, who were granted the once Jewish-owned site at the Market Hill, had their main house in Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
71, Friday 19 July 2024

Fields of green and gold at Great Chesterford, south of Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

We are continuing in Ordinary Time in the Church and this week began with the Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Trinity VII). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (19 September) remembers Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (ca 394), and his sister Macrina, Deaconess (ca 379), Teachers of the Faith.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Walking through the fields near Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 12: 1-8 (NRSVA):

12 At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3 He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

The Bread of the Presence in the Temple depicted in the Kupa Synagogue in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This morning’s reflection:

Summer is a beautiful time of the year in the countryside, with ripe fields of green and yellow under blue skies. In past two weeks, I have passed through beautiful fields like this on the train between Cambridge and Broxbourne and between Lichfield and Tamworth.

As I read this morning’s Gospel passage, I imagine Christ and his disciples walking through fields of green and gold such as these when they are confronted with the bureaucratic rules of the day and are accused of breaking the Sabbath.

Christ responds by stating that plucking grain on the Sabbath does not profane sacred writ. In doing so he reinterprets the Torah and clarifies the true nature of sacred endeavour.

Matthew 12:1-8 may be a retelling of Mark 2: 23-27. An analysis of this passage shows:

• verses 3-4 are an historical analogy found in I Samuel 21: 1-6, where David’s hunger supersedes the Law;

• verse 5 is a reconfiguration of Numbers 28: 9-10 and Exodus 35: 3;

• verse 7 is a reworking Hosea 6: 6, ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings’ (NRSVA).

The reference to David’s story (I Samuel 21: 1-6) associates the temple with the alleviation of hunger and makes the point that hunger supersedes form and tradition.

Hosea 6 :6 repeats the principle that human need is pre-eminent over tradition.

Christ presents his own teachings not as a replacement for Torah but as a guide to its fulfilment. Ultimately, the Torah is to reflect God’s character of love, mercy, and generosity, and human need has priority over religious observance. Mercy was, and is, more in line with God’s intentions for the Sabbath rather than the strict obedience of the Sabbath demanded at the time.

This morning’s Gospel reading offers an interesting challenge to oppressive bureaucracy and rule-making.

The current Kafka exhibition which I visited recently in Oxford is a reminder of how crushing and oppressive bureaucracy can be. This passage also offers insights into how Christ looks to a future beyond both Torah and Temple. It looks forward to a new era of mercy, beyond compliance to the narrow interpretations of religious laws and sacrifices.

Fresh bread in the window of Hindley’s bakery and café in Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 19 July 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Advocacy, human, environmental and territorial rights programme in Brazil.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Rodrigo Espiúca dos Anjos Siqueira, Diocesan Officer for human, environmental and territorial rights in the Anglican Diocese of Brasilia.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Friday 19 July 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray for the Anglican Diocese of Brasília in Brazil. For all their work serving communities and for all they are doing for human rights. Let us pray too for the Rt Rev’d Maurício José Araújo de Andrade, Diocese of Brasilia.

The Collect:

Lord of eternity, creator of all things,
in your Son Jesus Christ you open for us the way to resurrection
that we may enjoy your bountiful goodness:
may we who celebrate your servants Gregory and Macrina
press onwards in faith to your boundless love
and ever wonder at the miracle of your presence among us;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with Gregory and Macrina to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Setting out on a walk through the fields near Comberford Hall, between Tamworth and Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org