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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

There was a young man from Devizes......

and his name was Richard. Richard of Devizes lived in the late 12th century. His life was spent as a monk in Winchester. We know nothing more of his personal life. What he did, however, was leave us an account of Richard I preparing to go on crusade, his journey to The Holy Land, and his fighting against Saladin. Additionally, Richard tells us about the England Richard had left behind, dominated by his scheming brother, Prince John.

Richard's account today is most well known for the two incidents of anti-Semitism he records. The first a riot at the time of the coronation of Richard I in London (1189), and the second the story of a blood libel, involving the murder of a young French boy apprenticed to as Jewish family in Richard's home city of Winchester.

In his telling of the anti-Jewish Coronation Day riots, Richard uses the word 'holocaust' for the first time. Richard was writing in Latin and the word itself derived from two Greek words, viz holos, whole and kaustos, burnt. Richard writes, 'On the very day of the coronation .....a sacrifice of the Jews to their father the devil began in the city of London'. He goes on to say that the massacres and burning continued into the next day, 'the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the next day'.

There was an upsurge in anti-Jewish violence in England in the years 1189-90. This was quite out of keeping with the tolerance largely displayed in the country since Jews first came to England with the Norman Conquest after 1066. Indeed under a decree of Henry I it was stated that the oath of a Jew was worth that of 12 Christians. Indeed, Richard of Devizes himself, although a creature of his time, refers on two occasions to the enlightened attitude of Jews, which he likens to that of the educated (ie people like himself). The answer to the question of why anti-Semitism arose at this particular juncture is straight forward enough, however, to answer. Namely, the heightened religious fervour generated by the preachings across the country in favour of the 3rd Crusade, led to intolerance not only against the distant (geographical) threat of Islam but the nearer threat of local Judaism. Added to that there was always the jealousy engendered by the worldly success of the English Jewish entrepreneurial community. After all Aaron of Lincoln was at this time considered the richest man in all England.

Aaron was said to be richer even than the king himself. He made his money out of financing the building of abbeys and monasteries, including the abbeys at St Albans, Peterborough, and Lincoln, as well as no fewer than nine Cistercian monasteries. Aaron had a hand in many enterprises including the loan of money for armour, corn, and houses. It is said that the Norman House in Lincoln was his home, although there is no proof of this other than it is made of stone and Jewish banker's houses were so made to prevent theft (NB not all stone houses of this date belonged to Jews, even if all Jewish financiers lived in one).

It was an attack on Aaron's agent in York by one of his debtors, a man called Richard de Malbis, that led to the horror of the mass suicide of York's Jews inside the castle where they had taken refuge from a vengeful mob (1190). Those Jews who refused to take the lives of their own wives and children and then their own were nevertheless massacred by the mob to whom they surrendered.

London, York, Winchester were only the tip of the iceberg of anti-Jewish riots and massacres around this date. Kings Lynn, Colchester, and Lincoln also witnessed atrocities along with many other places. To those who today argue whether the English are or are not naturally tolerant of others it is worth remembering this shameful episode in our history. We know for example, from Kings Lynn, that even conversion to Christianity did not save some Jews. A question, therefore, of intolerance of ethnicity as well as of religion.

The story of Winchester's blood libel case has two points of special interest. The first is that although taken to court charged with murder the Jewish employer of the young French boy murdered regained his freedom. Not because of lack of evidence, although in truth, as Richard tells us, the evidence was to say the least 'thin', but because he bought his way out of gaol, and a worst fate, by bribing the judges; 'gold', writes Richard, 'contented the judges'. I bet it did! The second point of interest is that Richard himself doubted the libel, writing 'perhaps the deed was never done'. An example of the early emergence, within monasteries especially, of what later is to be called 'Renaissance Learning' (ironically, owing not a little to the Crusaders contact with Muslim learning in The Middle East).

Before we leave Richard and his Chronicle behind, I cannot as a Bristolian Provincial allow his description of London as a den of iniquity to go unrecorded!

'Stage-players, buffoons, those that have no hair on their bodies, Garamantes (north Africans?), pick thanks, catamites, effeminate sodomites, lewd musical girls, druggists, lustful persons, fortunetellers, extortioners, nightly strollers, magicians, mimics, common beggars, tatterdemalions - this whole crew has filled every house'. Really doesn't sound like Bristol! Richard then excepts two groups of people, 'I am not speaking against the learned, whether monks or Jews..'.


Chronicle of Richard of Devizes published, along with two other longer medieval Chronicles, by Amazon.

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