Medieval & Early Modern History Research article

England and the Jews, before Shakespeare

 The persecution of Jews in Europe has a long, and horrific, history – with its origins in Medieval England

6 minute read

Content warning: This blog is about the history of racism against Jewish people and contains material and images that may cause harm or distress.


In Europe’s long history of targeting Jews for antisemitic, anti-Judaic, and ethnoracist treatment, England was the first, and England was the worst.

In 1144, the ritual murder libel – a vicious fantasy that accused Jews of torturing and slaughtering Christian children, especially boys, to re-enact the deicide of Christ (for whose death Christians held Jews responsible) – was invented in England, at Norwich. This extraordinary fantasy then spread to France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, and survived for centuries in Europe. In England, ritual murder lies reared their ugly head at Norwich, Gloucester, Bury St. Edmunds, Bristol, Winchester, Lincoln, London, and Northampton.  At Lincoln, ninety-one Jews were imprisoned, and nineteen were judicially executed in 1255 – drawn through the streets, and hung on specially constructed gallows – because of a child-murder accusation, a lie later repeated and memorialized in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  Seven shrines were accordingly raised to boy “martyrs,” around which communal emotions could gather, pool, and intensify; the ones at Norwich, Bury, and Lincoln survived to the Reformation.

A medieval illustration of a group of men wearing brightly coloured robes attacking a young naked child.

An illustration from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (1493) showing the murder of the child, Simon of Trent, a classic example of the blood libel that Jews used Christian blood in their rituals.

England also became the first country in Europe/Christendom to make Jews wear a special badge in 1218, after the medieval Church’s Fourth Lateran Council declared in 1215 that Jews and Muslims living in Christendom must identify themselves by a difference of dress.  First, men and women, then Jewish children in England above the age of seven, had to mark themselves with a “badge of shame.”  English church and state laws repeatedly fixated on this badge: what size, color, and shape it must be, and how prominently on the chest it must be displayed. By 1275, the Statute of Jewry (Statutum de Judeismo) declared that Jews and Christians, who had been living cheek-by-jowl in English towns, could no longer live together in close quarters – a law that, by separating the Jewish minority from the Christian majority population, in effect mandates the beginnings of the ghetto.

A scan of a tablet of the Old Testament showing a drawing of a person wearing a badge on their chest.

English Jew wearing the Jewish badge on his chest in the form of the tablets of the Old Testament. BL Cotton MS Nero, D2, fol.180, thirteenth century. British Library, UK, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

Finally, in 1290, after two centuries of impoverishing its Jewish population through taxes, special expropriations called tallages, and extortionate fines, England became the first country in Christendom to expel Jews from its shores, beginning two centuries of European expulsions that would be bookended by Portugal’s expulsion of Jews in 1496.

But the story of horrors doesn’t end there. In 1232, King Henry III established a House of Converts (Domus Conversorum), to provide accommodation and sustenance for Jews converting to Christianity, because these converts lost their assets and property upon conversion (their resources were confiscated as ill-gotten gains from “usury”).  England’s Jewish community was made to pay for, and support, the House of Converts where their former coreligionists lived.  And there’s more: eventually, the site of this “home of converts” became the location of Rolls House, and the Public Record Office – where Chancery business was conducted and the records of England were kept.

An illustration depicting shadowy King figures overlooking various people standing and kneeling in old robes.

In 1290, England became the first country in Christendom to expel Jews from its shores. Illustration by Daren Lin, University of Texas at Austin

The vicious irony of making the Jewish community pay for the upkeep of those who had left their community was thus compounded by the vicious irony of keeping the records of the nation’s business sited where the nation’s minority community of Jews ceased to be Jews, and were made to disappear. This is just a quick tour of the archival data: the merest sketch of what happened historically when Jews were living in England in the long centuries before Shakespeare.  But since Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice portrays its key Jewish character as a moneylender, let’s start again, this time from the beginning. Jewish peoples probably arrived in England in the wake of the Norman conquest of 1066.  Some scholars think William I may even have solicited their immigration, to make use of their financial expertise.  They were not allowed to hold land, so, once there, Jewish men and women became bankers, lending on credit, and dynamically driving the growing economy of twelfth- and thirteenth-century England.

Everyone needed loans and credit – small farmers, traders equipping ships with cargoes, artisans and merchants, lords preparing for war, churchmen renovating cathedrals, and especially the king.  In fact, much of the built landscape of England that survives from the medieval past – abbeys, cathedrals, fortifications, manors, homes, urban architecture is the historical legacy of Jewish financiers.

‘Legally, Jews in England had a unique and precarious status.  They were the chattels of the king’

Legally, Jews in England had a unique and precarious status.  They were the chattels of the king: servi camarae nostri, the “serfs/servants/slaves of our chamber” or, simply, judei nostri, “our Jews.”  The king could lease or mortgage his Jews (usually to members of his family) or give away individuals as gifts.  Legally entitled to protection from the king as his Jews, the whole community was also milked by the king whenever he needed money (and kings soon learnt that outright appropriations in the form of taxes and tallages were better than loans which had to be repaid).

A whole surveillance system was thus incrementally assembled from the twelfth century on through a bureaucratic apparatus called the Exchequer of the Jews, devised to monitor Jewish assets for taxations and tallages.  This economic panopticon – which helped to drive the precocious expansion of English state bureaucracy – not only monitored all Jewish businesses and assets; over time, the whole of Jewish life passed under its review.

Jews could only live in towns and cities where the Exchequer of the Jews maintained records of Jewish business.  They needed permission to establish and to change their residences.  They couldn’t walk in public during Holy Week, couldn’t socialise in the homes of Christian neighbours, couldn’t have Christian servants, couldn’t pray too loudly in synagogues.  By 1275, they were forbidden to live among Christians altogether, in a segregation of urban geography mandating a ghetto.

‘By 1275, Jews were forbidden to live among Christians altogether, in a segregation of urban geography mandating a ghetto’

Mob violence was also periodically visited on England’s Jewish community.  At the inauguration of Richard I (“the Lionheart”), and whenever a crusade was called, the prospect of killing infidels overseas – Muslims – somehow seemed to require, first, the killing of infidels at home – Jews.  Mob slaughter of Jews was accompanied, of course, by the destruction of records of debt to Jews, as well as forced conversions of key Jewish figures.  Christian indebtedness, Jewish loans, and forced conversions were not invented by Shakespeare.

That Jewish peoples in England over the centuries found ways to live their lives, practice their livelihoods, nurture their families, keep faith with their religion, socialize with Christian neighbors, and serve manifold communities – despite the panoply of state and church laws, surveillance apparatuses, and populist violence that, in sum, produced what I’ve called the first racial state in the West – testifies to extraordinary resilience, courage, faith, and determination.

A group of actors wear white clergy robes, an actor far left holds a large crucifix as a standard, with an actor far right wearing purple robes and holding a baptism chalice. An actor in the centre stands defeated, wearing a white smock.

The ending of our 2016 production of The Merchant of Venice depicted Shylock’s formal baptism – his punishment for wishing to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Photographer: Marc Brenner

The archives of England are silent on how English Jews felt about their treatment.  No Shylock has left an impassioned declaration of the humanity of medieval England’s Jews, nor their right to be treated with compassion, equality, and justice.  What we have are records of fines, punishments, and imprisonments, laws and statutes, deeds of debt, and rolls and registries that hint at responses, emotions, and lives only if there is a way to extrapolate from them what they do not say.

To recover a full understanding of what England owed to its minority Jewish community, and a satisfying recognition of the responses and lives of the Jewish ethnoracial minority that enabled England to become England, perhaps what we need, then, is something like Saidya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” – a way to fill in the blanks, responsibly and responsively, by imagining “what might have happened or might have been said or might have been done.”

In the face of an archival void, to listen for the unsaid, for the feelings, thoughts, and responses of those who were legislated, documented, monitored, surveilled, ruled over, and finally expelled, we may need to critically imagine – and set into the silences and absences of the archive – the words of a thousand Shylocks, for the centuries of time before there was a Shylock to articulate them.

Who will do this, for the Jews of medieval England?


Author’s note: This short essay owes a massive debt to many decades of scholarship on England’s Jewish population, and to myriad scholars who, because of the format of a blog essay, are impossible to acknowledge with individual citations. For scholarship to consult and elaborations of the thoughts here, please see Chapter 2 of the author’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and England and the Jews: How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West, or email the author

Continue your exploration into the field of Shakespeare and Race and learn more about Geraldine Heng’s research in her book, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, available to purchase from our Globe Shop. What’s more, you can enjoy 20% off with the discount code WINTER20CUP.

The Merchant of Venice plays as part of our Winter 2021/22 season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 18 February to 9 April 2022. 

Globe scholars will be joined by theatre artists and scholars to discuss race and social justice in The Merchant of Venice as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 15 March 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.