Friday, April 23, 2010

Great Britain: Possible Medieval Synagogue in Northampton

Great Britain: Possible Medieval Synagogue in Northampton
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Marcus Roberts of National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail (JTrails) in Northampton, England has presented evidence for the possible - even likely - identification of a site in that town as the remains of a medieval synagogue.

A survey using ground penetrating radar, carried out in partnership with Birmingham University, has identified stone walls and what appears to be a stairway and entry, possibly confirming known descriptions of the former Northampton synagogue which according to Roberts is recorded as a sunken building, entered by steps (‘and a fair and stately hall’) in an account of Northampton buildings before the Great Fire of 1674. An illustration in a bird’s eye view map of 1634 appears to show the same building where we detected the sub-cellar remains.

A survey of land underneath Kebabish (a kebab shop) and The Bear Public House, both in Sheep Street, Northampton, has identified what may be the remains of a synagogue which would date to the period before the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

Roberts told the Northampton Chronicle & Echo (April 9, 2010): " It ...showed what appears to be two walls going down 14 feet underneath cellar level. There was also a square or rectangular structure next to it which may well have been a stairway going down into the synagogue." Roberts further told me that "the very substantial building was a sunken structure in the medieval period, an adjacent wall in the pub cellar appears to be an up-wards extension and adjacent structure to the sub-cellar finds, which could thereby be a visible remnant of the synagogue wall or an adjacent Jewish building and is at least six feet thick."

Last year, an archaeological survey in Northampton discovered what Roberts believes is the site of a 12th century Jewish cemetery of the city. In the case of the new find, Roberts and project partner Caroline Sturdy Colls, a PhD archaeology student at Birmingham University, both warned they could not be certain of the nature of the remains without excavating the site. Based on the historical and documentary evidence, Robers is confident that Sheep Street was once home to a medieval Jewish settlement and synagogue. But even if the identified remains are part of a former Jewish street, much more evidence would needed to prove they were also part of a synagogue. One remembers that controversy and disagreement on the identification of the massive Romanesque structure excavated in Rouen (France). That episode is a lesson that despite the lack of many many large Jewish communal structures of the period surviving today, there may have been more than we presume. Not every significant building in a Jewish quarter or on a Jewish street need have been a synagogue.

But Roberts told the local paper "But we thought we would find the synagogue there and what we have found is an extremely substantial medieval sunken building."

To date there are no confirmed remains of medieval synagogues in England. In the 1990s a small structure with built-in benches was excavated in Guildford and was quickly identified as a likely synagogue, but experts now disagree over its original use. Excavations in London in recent years have revealed remains of houses of local Jews and of mikvot, but no synagogue.

For further reading see:

Alexander, Mary, 1997. “A possible synagogue in Guildford,” in G. De Boe & F. Verhaeghe, ed.s: Religion and Belief in Medieval Europe – Papers of the Medieval Europe Brugge 1997 Conference, vol. 4, 201-212, I.A.P. Rapporten 4, Zellik, 1997.

Blair, Ian; Hillaby, Joe; Howell, Isca; Serman, Richard; and Watson, Bruce, 2001. “Two Medieval Jewish Ritual Baths – Mikva’ot – found at Gresham Street and Milk Street in London,” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, Vol. 52 (2001), 127-137.

Isserlin, Raphael M.J., “Building Jerusalem in the ‘Islands of the Sea’: The Archaeology of Medieval Anglo-Jewry” in S. Kadish, ed., Building Jerusalem: Jewish Architecture in Britain. Vallentine Mitchell, London and Portland, Or., 34-53.

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