Friday, February 1, 2013

UK: Commemorative Stone Marks Location of Oxford's Medieval Jewish Cemetery


Oxford, England, UK. Dedication of new commemorative stone on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery (July 2012).   Photos: Alison Ryde with permission of the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee

UK: Commemorative Stone Marks Location of Oxford's Medieval Jewish Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Apropos of my recent post about the 19th-century Deane Road Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at how older Jewish cemeteries are documented and recognized in England.   

Read further to learn about the placement of a new commemorative marker last summer on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery of Oxford.  I'm beginning to look at the treatment of all the known pre-Expulsion (1290) English Jewish cemeteries to see what lessons can be applied (or avoided) in dealing with medieval Jewish cemeteries in others countries where Jews were expelled and where cemeteries were long forgotten - especially Spain, France and (southern) Italy - but are now coming to light through research or new urban development.

It is estimated that there were between 100 and 200 Jewish communities throughout England before the expulsion of Jews in 1290.  These, at least, were places where Jews were known to live at one time or another.  Some of these communities were doubtless quite small, and others had fallen onto hard times in the decades before 1290, when the activities  of Jews were more restricted.  Many Jews were also highly mobile, so some settlements may have only lasted a short while.  Jews were allowed only one cemetery - that of London - until 1177 when  King Henry II allowed others to be established.  To date, only a few others have been identified.  

The Jewish cemetery of medieval London at Cripplegate, which was the oldest, largest and most important in the country, was already pillaged for stone (and worse?) already in the Middle Ages.  Excavation in the area after World War II when later accretions to the area were bombed away, indicate the possibility that some human remains were removed at an early date.  It is unknown whether this was done with reverence - perhaps at the time of expulsion - or whether it was a desecration. 

The history and archaeology of the site are described by Marcus Roberts at jtrails.org.uk.  Go to his essay that is number 105 on his list of places of interest. reading Roberts account, it does not appear that there is any signage giving the history of the site.  Gravestones from this site are not know. Presumably, they were long ago pillaged.   Hebrew inscriptions on London buildings mentioned in the 16th century  by John Stow as coming from houses (see for example under "Ludgate") were in fact re-used funerary stones.  Such re-use of Jewish gravestones is widely known from many countries.  For a detailed discussion of the cemetery and the inscriptions see M.B. Honeybourne, "The Pre-Expulsion cemetery of the Jews in London," in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, XX (1959-61), 145-159.

Elsewhere, a much debated medieval Jewish cemetery was discovered and excavated in York in the 1980s.  Nearly 500 skeletons were excavated of the estimated more than 1,000 burials in the cemetery.  Only part of the cemetery threatened by the car park was excavated.  The remains were reburied nearby  in 1984, in a ceremony presided over by Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits before members of York’s modern Jewish community.

I have previously reported Marcus Roberts' re-discovery of gravestone fragment in Norwich and his subsequent suggestion for the Norwich Jewish cemetery location. 

I missed, however, a ceremony in Oxford last summer when a new plaque was installed on the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery in that famous University town Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee.   According to the Committee's website:
"The Jewish Cemetery was set up on areas of land the medieval Oxford Jews purchased shortly after 1177, which were in fact water meadows by the Cherwell river. The land is now owned by Magdalen College and the Botanic Gardens.  Much of this land North of the High was appropriated from the Jews in 1231 by the Hospital of St John leaving only a small area of the meadows, located near the Rose Garden which remained as the Jewish Burial Ground until 1290, when all Jews in England were expelled.  A plaque is fixed to the Gates of the Botanic Garden, unveiled by the City Council in 1931, to commemorate the site as the ancient Jewish Cemetery....The footpath from these Gardens to Christ Church Meadows linked the Cemetery to the Medieval Jewry along what is now St Aldates, and has long been known as 'Deadman's Walk,' a name still used today.  The University of Oxford Botanic Garden was established at the beginning of the 17th century as a 'physic garden' on the site of the original Jewish cemetery which lay just outside the East Gate of the Ancient City Walls."
According to the Committee the 1931 plaque misidentifies the graveyard’s location.  The proper site was discovered by Pam Manix who identified the location after examining archives of  Magdalen College. The medieval site is located under the Rose Garden, close to the Oxford Botanical Garden. The new stone has been placed between the York stone steps by the Rose Garden. Here is the text:
 
From BBC:






1 comment:

Hels said...

It is very interesting to me that "the Jewish Cemetery was set up on areas of land the medieval Oxford Jews purchased shortly after 1177, which were in fact water meadows by the Cherwell river. The land is now owned by Magdalen College and the Botanic Gardens."

Although land-use in Oxford may well have changed a great deal since then, it was probably attractive and not remote land even in the late 12th century. So some landowner must have been very generous and kind, to donate good land to the Jewish community.