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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Great Charter - Huge Hatred - Nothing Changed

Magna.CartaMagna Carta, described as “the greatest constitutional document of all times” and considered the cornerstone of the British constitution, devoted two important clauses to the Jewish community of the period.

The famous first version, signed under duress at Runnymede by King John in 1215, is said to have placed certain checks on the absolute power of the English monarchy. This did not prevent Edward I from expelling his Jewish subjects in 1290 – a mere 75 years later. It was to be 366 years before any Jews returned to England openly, although like everywhere else in Europe, a tiny number of ‘hidden’ Jews remained throughout.

I’ve been considering this again, as I did in 2006 when the Anglo-Jewish community celebrated the 350th anniversary of its resettlement in England. This follows the British Library’s decision to mark the charter’s 800th anniversary in 2015 by bringing together the four surviving copies of the original document. Two are kept at the library, another is at Lincoln Cathedral and the fourth is at Salisbury Cathedral.

The two ‘Jewish’ clauses, explained below, have been dismissed as ‘antisemitic’. In my view they prove how essential the community was to medieval English life – and how vital to the economy. I suggest that the rulings were not inherently anti-Jewish but the way they were interpreted by Jews’ enemies caused unnecessary hostility. This is not the same thing!

Magna Carta (usually translated as ‘Great Charter’) contained two articles relating to money lending and Jews. Such involvement with money lending caused Christian resentment as the Church forbade the lending of money at interest (then known as usury). It was seen as a vice (such as gambling, an un-Christian way to profit at others' expense) and was punishable by excommunication, although Jews, as non-Christians, could not be excommunicated and were thus in a legal grey area.

Secular leaders tolerated Jewish usury because it gave them an opportunity for personal enrichment. This resulted in a complicated legal situation: debtors frequently tried to bring their Jewish creditors before Church courts, where debts would be absolved as illegal, while Jews attempted to get their debtors tried in secular courts, where they would be able to collect plus interest. The relations between the debtors and creditors would often become very nasty and there were many bids  to resolve this problem. The relevant clauses in the original Magna Carta illustrate the legal code of the time:

10. If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands, if such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond”.

“11. If a man dies owing money to Jews, his wife may have her dower and pay nothing towards the debt from it. If he leaves children that are under age, their needs may also be provided for on a scale appropriate to the size of his holding of lands. The debt is to be paid out of the residue, reserving the service due to his feudal lords. Debts owed to persons other than Jews are to be dealt with similarly”.

Pope Innocent III annulled the first version of Magna Carta only two months after it was written. He claimed it was illegal because the king’s signature had been forced. Future versions contained no mention of Jews. The Church saw Jews as a threat to its authority, and to the welfare of Christians, because of their special relationship to kings as moneylenders.

Jews are the sponges of kings,” said one William de Montibus, “they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings despoil and deprive poor men of their goods.”

So it is clear that on the subject of ‘usury’ and Jews, the medieval Church relayed an unpleasantly mixed message: the wording relating to Jews in the first version of the Magna Carta was there partly because it suited the Christian nobility  and was  symptomatic of the larger power struggle between Church and State throughout the period.

Little changes. If anyone reading this piece believes modern antisemitism relates solely to the State of Israel, I commend them to the website ‘Jewish Currents’ (http://jewishcurrents.org/june-15-the-magna-carta-and-the-jews-5776) which has  readers’ talk-backs under its article about Magna Carta. I conclude by quoting several in full without further comment:

 

“Barbara - June 27, 2011 at 11:33 am

Why don’t Jews just live in their own country?”

“JackJune 27, 2011 at 11:51 am

“Wow, that must have been a virtual paradise in England, without any Jews. What a great time to have lived”.

Mike Bailey  - July 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm

“Among other crimes King John expelled the Jews for: (1) ritual Jewish murder (the Hugh of Lincoln incident, sort of like Cayley Anthony, but a long time ago) (2) Coin clipping. This is a form of stealing / lowering the value of a silver or gold coin by chipping a little of the precious metal off the edge of the coin with a hammer and chisel. Modern coins have knurled edges as a safeguard against this type of thievery. That’s why Bernie Madoff worked exclusively with paper securities”.

Mark.Ulyseas_thumb11This article first appeared in the October 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine (http://liveencounters.net/?p=4891) edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

 

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