English Legal History and its Materials


Jews began to settle in England soon after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They for the most part escaped the massacres during the first (1096–1099) and second (1145–1149) crusades, and despite occasional imposition of periodic fines and special levies, for a time their numbers and prosperity increased under the protection of the king.[1]

There was a reason Jews were protected by the Crown. Surviving records of the Exchequer Pipe Roll of the reign of Henry I show that the Jews of England constituted a major source of royal revenue to the Crown early in the twelfth century. "The intent was to use the Jewry as a reservoir equally open to receive and close to retain the surplus wealth of the surrounding population, so that the crown will never lack a fund on which to draw in an hour of need".[2]

With the further advance of commerce and industry under Henry I and Henry II, the Jews of England continued to increase their royal revenues and the demand grew for the creation of a distinct department of the Great Exchequer for the Jews capital management.[3]

Catalysts for the creation of the department of the Exchequer of the Jews :

Further catalysts for the creation of the department of the Great Exchequer for the Jews were the Crusade mania reaching England (around 1190), and the death of Aaron of Lincoln (in 1186).

A. The Crusade Mania of the 1190s:

The Crusades did not leave the Jewish population completely unharmed: when the Crusaders mania reached England in the 1190s, it included attacks against the Jews by fanatic Christians who killed them and took their money, leaving debts (to loans given out by these Jews) uncollected. "This ostensibly religious persecution was suspected at the time to have been at bottom but 'a new way to pay old debts'". [4]

Richard I, who was the king at the time, became concerned about how violence against the Jews could affect his access to their capital, as the Jews' wealth was one of the main sources of money for the Crown [5].In a Statue of the Jewry from the early thirteen century, associated by Hoveden and Ranulf Galnvill, that meant to prevent the loss of this income, it is stated: Be it known, that all Jews, wheresoever they might be in the realm, are of right under the tutelage and protection of the King; nor is it lawful for any of them to subject himself to any wealth person without the King's license. Jews and all their effects are the King's property, and if any one withhold their money from them, let the King recover it as his own". [6]

B. The Death of Aaron of Lincoln:

Aaron of Lincoln, a Jew who was believed to be the richest man in England, died in 1186, leaving an estate that was so be big it required a treasurer and clerk to manage all the debtors. An arrangement termed "Aaron's Exchequer." [7]

The danger to the Jews from the hands of Crusaders and religious zealots (as well as people who used religious persecution of Jews to avoid having to pay their debts), was further emphasized by Aaron's death and the enormous effort it took to collect the money he had lent to people. In what was probably in large part an attempt to minimize loss of revenue to the crown, King Richard I decided to re-organize the machinery by which revenue from the Jews were collected. [8] The implementation of the institution of the Exchequer of the Jews was finalized by the last decade of the 12th Century, and its primary purpose was to make a record of the debts owing to the Jews. [9]

Definition and Description:

The details of the institution are clearly stated in the 1194 orders of Richard I, stating as follows:

"All the debts, pledges, mortgages, lands, houses, rents, and possessions of the Jews shall be registered. The Jew who shall conceal any of these shall forfeit to the King his body and the thing concealed, and likewise all his possessions and chattels, neither shall it be lawful to the Jew to recover the thing concealed. Likewise six or seven places shall be provided in which they shall make all their contracts, and there shall be appointed two lawyers that are Christians and two lawyers that are Jews, and two legal registrars, and before them and the clerks of William of the Church of St. Mary's and William of Chimilli, shall their contracts be made.

And charters shall be made of their contracts by way of indenture. And one part of the indenture shall remain with the Jew, sealed with the seal of him, to whom the money is lent, and the other part shall remain in the common chest: wherein there shall be three locks and keys, whereof the two Christians shall keep one key, and the two Jews another, and the clerks of William of the Church of St. Mary and of William of Chimilli shall keep the third. And moreover, there shall be three seals to it, and those who keep the seals shall put the seals thereto.

Moreover the clerks of the said William and William shall keep a roll of the transcripts of all the charters, and as the charters shall be altered so let the roll be likewise. For every charter there shall be three pence paid, one moiety thereof by the Jews and the other moiety by him to whom the money is lent; whereof the two writers shall have two pence and the keeper of the roll the third.

And from henceforth no contract shall be made with, nor payment, made to, the Jews, nor any alteration made in the charters, except before the said persons or the greater part of them, if all of them cannot be present. And the aforesaid two Christians shall have one roll of the debts or receipts of the payments which from henceforth are to be made to the Jews, and the two Jews one and the keeper of the roll one.

Moreover every Jew shall swear on his Roll, that all his debts and pledges and rents, and all his goods and his possessions, he shall cause to be enrolled, and that he shall conceal nothing as is aforesaid. And if he shall know that anyone shall conceal anything he shall secretly reveal it to the justices sent to them, and that they shall detect, and shew unto them all falsifiers or forgers of the charters and clippers of money, where or when they shall know them, and likewise all false charters.."[10]

The Exchequer of the Jews (alternately known as the "Scaccarium Judaeorum", “Scaccarium Judaismi" or "Thesauraria Judaeorum") was a department of medieval English government, which was subordinate to the main Exchequer. It was appointed by the king and its designation was to deal with Jewish affairs. [11]

The creation of a separate institution to deal with the monies of the Jews was not wholly unique for those times. The Jews of England enjoyed a qualified autonomy by the hands of the king in several additional matters. For example, they had latitude in rate of the interest for loans they gave (though some records show a maximum limit)[12], as well as in juridical matters. Also, cases where Jews alone were concerned were given leeway to be left to the cognizance of the Jews’ own tribunals [13].

Functions and Judicial Power:

As part of its functions, the Exchequer of the Jews controlled a system of officials within established Jewish communities. It had the power to appoint and dismiss these officials as well as to handle transactions. Monies collected by the Exchequer of the Jews were retained in a separate treasury, and were disbursed on the king's instructions.

All money-lending transactions had to be registered in the archae (chests). Each archae was administrated by four chirographers (two Christians and two Jews), which were elected and sworn. All contract and loans between Christians and Jews were to be put into legal form, and an exact copy was to be put behind triple lock and seal. "In practice, the bond and the memorial were written on the same skin, which, being folded on the blank space, was cut in an irregular line, so that the two parts corresponded as tallies" (14). The original bond was sealed by the debtor and delivered to the creditor.

When a debt became due, the Exchequer of the Jews would issue an authorization for the levying of the debt at the request of the creditor. Only if the debtor had died would the collection of the debt be preceded by other legal proceedings. [15]

Another responsibility of the Exchequer of the Jews was the "Scaccarium Judaeorum", which served as escheator—a doctrine that transfers the property of a person who dies without heirs to the crown or state. This served to ensure that property was not left in "limbo" without recognized ownership. It also meant that in effect the Crown took charge of tenements and chattels of Jews, ensuring that they fell into the king's hands following death (without heirs) or transgressions. [16]

The Exchequer of the Jews also exercised a jurisdiction over cases involving Jewish debts which had passed into the hands of the Crown, or had been transferred to other Christian creditors. The Exchequer of the Jews claimed exclusive jurisdiction in these matters, though it was subject to some exception. [17]

Structure, Appointment of Justices and Safe-Guards:

In 1200 four "Justices of the Jews" were named. Two of those were Jews: Benjamin de Talemunt and Joseph Aaron, and in fact became the only Jews appointed to this position throughout the duration of the institute. The four Justices were given the status of Barons of the Exchequer, and were subjected to the authority of the Treasurer and the Chief of Justice. [18] During deliberations, the justices were often aided by the presbyter judaeorum—a chief rabbi—who assisted them in matters involving Jewish law. [19]

Part of the jurisdiction power and duty of the Exchequer of the Jews included assessing the contributions of the Jews to the royal treasury in reliefs, escheats, fines, and tallages (general taxes applied arbitrarily by the king). [20]

To keep track of debts, the Justices would periodically order a "scrutiny" ("scrutinium") to be made of the lists of the debts that were contained in the archae. Many such lists exist to this day. [21] During the process of “scrutiny” of the archae all business were suspended [22].

Safeguards were put in place to ensure that the archae could not be tampered with: Each archae had three locks and a set of keys for each lock. Each set of keys was held by different designated people (one set by two Jews, one by two Christians, and the third by two royal clerks) so that the chests could only be opened if all three were present [23] After "scrutiny" of the lists of the debts was made, the Justices sent a report to the king describing the capability of the Jewry to bear further tallage. [The king routinely applied additional tallage. If those were not paid, the Jew’s wife and children were often imprisoned as hostages or the Jew himself was sent to the Tower and his lands and chattels detained]. [24]

Documentation in the form of The Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews survive for the years 1219–20, 1244, 1253, and in a virtually continuous series from 1266 to 1287. These documents include details from various pleas entered by Jews or Christians, dealing with rate of interest, its lapse during the minority of an heir, or alleged forgeries of Chirographs. [25] A volume of the more important of these pleas was published in 1902 jointly by the Selden Society and the Jewish Historical Society of England. [26]

Issues with and the end of the office of the Exchequer of the Jews:

At first, the selected justices for the office of the Exchequer of the Jews were men of some distinction who were appointed from among the king's favorites. Later on (for example from 1272-1287) they were dismissed for corruption and bribery. [27]

The office of the Exchequer of the Jews survived for almost a century. The expulsion of England’s Jewry in 1290 signaled the end of the office of Exchequer of the Jews, though some cases with reference to the debts of the Jews can be found in some year-books through the reign of Edward II (1284-1327). [28]

Historical perspective: Medieval Culture and Views of Minorities:

At first glance it could seem as if what drove the persecution of Jews were unique acts of pure anti-Semitism directed towards the Jewish population of medieval England. However, a close comparative reading sheds light to the reality that such persecution was not unique to the treatment of Jews but reflected a historical "system" of blaming "aliens" or various minority groups for daily misfortunes and difficulties (e.g. sudden diseases, poverty and famine, wars, or forces of nature etc.) [29]

Much of the time mass accusations and persecution of minority groups were justified in the name of God (and/or attributed the evil doings of the ‘designated minority group’ in the name of the devil). Similar justification was used in the persecution of the Jews during England’s crusade mania. [30] As mentioned in in Ginzburg’s book, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath: "The lepers' extermination was the first time in the history of Europe that such huge programme of segregation was undertaken". "In succeeding centuries other protagonists would take the lepers' place, the mad, the poor, the criminal and Jews. The lepers led the way." [31]

Ginzburg describes "the casual chain of conspiracy", which was fed by hostilities towards the least protected groups. In his view there was almost always a Muslim sovereign at the head of the chain: "Directly or indirectly these Muslim characters conspire with isolated figures or with groups, marginal from a geographical or ethnic-religious point of view (e.g. Jews), promising them money in exchange of execution of the plot". [32] The plot is materially executed by other groups (e.g. lepers), who because of their age, their social inferiority or both of these reasons, are readily susceptible to false promises of wealth and power. [33]

Conspiracies often included fiscal segregation in ghettoes for both Jews and lepers, and an additional obligation to wear a symbol on clothes to be recognized by, or to be subjected to a certain dress code. [34]

Jews and lepers were both vulnerable to persecution. However, the most noticeable difference between Jews and other minorities was the Jews wealth. As Ginzburg puts it: "We would doubtless have been exterminated, had not our great wealth made the Christians greedy enough to demand ransom". [35] Several times during pogroms against minorities, following one conspiracy or another, the Jews ended up subjected to less killing or damage. The main source of punishment pointed at them was usually a requisition of all the wealth the Jews were holding. [36]

Medieval Historical Sources and Possible Bias::

It may be of interest that information about the Exchequer of the Jews, its development, background, purpose, and use, was found exclusively in the Christian chronicles' records of those centuries. Although known for their remarkable accuracy and their credibility, these historians nonetheless had little sympathy or charity to spare for the Jews, and some might have been outright hostile to them. Since the secular accounts of English Jewry from the time period are very scanty, one can only present the Christian viewpoint. [37]


[1] Joe Hillaby, "Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century" THE JEWS IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN: HISTORICAL, LITERARY, AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE 16-17(Patricia Skinner, editor 2003).

[2] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xii (J. M. Rigg, editor for the Selden Society, 1920).

[3] Charles Gross, "The Exchequer of the Jews of England in the Middle Ages"- a lecture delivered at Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at Royal Albert Hall, 5 (9th of June, 1887).

[4] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xviii.

[5] Charles Gross, p. 6.

[6] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. x.

[7] Robert C. Stacey, "The English Jews under Henry III" THE JEWS IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN: HISTORICAL, LITERARY, AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE 47 (Patricia Skinner, editor 2003).

[8] Charles Gross, p.6

[9] Ibid, p.7.

[10] The Ordinances of the Jews, 1194. See at: www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1194ordjews.asp

[11] Paul Brand, "The Jewish Community of England in the Records of English Royal Government" THE JEWS IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN: HISTORICAL, LITERARY, AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE 83 (Patricia Skinner, editor 2003).

[12] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xii.

[13] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xiii.

[14] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xix.

[15] Paul Brand, p. 74-75.

[16] Charles Gross, p. 10.

[17] Paul Brand, p.75-76.

[18] Exchequer of the Jews in Jewish Encyclopedia. See: www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5932-exchequer-of-the-jews

[19] Charles Gross, p. 12.

[20] Ibid, p. 25.

[21] Ibid, p. 30-31.

[22] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xx.

[23] Paul Brand, p. 73.

[24] Charles Gross, p. 34.

[25] Charles Gross, p. 45-47.

[26] Selected Pleas, Starrs and Other Record (see reference No.2 ].

[27] Charles Gross, p. 45-47.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See in detailed: Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies : deciphering the witches' Sabbath (Raymond Rosenthal, translator, 1991)

[30] Ibid, p. 33.

[31] Ibid, p. 34.

[32] Ibid, p. 52.

[33] Ibid, p. 52.

[34] Ibid, p. 38.

[35] Ibid, p. 46.

[36] Ibid, p. 48.

[37] Selected Pleas, Starrs, and Other Records from the Rule of the Exchequer of the Jews A.D 1220-1284 p. xv.

-- InbarAsif - 17 Oct 2014

An excellent draft. It would be valuable in Wikipedia if some or all of it could be incorporated there. From my point of view, the draft would be strengthened if its present content could be rearranged to present less a set of facts followed by an interpretation based on other facts, than an interpretive context applied to the facts established by earlier secondary sources. What Ginzburg shows about France in the time of Edward I, and about Edward's own responses to those events in his treatment both of the lepers and the Jews is valuable precisely because it helps us to understand the mingled features of protection and predation merged in the institution being described.


Webs Webs

r12 - 05 Jan 2015 - 21:27:00 - EbenMoglen
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM