1: Genése or Genesis: origins of the Jews in England
Address: On the southeast corner of the publicly-accessible balcony on the first floor of Defoe House, Barbican, London EC2Y 8BY.
Directions: At the southwest corner of the outside of Defoe House, just off Lauderdale Place, take the staircase signposted ‘Shakespeare Tower’ leading to the first floor balcony. The balcony runs the length of Defoe House. Stop roughly halfway along the balcony. To your south is an expanse of grass (“Thomas More Garden”), and on the other side of that, Mountjoy House, another Barbican block. Now is the time to listen to the first podcast, ‘Genése or Genesis: origins of the Jews in England’! (Cohanim, please note that you are fine to be at the recommended viewpoint..)
Reconstruction drawing of Londinium looking east: Roman London c. 200 AD.
The approximate site of the medieval Jewish cemetery, created almost nine centuries later, is approximately to the left of the corner of the Roman wall of the Barbican in the foreground.
Image: © Museum of London/ Alan Sorrell
Extract from “The Forgotten Jewish History of Mediaeval Rouen”, by Norman Golb, in Archaeology Vol. 30, No.4 (July 1977), pp255-257
“At that point in late November 1966, I remembered another Genizah [repository for paper with Divine names] text of French origin published by that same scholar in 1922, and while involved in preparations for a journey to Monieux, I sought out that earlier publication and started following its lines, word by word. Soon the arrangements for my trip were forgotten, and I was lost in the new text. It was a letter from a Jewish community in a seaport town describing the plight of Mar Reuben bar Isaac, a Jew of another place, who had been dispossessed of his land by a feudal lord, after the Jew’s son and servants had been “slain in the forest” while on their way to work in their fields. He had been forced to leave his native town, had travelled to a Mediterranean port, and there requested a letter of recommendation to be used by him in Jerusalem, where he sought to spend the last few years of his life. Ultimately, the letter had made its way to the Genizah of Cairo, where Mar Reuben evidently had ended his voyage. It lay there for centuries before being brought with many other fragments to the British Museum toward the end of the nineteenth century. The words “slain in the forest” were particularly intriguing because during the earlier Middle Ages there was a law in Normandy and England which stipulated that all acts of mayhem and murder committed in the forests were to be tried in the duke’s or king’s court. Indeed, the letter stated that after the murder the bereaved Mar Ruben had brought his complaint directly to the “Ruler of the Land.” Yet the line of the text describing the place of origin of Mar Reuben did not, as transcribed by the editor, indicate a town in Normandy or England, but rather another place: “Mar Reuben… from the city of ‘RDWS’ which is in the land of França…” […] “The editor had read the final letter “M” (Mem) as an “S” (Samech)” […] “The significance of the reading RDWM lay in the fact that for the first time in an original Hebrew document there appeared the Mediaeval place name Rodom – for centuries the name of Rouen, capital of Normandy. This city had been called Rothomagus by the Romans, but by late Merovingian times (ca. A.D. 800) the local coins bore shortened names such as Rotomo and Rodomi, and thereafter the name was regularly written Rodom. Thus it is no surprise that in tenth-century Arabic accounts the same four consonants RDWM signified this city. (As in Hebrew there are no vowels in most Arabic texts.)” […] “Yet now, the Mar Rueben letter, a manuscript ripe with historical significance, clearly unfolded a tale that related to the Jews of Rouen. It described a plunderous act of disinheritance by a Norman duke sometime during the first half of the eleventh century (further evidence later revealed him to have been Robert the Devil, and the act to have occurred ca. A.D. 1033), perpetrated against a Jew of Rouen who possessed farmlands that, according to the manuscript, he had from his forefathers as “a heritage.” […] “Evidently the Jews of Rouen had had a long history even before the eleventh century; they possessed lands and customarily had the protection of the rulers. Although they apparently suffered mitigation of their rights both near the beginning and towards the end of the century, they were sufficiently numerous to have served as the source of the Jewish population of post-Conquest England. After a temporary setback at the beginning of the twelfth century they recovered their full rights and maintained them for a long period of time – that is to say, until the Jews were expelled from northern France in A.D. 1306.”
(GOLB, NORMAN. “THE FORGOTTEN JEWISH HISTORY OF MEDIAEVAL ROUEN.” Archaeology, vol. 30, no. 4, 1977, pp. 254–263. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41706177. Accessed 19 Oct. 2020)