Northampton
© Marcus Roberts, with additional contributions from Michael Jolles

History

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THE MEDIEVAL COMMUNITY

When the Jewish community first established itself in the latter half of the 12th century, it was situated right in the financial heart of medieval Northampton. Evidence suggests that most of the houses occupied a small block of land, of about half an acre, bordering the end of Sheep Street, and backed by the former Corporation Fish Market to the south and the Bear Inn to the north. Other houses apparently overlooked this 'enclave' from the neighbouring streets such as Bearward Street, and Corn Hill.

The community inhabited around ten houses at its zenith. According to historical records they also had a substantial synagogue and two other communal buildings, most likely housing a Talmudic academy, kosher baking facilities, a hostel for Jews on journeys and possibly a hall for wedding celebrations and other such occasions.

After 1259 the community leased its own cemetery from St Andrew's Priory, located outside the North Gate, and on the eastern side of the King's Highway, now the Barrack Road. They also purchased premises for the ritual washing and preparation of the dead, and possibly for the lodgings for a watch-man.

The community effectively acted as the county bank, providing the hard cash needed to finance the local economy. Though often assumed that the majority of customers were the nobility or the church, in fact most clients were ordinary people.

Some of Northampton's Jews may well have resided for part of the week in the country to serve rural clients, returning to town for the Sabbath. It is possible that the village of Patishall may have provided such a base, as Jews are mentioned as holding property there, though these may have been securities against debts owed to them. This is a pattern noted elsewhere in the country, and was probably the reason for the edict in 1237, forbidding them to reside outside of the town in the shire.

Among other occupations, the town's Jews also traded in wool, a regional staple commodity. This was certainly the case when the entire Anglo-Jewry was forbidden to make a living by usury in 1275. In fact, only a minority of the community were engaged in money lending.

It is known that there was a scholarly community in Northampton and the available records (and the Northampton tombstones) acknowledge at least six named scholars. These include a Magister Aaron, who would have been the senior scholar in charge of the Talmudic academy, Moses ben Jacob of Oxford, the Calenderist, and another scholar only known by his initials as Rabbi J, son of R.B. of Northampton.

The best known was Rabbi Isaac ben Perez of Northampton, who was a leading scholar of his day. Seven of his opinions are recorded in the Etz Chaim ('Tree of Life'), a book of Jewish religious law, and one of the most important surviving Jewish works written in England. His opinions concern the appropriate blessings, or mode of blessings, in various situations, customs concerning food and drink as well as the validity of a testimony of a non-Jew concerning the death of a Jew.

The research of Prof Lewis Glinert has now enabled us to add another name to this list of illustrious Northampton Jewish scholars - the eminent Jewish Talmudic scholar, the Gaon ('sage') of Northampton (Hebrew spelling: nun-vav-resh-heh-tet-vav-nun-alef), whose teachings are cited in an early 14th c. French Hebrew manuscript (Ms Parma 933). This Ms cites him among several other 12-13th c. English Talmudists (Tosafists). Nothing more is known of the Gaon of Northampton, though he is referred to in Yisrael Ta-Shma 'Ms Parma 933 ('The English Tosafot')', Alei Sefer 5, 1978, pp 89-103 (in Hebrew). The term 'Goan' in Jewish tradition often denoted a scholar of the highest order or learning in Torah and Talmud and probably denoted that he was the head of the Jewish academy in Northampton.

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