Oxford
© Marcus Roberts (1995 and 2005)

History

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THE MEDIEVAL COMMUNITY

One of the most important Jewish communities in medieval England, it's thought that Jews may have arrived in Oxfordshire as early as 1080, when a man called Manassess is mentioned in the Domesday Book as living in the village of Bletchingdon. In Oxford itself, there was certainly an established community by 1141, when records show that King Stephen and Queen Matilda tried to extort money from the town's Jewish residents and Aaron ben Isaac had his house burnt down for refusing to pay.

Based in the heart of the town's commercial centre, the community numbered between 80 and 100 -- and possibly 200 at its height -- a significant proportion of Oxford's total population in the late 13th century of 5,500. Most lived south of Carfax in St Aldate's and, such was their presence, the street became known as Great Jewry Street. They also lived in some of the adjoining streets and there is thought to have been a 'parvus Judaismus ' (a poor Jewry) on the former Jury Lane, south of present day Blue Boar Street.

The town had at least one recorded synagogue, provided by Copin of Worcester in 1228, and sited around the present north-west tower of Tom Quad at Christ Church. And it's likely that there were other private synagogues, if the pattern of other major communities was followed. There was also, almost certainly, a Talmudic academy, probably located in Jacob of Oxford's House, now 121 St Aldate's.

They were also one of the first communities outside London to have a cemetery. The first was founded circa 1190 on what is now the site of the medieval portion of Magdalen College. When this was confiscated in 1231, they were moved across the road to a new plot at the site of what is, now the Rose Garden of the Botanic Gardens. The community would also have had a mikveh (ritual bath, and there is slight historical evidence for one of these, in or around Jacob of Oxford's house. Furthermore in 1987, a stone culvert was dug up on the cemetery site and this may have been a mikveh for bathing the dead.
The community practiced the usual professions of small trading, medicine, pawn-brokerage, trading in jewels and precious metals, and of course, money lending, one of the few occupations open to Jews. As the university arose around them, they became particularly involved in providing vital finance for the poor clerics who populated the colleges, also providing their housing. Indeed, up to 10 percent of all student accommodation in this time was let by Jewish landlords.

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