Despite a steady growth in scholarly interest in the subject over the past two decades, many details of the lives of Jewish women in medieval England remain elusive. Their ways of worship, their minhagim (customs), and their interpersonal relationships are subjects of conjecture. However, one aspect of their lives in particular sheds vital light on both their personal lives and their interactions with their Christian neighbors: the role of Jewish women as professionals and businesswomen.
Like the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole, Jewish women had to navigate a political and legal system under which they were fundamentally unequal to their Christian peers. Their personal autonomy was limited by being a group “belonging” to the crown. However, active involvement in business transactions offered Jewish women not only a degree of personal freedom, but also opportunities to form working relationships with Christians, including Christian women. These interactions, often recorded in only a few lines, paint a picture of how Jewish women navigated their multiple identities—as businesspeople, as Jews, and as women—to survive and even thrive in a Christian-dominated society.
Limited Work Opportunities
When it came to work, opportunities for English Jews in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were limited. Jews throughout medieval Western Europe had a narrow range of jobs available to them, due both to the physical conditions under which they lived (concentrated in cities, Jews generally owned less land than their Christian counterparts), and to the discrimination they suffered in being excluded from professional guilds.
In England, the Jews’ special legal status as “property of the king” afforded them a degree of protection, but also allowed for greater royal control over the community and business affairs. Such control was exercised through various royal orders governing the towns and cities in which Jews could live, including statutes that attempted to force Jews to live in towns with archae, or chests, containing Jews’ financial records. Further, moneylending with interest, a profession commonly held by Jews, attracted further suspicion of and hostility toward the community, with Edward I ultimately claiming usury as a justification for the expulsion of the entire Jewish population of England in 1290. Thus, even professions that were open to Jews could emphasize their otherness and provide more ammunition for those seeking to harm the community.
However, moneylending could also lead to prosperity for both men and women, as they fulfilled the demand for a service traditionally forbidden to Christians. Indeed, Jewish women’s involvement in business activities often allowed them to become successful in their own right.
One individual who particularly stands out in this respect is Licoricia of Winchester. Twice married—the second time to the wealthy David of Oxford—and twice widowed, Licoricia used her business acumen to increase both her wealth and her influence. She was well-connected at court, so much so that other members of Winchester’s Jewish community at times looked to her to intercede with the king on their behalf.
She further proved her independence and determination by undertaking long journeys as part of her professional activities—a risky endeavor during which she would likely have had to be escorted for her own protection and to rely on other Jews for food and shelter along the way. Despite her success and connections, or perhaps in part because of them, Licoricia was not without enemies. She endured imprisonment in the Tower of London and was ultimately murdered under mysterious circumstances. However, her story, along with those of several others, demonstrates how Jewish women’s professional activities could allow for both enrichment and empowerment, even in a society in which the odds could seem stacked against them.
Jewish Women Interacting with Christians
In addition to offering Jewish women opportunities for personal success, their working life also served to shape their interactions with their Christian neighbors. Authorities at times attempted to limit interfaith interactions to the realm of business to prevent “unnecessary” mixing of Jews and Christians. Edward I’s 1275 Statute of the Jewry stated that “they [the Jews] may live by lawful trade and by their labour and … have intercourse with Christians in order to carry on lawful trade by selling and buying. But … no … Christian … shall dwell among them.” Such attempts were consistent with the concept of servitus Judeorum (“service of the Jews”), which stated that Jews should be tolerated in Christian society as “witnesses” to the life and death of Jesus on the condition that they “serve” Christians.
However, such decrees failed to stop socializing between Christians and Jews. In one well-known case from 1286, Christians in Hereford even attended a Jewish wedding against their bishop’s express instructions. The regulations also underestimated the potential of business dealings to foster close contact, even trust, between members of the two faiths, including women. This potential was partly due to the physical settings in which transactions took place. Moneylending often happened in lenders’ homes, which might combine living quarters with the resident’s place of business. For example, the house of a Jewish woman, Floria, daughter of Josce, included “two shops and a beautiful entrance.” This proximity suggests that, for a Christian, simply entering the house of a Jew might not have been a particularly intimate act because a private house could simultaneously function as a public place of business. However, this same closeness demonstrates the ways in which the blurring of domestic and public space could bring Jews and Christians closer together.
For Jewish women, moneylending afforded them the ability to interact with Christian women in ways that allowed for cordial relations.
It is also important to remember that, despite authorities’ propensity to see interactions between Jews and Christians as meetings of opposing worlds, religious identity was not necessarily the governing force behind such encounters. For Jewish women, moneylending afforded them the ability to interact with Christian women in ways that allowed for cordial relations. For example, a 1281 entry from the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews (the body responsible for keeping records of business transactions involving Jews) relates the case of Belasez, a Jewish moneylender living in London, and her Christian client, Matilda la Megre. Matilda brought a case against two of Belasez’s colleagues (and fellow Jews), Moses of Dog Street and his wife, Bona, accusing them of unlawfully retaining a pledge after she had repaid her debt to them. Belasez, according to her own testimony, had asked Bona to join her in lending money to Matilda, as she could not provide Matilda with the full five shillings she had requested. Following Matilda’s repayment of the debt, Belasez instructed Moses and Bona to return the cloth they had taken as a pledge, but they refused to do so unless Matilda paid them a further 10 shillings.
This case is striking because, despite Belasez’s shared religion and business interests with Moses and Bona, she chose to testify against them on Matilda’s behalf. Although the degree of closeness between Belasez and Matilda is unclear, this testimony, coupled with the fact that Belasez was willing to go out of her way to procure the extra money for Matilda’s loan, suggests that personal loyalties between women need not have existed only between women of the same religion. Rather than being a simple case of Christian versus Jew, the events surrounding Matilda’s complaint suggest that moneylending could function as a catalyst for exchanges between Jewish and Christian women, allowing them to collaborate to find solutions to financial problems. Furthermore, through showing the interests of individual women, the case serves as a reminder that neither religion nor gender need necessarily have been the decisive factor when it came to Jewish women’s relationships with their clients. In addition to negotiating boundaries of religion and gender, their business activities may have helped them to surmount them.
Opportunities for Wealth and Independence
Jewish women’s participation in business in medieval England offered opportunities for both cooperation and conflict with their Christian clients, as well as the chance of greater personal wealth and independence. This participation served to set them apart from Christian women, but it also offered the opportunity for closeness. Although the experiences of these Jewish businesswomen were by no means representative of those of most Jewish women living in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (those most heavily involved in business tended to be members of a small number of wealthy families), they provide an important glimpse into some women’s everyday lives. These women’s lives resonate with me on a personal level as a contemporary Anglo-Jewish woman.
Although the experiences of these Jewish businesswomen were by no means representative of those of most Jewish women living in England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (those most heavily involved in business tended to be members of a small number of wealthy families), they provide an important glimpse into some women’s everyday lives.
Is it possible, then, to go beyond such feelings of resonance and see parallels between medieval and modern Jewish women’s experiences in predominantly non-Jewish workplaces? To some extent, it would be anachronistic to do so; on a fundamental level, the freedoms we enjoy today go far beyond the regulations and prejudices endured by our medieval counterparts. However, for Jewish women, in countries such as the UK or the United States, who are currently negotiating boundaries of religion and gender in workplaces where Christianity is often seen as the default as opposed to other religions, it is perhaps comforting to consider the long history of such negotiations and their potential, even centuries ago, to build human connections.
Pelia Worth has taught French at the University of Kansas and teaches Hebrew reading. She received a B.A. in English and French from Oxford University and an M.A. in medieval studies from Leeds University. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D. examining medieval women’s religious experiences. She writes a blog on contemporary Jewish identities and experience at peliawblog.wordpress.com.
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