Jacob Barnet

(Picture: Isaac Casaubon, who Jacob Barnet worked for as secretary)

Throughout the Middle Ages, and right through to the 1850's, the University of Oxford, required all members of the University to be Christian, and members of the established church.  Thus unconverted Jews could never be members of the University.

Nevertheless a small number of Jews did work on the fringe of the University, giving students private tuition in Hebrew, or by working on the Hebrew Manuscripts in Bodley's Library.

One of these was Jacob Barnet, a young ambitious man of real ability and intellect, and well versed in Hebrew literature and Jewish learning.  He eventually had to face the ultimate temptation - would he accept Christian baptism, and gain the academic career he wanted, as well as the great privileges and benefits of the University?  One Jew, Jacob Wolfgang had already done so two years before Barnet arrived in Oxford, in 1608.

He came to Oxford, after he met the famous French Huguenot scholar Causabon in 1609.  The two of them got on very well, and Causabon enjoyed debating religious questions with him.  Causabon was so impressed by his talents that he soon employed Barnet as his personal secretary. 

In 1610 Causabon came to Oxford with Barnet, and both were well received by the University.  Barnet was a man of real charm, as well as learning, and gained the liking and respect of the academics.

Everything went well for Barnet in Oxford, and then one day as the result of his conversations, he intimated to Causabon that he would be willing to accept Christian Baptism.  Causabon informed the Vice-chancellor of the University, who was ecstatic.  The rest of the University were delighted too.

The University determined to baptism Barnet with great pomp and ceremony, before the whole University, in special ceremony in the University Church of St Mary's.  Plans were laid, and preparations made.  The great day duly arrived, and the University gathered with excitement and expectation in St Mary's. But horror or horrors, the star of the occasion was nowhere to be found!

Jacob Barnet had thought better of renouncing Judaism, and had fled the town on foot.  This left a University Church filled with an incensed vice-Chancellor, and irate University officials.  The Vice-Chancellor immediately instructed the University Police to give hot pursuit to Jacob Barnet on the London Road.  In the meanwhile the preacher had to rapidly change his sermon of triumph, to one on "the perfidy of the Jews"!

After a chase, the University arrested Barnet, and some months later Jacob Barnet was deported from these shores under the sleeping edict of expulsion in 1613.  Causabon later wryly commented that he thought it was no crime for a man to change his mind on such a religious matter.

Barnet's decision showed the general conflict that existed for many generations.  Between a Jew's desire to remain faithful to the religion of his forefathers, and to remain part of the Jewish community with all the penalties that entailed, against the pressures to assimilate to the wider Christian society and the acceptance and advantages that it could bring.  It is only in this century that members of Oxford University have been free to be Jewish and to enjoy full integration into the University community.