Gamlingay, Merton College & Jewish Law

Thursday, 11 December, 2014 - 6:47 am

Merton_0.jpg'Gamlingay, Merton College & Jewish Law'

By Rabbi Eli Brackman

The Domesday Book is a census that was commissioned in December 1085 by William the Conqueror, who invaded England twenty years earlier in 1066. The book contains records of 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the border with Scotland at the time.  The first Jew recorded living in England is recorded as living in a village in Oxfordshire. This does not mean no other Jews lived in England at the time, as major cities like London and Winchester were not included in the book, thus leaving out a substantial number of possible Jews who might have lived in the larger cities. This essay will look at the history of an ancient village that appears in the Domesday Book, called Gamlingay. Its name comes from the Old English Gamelingei, meaning "an enclosure of Gamela's people", according to A.D. Mills in his A Dictionary of English Place-names (OUP). A settlement has apparently been on the site since the middle Bronze Age and there are signs of occupation from the middle Stone Age.

In the book `Gamlingay: Six hundred years of life in an English village’ by James Brown (Cassell), it recalls a well-recorded history of about 600 years of this village from 1279 until 1850. The reason the book records the history only from 1279 is because documentary evidence until then is patchy, writes James Brown, whereas after that date there is considerably detailed record. We will proceed to give an outline of its history as researched by James Brown and then argue that an important omission about its Jewish history should be also considered when researching this history.

Throughout its history, Gamlingay has been a farming village. Merton College, Oxford, as well as the Cambridge colleges, Downing and Clare, owned most of the village and until a few years ago, the houses (subdivisions) at the local village college were in fact named after Merton, Downing and Clare. In 1279, Gamlingay was unequally divided between the few who owned the land and the many who did not. The landowners were known as lords. There were a number of principal owners of land, including Sir John Avenel, Sir Hugh de Babington and institutions such as the Church, various religious houses and Merton College in Oxford. Sir John Avenel and Merton College owned the two long-established manors within the village itself, while Sir Hugh Babington owned the outlying manor of Woodbury. Merton College acquired its manor through its founder Walter de Merton shortly after 1260, when it became part of the extensive College estates. Indeed, Merton College still owns a sizeable chunk of the village today. The other religious institutions would have been given their land in both large and small amounts by people who were anxious to secure the future wellbeing of their souls.

It is evident from the following records that Merton College was the second largest owner of land in Gamlingay, if not the largest. In 1279, most of the land owned by Sir John Avenel, Merton College and Sir Hugh de Babington was leased to free tenants. Sir John Avenel leased about 270 acres to forty-three tenants, another nineteen held around 115 acres from Sir Hugh de Babington and forty-three tenants held about 350 acres from Merton College. Of the unfree tenants, the customary tenants, so called because they did work (‘services’) for their lord based on custom, as well as paying rent, held on average between six and ten acres each, barely enough to scrape a living from. Avenel had eleven customary tenants holding about 120 acres, and there were eight on the Woodbury estate holding around sixty-five acres, but there were none on Merton manor.

The village also boasted two windmills (then a recent invention) which stood on high ground to the south of the village, soon named ‘Mill Hill’. One was owned by Merton College, the other by the Abbot of Sawtry. The windmills made redundant the watermill, which was part of Sir John Avenel’s manorial complex. Of the three manors in the parish of Gamlingay, Merton is the only one of which any detailed documentation survives, therefore most of what is documented after 1279 is based on Merton’s records. As mentioned, the only mention of prior to 1279 seems to be the statement that Merton College acquired its manor through its founder Walter de Merton shortly after 1260, when it became part of the extensive College estates.

On a private visit to Merton College’s archives in 2008, however, organised by the Oxford University Chabad Society, a remarkable rare Hebrew manuscript was put on display: a document of 1267 or 1278 from Walter de Merton, the founder of Merton College, who acquired an estate in Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire, from a William de Leycester (ref. MCR D. 1.58). This document, called Starr, is in the archive at Merton College together with a number of other important rare medieval Hebrew manuscripts. Other Hebrew manuscripts include a Hebrew Starr or acquittance by Aaron, son of Abraham, for an estate conveyed by William de Watville to Walter de Merton in 1270 (ref. MCR 1099); an acquittance by Hagimus, Denikel and Menaser son of Aharon, for estates in Cheddington and Ibstone, Buckinghamshire, conveyed by Stephen Chenduit to Walter de Merton in circa 1270 (ref. MCR 2423); and a Hebrew Starr relating to an estate in Barkby, Leicestershire, in 1271 (MCR 1146).

What seems the oldest and well known Hebrew document in Merton’s archive is dated 28 February 1266/7 on behalf of Jacob, son of Moses, and his wife Hannah for the sale of the house of John Halegod in Oxford to Walter de Merton. The house was on the site of what is now the college gatehouse. The document is in Latin but is subscribed by an infirm Jacob in Hebrew at the bottom, confirming the validity of the deed on behalf of himself, his wife, and his heirs. The Hebrew inscription is largely obscured by a fold in the parchment at the bottom of the document.

The fact that Jews owned substantial amount of land around England in the 13th century is known. In the book ‘Rye: A history of a Sussex Cinque Port to 1660’ in the chapter ‘The people of Rye: Economic and Occupational Activity Circa 1260 to 1660’ it writes that Aaron de la Rye is prominent in the records of money lending in the later 13th century. His byname indicates that he and his brother Abraham originated or at some time lived at or near Rye, as did his debtors, who included William de Ore and Walter de Tillingham (1277). It relates that in 1268, Aaron compounded a debt of 120 Marks owed to him by William de Ore, a Parish approximately 10 miles to the South West of Rye. Aaron’s loans and property ownership extended well beyond Rye and in the 1270s his home was in London. In 1273 he granted all his houses, rents and tenements in the city of London to Gamaliel of Oxford, except the house in which he lived.

The reason given for this vast sale of land by a Jew is that he may have been among the many Jews executed in 1278. This refers to the imprisonment and execution of 600 Jews, apparently all the Jewish heads of households in England, on suspicion of coin clipping on 17 November 1278.

Although this a plausible reason for the vast selling of land of Jews prior to their execution, however, this would not necessarily explain the selling of Aaron’s land four years earlier in 1274.

We find however that in April, 1270, Parliament levies a property tax to support the Eighth Crusade and this would have especially harsh impact on Jewish landowners. Furthermore, on 2 August 1274 Edward I had returned to England from the Ninth Crusade and in the same year, following his coronation, the Hundred Rolls census was commissioned, enquiring into the rights of English landowners. His return to England from the Ninth crusade would have also been a cause to levy further taxes.

Incidentally, in the same year, 1274, Merton College, Oxford, received its statutes, the first English university college to do so and in 1275, a new statute forbids Jews from charging interest on loans, indicating the difficult financial times they were forced to live under. These political and financial turbulent times for the Jews would have forced the Jews to sell their lands to pay the high taxes imposed on them and to repay debts. In the later half of the 13th century forced taxation (tallages) were imposed on Jews in England and Gascony by Edward I and on occasion were so heavy that members of the Christian population made contributions to these tallages.

This would explain the sale of the vast amounts of land by Jews in this period to Walter de Merton, including the land of Jacob, son of Moses, in 1268, which became Merton College in 1274; Aaron son of Abram in 1270; Hagimus, Denikel and Menaser son of Aharon in 1270 – all the above to Walter de Merton; and Aaron de le Rye in 1273 to another Oxford resident, Gamaliel of Oxford.

In this essay we will focus on the background to the granting of land in Gamlingay in 1267/8 from William de Leycester to Walter de Merton, highlighting its connection with Jewish history. In an essay by Peter E. Pormann of Merton College (Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. LV, Vol. 1, pp102-117 Spring 2004), he sheds light on the story of the conveyance of the land in Gamlingay based on the original Hebrew manuscript starr. This manuscript had been translated previously from the Hebrew by Professor of Arabic in Oxford in 1724 J. Gagnier (1670?-1740), and again 20 years later by John Fowell, chaplain of Merton college in 1750, with the help of Rev. Kelner and Dr. Benjamin Kennicot (1718-1783), famous for the Kennicot Bible, who seems to have been in Oxford at the time.

The story goes as follows: there was a Jew called Abram, son of Vives, who lent money to William of Leicester. There were two debts, the first for £43 which was to have been paid by Christmas 1263 and the second debt was for 16 mark, which was payable a year earlier, Christmas, 1262. Abram who was married to Esther died while the debts were unpaid and Esther remarried to a Josce, son of Bendit, who receives the debts as part of the dowry. For some reason, these debts were left unpaid beyond 1262 and 1263 up until 1268.

There are two documents relating to these debts in the archives of Merton College. The first is of 23 May 1268, whereby the debts owed by William to Josce are transferred to Walter de Merton, witnessed by Josce’s son Bendit and Chayim de Nikol (Lincoln). The second document relates to the transfer of the title to the land in Gamlingay previously mortgaged to Abram, son of Vives, and first husband of Esther.


Reasons for the conveyance


The reason for the neglect to pay the loan by William of Leicester to Josce, son of Bendit, as well as the circumstances of the transfer of debt and mortgage from Josce to Walter de Merton is unclear. Pormann offers a few relevant points, which together may suggest a possible narrative. In the year 1268, on 17th May, a few days before the date on the document, there was an Ascension Day parade in Oxford and Jews were accused of smashing the cross at the front of the procession. The Jews of Oxford were rounded up, put into jail and ordered to pay for a new cross to be erected. One may speculate that Josce who was in London at that time may have struck a deal with Walter de Merton for his own protection through the conveyance of a bad debt with a claim on considerable mortgaged land in Gamlingay to Walter de Merton.

Walter de Merton’s motives in obtaining this land at that time can be also understood in the following context. Walter de Merton, founder of Merton College, was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in 1261 he set aside two manors in Surrey for the priory at Merton, for the support of "scholars residing at the schools". This was the beginning of Merton College. In 1264 Walter drew up statutes for a "house of the scholars of Merton" at Malden in Surrey and ten years later these scholars were transferred to Oxford and a permanent house established. Merton College, founded and endowed by Walter de Merton, becomes the earliest example of collegiate life at Oxford. While labouring for the establishment of Merton College, the barons triumphedand Walter de Merton was removed from the chancellorship in 1263, but after the civil war he was restored to the government (Fryde, et al. Handbook of British Chronology p. 85). As a former Chancellor of Exchequer, and member of government, Walter de Merton would have had intimate knowledge of the distribution of land ownership in England and appears to have utilized financial hardship of the Jews due to the high tallages and restrictive measures against them to increase his holding of land albeit through legal means. The hardship of the Jews in this period orchestrated by his government is further demonstrated, as Pormann points out, by the fact that from 1250s onwards Jews had difficulty in collecting debts and after 1269, the year after the date of the contract, we find that Walter de Merton himself restricted Jews from lending. Furthermore, from 1271 Jews were forbidden to rent out property altogether. What becomes clear from this narrative is that these land purchases from Jews in this distressful period by Walter de Merton, who profited, appears to be suspect.


Jewish legality of the quittance


While the purchase of land from Jews by Walter de Merton for the founding and securing of the college was extensive, as mentioned earlier, the subject of our discussion is not so much about the purchase of land but rather the transfer of a claim of a loan attached to a mortgaged property to Walter de Merton. Based on the apparent circumstances we mentioned above, it provides for an interesting analyses of an area in Jewish law that is detailed and developed and evidently becomes relevant in medieval England. This refers to the subject of the validity of sale of land, transfer of loans and giving of gifts when done under some form of duress.

The reason why it’s relevant to explore the Jewish legal view on this matter is not only because the loan was relating to a medieval Jew of England but also since the contract itself drafted by Walter de Merton explicitly requires that the conveyance is ‘in accordance with the law and judgement of the Jews’. The following is the full text of the contract regarding the transfer of the loan from Josce, son of Bendit, to Walter de Merton:

"I signing below make an irrevocable pledge that I have sold and transferred from myself, my heirs and all my assigns to Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter] de Merton, former chancellor of our Lord, the King, and to his heirs and his assigns any right, claim, and appeal, which I had or could have regarding the debt of forty three pounds which William de Leicester from Gamlingay owed to Abram son of Vives, former husband of my wife Esther; the time of payment was Christ- mas, the forty seventh year of the reign of our Lord, King Henry [III], son of King John. And [another] debt, sixteen mark, which is in the name of the afore- mentioned William de Leicester and the aforementioned Abram; the time of payment was Christmas, the forty sixth year of the aforementioned reign. I have received the same aforementioned debts, together with my aforementioned wife Esther, in dowry; all the same debts—capital and interest which accrued to the day of making this contract—all this I have irrevocably and forever sold and transferred from myself, my heirs, and my assigns to the aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs and his assigns; [I have done this] like someone who has an absolute claim to a debt and is faithful, and according to the order [?] of our Lord, the King, the liberator [?], made in London according to the law of the kingdom. So that from now on the control [ya ̄d ] of the afore- mentioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs and his assigns shall be completely like mine, and their action concerning the aforementioned debts shall be completely like mine with regard to acquitting and remitting; giving and selling; allocating and ordering; and compelling the debtor [sc. to pay] both capital and moveable goods and collecting the aforementioned debts; that is to say, in accordance with the law and judgement of the Jews, and I swear that no other receipt or quitclaim has been made previously regarding the aforementioned debts, in whole or in part; nor shall I be able from now on and in the future to make any arrangement regarding the aforementioned debts, in whole or in part, unless it is with the authority and permission of the aforementioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton]. I agree and take it upon me—for myself and my wife Esther, for all the heirs of the aforementioned Abram, her former husband, and for our heirs and our assigns—to safeguard, defend, and acquit all the aforementioned debts, capital and interest accrued to day, to the afore- mentioned Sir Gautier [i.e. Walter de Merton], his heirs, and his assigns against the Jews of the ‘Island land’, man or woman, and everybody [else]. Act’ [i.e. actum ‘made’] Wednesday, the Week of Pentecost [Whitsun], in the fifty second year of the aforementioned reign. I have signed what I have pledged, I, Josce, son of Bendit; Bendit, son of Josce; witness; Chayim de Nikol (Lincoln), witness."

It would therefore be interesting to explore what Jewish law says regarding this subject and whether it upholds the validity of this contract. It’s interesting to point out that the conveyance of the loan is mentioned in the contract as a sale of the loan – “make an irrevocable pledge that I have sold and transferred from myself” - rather than a gift, from Josce to Walter de Merton, in effect, however, it is likely that it was merely the quittance to claim the loan by the Jew and its transfer to Walter de Merton. This would be based on the circumstances, as mentioned earlier, according to Pormann, that it was conducted under the threat of possible personal harm after the alleged Ascension Day outrages. It is also possible, however, that some form of sale took place but would have almost certainly been a ‘short’ sale and conducted under duress. This is indicated in the book ‘Antisemitism and the Medieval English State’ (p. 173):

To pay their taxes, Jews were forced either to hand over their uncollected bonds directly to the crown, or else to sell the bonds ‘short’ on the open market. Either way, the bonds tended to wind up in the hands of King Henry’s own friends and relations, who promptly foreclosed upon the Christian debtors.

The working assumption therefore is that the transfer of the debt was either a quittance of his claim of the loan in favour of Walter de Merton or the short sale of the loan to him with his personal interests in mind. The discussion of Jewish law on this subject is found in the Talmud (Bava Basra 47b-48a) where it presents a dispute between two sages, Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Nachman. The former opines that sale of land under duress is a valid sale; whereas the latter says that it is invalid. The Talmud concludes that the law is that unless a protest is issued before the sale, it is valid, following the opinion of Rabbi Huna. The rationale is that the distress of the seller together with the money received validates the sale. It recognizes that in many cases sale of land is in fact done under some form of stressful circumstances.

This view then validates the contract between Josce, son Bendit, and Walter de Merton, even if it had been conducted under duress. If the contract was an actual sale with moneys received it is valid unless a separate document of protest was issued prior to the conveyance. There is no proof that this happened in our case.

The possibility of the conveyance being a mere transfer of his claim on the loan in favour of Walter de Merton without any payment of funds makes the law from a Jewish perspective more complex. Furthermore, according to a commentary on Maimonides by the Chief Rabbi of the Ottomon Empire Rabbi Judah ben Samuel Rosanes (1657-1727), in his work Mishneh L’melech (Hilchot Mechirah 10:1), if the full value of a purchase was not paid but rather less than the value of the item, this would also put into question the validity of the sale and place it in the category of a gift.

The medieval commentaries to the Talmud, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), known as Rashi (Bava Basra 47b), and the Tosafists (Bava Basra 48a), raise the question about a gift given under duress. They both concede that the case of a gift is fundamentally different than a sale, as a gift involves the good will of the person giving the gift.  They opine that if there is duress, by definition, the gift is invalid. The great Jewish legalist of the 12th century, Maimonides (1135-1205) appears to agree with this view and codifies it in his legal work Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Mechirah, 10:3):

With regard to a gift or a waiver of a debt, if the person issues a protest before giving the gift, the gift is nullified even though the person was not compelled to give the gift. The rationale is that with regard to a gift, the factor that is significant is the expression of the giver's will. Since he does not wholeheartedly desire to transfer ownership, the recipient does not acquire the gift. Waiving a debt is equivalent to giving a gift.

While Maimonides does not explicitly talk about a gift under duress – he only addresses a case where a protest was issued prior to the gift that might not have been given under duress - it would seem obvious that how much more so is the case if the gift was given under duress that the gift is invalid. This is indeed the view of Rabbi Meir, son of Yekutiel, HaKohein (d. 1298) in his glass Hagahot Maimoniyot commenting on this law in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides.

It remains unclear however what the law is when a gift is given under circumstantial duress but no protest was issued prior to the gift - the precise case at hand regarding the land in Gamlingay. This question appears to be a dispute amongst the medieval rabbis. In the above mentioned commentary on Maimonides by the Chief Rabbi of the Ottomon Empire Rabbi Judah ben Samuel Rosanes (1657-1727), Mishneh L’melech (Hilchot Mechirah 10:3), it summarises the following regarding this dispute: Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (1269-1343), author of the Tur, and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (1250-1327), known as the Rosh, maintains that even if there is no protest, a gift is invalid under duress. Rabbi Yonah of Grondi (d. 1263), known as Rabbeinu Yonah, however, argues that there must always be an issue of a protest for a gift to be invalid. Thus, we have within Jewish law opinions on both sides, allowing us to conclude that the matter is inconclusive.

In the case, therefore, pertaining to the land in Gamlingay one can safely say that there are opinions in Jewish law that indeed upholds the validity of the transfer of the loan from Josce to Walter de Merton and in turn the acquisition of the land in Gamlingay as an endowment for Oxford’s first college.

In conclusion, while the research for the book about Gamlingay covers 600 years of the village from 1279 to 1850, it is obvious from the above, with the help of the discovery of the Hebrew documents at Merton College, that the Jewish connection to the bulk of land in Gamlingay serving as a security to Merton College is hardly sketchy and is significant. Furthermore, we have demonstrated that the transfer of the loan and title to the property, while perhaps done under some form of duress, either direct or general, may be upheld according to Jewish law, fulfilling the stipulation given in the contract.



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