The Abbey of St. Edmunds and the Jews, 1173-1182
Two excerpts from the Chronicle of Jocelyn of Brakelond.
(1) How the Abbey of St. Edmund's became in debt to the Jews (1173-80)
But things outside were badly handled, since each one, serving, under a master
simple-minded and now growing old, did as it liked, not as it beseemed him. The
homesteads and all the hundreds of the abbot were given out to farm ; the woods were cut
down, the manor houses went to ruin ; all things got into a worse condition from day to
day. There was only one solace and remedy for the abbot-to borrow money, so that at
least he might keep up the honour of his house. Not an Easter or Michaelmas term for
eight years before his death but a hundred or two hundred pounds Were added to the debt.
The deeds were always being renewed, and the usury that accrued was changed into a
capital charge. This complaint spread from the head to the limbs, from the prelate
to his subjects. Hence it came to pass that each obedientiary had his own seal and
got into debt with Christians as well as Jews at his own pleasure. The silk cups and
gold goblets and other ornaments of the Church used often to be pledged without the
knowledge of the convent.* I have seen a deed made to William fitz Isabel, of one thousand
pounds and forty and I know neither the cause nor origin thereof. I saw too another
deed made out to Isaac, son of Rabe Joce, of four hundred pounds, but I know not why. I
saw also a third deed made out to Benedict, Jew of Norwich, of eight hundred pounds and
eighty, and this was the origin and cause of that debt. Our hall was destroyed and
William the sacristan had it to restore, willy-nilly, and he secretly borrowed on usury
forty marks from Benedict the Jew, and made over to him a deed signed with a seal that
used to hang by the window of St, Edmund, and by it gilds and fraternities used to be
sealed, but afterwards, though too late, it was broken up to the joy of the whole convent.
But when the debt had come to one hundred pounds the Jew came bearing the letters
of our lord the king about the sacristan's debt, and then at last was made clear what had
escaped the abbot and the convent. But the abbot in wrath wished to depose the
sacristan, producing the privilege of our lord the pope, that he could depose William his
sacristan whenever he would. But a certain one came to the abbot and, speaking for
the sacristan, so got round the abbot that he allowed a deed to be made out to Benedict
the Jew for four hundred pounds to be paid at the end of four years, i.e., for a hundred
pounds, which had now grown by usury, and another hundred, with which the Jew accommodated
the sacristan for the needs of the abbot. And the sacristan undertook to return the
whole of that debt in full chapter, and a deed was made, signed with the seal of the
convent, the abbot pretending and not affixing his seal, as if that seal did not
apply to him. But at the end of four years there were no means of paying that debt,
and a new deed was made of eight hundred pounds payable at fixed dates, four score pounds
per annum. And the same Jew had also several other deeds for smaller debts, and
another deed fourteen years old, so that the sum owed to that Jew was twelve hundred
pounds besides the usury that had accrued.
In those days the cellarer like the rest of the officials, borrowed money from Jurnet
the Jew [of Norwich], without permission of the convent on a deed signed with the
seal aforementioned. But when that debt had grown to sixty pounds, the convent was
summoned to pay the debt of the cellarer. The cellarer was deposed, although he
softened the charge by saying that for three years he had received all the guests in the
guests house at the command of the abbot, whether he were present or not, though
that abbot should have received them according to the custom of his office. Master
Dionisius took his place, who, by his prudence and caution reduced the debt of sixty
pounds to thirty. Out of the debt we handed over thirty marks, which Benedict de Blakeham
gave to the convent for the manors of Neutone and Wapstede. But the deed remained in his
hands up to this day, and in it are twenty-six pounds of the capital and debt of the
(2) The Jews favour William, the Sacristan of St. Edmund's Abbey, and what
But William, the Sacristan, had a suspicion of his associate, Samson, and so had many
others who favoured the side of the said William, both Christians and Jews. Jews, I
say, for to them the Sacristan was said to be a father and a patron. They used to
enjoy his protection, and had free entrance and exit, and often went through the
monastery, wandering through the altars and around the shrine while the solemnities of the
Mass were being celebrated. And their moneys were placed in our treasury in the
charge of the sacristan, and, what was more absurd, their wives and little ones were
received in our refectory in time of war.
[Samson however is elected and begins his reforms.]
Lastly, he deposed William himself: whereat certain who favoured William said,
"There's an abbot for you! This is the wolf of which he dreamt.
See how he rages!" and some wished to make a conspiracy against him. And
when this was made known to the abbot, wishing not to be altogether silent nor to disturb
the convent, he entered the chapter on the morrow, bringing out a little bag full of
concealed deeds with the seals still hanging to them, viz., those of his predecessor and
of the prior, the sacristan, the chamberlain and other officials. The sum total of
these was Lb. 23,025 and one mark of pure gold, apart from the usury which had accrued,
the amount of which could never be known. For all these he had made terms within a
year of his election and within twelve he had cleared them off. "Behold,"
said he, "the wisdom of our sacristan William. See how many, deeds signed with
his seal; together with them he has pledged the silk caps, dalmatics, silver candlesticks
and golden texts, without the knowledge of the convent, and all these I have released and
consigned again to you."
Whenever the abbot went at that time both Jews and Christians used to meet him
demanding their debts, disturbing and vexing him so that lie could not sleep, and was made
pale and lean, saying "My heart will never be at rest till I shall know the end of my
[The part taken by the Jews in the election had doubtless something to do with the act
of Samson in getting rid of the Jews from Bury St. Edmund's, ten years later.]
Source: Chronicle of Jocelyn de Brakelond; taken from Joseph Jacobs, The Jews
of Angevin England: Documents and Records (London, 1893), pp p. 59-62 and. 78-79.
Scanned by Elk Klein.
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© Paul Halsall, January 1999