The Conundrum of the 17 ‘Jewish’ Bodies Found in a Medieval English Well

Identified by an accident of fate as Ashkenazi Jews, they likely are – but there is no credible record of an 1190 pogrom in Norwich, eastern England, and there are other possibilities, historians say

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Based on the skeletal remains, scientists reconstructed the face of a male adult, left, and child found in the medieval well in Norwich, eastern England.Credit: Prof. Caroline Wilkinson, Liverpool John Moores University
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In the late 12th century, at least 17 bodies were dumped down a well in medieval Norwich, eastern England – and that is the end of the certainty.

In August, a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology by Selina Brace of London’s Natural History Museum and colleagues tentatively identified the bodies as Ashkenazi Jews. They had been murdered in a pogrom on February 6, 1190, the authors suggested, based partly on genetics and partly on a “historically attested episode of antisemitic violence” in the city that day.

Technically, the paper’s focus was on hereditary diseases associated with Ashkenazi Jews – and if such they were, then these conditions emerged centuries earlier than had been thought. That in turn casts on the timing of population bottlenecks among the Ashkenazim.

The paper provoked critique of its methodology, though an unrelated scholar confirmed to Haaretz that their identification of these individuals as Ashkenazi Jews is “very convincing, if not bulletproof” (nor does the museum team claim it is). Also, medieval historians add a caveat: There is exactly one historic mention of the Norwich pogrom of 1190, and that does not come from a particularly credible source.

In other words, historic evidence of a pogrom in Norwich in 1190 is inconclusive. The bodies were estimated, by radiocarbon dating, to have died sometime between 1161 and 1216 (the technology has a margin of error).

Brace and her colleagues do not categorically state that the people in the well were Ashkenazi Jews. That would be impossible. Instead, they say they believe that is the best explanation.

If they were Jews, this study is a rare look at the genetics of medieval Jews, though not unique.

Our relative ignorance of ancient Jewish genetics contrasts with the burgeoning body of knowledge on other people living in the last 10,000 years and beyond. This is because rabbinical law frowns on the exhumation and analysis of deceased Jews.

Norwich Cathedral. In medieval times, Norwich was England's second city after London.Credit: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA

The Norwich study isn’t the first on medieval Jewish genetics, however; a paper in the pre-print stage (available in bioRxiv) reported in May on genome-wide data for 33 Ashkenazi Jews who lived in 14th-century Erfurt, Germany, following a salvage excavation at a medieval cemetery there.

In keeping with the squeamishness about investigating deceased Jews, the analysis of the purported Jews of medieval Norwich was inadvertent. The bodies had been discovered in 2004 while building a shopping mall in Norwich city center. The workers stumbled upon an ancient dry well that turned out to contain at least 17 human remains (when bodies are thrown together haphazardly in a well, over the centuries the bones commingle and working out how many there had been can be tricky).

As the researchers explain, the provenance of the bodies was a mystery when their study process began. Upon realizing they might have been Jews, the team consulted with the U.K. chief rabbi and the local Norwich Hebrew Congregation and the bodies were reburied in 2013.

Altogether, the archaeologists counted at least six adults and 11 children, including two infants. The adults may have been thrown into the well first based on fractured bones and the absence of similar trauma in the children’s remains atop them. But all in all, the archaeologists report finding no signs of “live” violence on the bodies.

Asked how that sits with the theory of the pogrom, coauthor Prof. Ian Barnes of the Natural History Museum points out that they could have died of smoke inhalation, for example. There are also other options.

It bears adding that a study of bodies in the Catalan town of Tàrrega, in search of the medieval Jewish cemetery, found six communal graves of people who did suffer violent deaths, which is believed to be related to a pogrom there in the year 1348 in connection with the Black Death. Minorities in general were blamed for the plague (for instance, by poisoning the wells) and Jews were a prominent minority in medieval Europe. Not a few towns in plague-stricken medieval Germany, for instance, burned their Jews to death.

The Erfurt bodies were shown to be genetically similar to modern Ashkenazi Jews, but to have substantial Southern European ancestry, as well as more variability in Eastern European-related ancestry than modern Ashkenazim. The Norwich paper also noticed some signals from the Middle East. In fact, the two papers (Norwich and Erfurt) suggested some similar theories, including an early bottleneck. Its effects were evident in the 14th-century Jews of Erfurt; the Norwich paper puts it earlier than the 12th century – hence, the decline in the Jewish population in medieval Europe apparently happened as much as 800 years ago rather than the commonly assumed 500 to 700 years.

If the Ashkenazi bottleneck had been later, not earlier, then the Jews of 1190 would have evinced genetic disease frequencies more typical of Europeans today, the Cell Biology team explains.

One snag to the theory is that there is considerable documentary evidence for antisemitic violence in Germany and Tàrrega, but not so in Norwich.

The remains of the medieval city wall around Norwich.Credit: Lis Burke

Who Diss?

There is only one mention of the Norwich massacre of 1190, explains Dr. Dean Irwin, independent scholar, medieval historian and skeptic: “a single, ambiguous, reference in the chronicle of Ralph of Diss.”

Ralph of Diss, aka Ralph of Diceto, was the dean of St. Paul’s from 1180 to around 1200, Irwin says. He wrote two works, “Abbreviationes chronicorum” and the “Ymagines historiarum,” covering world history from the birth of Christ to his own time. He is not considered a paragon of exact chronology.

He does describe attacks on the late 12th-century Jews, including in Stamford, York and Bury St. Edmunds, followed King Richard I’s coronation in September 1189 and the start of the Third Crusade, according to the historian Joe Hillaby – who in a paper casts doubt on Ralph’s accuracy in calling the Norwich massacre the first of its kind, on the grounds that it wasn’t.

Anyway, Ralph of Diss says that on February 6, 1190, Jews found at home in Norwich were murdered; some fled to the castle only 200 meters (655 feet) from the Jewish neighborhood. However, Irwin points out that Ralph never cites how many Jews were killed. “No number is given and nothing is said about what happened to the bodies, so that is entirely supposition,” he says.

Norwich Castle in Norfolk, east England.Credit: Draco2008

He also cites another key reason for dubiety about the Norwich pogrom narrative: the Pipe Rolls.

The Pipe Rolls were government financial records compiled by the exchequer (i.e., treasury), starting in the year 1129 and listing payments to the Crown, debts owed to the Crown and the spending by the Crown. The Pipe Rolls also recorded important persons such as judges and government officials – and the nation’s tax-paying Jews.

According to the rolls, the community of Norwich was fined mere peanuts for killing Jews: just 1 pound, 8 shillings and half a penny, which seems too little if 17 of the town’s revenue-generating Jews had been slaughtered.

“If that isn’t the lowest level of fines for the 1189-90 massacres, it is one of the lowest,” Irwin says, adding that one journalist had suggested “at great length” that the exchequer scribes must have made a mistake.

Unlikely, Irwin thinks: “I gather that he hadn’t worked on many of the records produced by an exchequer clerk (in any historical epoch), but having worked on financial records for a decade, I have ‘slightly’ more confidence in their abilities.”

The king’s eye

Irwin also takes issue with the manner of the bodies’ disposal. “The obvious argument is that it was to hide the extent of the massacre and thereby limit royal recriminations. Except, if they were Jews, this makes no sense,” he argues. “The Norwich Jewry is among the best-documented communities in medieval England, not some provincial backwater. The Crown knew precisely the extent of the community, and could readily appreciate the financial loss with reference to the returns for the tallages that had been imposed on the Jews in the preceding four or five years (notably the Saladin Tithe and the Guildford Tallage). However low your opinion of exchequer clerks, you have to at least concede that they knew how to do basic arithmetic,” he says.

Yet another cause for dubiety in Irwin’s view is that in medieval England, Jews were entitled to proper interment. “As [historian] Rory MacLellan’s work has shown, for example, even after the mass executions of 1278-9 [during the “coin-clipping” scandal when some 300 Jews were executed], the deceased were permitted decent burial,” he says.

Duly noted. Basic arithmetic still leads to 17 people who did not receive a decent burial. And if they weren’t Jews, who were they? That leads us to the margin of error in the radiocarbon dating, and that span of 1161-1216 encompasses one, possibly two, noteworthy massacres in the city, Irwin says.

One was during the so-called Great Revolt of 1173-4 by Crown Prince Henry against his father King Henry II, in which the first Earl of Norfolk, Hugh Bigod, sided with junior and attacked Norwich, having been promised its castle as a reward.

Ralph of Diss described Bigod’s attack too, remarking that many were killed and the town was sacked and burned. The second was during the First Baronial Revolt (aka the Magna Carta Rebellion against King John), when Norwich’s castle was seized by force under Louis, son of the king of France, Irwin says – though whether that impacted the townsfolk is not clear.

It is Bigod’s attack, Irwin suspects, that may have given rise to the mystery plaguing archaeologists today: it fits the bill just as much as the reference to the Jews and, in some ways, carries fewer issues, he says. Also, if the deceased were “strangers,” they needn’t necessarily have been Jews.

The Crown had quite a good idea of the scale of the Jewish community, but some other immigrant community could have flown below the radar, Irwin says. And if one wanted to hide an attack on such a community in order to minimize potential retaliation, a disused well would serve nicely.

Other work, including by Prof. Miri Rubin, has shown that medieval towns were incredibly diverse places, Irwin sums up. This would have been all the more in Norwich, which was England’s second city during the medieval period and a major mercantile and cultural centre.

“In that sense, it’s not unreasonable to assume that there were many migrants in Norwich who might have been thrown [down a well],” he sums up.

Barnes makes the point that this theory would indicate the townspeople felt it “okay” to thusly dispose of non-Jewish non-taxpayers from Europe, but theoretically the Crown would know perfectly well that Jews had been killed, but wouldn’t even know about the non-taxpayers, rendering their demise easier to hide down a well.

Ber Street Gate in Norwich.Credit: Graham Hardy

Anyway, as for the critique of one of the techniques the Norwich team used – principle component analysis (PCA) – Barnes says it is a well-established method for visualizing complex datasets and is used widely in science. So widely, in fact, that issues regarding the technique are inevitable.

“As a result, I can’t think of any ancient DNA papers published in the last decade that would use a PCA as the primary basis for an interpretation of the data. We might include a PCA as a data visualization aid [and they did], but all the statistical analyses would use other methods,” Barnes adds.

Hebrew University’s Prof. Shai Carmi, who was not involved with this work but was associated with the Erfurt paper, supports their tentative conclusion that these were Ashkenazi Jews, and no other. “The identification is based on the accumulation of multiple lines of evidence, each of which alone is relatively weak. But as a whole, I think it’s convincing that these were Ashkenazi Jews. No absolute certainty here, but it’s very convincing,” he says.

Carmi may deem the evidence compelling, but the historian Irwin is clammier. “Having considered all of the historical evidence, there is insufficient evidence to even assert that they were probably Jews,” he says. “Although it’s always difficult to argue from the absence of evidence, I think the burden is on those who think the skeletons are Jews to explain and reconcile their findings with the historical evidence.”

Were they Jews or not? We cannot say for sure. But whoever they were, in 2013 they finally got that decent burial.

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