The Magna Carta

This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta (MC) or Great Charter between King John of England and his Barons in Runnymede, an island near the River Thames, that has been heralded as the beginning of democracy in England and the West.  At AACI Yoel Sheridan enlightened us on the history of the Magna Carta and its connection to the Jews.

The MC was written in Medieval Latin and required the approval of the Church and the Pope.   Also, the MC was not the first such document, there was one signed in 1100 that was a charter of rules of behavior in feudal society.  The MC had 63 clauses, some very detailed about how life should be lived.  But, after many years only 3 of the clauses were still in effect.  These were: 1. The Church of England should remain a free Church; 2. London should be a free city allowing individual liberties to its citizens; 3. No free man shall be seized, deprived of his liberty, nor forced against his will, there must be rights of justice and a trial by his peers.  Those are the main clauses on which the MC is regarded as being the first written text with the concept of individual rights.  But, this is deceptive, since it only applied to people who were already “free,” namely the established aristocracy.  One must remember that this was a  feudal society, where the peasants were in fact serfs (or slaves) owned by their Lords, and the Jews were owned by the King.

In fact the origin of the MC was economic and had to do with the relationship between the King, his Jews and the Barons.   Christians were not allowed to loan money for interest (although some of them did), so this was left to the Jews, which was both a great advantage and a disadvantage for them.   When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 he brought with him Jews from Rouen, to continue to carry out their financial functions for him.  Since they were owned by the King and given protection by him, their debts and assets were really his.  The Kings of England profited greatly by this arrangement, for example, Jews were not allowed to own land.  If a Baron or a Lord borrowed money from a Jew usually with their land as collateral and defaulted on the loan, their land was forfeited to the King.  In this way the Kings of England became very wealthy land-owners and increasingly powerful.

There were two clauses about the Jews in the original MC, that if a man dies, no interest shall be paid by his heirs to Jews and also his land shall not be forfeit.  In fact the MC was so controversial that after a few months it was annulled by the Pope, and a new MC was approved in 1225, ten years later, that did not include these clauses.

The western countries had been carrying out the Crusades against the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land from about 1000 onwards, and most of the money to finance these had been borrowed from the Jews.  Often the knights and Barons did not return from these Crusades, and so their wealth and land were forfeit.  The Jews became wealthy, but the people were instigated against them by the Barons and the Church and there were riots and massacres in many cities during which Jews were murdered.  This made the King angry, especially because they burnt the documents detailing the debts owed by the aristocracy.  As a result the King ordered that in each region there must be a copy of these transactions in a local archive, the first of its kind.

The King also taxed his Jews and in 1210 he imprisoned all the Jews in England and demanded a ransom equal to one third of the national debt, and he had them tortured, he had their teeth extracted one a day until they paid.  The Jews were hated as the agents of the King and were required to wear a white “tabula” on their coat.  There were also local expulsions of Jews in 1231 from Leicester, 1234 Newcastle, 1236 Southampton and so on.  Those that were forced to convert had all their goods and land confiscated.   In 1254, 300 Jews were killed in riots in London and 600 were imprisoned in the Tower for cheating and in 1279 269 Jews were hanged.  Gradually the pressure increased on the King to take action against the Jews, and gradually he stole all their funds until they were destitute.  Then in 1290 King Edward I expelled all the Jews from England and confiscated their property.  Jews were not allowed to live legally in England until 1655 under Oliver Cromwell.

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