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Jewish Bodies Found in Medieval Well in England

17 Jews, including children, whose bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in England were likely victims of 13th century persecution.
By Elad Benari
First Publish: 6/24/2011, 2:05 AM / Last Update: 6/24/2011, 3:16 AM

17 Jews whose bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in England were almost definitely victims of persecution, the BBC reported.

According to the report, the Jews were probably murdered or had been forced to commit suicide.

The skeletons date back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people faced murder, banishment and other forms of persecution throughout Europe. 

Although the most famous expulsion and persecution was in Spain, England was not far behind. In 1190, the 150 Jews of York, then a center of Torah learning,  were burned to death by a church-incensed mob, leading to rabbis proclaiming a cherem (prohibition to live in) the city. In 1290, after years of murder and pillage, Edward II banished the Jews from England. Many drowned trying to leave.

Scientists were able to date the bodies using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies. Seven of the skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.

According to the BBC, the bodies were discovered in 2004 during an excavation of a site in the centre of Norwich. The remains were put into storage and have only recently been the subject of investigation.

“This is a really unusual situation for us,” DNA expert Dr. Ian Barnes, who carried out the tests, told the BBC. “This is a unique set of data that we have been able to get for these individuals. I am not aware that this has been done before - that we have been able to pin them down to this level of specificity of the ethnic group that they seem to come from.”

Forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification, who led the investigation team, said the discovery had changed the direction of the whole investigation.

“We are possibly talking about persecution,” she said. “We are possibly talking about ethnic cleansing and this all brings to mind the scenario that we dealt with during the Balkan War crimes.”

She noted that 11 of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between two and 15. The remaining six were adult men and women. 

Pictures taken when the bodies were excavated suggest they were thrown down the well together, head first. A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. The same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned their fall.

Norwich had been home to a thriving Jewish community since 1135, and many lived near the site of the well. There are records of persecution of Jews in medieval England, including in Norwich. One example of this was when Jews were executed in the 1230s after being blamed for kidnapping a Christian child.

Archaeologist Sophie Cabot, who has conducted research on the history of the Jewish community in Norwich, told the BBC that Jews had been invited to England by the King to serve as money lenders since, according to the Christian interpretation of the Bible, Christians were not allowed to lend money and charge interest.

She explained that the source for the later friction between Jews and Christians was the fact that some Jews became very wealthy from their jobs as money lenders.

“There is a resentment of the fact that Jews are making money,” she said, “and they are doing it in a way that doesn’t involve physical labor, things that are necessarily recognized as work.”

She noted that the findings of the investigation change “what we know about the community. We don’t know everything about the community but what we do know is changed by this.”