This bit of Norman French simply means The Statutes of the Jews. It is a piece of thirteenth-century legislation created in the reign of King Edward I, written in French and copied into a manuscript still kept in the Cathedral Library. This manuscript, catalogued Q. 36, was probably a lawyers’ handbook. The statutes begin by regulating how Jews can lend money to Christians, but they also impose extra taxation, and limit other means of earning a living. Perhaps the most sinister requirement to modern eyes is the following statement that all Jews over seven years old must:
porte ensagne en son soverein garnement ceo est asaveir en fourme de deus tabellettes joyntes de feutre jaune de la longure de vi pous a et de la laoure de iii pous.
This simply means that they must all wear a yellow badge on their chests on top of their clothing, made from two pieces of felt joined together and measuring six inches by three inches. This cannot fail to bring to mind the yellow ‘Stars of David’ enforced by the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany in a deliberate attempt to reintroduce the medieval badge.
Reading Norman French is often less difficult than you might think. Although some of the spellings seem strange at first they may well show how the word really sounded when it was spoken. We remember from our GCE or GCSE that there can be big differences between the pronunciation and spelling of many French words. An example in the passage above is ‘deus’ for modern ‘deux’, English ‘two’, pronounced with a sound like a ‘z’ at the end.
Christians were not allowed to make money by usury, which means by charging interest on loans. The practice had been condemned in 1179 by a Council of the Church under penalty of excommunication. But Jews could lend money in this way and so were often very useful. It was noted that they could become very powerful people, getting land and other property of their own from Christians who could not otherwise repay their debts. Aaron of Lincoln, who died in 1186 is believed to have been the richest man in Norman England, with more wealth even than the king.
Les Estatutes de la Jeuerie laid it down that no Jew could lend money at interest from that date forward: “Nul usure ne curge de la feste Seint Edward procheniement passe en avaunt.” No further usury could take place after the next feast of St Edward, (meaning October 13th, the feast day of King Edward the Confessor, patron saint of England before St George was exalted to that rank.)
Les Estatutes said next that Christians already in debt could not be deprived of more than half their lands and goods in repayment: “La meitte des terres e des chasteus a Cristien ne demerge a lur sustinaunce.” This means that half of their lands and property must remain for their maintenance. If you remember the plot of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice you will recall that Shylock was subjected to this latter law some 400 years later.
Another part of Les Estatutes states that Jews must live in the “Citez villes burgs ou les huches Cyrografteres soleient estre” meaning in cities, towns or boroughs where their chests of chirographs should be kept. Chirographs were documents which had been cut in half so that both parties to an agreement could have a matching piece, and neither could change the terms unknown to the other.
Elsewhere Jews are allowed to meet with Christians to buy and to sell: “Marchaunder en vendaunt e en achataunt.” But it firmly states that “Nul Cristien ne Cristiene ne seit cochaunt ne levaunt entre eus.” No Christian man or woman may sleep or wake up among them! The Church had forbidden Christians from having sexual relationships with either Jews or Saracens (the medieval term for Muslims), and this rule was enforced here by Les Estatutes.
The last part of the document permits Jews to buy land of their own:
Il pussent prendre e achater fermes ou terre a terme de dyx ans ou a meins . . . pur gainer enle secle lor vivre . . . e ceo pur prendre a ferme ne lui dorra for quinz anz de cet hure en avaunt.
This means that they may take and buy farms or land for terms of ten years or less, to maintain their way of living, but only for fifteen years from that time forward – and then only on short-term leases. So in reality their prospects were not good and indeed in 1290 all Jews were expelled from England by a decree which lasted until 1657 when it was rescinded by Oliver Cromwell.
I hope this little trip into the world of Norman French has not proved too exhausting! I think it is worth the effort to understand the living conditions of the Jewish community as shown in Les Estatutes. Manuscript Q. 36, the medieval lawyer’s handbook, has many other fascinating items on the laws that were passed and the trials that followed in the courts. I hope to return to the subject at a later date!