Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Illustrated Receipt

In the earliest days of this blog, there were no illustrations. I eventually decided there were some posts that would be enhanced by an appropriate image. In some cases, however, there was no image available specific to the subject of the post; for instance, there are some individuals about whom I've written that were no important enough to have an image created in their lifetime that has survived, if it existed at all. In those cases I would find something—a picture of a manuscript, a woodcut of folk doing some related work—that links however tangentially to the subject.

In today's case, however, the illustration is the subject. I have enlarged it at the risk if throwing off the formatting of the web page to let you see it more clearly.

This is a unique document: it is a sketch that was made at the top of a 1233 receipt from the Exchequer, listing tax payments from the Jews of Norwich. Illustrating an Exchequer receipt was unnecessary, but the unknown scribe/accountant was making a point, a point that provides us with the earliest visual caricature of Jews in a negative light.

The top center shows a three-faced figure labeled "Isaac fil jurnet." This is Isaac of Norwich, probably the richest moneylender in Norwich. We know he was owed a lot of money by the abbot and monks of Westminster, taking them to court to force repayment. This was decades after Richard I established the Exchequer of the Jews and the Ordinance of Jewry that should have made his lawsuit easier, but King Henry III was not Richard and did not so carefully protect the Jews in his realm from anti-semitism.

Isaac is shown with a forked beard, a sign of the devil. There are two other Jews represented, one just below Isaac and one to the left. Both have long, hooked noses, and a demon between them is pointing a clawed finger at each of their noses, indicating that they have noses like the demon's. The Jew to the left is labeled Mosse Mokke, who was a collector of debts for Isaac. The one below Isaac is labeled Abigail, who some believe was married to Mosse Mokke and also worked for Isaac.

To the far left is a monk with scales full of coins, representing the money owed by Westminster. A demon behind him has an arrow coming from his mouth to the back of the monk.

To the right of Isaac is a demon in a tower labeled "Dagon," the pagan god of the Philistines from the Old Testament. He is accompanied by a demon with a horn who is summoning several other demons to come to Isaac's aid. All the demons have horns and hooks noses and claws.

Considering that a scribe took the time to indulge in the unusual step of creating such a detailed negative portrayal of Jews in an official document of the Exchequer, the likelihood for anti-semitism "on the street" must have been enormous.

Was it the same everywhere? Jews had scattered all over Europe and on all parts of the Mediterranean Coast. What was going on with other Jewish communities in the Middle Ages. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Maghreb Jews.

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