Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Jews Court

It is so easy when traveling to fix on the things I see. Sometimes it feels like I am in a travelogue, moving from one amazing sight to the next. Walking up Steep Hill in Lincoln is a bit like that. Whether it is the Cardinal's Hat or Jews House, the Castle or the Cathedral, it's just one early Norman structure after another. From immediately after the Conquest in 1066 to about a hundred years later, the Normans were in a frenzy of building, using the remains of the Roman colony, Lindum Colonia (Lin-coln) as a convenient source of dressed stone to do it. I got so caught up in antiquarian delight that I forgot to think of the town as a place where people once and still live.

On the way down, however, I stopped at the book store now housed in Jews Court, at one time a synagogue before Edward I decided that Jews in England had already loaned him as much money as they possessed and had them expelled. Jews were directly under the king's protection, which made it difficult for them to refuse to finance royal military adventures as long as they had assets. In a neat move that foreshadowed today's financial shenanigans, Edward decreed that all monies owed to the Jews would henceforth be payable to the king. It might be considered as nationalizing the banks, if the concept of a nation, instead of a fief, had actually existed. In one stroke, the king made an entire people redundant. Jews Court stands next to Jews House and until 1290, this was the heart of a small, but important community. Now the two buildings house a restaurant, a used bookstore and the Lincolnshire Historical Society.

I was just looking for a Margery Allingham novel, an obscure and delightful mystery writer from the 40's who can be difficult to find at home. I was successful, but found myself talking with the proprietor about Jews Court and then, without warning, we were deep in an hour-long conversation about Cromwell, intolerance, the American Civil War, the rise and fall of Lincoln as a city, labour politics and primary source material. It was one of those far-ranging discussions where your brain has to skip to keep up with the lightening flashes of connection.

The owner admired Cromwell, a generally unlovable figure, and detested Charles II. "A waste of space," was how he put described that charming and lazy Royal. It wasn't just the rise of Parlementary authority that he approved. He reminded me that it was Oliver Cromwell who, inspite of his strict Puritanism, allowed a group of Sephardic the Jews to remain in London in 1656 at a time when they would well use a safe haven. We moved on to Gettysburg and Robert E. Lee's fatal miltary mistakes at that turning point. He did not admire Lee, whom he considered at prig and a traitor to his oath of service to the United States.

Hmm. What about Cromwell's oath to King Charles I as a member of Parlement and outlawing Christmas revels once he became Lord Protector? Traitorous? Priggish? More intense discussion ensued, ending with a recommendation that I read Antonia Frasier's biography of Cromwell, which he conceded was very even-handed for a Catholic. Startled, I said that surely that kind of personal alliegance didn't matter to a modern historian. "Oh, no," he protested. 'You must remember that Lady Antonia was a Pakenham, a famous English Catholic family."

Clearly, I was wandering in unfamiliar forests of social history and personal bias with surprising glens of tolerance. I wondered if the 13th century was contagious. We talked on until closing, shook hands and parted, having exchanged everything except our names. As I walked down Steep Hill, it occurred to me that this is what is missing from history, the complex, emotional quotient. Just like my new acquaintance, Edward Plantagenet, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Stewart and Robert E. Lee all had their individual prejudices and quirks and should be painted, as Cromwell once said, "warts and all." Wherever there are people, there is politics, but also, an internal psychology that both resembles our own and is wildly, almost unintelligibly different.

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