Sunday, December 12, 2004

YORKSHIRE POSTCARD: CLIFFORD'S TOWER It's impossible to know exactly what happened on the night of March 16, 1190 in the city of York. But this much is clear:

To avoid massacre at the hands of an angry mob, the 150+ members of York's Jewish community--after having taken refuge in the English city's royal castle--began the process of killing themselves and each other.

Those surviving through the night, promised clemency by the mob's leaders, emerged from the castle the next morning.

They were all summarily killed.

The pogrom's early stages fit neatly into the pattern for medieval anti-Semitic mob action: An audacious attack on a Jewish family and its property by a handful of armed plunderers; the rapid escalation toward a full-scale riot; Jews dying as a crowd full of their neighbors looks on approvingly.

Photos by Willow Lawson.

The medieval castle known as Clifford's Tower. Its wooden predecessor was badly burned during the massacre.

In the case of the York Massacre of 1190, though, it's difficult to locate a single precipitating cause:

Were the citizens of York stirred to action because many of them owed debts to Jewish lenders?

Had they become jealous of--or threatened by--the extensive financial ties between York Jews and the Crown?

Were latent anti-Semites emboldened by the death of King Henry II, a stalwart protector of English Jewry?

Did the preparations for the Third Crusade, and the crusading propaganda of the new king, Richard I, whip them into an anti-Semitic frenzy?

Was Pope Alexander III's Third Lateran Council--which warned Christians against contact with Jews--to blame?

R. B. Dobson, in his excellent pamphlet on the subject, concludes that each of these factors played a role. He does pay special attention, though, to the economic motive of the rioters: The debts owed by York's citizenry--and the notion that they might be wiped out through mob action--certainly figured into the thinking of the attackers, he argues.

This plaque, laid in 1978, sits at the foot of Clifford's Tower.

In the end, no one was held directly acountable for the killing and destruction. But to Richard I's credit, a royal inquiry into the incident was opened and a punitive fine was ultimately levied against the entire citizenry of York, with fees imposed in proportion to wealth.

The sheriff of Yorkshire and the constable of York castle were also both dismissed.

Today York is a small, quaint city--and a popular tourist destination. Narrow streets are packed full of shops, medieval walls surround the downtown area and a large, beautiful gothic cathedral dominates the skyline.

Looking north on Low Petergate, up toward the York Minster.

As for the site of the massacre: It sits next to a plot that--to the consternation of many York citizens--is currently slated for a large commercial development.

Information on the land use controversy can be found here and here.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.