Any chance of my becoming a famous TV celebrity HIstorian was dashed at 14 when in order to pursue my foolish romantic childhood dream of becoming a dentist I switched to Biology Chemistry and Physics.
So when I went on a day trip to Oxford last week and discovered that the worlds oldest university.. was founded by a Jewish guy..I felt a ‘Simon Schama!. you’d better watch out!’ moment.
Not a lot of people know that
…OK so he had a partner called Walter…oK Walter de merton not Goldberg…and he was a Bishop: So strictly speaking that made him the co founder.
His name was Jacob the jew and he co founded Merton college the oldest Oxford college .
I thought at first they must have called him that Just in case another jew moved into the neighbourhood.maybe Jimmy the Jew- But a Jacob the jew -who is not to be confused with Jacob(the other) Jew who opened the first Starbucks on the High street t in 1566.(it’s still there)-who was a property developer southern edge of town and sold it to walter.
The sale contract is dated 1264 and it is the oldest existing document in Oxford.It is written in Hebrew so at a guess that would be Jacob the Jew’s handwriting,, OK and latin as well.- Hebrew wasn’t widely read at the time.
They obviously didn’t want this too get around or the place would be full of Jews( you know how we ‘stick together’). so as a precaution they didn’t let any Jews in to the university for 400 years.and called all the colleges non Jewish names like Christ college ..Jesus Trinity…Magdalene.
Of course it must have been very confusing at the time:
” Which Jacob the Jew are you?”
“Are you Jacob the Jew the guy who started oXford?” “you know its a funny thing .people always come up to me ..and ask did you start Oxford.?” And I say “actually no.,. I’m Jacob the Jew who’s got the coffee and cakes shop on the High Street.”
All in all though Oxford was a pretty good place to be a Jew in 800 years ago,( well it was definitely a lot better than York..and let’s face it how much worse can you get than York) -and apart from one or two tiny incidents – like the time in 1268 when a Jew ‘allegedly’ attacked a religious procession-(As Easter is coming up -a word of advice here- attacking an Easter sunday procession is not the smartest thing a Jew can do.) Even if you’ve got time on your hands -its ,provocative ..bordering on suicidal.
You didn’t want to upset King Henry 111: He got so angry that he made all the oXford Jews pay for a huge gold and marble crucifix which he was going to erect outside the front door of the synagogue. I won’t repeat what he wanted the inscription to read- but let’s just say it wasn’t good for the Jews.
At the last monebnt he changed his mind and put it Instead the grounds of Merton where it stood for 200 yrs.until it disappeared.
It could have been a lot worse:
Actually it did get a lot worse
when Henrys son Edward 1st woke up on the wrong side of the bed one day in 1290 and thought “what can I do for fun today go on holiday to the south of France..play some golf!?
I know I’ll kick all the Jews out of England.” So all 17000 had pack their bags . But one guy ., yes another Jacob the Jew.. they clearly didn’t have any imagination whatsoever when it came to names- decided not to go.. as he only just got an unconditional offer in the post from UCAS to study classics at the Unvivesrity, and converted. He stayed ..but all the other students used to sneer and throw rotten eggs at his tutorials at his Latin and Greek Prounication.. It didn’t help his tutor taught a course in Ancient Sneering and gave them free eggss.altho even he had to admit the student’s Hebrew was pretty good.. Of course being the only student who could read it, probabably gave him a slight advantage here,
I liked Oxford so much I applied to Christ Church College to be a mature student.
They told me to come back in 40 years.
Just before I left the town I took an Open-top Bus Tour.
“What’s the funniest thing that ever happened on the. Bus ?” I asked the guide.
“Well about 20yrs ago someone got off and left their baby on the bus”
” An absent minded Don?” I asked
“No, she worked in the cake shop.” He said.