England and the Jews

How Religion and Violence Created the First Racial State in the West

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Geraldine Heng
Elements in Religion and Violence
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     118 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This short book, England and the Jews, takes its place in the Religion and Violence collection of the Cambridge Elements series, which presents short but detailed introductions to a variety of topics. Geraldine Heng draws from her earlier and significantly more exhaustive works to present a brief overview of the racializing of Jews in medieval England. Those familiar with her larger works will quickly recognize an epitome of her paradigm for analyzing race-making in premodern contexts, which she covers in greater detail in her book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Heng understands race as signifying not a “substantive content,” but rather as episodes of “strategic essentialisms” that are employed within specific historical occasions in order to demarcate differences among human groups and assign hierarchical positions and roles accordingly (5).

The book is divided into eight chapters, prefaced with a very short introduction. The first chapter sets out the historical parameters of her work, namely the history of the Jews in England after their arrival in 1066 in the wake of the Norman conquests, up to their mass expulsion in 1290. Heng articulates in this chapter the methods and conceptual framework of the book, which draw on current approaches in postcolonial studies and critical race theory in order to demonstrate the ways in which religion “can function socioculturally and biopolitically to racialize a human group” (12). The author identifies five modalities of race-making pertinent to analyzing the history of the Jews in medieval England: (1) cultural fictions, (2) social practices, (3) laws, (4) institutional technologies of power, and (5) state violence.

Examples of communal fiction that were “ritually productive of race” (20) are discussed throughout the book. These include literary depictions of Jews as cannibalistic monsters (38), the stereotyping of Jews as a homogenous population of corrupt usurers (45–47), and the ritualistic iterations of the blood libel, through which the Jews were presented as murderers (and even crucifiers [79]) of Christian boys (73–102). Institutional technologies of power, such as the bureaucratic panopticon of surveillance and fiscal exploitation (e.g., registries, archae or chests, licenses, special taxes, fees), helped to reify these cultural fictions (24–27).

Both canon and state law, moreover, performed in concert in the subjugation and racialization of Jews. Heng mentions specifically English laws like the Laws of Edward the Confessor and the Statute of Jewry, which fixed England’s Jews and their assests as de jure (“by law”)  property of the royal crown (21). She also notes various canon laws, such as the decrees of the Third and Fourth Lateran councils (passed in 1179 and 1215 respectively), which further the subalternizing of England’s Jews by segregating them from Christians and forcing them to affix a conspicuous signum (or badge) to their clothing (55–58). The conundrum of Jewish conversions, wherein the communal acceptance of Jewish converts living in the Domus Conversorum suffers a perpetual deferment, is yet another notable example of the social practices that marginalize England’s Jews (62–64). Heng also discusses several episodes of state violence, including one horrific occasion when as many as 10 to 15 percent of English Jews are executed for the crime of coin-clipping (40).

For such a short book, England and the Jews packs an impressive amount of well-sourced details. Cambridge Elements are designed to be read both in print and digital formats. The reader can access a PDF of the extensive bibliography on the website for the book. Uploading links to or summaries of Heng’s earlier works to this site would be a welcomed addition, as it would help to more fully contextualize the theoretical framework and methodologies of the book. Furthermore, a short conclusion summarizing the contents of the book would facilitate the task of future readers.

As is often the case with groundbreaking works, Heng’s views have elicited both enthusiastic praise and agitated denunciations. While her book The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages—the parent text of England and the Jews—has won several awards, by contrast S.J. Pearce’s review essay of it published in Medieval Encounters 26 (2020) is an example of the protestations it has provoked. Pearce’s review, which can reservedly be described as reductive, constitutes a failed assassination attempt of sorts on Heng’s book. Notwithstanding such objections, Heng’s ideas are here to stay, given their theoretical grounding and their adoption and extension by other scholars in premodern critical race studies. No matter the disagreements some scholars may have with the minutiae of her arguments, those working in premodern race studies cannot justifiably avoid a serious engagement with Heng’s substantial body of work. This is particularly the case for those interested in analyzing the intersections between Jews, Judaism, and race-making in the premodern world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yonatan Binyam is President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Geraldine Heng is Associate Professor of English & Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Austin.


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