Magazine article History Today

Jewels of Disease and Discrimination: Corinne Julius Introduces a New Exhibition of Dazzling Medieval Jewellery at London's Wallace Collection, Which Reveals Both the Vigour and the Vulnerability of Jewish Communities in Central Europe during the Years before and during the Black Death

Magazine article History Today

Jewels of Disease and Discrimination: Corinne Julius Introduces a New Exhibition of Dazzling Medieval Jewellery at London's Wallace Collection, Which Reveals Both the Vigour and the Vulnerability of Jewish Communities in Central Europe during the Years before and during the Black Death

Article excerpt

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Jewellery is often seen as the trivia of life yet, as discoveries in both Colmar in Alsace and at Erfurt in central Germany reveal, it can shed new light not just on communities, commerce, ritual and daily life in the 14th century but also on a dark chapter of European history. A new exhibition Treasures of the Black Death at the Wallace Collection brings together two fascinating hoards of jewellery, vessels and coins. The two finds contain a number of identifiably Jewish items, including the three earliest known examples of Jewish wedding rings, inscribed with the words Mazel Toy, Hebrew for 'good fortune', making it likely that the treasures' owners were Jews who had buried their valuables for safe-keeping at the time of the Black Death.

The Colmar hoard was unearthed during building works in a house in the Rue des Juifs in May 1863, and although some of it appears to have been stolen by a mason, most of it ended up in the Musee de Cluny in Paris. It includes 52 pieces of jewellery, ornaments and silverware as well as one gold and 333 silver coins. The newest, a gold florin minted in Buda between 1342 and 1353, helps corroborate the thesis that the cache was hidden in the pogrom of 1349, as does a Tournois in the Erfurt treasure minted between 1328 and 1347. The Erfurt hoard of 3,141 coins, 14 ingots and 600 pieces of jewellery and silver was unearthed in 1998 in the city's 11th-century Jewish quarter adjacent to the remains of the oldest extant synagogue in Europe. Fortuitously, it was found just as excavations had been concluded before foundations for an underground car park were being laid.

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Medieval Jews were often relatively affluent and integrated into the fabric of society, their position protected by rulers and bishops. The treasures demonstrate the prosperity and prominence of their communities but also their vulnerability in the Christian world. By the late 13th century Jews faced increasing discrimination, including having to wear distinguishing symbols, and were expelled from England in 1290 and (temporarily) from France in 1306. This mounting intolerance coincided with the arrival from Constantinople of the plague in the Sicilian port of Messina in September 1347. Carried aboard 12 Genoese ships, it spread rapidly throughout Europe, reducing the population by a third. Despite widespread belief that the plague was divine retribution, blaming the Jews for its onset channelled the panic and provided a useful scapegoat. Excluded from many professions, Jews had become moneylenders to whom rulers, noblemen and wine-makers owed significant sums. …

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