Respect is due to a college Jew


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 world’s oldest university was established by a Jewish guy, I had a “watch out, Simon Schama” moment.

OK, so he had a partner called Walter de Merton who was a bishop. So, strictly speaking, that makes the Jewish guy a co-founder. His name was Jacob the Jew and he co-founded Merton College, which many believe to be the oldest in the university.

The contract of sale is dated 1264 and 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, there was Latin as well – Hebrew wasn’t widely read at the time.) They obviously didn’t want this to 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 into the university for 600 years – and gave the colleges non-Jewish names like Christ Church, Jesus, Trinity, Magdalene…

All in all, though, Oxford was a good place to be a Jew 800 years ago (it was definitely a lot better than York). 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: attacking an Easter Sunday procession is not the smartest thing a Jew can do).

King Henry III got so angry that he made all the Oxford Jews pay for a huge, gold-and-marble crucifix that he was going to erect outside the front door of the synagogue. I won’t repeat what he wanted the inscription to read; let’s just say it wasn’t good for the Jews. At the last moment, he changed his mind and put it instead in the grounds of Merton where it stood for 200 years until it disappeared.

It could have been a lot worse. Actually, it did get a lot worse when Henry’s son, Edward I 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 17,000 or so had to 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. Understandably: he’d only just got an unconditional offer in the post from UCAS to study classics at the University. And he converted.

He stayed but all the other students sneered and threw rotten eggs during his tutorials, making fun of his Greek pronunciation. It didn’t help that his tutor taught a course in Ancient Sneering and gave them free eggs (although even he had to admit the student’s Hebrew was pretty good).

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.