York is halfway between London and Edinburgh. Occupied on and off for 10,000 years, the actual town was founded by the Roman IXth Legion in 71 BCE. When the Emperor died in 306CE, it was in York that Roman soldiers declared Constantine (later “the Great”) emperor.
York’s location in northern England, with access to the sea via the Ouse River, destined it for greatness. It became a seat of power, commerce, learning, and the arts for a succession of empires. The Vikings first terrorized it and then made it part of their trading network. Things got a huge boost when William the Conqueror arrived shortly after 1066.
I spent the day exploring the city. We started at Clifford’s Tower, all that’s left of the 12th century Norman castle built on the remains of William’s castle on a commanding hilltop. The small Jewish population in York during medieval times apparently became quite wealthy lending money to the king and various nobles. When the debts became too high for the nobles to manage, they’d encourage the local peasants to riot and kill the Jews, whose debts were then conveniently erased. Then the cycle would start again.
In 1190 all the city’s 150 Jews took refuge here at Clifford’s from a mob crazed by the belief that the Jews were ritually killing Gentile children (yes, the start of the Blood Libel). Depending on whom you believe, the Jews were either massacred by the mob, or they killed themselves Masada-style to avoid the mob’s torture and murder. A century later King Edward I expelled all the Jews in England, who didn’t return until invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.
I appreciate that the story of a crazed mob massacring the city’s Jews is presented in a fairly unblinking way by the signage and the city’s tourism industry. Throughout our two weeks together, John periodically repeated that in those days it wasn’t anti-semitism, but anti-judaism. The first is hatred of race: Jews can’t help who they are, and we hate them. The second is hatred of religion: Jews are choosing to be blind and ignorant, and we hate them. In the Middle Ages Jews could therefore save themselves by converting (if they wanted to)—the opposite of Hitler’s policy that a single drop of Jewish blood contaminated someone, which conversion could not change.
Once again I experienced first-hand the power and importance of William the Conqueror. He connected England and France politically, brought sophisticated Norman culture to England, and united the various clans here—some by bribery, some by marriage, and many through a brutal scorched-earth policy in 1069.
Walking the medieval cobblestoned streets, we stopped at two churches—All Saints and Holy Trinity Goodramgate. They were both pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon churches, built before The Conquest. As with all the old churches across Europe, some of its finest artwork—frescos, statues, stained-glass windows—was damaged or destroyed in the iconoclastic frenzy of the 16th-century Reformation. My expert guide John was able to show me where, over time, the architecture transitioned from Romanesque to early Gothic to later Gothic.
These and dozens of other places in York are living textbooks, with stones and wood arranged in ways both exotic and familiar. After all, steps are steps and roofs are roofs. But we know that material culture shapes the people in it. How did the dramatically limited light in these people’s lives affect their perception of color? How did the ongoing near-silence (no cars or planes, no electronics, no ringing phones or talking TVs) affect their response to a baby crying? Calf-deep in mud or straw most of their waking hours, how did they perceive the stone floor of a church?