Ethnic Cleansing of Jews May Date to 12th Century

I'm so used to reading news and even published articles that don't properly report on "determination" of "ethnicity" from skeletal remains that I was taken aback by today's BBC article: "Jewish bodies found in Medieval well in Norwich."  In the very first paragraph, it is reported that the researchers used "a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies," and those few words make the entire remainder of the article seem reasonable.

Freaky-deaky reconstruction of bodies
in the well.  Credit: BBC News.
Seventeen skeletons were found in a well in Norwich, England, in 2004.  Originally, researchers thought it was a mass grave, possibly as a result of plague, but the eventual carbon dating put these people's death earlier than the plague, and there were no palaeopathological signs of infections such as leprosy and tuberculosis.  Through DNA analysis of five of the individuals, they have found that those individuals were all related.  Eleven of the 17 skeletons were children, and they seem to have been thrown into the well after the 6 adults were -- the adults had perimortem fractures, whereas the children landed on the adults' bodies.

I'd really like to know what their evidence is that these people were Jewish -- I am assuming it's drawn from the DNA analysis, which can show genetic affinities with known populations from different areas of the world.  Or perhaps it's based (partly) on the "bone chemical studies," which I take to mean the now-standard complement of Sr/O/C/N?  If it's based on more than burial style and head shape, the attribution is already on steadier ground than that of the "Leper Warrior."  Still, DNA tells us about biology, not culture.  It can tell us whom we're similar to biologically but cannot tell us whom we're similar to culturally.  Were the 17 people in the well in Norwich Jewish?  It's incredibly difficult to say that with any certainty, but a combination of DNA evidence, anomalous burial style, and historical records could definitely convince me.

I couldn't find a published paper on these skeletons, which isn't terribly surprising since the BBC report is in service of a TV special that aired tonight called "History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well".  If any of my British readers happened to catch the show (or want to watch it online), I'd really appreciate a summary of the techniques they used!


David M said…
I think the show was interrupted or not even put on because of the Wimbledon Tennis coverage. I've tried searching for it on BBC Iplayer but had no luck!
Oh, boo. Well, the website says it's next on at 1:15 (am?) on Tuesday.
David M said…
I'll keep an eye out and let you know! Looks like a very interesting case though, and I'd be interested to see what the program says about these unfortunate people.
T Lockyer said…
It might be worth mentioning a few of the sources for 12th and 13th century persecutions of Jews in the region of Norwich, and the allegations used at the time to justify them (usually blood libels claiming a widespread conspiracy in which a Christian child was tortured and murdered in a manner echoing traditional accounts of the death of Jesus of Nazareth). One is the alleged murder in 1144 of a child later known as St William of Norwich, which is narrated in the Life by Thomas of Monmouth (I owe this reference to a tweet from Robert W. M. Greaves). Roughly a century later, in nearby Lincoln, an extremely similar allegation was made about the alleged murder of a child named Hugh. This claim and its consequences for local Jewish people are related by the English monk and historian Matthew Paris. An excerpt from J. A. Giles' Matthew Paris's English History (London : Henry G. Bohn 1852-4), volume 3, beginning on page 138, relating the incident, may be found here, though with an incorrect volume number in the reference at the foot. Scans of Giles' translation are available from the Internet Archive, where the passage may be found here and here. The Latin underlying this translation may be found beginning on page 516 of the fifth volume of H. R. Luard's Matthaei Parisiensis, Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora (London : Longman & Co 1880).
Thanks for these links, Terrence! I am neither an historian nor a Medievalist, so I'm out of my element in terms of the evidence we have of Jews (and Jewish persecution) in England at the time. If I get my hands on the BBC special, I'll be curious what historical documents they mention.
Jonathan said…
For "Ethnic Cleansing" - a particularly unsuitable euphemism that arose in Bosnia, I would prefer the term "sectarian mass-murder".

I found this news item stomach-churning. As an English Jew I feel it re-awakens old wounds in our history.

The showing of the much vaunted BBC programme has been bumped off BBC2 and was instead shown last night at around 2am in the morning on BBC4 HD. For some reason the BBC have so far not made it available on BBC iPlayer. So I have not seen it. The discovery fits in pretty well with what is know of the History of the Jews of Norwich in the 12th and 13th centuries.

It also fits with other incidents in which sectarian massacres were followed by dumping the bodies down a well. Usually the well of the massacred community, as nobody wants bodies rotting in their own water supply.

I suppose this might have been the well of the Norwich Jews - Christians using a separate well.

It was interesting to read that they found signs of malnourishment which indicates the Jews who were murdered were the very poor - with the more wealthy Jews possibly having managed to gain refuge in the Castle.

I found some further information on the techniques used (Mitocondrial DNA and isotope analysis) here

"five of the individuals had retrievable, testable DNA and it indicated that they were Jewish. The mitochondrial DNA — DNA that remains the same transmitted down the female line — of all five people matched, so they were family members. Stable isotope analysis, which uses the trace elements found in the bones to determine diet and migration patterns during their lifetime, indicated that the skeletons were from the Norwich area."
Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. I've never come across the term "sectarian mass-murder." Anthropologists tend to prefer terms like "ethnocide." It's too bad the BBC hasn't given the show very good airtime. The show's website links to this blog post, so I know there are people interested in seeing it (as they find their way here).

From what I can tell, the mtDNA showed that the five related individuals had similarities with Ashkenazi Jews, who do have genetic distinctions. So while you can't conclusively tell which group someone in the past identified with, this is the clearest case I've read about archaeologically.
Anonymous said…
seems odd to me that an interesting programme such as this was relegated to a 2am slot and cannot be retrieved.
Norwich Girl said…
This episode was to be shown in the 9pm BBC2 slot this evening (30th June), but the BBC have missed it out and jumped to the next episode in the series. I hope as many bloggers/viewers as possible might consider complaining, and request that a new schedule date be nominated and advertised, so that we may get the chance to make our minds up about this historical incident.
BioBoy said…
The new episode shown yesterday (thurs 30th) has been called episode one in the series now, so I assume (given the high profile nature of both the story and the series) that they will merely have moved it to show it at the end of the series instead.
Anonymous said…
BBC HelpWhen will History Cold Case: The Bodies in the Well be broadcast?
This first edition of the second series of History Cold Case was dropped on Thursday 23 June 2011 due to extended coverage of Wimbledon 2011.

This episode is now due to be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday 14 July 2011.
Anonymous said…
" now due to be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday 14 July 2011"
Can the BBC categorically confirm this date please?

Some of us were worried that the BBC may have been 'leant on' to pull this episode...?
Anonymous said…
If they were Ashkenazi Jews, then apart from having the highest average IQs on the planet, they would have been highly susceptible to genetic abnormalities like Tay Sachs - particularly back then, when screening didn't exist. If both parents carry the mutation, then 1 in 4 of all pregnancies will have the disease. It causes blindness and paralysis after about 6 months! So I'm wondering if there was any chance that in the reserchers 'enthusiasm' for making this a race crime they considered that the ignorant peasants just might have thought this group had some ghastly infectious disease and wanted to get rid of it..and thus them, rather than it being simply systematic race murder?
Anonymous said…
I have just watched the programme - fascinated, but I have been worrying about the statistics. I hope I have remembered this correctly, but I understood that the DNA expert identified a sequence in five of the bodies (17 total, 7 with DNA traces) which was said to be present in 6% of the European general population and 30% of the European Jewish population. Miri Rubin, the historian, said Norwich's c12-13 Jewish population was at most 200 people: I'm estimating the Christian population at 2000. So you'd expect 30% of 200 Jews, ie 60 people, to show this sequence, but 6% of 2000 Christians, ie 120 people, to carry it also. So any given body with this sequence is actually more likely to be Christian. It is certainly suggestive, in combination with the bodies having been dumped in a well, but quite a way short of 'science has identified these as Jewish bodies' which was the overview we got.
Hm. Well, I don't think Tay-Sachs manifests obviously in the carrier. But I suppose if the kids suffered from it, they might have assumed the parents were somehow to blame. It's grasping at straws, really, without any sort of genetic evidence.

As for the DNA, I don't know that much about genetics, to be honest, but you raise a good point about statistics and prevalence. Still, I wonder if the prevalence of this genetic sequence would have been higher in Jews in antiquity - before the modern day, when more people are mobile and interbreeding with other groups?

I can almost certainly agree - even without seeing the program - that this is not unequivocal evidence of Jewish ethnocide. But archaeologists can't really say anything for sure... it's the nature of our field. The researchers seem to paint an intriguing picture, and I'm impressed at the amount of evidence they drew on to come to their conclusions.
Anonymous said…
Just watched this on iPlayer.

I think that the comments above about the statistical incidence of certain "Jewish" DNA sequences or Tay Sachs Syndrome are unhelpful, speculative and fly in the face of the scientific and historical evidence.

As the programme made clear, even where people were dying in their thousands from plague, the rites of Christian burial were followed. Likewise the Jewish community would be dealing with their dead according to their own rituals and customs. Therefore, on the basis of the nature of the burial, I do not find competing ideas of death due to disease compelling.

Likewise I do not believe the statistical likelihood that these are just background DNA traces in the non-Jewish population. The 6% figure quoted would not be indicative of a background DNA sequence as a result of genetic mixing but of the proportion of the population found to have the same sequence from within the whole from remains found in the UK from that period. In any case, mixing is likely to have been rare and extremely limited given that the Jews were not invited into England until after the Norman Conquest just 100 years earlier, and that religious observances relating to both faiths would have almost completely ruled out the rate of intermarriage needed to create such genetic dilution.

But what really seems to have been missed is the statistical unlikelihood of this event. The prevalence of this sequence from within the remains of 17 people found within a single burial, the fact that at least 5 of these individuals were related and the manner in which they were buried makes the conclusion that these were from a distinct and genetically different community, and that they were treated differently as a result, extremely plausible. Granted we can never know for sure what happened, but I think that the case made by the programme stands up better than the alternative explanations advanced so far.

What the programme ignored is the particular role that Norwich played in the demonisation of the English Jews at this point in history. While the investigation focused on the general situation regarding the English Jews, it skipped over the death of William of Norwich in 1144. William was a 12 year old apprentice tanner would was found dead on Mousehold Heath. In the course of his work he came into frequent contact with the city's Jewish population. On the say-so of a Christian serving woman working in the house of one of the city's Jews, the notion of a ritualised killing took hold and the boy was quickly canonised and enshrined in the newly completed Cathedral.

This is the first instance of the so-called "blood libel" in Europe and sparked similar accusations in Gloucester (1168), Bury St Edmunds (1181) and Bristol (1183).

At this point the narrative of the Norwich Jews joins that of the rest of the English Jews. But with the memories of St William's death fresh in the mind and his shrine in the Cathedral attracting pilgrims from miles around, local feelings against the Jewry would have been particularly harsh. Shortly after the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189 the nation was caught up in his crusading zeal and there were attacks on Jewish communities across England. On 6 Feb 1190 the Jews of Norwich were attacked and all those who were unable to reach the sanctuary of the castle were massacred.

On a personal note, I have to say that I find this inability to face up to the evidence of our past disappointing. Perhaps it's because we equate the persecution of the Jews with Nazi Germany that we can't recognise that our own ancestors did much the same. However, like it or not, such incidents are a matter of historical record and, no matter what you choose to believe about the the 17 people buried in in Norwich, the city has a very shady history. Personally, I found the investigation to be plausible and the evidence compelling and, as a former resident of Norwich, I am not going to attempt to deny that such events happened within the city's walls.
Wow, thanks for this excellent critique, Anonymous! Are you sure you aren't one of the research team? ;)

Perhaps the program will make it across the pond eventually. I'd really like to see it after all the comments I've read here.
Anonymous said…
If you want to read some well-researched historical fiction about English Jews in the 13th century, download Feona Hamilton's novel 'Belaset's Daughter' and the sequel 'After Evesham' from Amazon.
K Brooks said…
Would have liked to have known what YDNA hapogroup these people had and whether the results are shared on sites such as FTdNA for comparison with modern genealogists who have had their own DNA tested....wouldn't it be great to find descendants
Anonymous said…
Hey Kristina,

No, I'm not a researcher for the programme. I'm just an interested person.

I had already done some reading on the Jews of Norwich some years back, particularly with reference to William of Norwich. Although the chronicler Thomas of Monmouth makes a strong case for his sainthood, a more dispassionate reading throws up more questions than answers.

What is clear to me is that the cathedral authorities had something to gain from the death of the boy and in discrediting the Jewish community. It is almost certain that the construction of Norwich Cathedral would have been financed, at least in part, through loans from the Jewish community, which would have been embarrassing and hugely costly. The problem that the cathedral authorities faced was that they had no immediate revenue stream. What was needed was a saint's relics to draw in pilgrims.

The purpose of my reading at the time was to try and see where these threads lead. Obviously the lack of records mean I am speculating, but I find the idea of a plot very interesting. For a start, the timing is incredibly fortuitous as William's death in 1144 was just one year before the completion of the cathedral in 1145. Whether or not the boy was deliberately selected and apprenticed to a tanner because this trade would bring him into contact with the Jewish community, or whether his death was merely coincidental and the circumstances of his life fortuitous is impossible to say. However, Thomas of Monmouth does record that the boy was taken to be apprenticed by his uncle, a priest, and that it was this same uncle who is recorded as having suspected the Jews and made the accusation against them in the Bishops Court.

Whatever lead up to the death of William, whether it was a deliberate plot or simply a fortuitous coincidence, the cathedral authorities grasped the opportunity. By discrediting the Jewish community they could distance themselves from their debts while using William's conveniently local martyrdom to furnish the relics required to start pilgrims rolling in.

Don't forget the wider historical context; that England was at that time riven by Civil War between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. Throughout the 1140s East Anglia was in revolt against the crown leading to a general breakdown of law and order known as "The Anarchy" that lasted into the 1150s. All through this period the Jews enjoyed the protection of the crown and they would have been seen as the "King's Men", which is likely to have rendered them unpopular. Therefore it wouldn't have been difficult for the cathedral authorities to foment further trouble for them by persuading the wider population of their supposed evil deeds.

It should also be remembered that attacks against the Jewish community would have been attacks against their businesses as much as against their persons. Destruction of the chests in which they kept their records would have resulted in the annulling of any loans made. Without any supporting records a Jew would not have been able to prove the debt.

At heart, the story of William of Norwich is an unsolved murder. Thomas of Monmouth's account was written something like 30 years after the events and is partisan, it's purpose being to bolster the boy's sanctity rather than to investigate his death.

However, it is an important piece in the jigsaw of medieval Norwich. All of these historical factors, together with the crusading zeal of King Richard the Lionheart, certainly help to explain the massacre of 6 Feb 1190. Whether or not these 17 people were victims of this massacre is impossible to establish, but looking at the events of the time in which they lived it's certainly one possible explanation. Norwich would have been a powder-keg of simmering resentment, stirred up by the Church and the regional and national political situation. Would it really be so hard to believe that these people were rounded up, had their throats cut and their bodies disposed of in a disused well...?
Anonymous said…
Just an additional thought to what I've already written.

I'm not entirely sure that all this historical information is entirely what you were hoping for on your blog. I'm no scientist and certainly have no understanding of carbon dating, stable isotope analysis, DNA testing or any of the other techniques used. However, I can clearly see the use that these techniques have in helping us to understand our past.

I will confess that my former research did mean I watched this episode with the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end as the investigation progressed. I already had an inkling at what the outcome would be, even before the big "reveal" part way through, but to have it confirmed in such a dramatic way was unsettling.

As someone with an interest in history, I am not at all threatened by these scientific advances and have no wish to try and explain away the findings as statistically insignificant. It is probably rare to have such a dramatic and compelling outcome to an investigation, but the scientific findings in this case are so consistent with the physical archaeology and the historical records that it becomes possible (if not proveable) that these remains are linked to one single recorded historical event. I find this possibility tremendously exciting.

I appreciate that all this waffling is highly unscientific and that I'm probably letting my imagination run away with me a little. I am disappointed that the BBC investigation didn't focus more closely on the history of the Norwich Jews and was couched in more general terms and wonder what conclusions might have been reached if they had paid slightly closer attention. I understand that the main thrust of the History Cold Case concept is to bring modern scientific methods to bear on ancient remains, but I fear that they missed a trick in doing so. Dr Mallett might be easy on the eye, but her questions are baby-ish at best.

If this approach is to work to it's fullest potential the two strands of scientific investigation and historical research have to complement each other. It's one thing to try and identify an individual and establish their cause of death, but it is only half the picture. That person fits a certain historical context and what the science can tell us about that person helps to understand their position within that context.

Or perhaps these 17 skeletons discovered in Norwich are a unique example of finding the closest thing to a smoking gun that archaeology can manage.
David M said…
I fully agree with Anonymous above; it seemed to me that this episode especially had a lot of dramatic music in. I kinda feel the show could fit in 30 mins rather then an hour! Also the babyish questions really don't help that much, a much better approach would be a national then regional/site specific context with a marrying of the hard archaeological sciences and historical sources. on a personal note, to refer to the bones as specimens and not as individuals seems a bit off.
Philip Morton said…
Some very good comments, I watched the show on iplayer a few days ago and was shocked at the misrepresentation of the statistics in the case, something which I'm sure was done to sensationalise the results. To quote the previous comment "So you'd expect 30% of 200 Jews, ie 60 people, to show this sequence, but 6% of 2000 Christians, ie 120 people, to carry it also. So any given body with this sequence is actually more likely to be Christian." Whilst these statistics are not usually portrayed well on tv shows I would have expected better from the experts on the show. I have seen some of Proffessor Sue Blacks research presented at a Forensic conference and she knows better. The only factor which was not mentioned is the origin of the population data from which the statistics were taken. One commenter on here mentions that the medieval Jewish population could have shown a higher concentration of the DNA sequence to that of the modern day Jewish population (wether American or European Jewish statistics were used this was not mentioned, if this is true and known to the experts they may have glossed over this fact to save themselves from explaining the DNA results more in depth, but if the population figures they quoted are accurate for the time then their representation of the statistics is wrong.

Unfortunately I believe this is a symptom of "dumbed down" programming rather than a mistake on the part of the presenter. The "gordon ramsey and Gok Wan" style of TV shows do not sit well in a scientific setting.
Part 1: were going to tell you whats coming up in part 2 and 3
Part 2: were going to remind you of what we saw in part 1 and tell you whats coming up in part 3
Part 3: were going to remind you what you saw in parts one and two

When a tv show has to repeat everything they saw 3-4 times in an hour it dosent leave much room for statistics.

But despite these flaws, this makes much more interesting/entertaining viewing than the usual offering so I will be following the series.

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