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The Jew in the Literature of England

by Montagu F. Modder

Bibliographic information

TitleThe Jew in the Literature of England
AuthorMontagu F. Modder
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001


Jehuda Halevi, the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher, once observed that the manner in which a society treated its Jews was a profound and revealing index of its civilization. Montagu Frank Modder’s examination of the role of the Jew in English literature from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century is profound confirmation of Halevi’s insight — for English literature reflects English society and shifts and expands in charity as the fabric of society is altered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Jew enters English literature inauspiciously — as an object of odium and theological contempt; by the time of Sir Walter Scott and early Victorian literature the atmosphere has cleared (although the Jew still appears as a shadowy figure he is already invested with a humanity and sympathy that bespeak the emergence of nineteenth-century liberalism) ; and by the end of the nineteenth century literary symbiosis has begun: Disraeli has already established one alternative and Israel Zangwill another.

The Jew in the Literature of England sums up a history of the Jew as he was reflected in the literature of a civilization. Modder’s sense of incident and detail, his command of a whole literature, his capacity to develop the social history that underpins literature make his study both absorbing and illuminating.

About the Author 

Montagu F. Modder ---

Montagu Frank Modder was born in Ceylon on November 24, 1891. He was educated in England and at the University of Michigan, where he received his Ph.D. in 1935. Mr. Modder was a journalist and illustrator as well as a teacher. He died in 1959.



Introduction by Howard Mumford Jones

  1. The Jew in Medieval England

  2. The Tudor Renaissance

  3. The Return of the Jew to England

  4. The Eighteenth Century

  5. The Dawn of a New Era: 1800–1833

  6. The Romantic Revival

  7. The Regency Novelists and Sir Walter Scott

  8. Among the Early Victorians

  9. The Disraelian Era

  10. Charles Dickens and the Realistic School

  11. The Victorian Compromise

  12. The End of an Era

  13. “The Old Order changeth ...”

  14. Conclusion






The early years of the seventeenth century seem to have witnessed the first return of the Jews to England in any considerable numbers. A Marrano colony is reported to have established itself in London in the first quarter of the century — at first accepting baptism and going to the Christian services to escape detection and persecution, but still remaining Jews in their hearts; and later, openly professing their own religion and acknowledging their real identity as Jewish merchants. It is probable that when Robert Burton (1577–1640), in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), commented on the Jewish character, he had these Marranos, meaning “accursed ones,” in mind. Burton observes that the Jews have “goggle eyes,” and are “most severe in their examination of time,” that is, that they are “very industrious, while amongst Englishmen the badge of gentry is idleness, to be of no calling, not to labor . . . to be a mere spectator, a drone, fruges consumere natus;” that “as a company of vagabonds, they are scattered over all parts of the globe;” that they are “so ignorant and self-willed withal, that amongst their most understanding Rabbis, you will find naught but gross dotage, horrible hardness of heart, and stupend obstinacy in all their actions, opinions, conversations, and yet so zealous withal, that no man living can be more, and vindicate themselves for the elect people of God;” that they are “strict in the observance of the Sabbath;” and that they “are tolerated in most provinces of Europe.”

It is a matter of conjecture whether the Government of Charles I (1625–1649) knew these Marranos were “secret Jews.” They were of a pronounced Caballero type, living outwardly as Roman Catholics, and attending synagogue services in private. Except for occasional references to complaints made by the Levant Company to injuries suffered owing to the illicit practices of Jewish traders in Asia Minor, the Jew is rarely mentioned in contemporary State or other publications. In 1641, when the fate of the Earl of Stafford hung in the balance, a long list of members of Parliament hostile to him was posted in sundry places in London with the title, “Anabaptists, Jews and Brownists;” but these names were given in abuse and the list may prove nothing. In 1648, the year before the King was executed, the matter of repealing the statute of banishment of the Jews was taken up for discussion before the General Council of Officers sitting at Whitehall. A petition in favor of removing the ban was presented to Lord Fairfax by the Cartwrights of Amsterdam, and it duly reached Parliament. Also, in 1648, a tractate entitled An Apology for the honorable nation of the Jews and all the sons of Israe was published by Edward Nicholas, who pleaded that

for the glory of God, the comfort of those afflicted people, the love of my own sweet native country of England, and the freeing of my own conscience in the day of account, we show ourselves compassionate and helpers of the afflicted Jews.

There is scant reference to the Jews in contemporary poetry, and it is indeed remarkable that even the observant and critical character-writers, who were always on the look out for unusual and strange figures about town, should have missed describing the Marranos in London. Sir Thomas Overbury, whose


was published in 1614, describes “A Devilish Usurer,” but there is no hint of the evil creature being of the race of Shylock. Sir Francis Bacon, however, in his essay Of Usury, published two years earlier, recommended that all usurers “should have orangetawny bonnets, because they do Judaize.” A caustic description of the usurer is included in Nicholas Breton’s Characters upon Essays, published in 1615; but, here too, there is no hint that “this figure of misery,” “the hate of a Christian,” is a Jew. In 1649 King Charles was executed, and England became republican. Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (1653–1658), seemed aware of the usefulness of the Jews in building up British colonial and commercial expansion. The Marranos who were already engaged in business on the continent, had dealings with other Jews in other parts of the world. Thus they were in a position to secure information that was beyond the reach of Cromwell’s government, and in this way are said to have kept Cromwell and his state department in touch with the activities of the Spaniards in America, and with the plans of Charles Stuart in Holland. The Lord Protector was aware of the value of the Marranos as traders and financiers, and, in connection with the commercial policy which led to the Navigation Act of 1641, was desirous of attracting to London, through them, the rich Jews of Amsterdam, so that there might be a transfer of Jewish trade interests with the Spanish Main from Holland to England. Overtures to the Jews in Holland were made through Manasseh ben Israel, an eminent rabbi of Spanish or Portuguese birth then settled in Amsterdam, and who had already corresponded with Englishmen on the subject of the readmission of the Jews to England. In 1650, Manasseh felt encouraged to address a petition to the Long Parliament, begging that Jews be readmitted with the right to trade and build synagogues. It must be noted, however, that not all the Jews in Amsterdam were in sympathy with Cromwell’s policies. There were many among them who were Royalists and staunch supporters of the House of Stuart. In a letter dated June 29, 1654, to the exiled Charles II, that gallant royalist soldier, Sir Marmaduke Langdale, reported that “the Jews are numerous and rich, and offer great matters for their privileges in England;” and in another despatch, three months later, Charles II’s secretary, Sir Edward Nicholas, observed, “Cromwell has agreed with the Jews; and some of their rabbis (i. e., in Holland) are learning English and will go from several parts to settle Judaism in England.” Cromwell’s attitude was plainly indicated by the message with which he passed Manasseh ben Israel’s petition to the Council of State: “His Highness is pleased in an especial manner to recommend these papers to the speedy consideration of the Council.” It is a matter of singular interest that, being a Puritan and talking in the spirit of the Old Testament, the Lord Protector shared the view that found frequent expression in his day, namely, that the Messianic Age would not dawn until the Jews were to be found in every land under the sun. In 1654, Thomas Barlow, in a tract entitled Case of the Lawfulness of the Toleration of the Jews, expressed this strong Puritan conviction in the statement that “there lies a heavy and sacred obligation upon Christians . . . to endeavor the conversion of the Jews, which certainly cannot be by banishing them from all Christian commonwealths.”

In October, 1655, Manasseh arrived in London to plead in person for the readmission of the Jews into England. He was received very graciously by Cromwell, and the famous Whitehall Conference was summoned to consider the question of Jewish naturalization. On a dark day in December, 1655, the Conference assembled in the long gallery of Whitehall. The Lord Protector sat in the chair of state and presided over the deliberations of this august body. In the words of Thomas Carlyle,

Highest official persons have met here to advise, by reason, law-learning, scripture prophecy, and every source of light for the human mind, concerning the proposal of admitting Jews . . . They were banished near four-hundred years ago; shall they now be allowed to reside and trade again? The proposer is Manasseh ben Israel . . . and so they debate and solemnly consider; and his Highness (Cromwell) spake; and says one witness (Sir Paul Rycaut) “I never heard a man speak so well.”

Several reports of the Whitehall Conference exist, the most detailed being that attributed to Henry Jessey, and published at the time as a sixteen-page pamphlet with the title, A Narrative of the Late Proceedings at Whitehall concerning the Jews who had desired by Rabbi Manasseh, an Agent for them, that they might return into England, and worship the God of their Fathers here in Synagogues, etc. . . . (1656). It was the opinion of the lawyers at the Conference that there was no law by which the Jews could be kept out of the country. With this matter settled, the Conference proceeded to discuss the question, “If it be lawful, then upon what terms is it meet to receive them (the Jews) into the country?” It is reported that merchants argued that the admission of the Jews would “enrich foreigners and impoverish the natives of the land;” that the divines “assailed each other furiously with texts of Scripture, and spent so much time in turning over their Bibles for proof, that they passed four days in discussion;” and that Cromwell “grew tired and told them with some warmth that they did not answer his expectation.” Ultimately, it was voted that the Jews had no place in a Christian commonwealth, and that they could not settle in England “except by private sufferance of His Highness.”

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