derek taylor

Derek Taylor

By Derek Taylor, Editor, Jewish Year Book 

Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, was a folk hero. So when he said that the Magna Carta was the “foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”, you’d better have some pretty good arguments if you want to prove him wrong.

Indeed, the British Museum has just opened an exhibition to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing. I hope they won’t mind starting without me, because I’m going to be very late.

Why should I celebrate a charter where we Jews get it in the neck yet again?

Magna Carta was a victory for a bunch of barons over the head baron, King John.

It was really quite simple; the barons overspent like crazy, they couldn’t pay their debts, so they went to the local merchant bankers and borrowed money on credit.

The Barons were charged interest, just like Barclays or HSBC do today, and if they couldn’t keep up the payments, they were likely to forfeit some of their land.

The merchant bankers were always referred to as moneylenders and they were Jews, because Christians couldn’t charge interest.

Of course, banks and merchant banks charge interest today and nobody thinks twice about it. When, however, you see the denunciation of banks for not lending money to small businesses, you can appreciate the hypocrisy of denouncing medieval Jews for doing just that.

It also wouldn’t be considered polite to call the Halifax moneylenders. The Jews weren’t allowed to own land. So the land went to the king, whose chattels – their word – included the Jews.

The king’s estates grew as a consequence and the crown, increasingly over the years, taxed the Jews more and more, to get the money as well as the forfeited land.

Eventually the kings bankrupted the community. Then they threw them out in 1290.

Not nice people.

 After all, we’d only come to do William the Conqueror a favour. He had this new country he’d conquered and no banking system. So he recruited some of his Jews from Normandy to come over and set one up for him.

It helped William with overseas trade as well, because the Jews had widespread contacts with Jewish communities in other countries.

North African Jewish communities were trading with China in the 10th century. Then in 1215, 150 years later, the barons managed to diminish the power of the crown by getting King John to sign Magna Carta.

They also put clauses in it, though, to make it more difficult for Jewish bankers to stay in business.

Take Clause 10 of the document – that’s pretty early on when you consider there are about 60 clauses in all. It deals with what would happen if a baron died before the debt was paid off.

If the heir was under age, Magna Carta now laid down that no interest would be paid on the debt till he had grown up.

Well, our kids grow up too, and how are you supposed to pay for the bar mitzvah if people who owe you money can get out of repaying?

Clause 11 also deals with the baron dying without having discharged the debt. What about his wife paying it off? No, now the wife can regain her dowry and sufficient money must be set aside to bring the children up.

Only after that can the Jew be paid what he’s entitled from the residue. To put it another way, Magna Carta was a document set down by a bunch of crooks to hurt the local Mafia godfather.

Do you think the exhibition at the British Museum will see it that way?

Well, it’s a great organisation, wonderfully efficient, and I won’t hear a word against it.

But Magna Carta?

There is one good thing we can still benefit from, as far as those far-off times are concerned.

It’s a book called King John, written by a scholar named W L Warren.

It goes into great depth about the monastic records of the time, and – through no fault of Mr Warren – it is the perfect solution if you suffer from insomnia.

It’s absolutely guaranteed to put you in the land of Nod after three pages at the outside.