The Shmooze

Jewish Skeletons Found in English Well: Were They Victims of Medieval Persecution?

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share

The people of Norwich, England have found some skeletons — not in their closets, but in a well. And the bones belong to Jews.

The remains of 17 bodies dating to the 12th or 13th centuries were found at the bottom of a well in 2004 during an excavation for the construction of a shopping center, but it was not until recent testing (using DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies) that it was discovered that they belong to Jews who were likely killed as a result of religious persecution.

Eleven of the skeletons belong to children aged 2-15, and the remaining ones are those of adult men and women. Seven skeletons were successfully genetically tested, and five of them appear to have been members of a single Jewish family.

The investigation was conducted by a team headed by forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification. Following the Kosovo War, Professor Black worked in the Balkans piecing together the bodies of massacred Kosovan Albanians. For her, this latest investigation is closely related to that difficult project. “We are possibly talking about persecution. We are possibly talking about ethnic cleansing and this all brings to mind the scenario that we dealt with during the Balkan War crimes,” she told the BBC.

Black and her team theorize that the people to whom these remains belong were either murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken during the well’s excavation suggest that the bodies were thrown in headfirst. It appears that the adults were thrown into the well first, with the children next — the blow cushioned by the adult bodies already inside. There is no evidence from the bone composition or from the carbon dating to suggest that these people died of the Plague or another disease.

Norwich had a considerable Jewish community from around 1135, and records indicate that much of it was located near the well in which the remains were found. Resentment toward Jews grew as they worked in money lending, which they did at the invitation of the King, beginning in the mid-11th century. Anti-Semitic blood libels and massacres of Jews took place in Norwich and other parts of England in the 12th and 13th centuries, leading to the eventual expulsion of Jews from England by Edward I in 1290.

“It changes the story of what we know about the community. We don’t know everything about the community but what we do know is changed by this,” Sophie Cabot, an archeologist and expert on Norwich’s Jewish history, said.

“The Bodies in the Well,” a BBC2 television program about the discovery and investigation of the skeletons, airs today.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sue Black, Skeletons, Persecution, Middle Ages, England, BBC, Anthropology

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.