Bodies found in Norwich medieval well are Jewish

Researchers from the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee have discovered that 17 bodies thrown head first into a Norwich well in the 12th or 13th century were Jews, at least five of them from the same family.

Reconstruction of tightly packed skeletons found in Norwich wellThe remains were first discovered in 2004 during the construction of a shopping center. The archaeological survey of the area had been completed months earlier when archaeologist Giles Emery of Norvic Archaeology got a call from one of the backhoe operators saying he’d seen a skull in a foundation hole over 16 feet below ground level, far deeper than normal burials even from the ancient layers. Emery returned to the site and when the machine pushed aside a clump of dirt, they saw a tight mass of human skeletons which had been dumped into the well. They were shoved in so close together that at first Emery thought there were three or four bodies. It was only after further excavation that he realized there were so many more.

Eleven of the 17 bodies were children between the ages of two and 15, five of them below the age of five. The positions in which they were found indicated many of them had been dropped into the well from their ankles, the adults first. There was no obvious cause of death detected in the initial osteological examination, although some of the bones did show signs of malnutrition and non-fatal trauma like healed minor fractures and arthritis. Radiocarbon testing and some pottery sherds found in the well dated the bodies to the 12th or 13th centuries.

It was a mysterious, unique find. No other pile of bodies shoved into a well has ever been found in the UK. There was a consecrated cemetery within view of the well and the Jewish neighborhood a few steps away, so why had these people been thrown away like trash instead of buried according to religious custom? Even common graves and plague pits are at least holes in the ground.

Recently the BBC program History Cold Case became involved, bringing the University of Dundee team on board to perform cutting edge forensic examinations of the bones. They were able to eliminate disease as a cause of death. Bubonic plague was still a hundred years away at the time of death, and there was no evidence of any other fatal illness like leprosy or tuberculosis in the bones.

It was DNA expert Dr. Ian Barnes who found the smoking gun: 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.

Norwich had a well-established Jewish community from 1135 until King Edward I expelled all the Jews from England in 1290. That’s not to say they were embraced as fellow men and brothers. When 150 Jews were killed in York in 1190, Norwich followed suit with a massacre of its own. Only the Jews who had fled to the castle survived. In the 1230s, there were a number of Jews executed because of a rumored child abduction, your classic blood libel.

Here’s a striking view of how Jews were seen not just by the population of Norwich but by the government, which had no problem at all borrowing money from Jews while also taxing them at sky-high rates and stealing/confiscating their property. It’s a drawing found on an Exchequer Roll, a document that lists tax payments made by the Jews of Norwich in 1233, during the reign of King Henry III.

Anti-Semitic cartoon from Norwich tax record

That three-headed monster with the crown towering over the center of the drawing is Isaac fil Jurnet, a wealthy Jewish moneylender from Norwich who was banker to King Henry, the Abbot and monks of Westminster, the Bishop of Norwich and many, many other movers and shakers. The man and woman facing each other beneath him with Satan between them are Mosse Mokke and his wife Abigail both of whom were employed as debt collectors by Isaac. On the left there’s a poor Christian monk, his scales full of coin that Isaac is trying to wrest from him using one of the many devils at his command. Isaac had sued the Westminster monks to get the interest from money they had borrowed after they refused to pay it.

That’s the level of anti-Semitism found in the tax rolls of 13th century England. You can imagine how much worse it got outside official government documents. Bad enough, certainly, to explain 17 people, 11 of them children, murdered and stuffed in a well.

53 thoughts on “Bodies found in Norwich medieval well are Jewish

  1. in the program it states that some adults had injuries from being crushed, landing on a hard surface suggesting the well was dry at the time.

  2. Not for argumentation’s sake, but the Joseph account in Genesis refers to a pit (bor) as opposed to a well (be’er) and specifies that the pit contained no water.

  3. so these bodies may have been thrown into a pit as opposed to a well ,possible ,I think my reason for commenting on the item was & indeed still is ,to have a small plaque placed near the site in the Norwich shopping mall to say that these folk actually existed whatever their origins ,thanks for comment though

  4. This Jew once taught American Indians (Navajo). Their story is remarkably similar to ours: driven into exile, abused, and ultimately able to return to the homeland and flourish. Plenty of blessings to count on both sides.

  5. :skull: It seems that the ones who seek power. Over look the simplicity of life.And,the ones who embrace the simplicities are given the greatest power of all

  6. Someone needs to get this known to the pubic and get everyone to sign a pertesion to get the a sign put up in respect for these poor people. And then take it up to norwich city council and get the sign put up. Norwich are normaly keen to share thir history. Why not this? If they refuse take to the papers. So disrepectful that they was put in stoarge like they was hideing the find.they should give the famliy a respectfull burial and use it for a jewises funraiseing day,for ill famliys so some good can come from this. Sorry about my spelling. But I hope u get the point.

  7. thankyou anonymous for your comment ,I whole heartedly agree with you and would be quite willing to get this project going ,Not sure how to go about it really but I might start by thinking of a way to do a spread sheeet ,etc

  8. It was Richard the first s coronation during which the pogrom occurred.Not of course during Richard the third’s coronation.

  9. Uniparental DNA markers (Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA) usually aren’t specific enough by themselves to assign individuals to ethnic groups. For example, Y-chromosome haplogroup J, the most common haplogroup among Jews, is also found throughout European populations at lower percentages. The problem is even worse with mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. High-resolution haplotype analysis can sometimes resolve this, or discovery of a fairly unique Y-chromosome signature like the so-called “Cohen Modal Haplotype.” Perhaps that was done although the BBC Cold Case show didn’t make that clear.

    The other weakness of uniparental markers is that they don’t give a good sense of overall genomic ancestry since they represent such a small part of it. We can see this now that analysis of autosomal DNA at hundreds of thousands of points in the genome has become possible. For Ashkenazi Jews, the distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroups appears more Middle Eastern than the autosomal DNA, which is suggestive of significant Southern European admixture, probably during ancient times before the rise of Christianity ended Jewish proselytism. For the truly interested (not that anyone will ever read this 2+ years after the original post), papers by D. Behar et al. and G. Atzmon et al. describe some of the more recent research and may be open access by now.

  10. I am answering your post ,So one person at least has read it and taken the trouble to answer you .it certainally gives a good explanation of dna types and mistakes that can be made ,and often have in the past ,best to keep an open mind ,the Cold Case programme in itself was very interesting and disturbing .You know your dna ,so I respect that .regards Wendy of Norwich

  11. there is a comment just been uploaded ,and the possibility of disease and or starvation seems to be a theory of Johns ,and knowing the appalling living conditions at this and indeed other times throughout Englands history, I can quite beleive that this may have been the case with regards to these 17 folk,even so I would love to see a plague erected in Chapelfield.

  12. These claims that the bodies in the well are ‘Jewish’ is only based on a shameful misuse of archaeological and scientific evidence, based on cynically invoking racist stereo-types, in order to get sensationalist TV publicity. The survey of the bones was very limited and no conclusive archaeological evidence of any sort was found and there was not a shred of documentary evidence to be found n support either. The evidence does not stand-up to any type of logical scrutiny by any qualified person and does not prove the flimsy story-line based on racist stereotypes into which they wished to shoe-horn the evidence. The Chief Rabbi’s Office also examined the ‘evidence’ as they have a responsibility to protect Jewish remains and found it to be entirely lacking; otherwise the remains would have been required for immediate Jewish reburial. This is in fact more a matter for a complaint to the ethics committees of the universities to which the ‘Cold Case’ team members are connected and has done much to set back valuable work over the last decade to represent medieval Anglo-Jewish history in an objective and accurate setting, as it takes us back to the antiquated ‘murder and mayhem’ view of Jewish history and is irresponsible in the way they have played up to prejudices.

  13. hello Mr Roberts ,Yes ,I fully take on your findings and I think this is a very acceptable outcome ,but even so its been an interesting topic ,and has aroused much interest .thankyou

  14. Amazing peace of history, the interesting peace for me was the tax document with all the figures on it and the explanations, all over the world the Jewish people seem to be involved in banking and commerce, as soon as the people and the economy turns bad they blame the Jewish bankers and the Jewish money lenders, this had led to much anti semitism and murder and displacement of Jews even up to the present day when Jewish bankers are being blamed even for the 2008 Finantial crash in America, Gods promise to His ancient people was you shall never borrow but people will lend from you, even in nazi Germany the people driven on by Hitler and others was because they had all the money, while inflation raged in the rest of Germany, all these murders where committed because they were Jews and because the Jews held the money

  15. yes this much is true ,so sad and misplaced a prejudice but then any prejudice is .and usually due to trouble makers or greed

  16. Yet, several hundred of them controlled 30% of all the coin circulation in England. They also had a monetary monopoly.

    And for God’s sake, more English died during Norse raids, yet it’s the Jews that get all the press about their poor anti-Semitism.

  17. Yes Shooter you are quite right ,all very unjust .In this crazy world events happening now are dreadful and so very sad ,that innocent people die because of lack of intelligence and feeling for others beleifs ,where will it end and will it ever end ????

  18. It’s years later after your comment, but it’s been confirmed that they were indeed Jews. Their slaughter was a part of Anglo-Jewish history, and you do them a dirty misdeed in assuming that it wasn’t.

    And, truth be told, the ‘murder and mayhem’ view of Jewish history, although it might make you uncomfortable, is a part of your cultural heritage. Non-Jews oppressed Jews horribly during this time period, and these people, most of whom were children, were slaughtered for being nothing other than Jews. Non-Jews like you who try to stamp out any conversation of antisemitism and distract from what’s happening do antisemites’ work for them. Congratulations on being wrong.

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