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.