Medieval Jews in England Kept Kosher Laws, New Research Suggests

An 800-year-old trash dump in Oxford reveals adherence to Jewish dietary codes

A stone-lined latrine was one of the few surviving remnants of a medieval hall in Oxford's Jewish quarter. Dunne et al. / Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

Archaeologists in England have found the first physical evidence of local medieval Jewish communities’ adherence to kosher laws.

Julie Dunne, the biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Bristol who led the investigation, tells the Jewish Chronicle’s Rebecca Abrams that she and her colleagues were “blown away” by the discovery, which was made at a latrine and rubbish dump in Oxford.

“Normally you would expect a mixture of cow, sheep, goat and pig,” she says. “Instead we found a massive, I mean massive, amount of chicken and goose bones.”

Crucially, none of the food remains found at the site came from pigs, shellfish or other non-kosher foods. (The term kosher refers to food and drink deemed “fit and proper” for consumption under rules outlined in the Torah, as Roger Horowitz, author of Kosher USA, explained to Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber of “Gastropod” in 2016. Examples of kosher foods include chicken, sheep and goats prepared in a certain manner, while examples of non-kosher foods range from pork to shellfish.)

Dunne and her colleagues discovered the animal bones at a dig site that overlaps the city’s old Jewish quarter in 2016, the Jewish News Syndicate reports. The team recently published its findings in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Cooking vessel
The researchers discovered 171 bones, 136 of which came from poultry. Dunne et al. / Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

In addition to the bones, the team found more than 2,000 fragments of ceramic cooking vessels. They analyzed organic residue left in the pottery to determine what it had once held.

“This process allows us to distinguish animal fats from ruminants and non-ruminants, as well as from dairy products,” Dunne tells the Jewish Chronicle. “And what we found was astonishingly precise.”

The researchers found no evidence of non-kosher fats, or of milk and meat being cooked together—a practice prohibited by kosher tradition.

The findings were specific to trash dated to the 11th and 12th centuries, when the area was known as a Jewish neighborhood, according to the study. In contrast, remains from the earlier Saxon period included many pig bones and very few bones of birds. Meanwhile, trash from a 9th- through 11th-century site elsewhere in the city consistently included bones from a mix of species, including pigs.

Per the Jewish Virtual Library, no organized Jewish communities existed in England until the 1066 Norman Conquest, when William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans to move into the country. Jews from France, Germany, Italy and Spain arrived in England, many seeking an escape from anti-Semitism in their old countries. But they still faced persecution and were largely segregated in specific neighborhoods. Over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, English Jews faced increasing discrimination and blood libel, as well as mass killings. In 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews from England.

Cooking vessel
Cooking vessels found at the site contained no residue from non-kosher fats. Dunne et al. / Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

The Jewish Chronicle reports that the historical record of Jewish life in medieval Oxford is particularly rich thanks to the preservation of manuscripts, contracts and property deeds housed at colleges and libraries. But the physical remains of the medieval Jewish quarter have been built over many times.

The 2016 excavation almost didn’t happen, as developers were planning a project for the site after the demolition of some shops. Members of the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee, including Pam Manix, an expert on medieval Jewish Oxford, raised an objection that led to a delay enabling archaeologists to examine the area.

“I realized at once this was an amazing opportunity,” Manix tells the Jewish Chronicle. “It was the first time in decades the site had been opened up and it was right on top of a property called Jacob’s Hall, which had belonged to Jacob of Oxford, one of the most important Jews in England.”

Jacob’s Hall, a stone mansion destroyed in the 17th century, may have held a synagogue; a Jewish school; and a mikveh, or ritual bathing pool. The researchers were disappointed to find that nothing remaining of the hall itself, but they discovered that the backyard, which contained the trash dump and latrine, was surprisingly rich in information.

“I thought it was wishful thinking that we were going to find anything this distinctive,” Manix tells the Jewish Chronicle. “The fact that we’ve pulled all this information out of a midden and a latrine is just astonishing.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.