Jews in England Depicts in The Merchant of Venice

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      One of the first documented statements of Jews in England was recorded in 1075 in Oxford. At this time, and for another hundred years or so, Jews, unlike their counterparts in other European countries, were not forced to live in a ghetto - especially designated sections of a town or city. Jewish people in England were banned from certain professions, though, with most taking up jobs peddling wares and money lending. They also could not own land.

      In the twelfth century, sentiments against Jews were on the rise. The Christian Crusades were in full force and heretics were being burned to death in nearby Spain. Christians called Jews heretics because Jews did not believe that Jesus was the true Messiah. During the twelfth century, Jews suffered through two massive massacres in England, one in 1189 and another in the following year. Things did not improve in the next century. Laws were passed stating that Jewish people could no longer make a living lending money; Jewish families also suffered through having to pay unusually heavy taxes. Then in 1290, King Edward I decreed that Jewish people were a threat to England and banished them from the country.

      In the sixteenth century, in Shakespeare's time, most English people would have been familiar with Jewish people not from acquaintance but from the stories told about them, most of which would have been prejudicial. Some of these stories included such false statements as Jewish people were spreading the dreaded Bubonic Plague. Other false beliefs included that Jewish people worshipped the devil and had been granted magical powers because of a pact they made with Satan. Jews were also accused of stealing Christian children at Easter time and using them in bloody rituals.

      In Elizabethan times, although still banished, some Jews lived in England. If they practiced Judaism, they did so secretly. Outwardly, they tried to conform to Christian ways, even professing conversion to the Christian faith. Even so, Jews were still restricted to two main professions: usury and peddling.

      Although there were no Jewish Ghettoes in England in Shakespeare's time, there were ghettoes in Venice. The absence of ghettoes in England was a result of Jewish people having been technically banned from England. Those Jews who did live there were supposedly assimilated into the Christian faith and lived as Christians, scattered throughout the cities' neighborhoods.

      Ironically, it is from the Venetians, from a city that was at that time known for its tolerance of different religions, that the word ghetto is derived. Venice was not the first city to create a ghetto for Jews. It was, however, the city that first devised the term ghetto, in 1516, when it established a special section in the northern part of the city. This was not the most pleasant part of the city. It was a place of industry, in particular, iron foundries were located there with their polluting exhausts and smells. This was also an isolated part of the city, cut off by water from the main sections of Venice. In order to gain access to the city proper, people had to cross one of two bridges. At night, these bridges were barred, forcing the Jewish people who lived in the ghettoes to remain at home until the gates were re-opened.

      The land area in the Venetian Ghetto was not large enough to house the Jewish population, so homes built in that area tended to have five or more stories, unlike the typical houses in other parts of the cities. As the population continued to expand, additional lands were dedicated to the ghettoes. In 1630, there were about 4000 Jewish people living in the Venetian Ghetto, in what would amount today to about two and a half city squares. When Napoleon took control of Venice in the eighteenth century, he ordered the gates on the bridges to the city to be torn down. Jewish people gained some rights after this but not the right to citizenry.

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