Franciscans helping Jews in the England of Henry III

The Martyrdom of Little St Hugh

Little St Hugh – Lincoln Cathedral
Franciscans arrived in England five years before the death of St Francis in Italy. By 1224, there were Franciscans in Oxford and Cambridge, helping to establish those two places of theological learning. King Henry III, known by some as Henry the Pious, was impressed by the Franciscans and their friendly rivals, the Dominicans. In 1226, the King gave to the Franciscans in Cambridge half of a stone house which had belonged to Benjamin the Jew.

The Jews were tolerated in England, mainly as money-lenders to the aristocracy. Henry borrowed staggering sums, and was unable to repay them. He then devised heavy taxes on Jews as a way of getting out of debt. He had, for example, passed a law aimed at the wealthy Jews that gave him the right to huge taxes or fines from any man convicted of capital crimes.

The Franciscans were missionaries: they had a strong desire to convert the Jews, so they took a special interest in the Jewish community. Friars took the trouble to learn about their customs and literature, and follow the politics of the place of Jews in the English community. Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, the famous intellectual, was given special responsibility for the converts from Judaism.

On 27th August 1225, the body of nine-year-old Hugh was found at the bottom of a well in Lincoln. A friar, sadly, was the first to accuse the Jews of kidnapping little Hugh and ritually executing him, using his blood to make matzos for Passover. Emotions flared all over England and Henry saw a chance. He thought he would ride public opinion and have ninety Jews convicted for the double crime of kidnap and murder. He arrested them, had them tortured and locked up in the Tower of London.

18 of the Jews hanged themselves rather than risk the anger of a Christian court-room.

Many Franciscans refused to be caught up in the angry outcry against the Jews. Risking their friendship with the volatile King, they pleaded in court for the release of the remaining Jews.

The crimes alleged, the Franciscans said, could not possibly have been committed by Jews. Eating blood in any form is comprehensively prohibited for Jews, and Passover takes place, not in August, but in March/April.

The pleas of the Franciscan friars did not succeed in gaining the Jews’ release. However, they were not hanged but kept imprisoned for many months while the Jewish community all over England gathered together a massive ransom payment for their freedom.

The Feast of the martyr Little St Hugh is July 27, a day on which we Franciscans can both repent the history of maltreatment and misunderstanding of Jews and recognise three Franciscan traits: firstly, the desire to understand people and respect every human being as made in God’s image. Secondly, as our Principles put it, the desire of Franciscans to ‘make our Lord known and loved everywhere’, and thirdly, even when faced with spectacular failure, the willingness to stand up for justice, particularly to take up the cause of those falsely accused.

If you’re interested in Little St Hugh and want to know more, read Robin R. Mundil, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England, London: Continuum Books, 2010, or, for Franciscan beginnings in England, relevant chapters in Maurice Carmody OFM, The Franciscan Story, London: Athena Press 2008.

Brother Duck – the latest biographer of St Francis

Jay Stoeckl SFO, Saint Francis and Brother Duck, Paraclete Press 2013, from $US 16.38 online

Reviewed by Ted Witham

French clergyman Paul Sabatier published his Life of St Francis of Assisi in 1893. Since then, there have been hundreds of lives of St Francis. Sabatier’s Life has had a powerful influence on those who followed him, but ironically it was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books because of its unreliable telling of the story.

Jay Stoeckl, a Secular Franciscan from the United States has produced a life of St Francis in part aimed at children. The only invented character in the story is Brother Duck, a drily humorous fellow who followed St Francis after he saved him from the cruelty of soldiers. Brother Duck brings a wry and innocent voice which enables us to hear the thoughts of St Francis as he makes decisions to follow Christ more closely, and to choose Assisi and humility over Rome and glory.

Saint Francis and Brother Duck is a graphic novel, a comic book. It is not the first graphic novel about saint Francis: in the early 1980s, Marvel Comics teamed up with Fr Roy Gasnick OFM to produce the first telling of the story in this style. Jay Stoeckl’s new graphic novel is full colour making the experience of reading the story immediate and bright.

The challenge for those who tell the story of St Francis to children is make sense of the motivations that drove St Francis to defy his parents and to defy the normal pathways of marriage and work. Stoeckl makes good use of the graphic novel genre to make Francis accessible to children. After the scene in front of the cathedral where Francis returns everything of his father including his clothes, Jay Stoeckl shows Francis asking for forgiveness for the hurt that he had done to his family. While there is no evidence of the attitude to his father that Francis held from then on, this invention does help ground St Francis for children.

This would be an appropriate book to put in the hands of any child 8 years and upward, or in the library of any Primary School. While it does not claim to bring new insights to the story of St Francis, it has a high level of detail, making it suitable as a comprehensive introduction to the Saint’s life.

Compating Jay Stoeckl's stigmta scene (left) with that of Roy Gasnick
Comparing Jay Stoeckl’s nativity scene (left) with the stigmata scene of Roy Gasnick

Max the Word of God

I spend much of my day in the company of our dog Max. In the Franciscan tradition, dogs, and all other creatures, are Words of God. Not Christ, the Word of God, but little Words. Pets, animals, sunsets, algae, indeed all creatures speak to us a message from the Creator.

Max is a 2½-year-old cocker-spaniel. His luxuriant golden coat shines in the sun. He walks with his leonine head held high. The long floppy ears hang down over his jowls. He is a striking dog. When people see him out walking they always exclaim how beautiful he is. Max loves that attention. For people who love dogs, Max is in the image of God, at least to the extent that he has irresistible beauty. He is the kind of dog who compels you to admire him.

If a dog can command that level of instinctive admiration, then how much more should God. If Max shines in the light, how much more does God shine. If Max walks proudly, how much more does God walk with pride among his people and his creatures. When we think of God, we think of an attractive beauty that invites our rapt attention. We should stop and praise him for his extraordinary loveliness.

Max reminds me that how often I forget that God is present in beauty. I even have a sneaking suspicion that God loves to be told that God is beautiful!

Max is bred to be a companion animal. Max greets us both in the morning; and the greeting is appropriate for each of us. He greets Rae with effusion, bouncing up to her and wrapping his legs around her in his version of an embrace. He knows I respond to a different greeting, and he nuzzles my hand and waits for me to pat his head. He never forgets our morning greeting.

During the day, he continues to love us, delighting us with tricks and obedience when he can, jumping up to embrace us when we arrive or leave. If we accidentally tread on his tail or leave his water-bowl empty, he forgives us without question.

Max models God’s way of praying. God greets us every morning. God wants to embrace us over and over again during the day using whatever means he can find. Whatever we do to God, God forgives us. There’s no reserve when we have sinned, he doesn’t stand back for a while to let us feel more guilty; he simply resumes the enthusiastic loving.

Max reminds me how often I forget that God takes the initiative in prayer. My role is a poor attempt to catch up with the enthusiasm of God’s love for me. My response is not to resist the reality of God’s love (why would God love me without reserve?) but to marvel in its reality.

Max takes me outside several times a day. I’m an indoor person, and my health keeps me even more indoors than when I was younger. Max insists we inspect the village. He points out the birds in the hedge, often scaring them away. He paddles through the water on the road, splashing himself and me. He tugs at the lead so I will take him to watch the coy in the fish-pond. I don’t know what Max is thinking, but the effect on me of walking this dog is to see the glory of the world through his eyes.

Max reminds me to praise God for the fish, the birds, the sparkling water and the sun bringing warmth to a crisp winter’s day.

Max came to us with his name already decided. Now when I think of Max, I think of Ad Dei Maximam Gloriam, to the Maximum glory of God!

Ted Witham
July 2013
Max himself