New play to set the record straight on Norwich's Jewish history
- Credit: Courtesy of Jane Prinsley
"'I’ve never met a Jew before,’ is the most common response to my heritage in Norwich,” says Jane Prinsley.
“Most people seem so curious about Jewish culture and history, but there is a lot of misinformation,” she adds.
There most certainly is.
Now Jane and her friend Chloe France, two talented theatre-makers, writers and directors born and raised in the city, have come together to write a play called Where We Dwelt, a truthful and poignant tale that will help to put some of the records straight about Jewish people in Norwich.
And that includes the legend of the alleged killing in 1144 of a boy called William, which has cast a long, dark and bloody shadow over the history of the faith in Norfolk.
“The Jews were blamed for the supposed murder, and a local monk wrote some atrocious fake news (The Life and Miracle of Saint William of Norwich) that saw William become a pseudo saint, attracting pilgrims and leading to the demonization of Jews around England,” says Jane.
“This anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is known as a 'blood libel', and the William story is the first recorded blood libel in Europe.
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“Norwich, then, has a really important part to play in the development of antisemitism across Europe. I’m not sure if Norwich as a city has properly reckoned with this legacy,” said Jane.
Throughout their research, piecing the story together, they spent time with historians, archaeologists and art historians from the UEA, Norwich Castle and the county archives.
Talking to experts in their fields and disseminating the research from the period, the pair gained understanding and information to produce Where We Dwelt.
Jewish people came over from France with William the Conqueror and settled in Norwich a few decades later. There was a synagogue, near the vicinity of the Lamb Inn and Primark.
There was a Jewish school and cemetery. They did not live in a ghetto and would share their knowledge of medicine and literature with others.
“However,” say the authors, “it was only Jews who were permitted to lend money and they reported to the sheriff and King, marking them as different to the Christian citizens which led to resentment.”
Violence towards the community bubbled over at various points, with Jewish homes being the targets of arson attacks and homes being raided by crusaders.
And, after almost 200 years in England, they were expelled in 1290 and forced to flee, mostly to France. They were a means for the King to generate more income, seizing their property and wealth to fund some of the crusades.
Jane and Chloe say: “We need to show the life and vitality of the Jewish community in the mediaeval period as a testament to our ancestors in this city and a homage to the community here today.”
That is why Where We Dwelt is such an important piece of theatre which, it is hoped, will spread far and wide. From this city to the rest of the country.
The title is a translation from a line of mediaeval Jewish poetry by Meir of Norwich, a poet whose work was discovered in a vault at the Vatican in the 19th century.
He was the only poet who wrote in Hebrew in England during the mediaeval period and his poems are a powerful testimony to the time.
His collection was only recently published in Into The Light, edited by former EDP writer Keiron Pim, and translated by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth.
The play begins in 1295, and we meet Meir after escaping Norwich. Through the piece, they trace an imagined family tree back eight generations to show the audience the longevity of the community.
As they say, if one family could have eight generations born and bred in Norwich, then they were very much part of the community.
And as they say: “To be torn from your home and kicked out by the authorities after nearly 200 years of putting down roots in that place is terrifying. Meir gives us a chance to humanise that experience with a real voice.”
Jane and Chloe hope Where We Dwelt will give the audience a glimpse of contemporary Jewish life in Norwich through the brilliant music, composed and directed by Joseph Finley and wonderful performances by the all-Jewish cast.
“We have been able to use the brilliant new community space at the Norwich Synagogue for their rehearsals and want to thank them for their generosity,” they added.
Performances have been held there and at the National Centre for Writing at Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich.
They are now finishing the full-script with a larger cast and want as many people as possible to share their story. For more details email email@example.com