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Norwich's Literary Hero: Meir of Norwich

If you have already read our 2017: The Year of the Literary Hero post last week, you'll know that 2017 is...well, the year of the literary hero! So to celebrate this we're going to bring to you, in 2017, some of our favourite and most notable Norwich 'literary heroes'. At this point we want to highlight that you don't have to be a literary wizard to enjoy our stories, you just need to enjoy a good yarn.

Top image: A cartoon from 1233, during the reign of King Henry III. It was found on an Exchequer Roll, a kind of government document recording various payments that is stored rolled up. This roll listed tax payments made by Jewish people in the city of Norwich in Norfolk (Find more information on, image courtesy of The National Archives, ref: E 401/1565)

First up: Meir of Norwich, someone you may not have heard of – but definitely should have!

When Norwich was first awarded UNESCO City of Literature status (the first in England, by the way!), back in 2012, one of the first projects was to translate works by England's only medieval Hebrew poet, Meir ben Elijah, whose work had recently had lay lost in the Vatican Archives for many centuries. Through these works, 13th century Norwich is brought to life and Meir ben Elijah's voice speaks to us from centuries ago.



He was a persecuted Jewish poet who lived around the year of 1290, though we don't know a huge amount about him. We do know that he lived in Norwich because the clues in his Hebrew poems indicate as much; his poem Exodus states: 'I am Meir, son of Rabbi Elijah from the city of Norwich, which is in the Isle called Angleterre'. We do have one clue to his identity - records show a Jew called Milo Kat lived in Norwich around the time we're talking about (1290), and 'Milo' has been suggested as an equivalent name for 'Meir', so it wouldn't be ridiculous to assume that this is one and the same person!


Jewish Norwich plan

Image: "The Jewish Town: Norwich. A reconstruction from deeds, 1240 - 1290"

Norwich has a Jewish history dating back to medieval times (as cited by the works of Meir ben Elijah) and the city has the only street named 'Synagogue Street' in England – find it off St Faith's Lane, marked by a blue plaque.

Jews first arrived in England from Rouen in Normandy after the Norman Conquest in 1066, and by the mid-12th century Norwich had a thriving Jewish quarter, located particularly around Haymarket, Orford Place and White Lion Street. They became highly successful as moneylenders and their loans paid for some of the city's most significant and high profile buildings of the day - for example Norwich Cathedral – and during the early medieval period many became doctors.

Though Meir ben Elijah did live in Norwich, in 1290 the expulsion of the Jews by King Edward to the continent from Norwich left no real Jewish community in the city.
The Jews were only allowed to come back to England again in 1656, after Oliver Cromwell encouraged their return and promised that they'd be allowed to practice their religion and trade. He decided this despite opposition from his colleagues in government and merchants, and sadly it look a long time (another 200 years) until Jews were properly assimilated England's culture once again. We don't know for sure whether there was a Jewish community re-established in Norwich, but by 1776 there was an established Jewish cemetery and in 1818 a room in Gowing Court, off St Stephens Street, which was being used for worship.


Elijah wrote 22 poems about the fear, sorrow and anger of Jews in England after 200 years of persecution, which tell us a lot about life for Jews during the late 13th century.

His poem Ode to Light is an incredibly powerful poem, with emotional lines such as:

"With heart's enclosure torn apart,
Those coming in Thy name fare ill"
"We languish, suffering in the land
And hear the brute's insults,
And steadfastly do we endure
While waiting for the Light."

Who is like you also offers a very emotional stanza about the persecution of Jews driven from their homes:
"Forced away from where we dwelt
We go like cattle to the slaughter.
A slayer stands above us all.
We burn and die."

Meir's poems are with us still today, in one priceless manuscript located in the Vatican in Rome! They were discovered by a German-based expert in Jewish history and literature, Abraham Berliner, in the 1880's, and we don't know exactly how they ended up there. We can only assume that his work was transported to the Continent during the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 – and are very thankful that it survived the long and what must have been tumultuous journey, so that we can read them today!

Purchase Your Copy of INTO THE LIGHT: The Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich here - a collection of new translations of Meir ben Elijah's poems, commissioned by Writers' Centre Norwich, edited by Keiron Pim, and translated by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth.


Greater Anglia have Advance fares from £9 one way between London Liverpool Street and Norwich. Trains run every 30 minutes. Abellio also serves Colchester, Ipswich and Diss on the Norwich line. Direct trains also run from Cambridge.

East Midlands Trains runs services from Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.

Flights into Norwich served from Edinburgh, Manchester, Exeter, Aberdeen, Jersey*, Guernsey* and Amsterdam.


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