New analysis shines light on medieval anti-Semitism in Norwich

The remains of at least 17 individuals found in a medieval well in central Norwich most likely represent a group of Ashkenazi Jews who fell victim to anti-Semitic violence in the 12th or early 13th century, a new study suggests.

Comprising 11 children and six adults, the human remains were uncovered during construction work for Chapelfield shopping centre in 2004. Their skeletons were found commingled and in a state of partial articulation, indicating that they had been deposited at the same time, shortly after death. No signs of injury indicating a cause of death were identified, but their position – which suggests some may have been thrown in head-first – the burial context, and the overrepresentation of children, all indicate that they may have been victims of a catastrophic mortality event such as famine, disease, or murder.

Digital facial reconstruction of a male adult based on skeletal and DNA data. Image: Professor Caroline Wilkinson

Now a recent project conducted by scientists from the Natural History Museum (NHM), the Universities of Mainz and Cambridge, University College London, and the Francis Crick Institute has shed new light on the individuals. Whole-genome shotgun sequencing was conducted on DNA extracted from six of the skeletons, which revealed that four were closely related (including three full-sibling sisters), and they all had strong genetic affinities with present-day Ashkenazi Jews.

‘We didn’t know they were Jewish when we first started this work,’ Dr Selina Brace, Principal Researcher at the NHM and the paper’s lead author, told CA, adding that the genetic data produced during the study represents the earliest-known Jewish genome.

The team identified markers associated with four genetic disorders that have a higher tendency in Ashkenazi Jews – a prevalence attributed to a population bottleneck. Selina added that this demonstrates ‘the bottleneck came before the 12th century, centuries earlier than people had previously hypothesised’.

Revised radiocarbon analysis placed the mass burial between AD 1161 and 1216, a date consistent with a historically attested anti-Semitic massacre in Norwich, which medieval chronicler Ralph de Diceto described in his Imagines Historiarum II: ‘Accordingly on 6 February [AD 1190] all the Jews who were found in their own houses at Norwich were butchered; some had taken refuge in the castle.’

The remains have now been reburied in a Jewish cemetery, and a commemorative plaque installed at Chapelfield.

The full research results have been published in the journal Current Biology ( 2022.08.036).