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Jews of All Trades

Jews and Their Professions in Early Modern English Travel Writing

Eva Johanna Holmberg

This article explores early modern English travelers' representations of and responses to the trades and professions of contemporary Jews. Professions were important social markers for early modern people, and the way Jews and their “professions” were commented on opens a novel perspective on the ways early modern Englishmen encountered Jews both in Europe and outside it. Observing foreign professions and trades was expected of travelers, since it revealed important aspects of foreign societies, their prosperity, civility, and treatment of their subjects. Portrayals of Jewish professionals provided a space to explore the customs and way of life of Jews, to present arguments for and against admitting Jews, or indeed any other strangers, to reside in England and elsewhere. In addition, these texts educated readers about foreign trades and professions and mapped the fluctuations of trade and commerce in foreign countries. This provided English readers of travel literature with conflicting information about the harms and benefits of Jewish presence, accusations of the innate greediness of Jews, but also views about their “natural” business instincts.

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Eva Johanna Holmberg and Chloë Houston

What did early modern English people think about “strangers”? This speech from the play Sir Thomas More, written by Anthony Munday and others and first performed in the early 1590s, gives an emphatic answer to this question. Strangers were “aliens” who “braved and abused ... freeborn Englishmen” (1.1.111, 74, 72). By their presence in London they stole both food and women from their rightful English owners, committing “vild enormities” and “insolencies” against the native people (1.1.81, 90). The extract above comes from a playbill designed by the broker John Lincoln, who calls on the “worshipful lords and masters of the city” to bring these injustices to an end (1.1.106-7). The text of the bill is taken verbatim from Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which related the events dramatized in the play, the “Ill May Day” protests of 1517.