William the Mamzer? The Conqueror depicted, centre, in the Bayeux Tapestry
There are some curious holes in the biography of William the Conquerer, principally about the identity of his mother. William was a bastard; his mother was named Herleva. That much is certain. Most scholars agree that Herleva’s father was a tanner. Tanning is an extremely smelly and unpleasant trade, and was universally looked down on by medieval Europeans. When William laid siege to the anti-Norman, pro-Anjou commune of Alençon, the Alençonians mocked his tanner-origins by hanging animal hides from the city walls. William’s riposte, after Alençon surrendered, was to have the jokers’ hands and feet cut off. He was sensitive about his mother.
According to 19th-century historian Edward Freeman, William the Conquerer, who was also known as William the Bastard, was sometimes known as “William the Mamzer”. This is where things get interesting. “Mamzer” is a Hebrew pejorative meaning the child of an illegitimate sexual relationship, such as adultery or incest. In Europe, it may have entered the vernacular as a pejorative for the offspring of a particular type of illegitimate relationship — one between a Christian man and a Jewish woman. This is generally given as the etymology of Ebalus, Duke of Aquitaine’s nickname “Ebalus Manzer”: Ebalus was apparently the unabashed illegitimate son of Aquitaine’s Ranulf II and an anonymous Jewish woman.
In medieval Europe, tanners were frequently Jews — frequently enough that it became a stereotype: a ninth-century Nicaean writer described the essence of Judaism as “contact with dog’s excrement and the multifarious vomit associated with tanning”; the 12th-century Byzantine writer Michael Choniates described Jews as “leather-gnawing dogs [and] tanners”. This wasn’t just vulgar abuse; because of the disgusting chemicals and horrendous smell that accompany the conversion of a dead animal to a piece of leather, tanning was a job nobody wanted — except Jews, on whom the profession conferred privileges. Even more than money-lending, Europe needed leather, and tanning gave Jews an otherwise unattainable freedom of movement.
We know that in the 11th century Normandy was home to a large number of Jews. By some estimates, its capital Rouen began that century with a population that was one-fifth Jewish. And we know that William was relatively fond of the Jews: after his Conquest, he suggested Normandy’s Children of Israel resettle in England — a surprising invitation, even for someone interested in developing trade and finance.
Many Jews took William’s offer up; the consensus seems to have been that life under William was much better than life among the French. (In fact, this is the pre-Expulsion origin of England’s Jewish community.) And William’s pro-Jewish stance was continued by William’s son and successor, William Rufus, who not only enjoyed hosting Jewish-Christian theological debates but is said to have joked that the debates might persuade him to convert. Even more improbably, the contemporary historian Eadmer reports that William II tried to talk a Jewish convert to Cristianity into returning to the faith of his fathers.
Does any of this prove that England as we know it was founded by a Jew? Of course not. But it’s something to chew on.