History - Oxford Jewish Cemetery (Medievel)
With kind permission of Marcus Roberts Jtrails.org.ukThe Medieval Jewish Cemeteries -The Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College
© Marcus Roberts, www.jtrails.org.uk
The starting point of the tour, contains the sites of the two medieval Jewish cemeteries. The original cemetery (founded. c.1190-1231) was established on vacant low-laying floodlands next to the west bank of the River Cherwell, outside the East Gate of the town. The tradition is that a Jewish cemetery should be outside the walls of a walled town. The cemetery covered an area approximate to the extent of the present day medieval buildings of Magdalen College, but the finds of burials this century (1913 and 1976) suggest that the actual graves were confined to the driest, south-western side of the cemetery (i.e. St John’s Quad and Chaplains' Quad near the tower).
The rest was probably an area planted with trees and shrubs, with - as archeology reveals - some ash and willow, and a profusion of escaped garden herbs, plants, and wild flowers; including black mustard, corn-flowers, strawberry plants, and corn-cockle, bordering the swift clear waters of the Cherwell. Surely a tranquil spot, and one which explains why Jewish cemeteries were called ‘Jews Gardens’ by the Christians.
It is possible that the south-east corner of the site contained a ritual bath (mikveh) for bathing the dead. The 1987 excavation revealed a spring-fed stone culvert, with steps going down into it, in the old Hospital Chapel, which according to ones interpretation of the mason's chisel marks, could date from the time of the cemetery rather than the Hospital. Also, there is evidence from an Oxford antiquarian of a fine stone building on the site during the time of the cemetery. If that is the case, a Jewish ritual bath was reused for Christian purposes and became integral to a Christian place of worship. The stones from this culvert were taken after the excavation, cut to size and built into the wall of the new Magdalen JCR and Terrace Bar. When they were first built into the wall they were clearly visible, but now they are virtually impossible to discern due to weathering, though they are part of the lower courses of stone and are more irregular than the other blocks and have early grafitti on them and other markings.
The Jewish community lost this site in 1231 when the king gave it to the nearby hospital of St John. In compensation, the hospital gave them a smaller site opposite, an area which now closely matches the memorial rose gardens at the front of the Botanic Gardens. A memorial plaque (1931) on the wall to the right of the Danby Gate (i.e. the main entrance) records these facts. After the expulsion, the hospital took over the second cemetery, and it joined the first as a Christian cemetery for the dead of the hospital. Masses of bones were discovered in 1641 on the site of the second cemetery, when the Botanic Gardens were being set up.