A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

A Jewish academy in north London

WHEN I ENTERED HIGHGATE School at the age of thirteen, daily attendance of religious activity was obligatory. Highgate School was basically a Church of England establishment, but by 1965, 400 years after the school’s founding, it recognised religious diversity to some extent. I was offered the choice of attending ‘chapel’ (Church of England), or ‘Roman Catholic Circle’, or ‘Jewish Circle’. In those, now far-off days, the options of ‘Hindu Circle’ and ‘Islamic Circle’ or even ‘Witches Circle’ were not available.

A few days ago, I received a facsimile edition of “The Northern Heights of London” by the Quaker William Howitt (1792-1879), published in 1869. In a short section on religious communities in Highgate, I read the following:

“Some years ago there was a Jewish academy in Highgate, conducted by Mr Hyman Hurwitz. It was the only thing of the kind in the kingdom, except one on a small scale in Brighton. It had generally about a hundred pupils, sons of the chief families of the Jews; and there was a synagogue for their use. There was also a school for Jewish young ladies, established by Miss Hurwitz, the sister of Mr Hurwitz.”

Seeing this, which was information I had never seen before, I reached for my copy of “A History of the Jews in England” by Albert Montefiore Hyamson (1875-1954), published in 1928. I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore (India) for a mere 200 Indian Rupees (currently just over £2).  Hyamson, a civil servant and historian, was an ardent advocate of founding a single state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, an idea that infuriated many Zionists. Regarding Hyman Hurwitz (1770-1844), he wrote in some detail, which I will summarise and add to.

Hurwitz, born in Posen (now ‘Poznan’ in Poland), was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who is buried in Highgate, where he died. They lived near each other in Highgate:

“Coleridge and Hurwitz were neighbors and friends living in Highgate, London, England. There are fourteen letters from Coleridge discussing the work of both Hurwitz and Coleridge, including publishing and editing. One letter dated 17 May 1825 from Coleridge encloses a note from his nephew John Taylor Coleridge regarding publication of Hurtwitz’s work through Mr. Murray. A theoretical discussion on the history of language by Coleridge is the subject of the 16 September 1829 letter. The correspondence also includes a recommendation from Coleridge to Leonard Horner regarding Hurwitz’s position as Hebrew professor at the new University College, London, dated 27 November 1827.” (https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9954204173503681).

 Hurwitz opened The Highgate Academy, a higher school for Jewish boys, in about 1799. Later, on the recommendation of Coleridge, he was appointed the first Professor of Hebrew at University College (London), now UCL, which was founded as a university for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women, in 1826. Hurwitz’s publications included “Introduction to Hebrew Grammar” (1835), which was the standard grammar for English Jews for many years, and “Hebrew Tales” (1826) as well as “Vindicia Hebraica” (1820).  

The school in Highgate was housed in Church House, which I will discuss soon. In 1821, Hurwitz extended the lease on these premises for another seventeen years. Soon after this, he handed over the direction of his school to his assistant Leopold Neumegen (1787-1875), who moved from Highgate to Kew in 1840, where he lived in Gloucester House, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Fulham. In 1821 or 1822, Hurwitz moved his home from Highgate to Grenada Cottage in the Old Kent Road (“Marginalia: Camden to Hutton”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, publ. by Princeton University Press: 1980).

Chris Rubinstein wrote (www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/CB24/12%20CB%2024%20Rubinstein.pdf) that Coleridge’s friendship with Hurwitz continued after Hyman left Highgate:

“Coleridge described him as the Luther of Judaism. His eulogies of Hurwitz in his Notebooks and letters were copious from 1816 onwards. The two co-operated in the field of Hebrew learning, each of use to the other as they both well knew. Coleridge relied on Hurwitz for much of his understanding of meanings in the Old Testament, as Hurwitz was authoritative regarding the subtleties of Hebrew, ‘the science of words’ Coleridge’s own phrase. Without his help Coleridge’s vast erudition would have been seriously diminished. And he helped Hurwitz with publication of a least two of his books, one a study of the Hebrew Language, then innovative though ultimately superseded, and the other Hebrew Tales, a best-seller in the 19th century. Coleridge himself contributed three of its many insightful and telling anecdotes. Each of them used the other’s knowledge openly and with attribution.”

So much for the close relationship between a famous poet and a now obscure Jewish scholar. Let us return to Church House in Highgate. Church House is currently number 10 South Grove, next door to the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, in the heart of Highgate Village. The land on which it stands was once owned by Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565), who founded Highgate School in 1565, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. The present building with its red brick façade was built in the early 18th century.

In 1759, the house came into the possession of Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789), a surveyor and lawyer. Following his death, the house was left to his wife, and then to his son, John Sidney Hawkins, who died in 1842.  It was from this man that Hurwitz leased Church House at first between 1800 and 1820, and then for a further 17 years as already mentioned (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp32-38).

Well, I did not know anything about Hurwitz and his Highgate Jewish school when I was at the older educational establishment not many yards away. I used to pass Church House every Thursday morning when those, including me, who had opted for Chapel rather than Jewish Circle or Roman Catholic Circle, attended a morning service at the Victorian Gothic Church of St Michael not far from it.

Hurwitz was born in what was Prussia a couple of decades before my great-great grandfather Dr Nathan Ginsberg (1814-1890), who was born in the Prussian city of Breslau (now ‘Wrocław’ in Poland). Both men were intellectual giants. Neither of them would have been able to teach in German universities without first converting to Christianity. Both of them founded schools for Jewish children, Hyman in London, and Nathan in the Prussian city of Beuthen (now ‘Bytom’, in Poland). Nathan, my ancestor, started his school because he was unwilling to be baptised in order to be eligible to accept the professorships he was offered in Germany. Hyman established his school in London before Jews were able to teach in English Universities, but fortunately for him the establishment of University College with its willingness to accept Jewish people, allowed him to become a professor. I wonder whether my forefather, Nathan,  ever considered trying to become a university teacher at the university in London that opened when he was only twelve years old and about which he must surely have been aware as he grew older.