Saturday, 10 October 2009

Little Hugh

On Thursday, a Jewish Kantor sang the Kaddish for Mourners at the tomb of Little Hugh in Lincoln Cathedral. He wasn’t singing for Hugh (a boy who died or was murdered in Lincoln in 1255) but perhaps for the innocent Jews executed for his murder, or perhaps for all Jews killed as the result of such ‘blood libel’, or perhaps for all Jews killed by Christians. It was a poignant and significant moment at which to be present.

Geoffrey Chaucer was a member of the Cathedral Fraternity and one of his sisters-in-law is buried close by Little Hugh. His Prioress's Tale is such a ‘blood libel’ story. It ends asking for the prayers of ‘Hugh of Lincoln, likewise murdered so’. This is obviously not the great St Hugh of Lincoln (the twelfth century Bishop for whose funeral the Jews of Lincoln crowded round the city gates to see his body brought in), but the thirteenth century boy who, although never canonised, came to be known as Little St Hugh and pilgrimage to whose tomb or shrine came to be one focus of the antisemitism which was to see the Jews expelled from England in 1290.

The Kaddish was sung as a new plaque was dedicated by the tomb, now carefully labelled as that of ‘Little Hugh’ without the use of the word ‘Saint’. It is not the first to mark contemporary Christian penitence at the site. An earlier one had a simple text ‘remember not our sins nor the sins of our fathers’. The wording of the new one has the advantages and disadvantages of writing by committee; it has been prepared in collaboration with the local Jewish community and national promoters of Jewish historical trails.

Instead of the poetic instinct of the earlier plaque, it tells the story in full beginning by driving home one of the morals of the site:

All too often, in too many places, communities define themselves in opposition - who they are not, rather than who they are. It is but a short step from this to distrust, dislike and even hatred of ‘the other’ - frequently neighbours who happen to be people of different faith or race.

A similar and earlier site in Norwich Cathedral is now a Chapel of the Holy Innocents.

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