PoetryEmail This Article Print This Article

H. – A poem / a history

Theophilus Kwek

The sum of his possessions when
We took him: mortar, pestle. An

Inkwell, dry. Fine dye, coins to weigh
Leaves of grammar, a pillow for

The wrist. Robes, bound in crisp paper.
Where he towelled his feet after

Rain, a stool, chiselled to a squat.
Outside the door a low stair led

Under the alley where they mourned
Their lost seamstress and her husband

To a musty basement, and here
We found last year’s olives in jars,

A little fruit wine, incense like
A talisman. Half of these we took

As gifts to the infirmary,
Leaving the rest for when the time came

To close the accounts, sell the house
With its furnishings complete. Those

Who moved in afterwards, we found,
Had all the right convictions.

Haggai of Oxford, a Christian Deacon and student of Hebrew, was burnt alive in 1222 after embracing the Jewish faith ‘for the love of a Jewess’. – The Dunstable Annals

‘I’m writing this in my favourite spot in Oxford – by the tall, clean windows of a cafe made famous by countless episodes of Endeavour, where the baristas know my order and, in the quieter hours, stop to chat. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of concerts, talks, literary events, and exams, all part of the all-consuming circuit of university life, and uncannily effective at shielding me from the events that have captured hearts and headlines at home and across the world.

I’m reminded that my beautiful city, with its bright windows and bustling community, hasn’t always been like this. A century ago, few of my ethnicity would have been admitted to the university – certainly none who weren’t royalty or otherwise well-connected, and even then, not without a grasp of Latin and the classics. It isn’t just about race: my college only admitted women in 1980, and its first female Warden in 1994. Previously, other markers – visible, invisible – would have ruled out many of my friends as interlopers, outsiders.

Last week, taking a break from revision on a clear evening, I cut across a less familiar part of the city: south from George Street on Bulwarks Lane, down Castle Street through Paradise Square, round the churchyard of St Thomas the Martyr, venturing briefly across Osney before finding my way back down Hollybush Row to St Aldate’s and the city centre.

Here were the landmarks of some of those less visible markers. St Thomas’ church kept a memory of its dedicatee alive after he was condemned by the crown, and later housed the nascent Oxford Movement when they were persona non grata in Oxford’s larger churches. Paradise Square itself, once the gardens of Greyfrairs Abbey, was turned over to planting, then paved over and built on after the Abbey was suppressed, but lived on (in its unusual name) as a folk memory of the frairs’ beautiful topiary. And St Aldates, formerly Great Jewry Street, was home to Oxford’s early Jewish community before many were expelled, and had their properties turned over to the University oldest colleges.

Reading around these spaces, I came across the story of Haggai – the name taken by a Christian deacon and student of Hebrew at the University – who converted to Judaism and was tried for apostasy before being burnt at the stake. His case, recorded by contemporary scholar Henry de Bracton (1210-1268), became a ‘landmark’ in England’s legal tradition for the prosecution of heretics and apostates.

Little more is known about Haggai: in fact, he is often confused with another, Robert of Reading, who also took the name Haggai upon embracing the Jewish faith half a century later. Even less is known about his wife, consigned to the footnote of a footnote. I wonder what persuaded him to embrace the lot of those which his city (and his church) chose to persecute – and what harrowing conditions this couple would have lived under before finally being brought before the authorities. At what point the medieval church, eager to condemn, decided to end this man’s life.

Oxford, today, is a much more inclusive space. The church I which I love and worship at (which has been part of the life of this city since Haggai’s time) has, in my time here, proven slow to judge and always eager to engage: a faithful reflection of Christ’s own example.

But of course within and beyond this city, these are no less pressing questions now than eight hundred years ago. One can’t help but hope that the windows will always remain tall, clean, and open; the light always as bright. The city I’ve learnt to love has, in its own way, been learning to love too.’

Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society.