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nlike Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, published three years later, in 1820, is still, after two hundred years, a widely known and readily accessible classic, even if, like the other works of the once internationally best-selling author of Waverley, it is nowhere near as widely read as it once was. The modern reader should nevertheless be reminded not only of the very considerable place Scott gave in Ivanhoe to representation of and reflection on Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, the relevance of which to their own time could not have escaped his contemporary early-nineteenth-century readers, but of the generosity and understanding with which the theme is explored. In the words of the late distinguished professor of chemistry and writer on Jewish history Milton Kerker, “Myriads of readers were unfamiliar with Jewish history, except for the Bible. In Ivanhoe, Scott not only introduced them to the suffering of Jews in medieval England, but by enlisting sympathy for Jews, he may even have served to ameliorate the view of many readers about contemporary British Jewry.”

The social and political context of Scott’s extensive treatment of the place of the Jew in a predominantly Christian society is central to the novel: As a Scot, he himself belonged to a minority in a country that had come to include different ethnicities-- English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish -- and different religions – Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian, etc. He had been trained in Scots law (still the law of the land in the northern kingdom), had a keen interest in Scottish folk songs, poetry, and native traditions, and did not want these expressions of a particular and unique culture to disappear. Scott believed that different “races” or ethnicities, as we would say in 2020, and different cultures should not cancel each other out but find a modus vivendi, a way of living together and enhancing each other’s humanity, without losing their distinct identities. As A. N. Wilson pointed out in his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Ivanhoe, what Scott wrote a few years later in Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826) is relevant to the political import of Ivanhoe: “For God’s sake [ . . . ] let us remain as Nature made us, Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotchmen, with something like the impress of our several countries upon each.” Wilson himself draws the implications of that view for our reading of Ivanhoe

If the book has a political message, it seems to have two very incisive points of view, hard, but necessary to reconcile. One is that there is a wickedness in failing to preserve our racial and ethnic heritages; that Jews and Saxons and Normans are all totally different, and it is grotesquely dishonest to suppose otherwise. At the same time, no society can work without recognizing our interdependence and our common good. [xxvii-xxxix]

In this regard Scott would seem to have a more complex and broadly tolerant view of the integration of different ethnicities and religions into a single society than Edgeworth, for whom, as we saw, modern critics allege integration meant adopting the manners, culture, and outlook of the dominant social group.

In the late twelfth century context, in which the action of Ivanhoe unfolds, the population of England is divided into two major, mutually hostile ethnicities – Saxons resentful of their defeat and Normans made haughty and domineering by their victory. The Jews are a tiny, but — because of their role in finance and commerce — critical minority. In Scott’s original and imaginative vision, however, the problem of the relation of Jews, with their own faith and their own traditions, and Christians, with theirs, is not fundamentally different from that of the relations of Normans and Saxons. Without giving up their native cultures or, in the case of the Jews, their faith, they all have to learn to respect and get along with each other. In the case of the Jews, Scott points out repeatedly in the unfolding of the narrative, an end to cruel persecution and strictly enforced exclusion from the general life and activities of Christian societies (such as landholding, farming, everyday commerce) would remove those negative features commonly attributed to them by all classes of society and in fact often enough, but not always or at all times found among them: avarice, cunning, false obsequiousness, fear and timidity, dislike of Christians and Christianity.

Rebecca, the daughter of the moneylender Isaac of York, who represents the Jew in Ivanhoe as Cedric represents the Saxon, offers the notable example of a Jewish woman who, along with physical beauty and gracious deportment, is endowed with intelligence, talents and skills, along with a kind and compassionate nature, respect for the faith of others, and a deep commitment to her own faith. But old Isaac of York himself is not, as some readers, including modern readers, assert, simply another version of Shylock. Scott presents him as a complex figure, capable of responding to threatening or dangerous situations with courage and of acting toward Christians as well as Jews with sympathy, generosity, and general human concern.

The end of the novel -- the marriage of Ivanhoe to Cedric’s Saxon ward, the rather bland and colourless Rowena, rather than to Rebecca, who had tended to him and nursed him back to health after he was severely wounded in a tournament, for whom he had appeared to have developed feelings of love and who, on her side had developed strong feelings of love for him -- was regarded by many readers as a disappointment. The novelist, it was widely felt, should have had her wed Ivanhoe as Shakespeare’s Jessica ran off to marry Lorenzo, becoming thereby a Christian. Scott, however, resisted this supposedly happy ending. For one thing, unlike the relation of Shylock and Jessica, Rebecca’s relation to Isaac (and thus to her own inherited Jewish religion) is a deeply loyal and loving one. For another, after she informs Ivanhoe that she is a Jewess, Rebecca notices a cooling off in the Saxon’s feelings for her; and, on her side, while she remains deeply attached to him, she knows – and knew from the beginning -- that their love can never lead to marriage, given both the prejudice against Jews in Christian society and the prohibition in Judaism against marrying a non-Jew.

Scott’s ending should not, therefore, be seen as simply a retreat from what would have been a challenging and probably controversial conclusion to his fiction. It was, as he himself explained, simply an acknowledgment of the real-life, historical situation of Jews in England at the end of the twelfth century. It was also, in all likelihood, a realistic reminder to his own readers, Christians and Jews alike, that a marriage between a Christian and a Jew was still no simple matter in a modern, enlightened age, especially when neither party was ready to convert to the faith of the other.

The Novel’s Social and Political Contexts: Jews and Judaism in Great Britain


Edgeworth, Maria. Harrington in Tales and Novels. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1969), IX: 1-208 (rprt. of The Longford Edition, 1893)..

Goldsmid, Francis Henry. Remarks on the Civil Disabilities of British Jews. Postcript, April 1833. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Francis Bentley, 1830.

Harrison J.F.C. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Kerker, Milton. “Isaac and Rebecca in Scott’s Ivanhoe: A Study in Courage.” Midstream, 53:5 (2007).

Ragussis, Michael. Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Scott, Walter. “Tobias Smollett” in Miscellaneous Prose Works. Edinburgh: Cadell and Co., 1827. 6 vols. 3: 132-209.

Warraq, Ibn. “Sir Walter Scott’s Treatment of Jews in Ivanhoe.” New English Review, July, 2009).

Wilson, A.N. Introduction to Ivanhoe. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986.

Last modified 8 July 2020