Abbot Gilbert Crispin (ca. 1055-1117)
The south walk of the Westminster Abbey cloisters. Abbot Gilbert is buried under the base of the wall on the left.
Entering Westminster Abbey from the north entrance, the first royal tomb you are likely to notice is the large brown chest containing the mortal remains of Edward I (1239-1307). If you are clever, you may have purchased a guide book, or brought along a field guide to the kings and queens of England. You might remember seeing Edward I portrayed by Patrick McGoohan in the movie Braveheart—it was King Edward I, "the Hammer of the Scots," who defeated and ordered the execution of William Wallace. You might know that it was Edward I who, in 1290, became the first European monarch to expel the Jews from his kingdom. Or perhaps, like me, you make a note to find out more about Edward I at some later date. History washes over you in Westminster Abbey, and the few historical facts that you possess are barely enough to keep you afloat. For everything that you know, there are a million things that you don't know, things that you pass by in almost total ignorance.
For example, in the south walk of the cloisters, I noticed—built into the base of the cloister wall—the rather inconspicuous tombs of three early Abbots of Westminster: Vitalis, Gilbert Crispin, and Lawrence. I knew nothing about them. I didn't realize, until I came home and did a little research, that they were the third, fourth, and fifth Norman abbots of Westminster. I didn't know that Gilbert Crispin had studied with St. Anselm at the Abbey of Bec in Normandy, where he distinguished himself as "a perfect scholar in all the liberal arts." I didn't know that he wrote a dialogue, dedicated to St. Anselm, titled Disputation of a Jew with a Christian About the Christian Faith (before 1096). The work is remarkable because it suggests that the eleventh-century Abbot of Westminster was on friendly terms with the Jews of London. In his dedication to St. Anselm, Abbot Gilbert writes: "He [the Jew] often used to come to me as a friend both for business and to see me, since in certain things I was very necessary to him, and as often as we came together we would soon get talking in a friendly spirit about the Scriptures and our faith." In what ways was the abbot "very necessary" to his Jewish friend? Did he offer him protection? Who was this learned Jew? What was life like for the Jewish community in late eleventh-century London? Abbot Gilbert mentions that his friend was from Mayence (Mainz), which was a center of Talmudic study in the eleventh century. In 1096, the Jewish population of Mainz fell victim to a band of rogue Crusaders, who massacred over a thousand Jews who had taken refuge with the Archbishop of Mainz. So many unexpected questions rise from a short visit to Westminster Abbey. There are so many stories that might be told. Every stone makes you want to reach for a book.