Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge carries the subtitle: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty. It is a historical novel set against the background of riots that erupted in England in the year 1780. Although most of the characters are fictitious, the broader historical background is quite accurate and corroborated by documentary testimony.
I finished reading the novel a few weeks before the January 6 2021 Washington DC riots, and it was quite chilling to note how precisely its mob psychology dovetailed with the assault on the American Capitol. The “Riots of Eighty” began as an orderly demonstration in which a petition was submitted before Parliament demanding revocation of the 1778 Catholic Relief Act bestowing rights on Roman Catholics. When the protest failed to achieve its purpose, it fell into the hands of a vicious mob who stormed public buildings, attacked churches, looted, demolished much of London, set afire and broke open the prisons, outnumbering the inadequate garrisons of police.
Dickens notes ironically, in an episode based on documented fact, that during those days of terror “even the Jews in Houndsditch, Whitechapel, and those quarters, wrote upon their doors or window-shutters, 'This House is a True Protestant.'”
The instigator of the anti-Catholic agitations was the Scottish anti-monarchist member of Parliament Lord George Gordon, head of the Protestant Association. Following the riot’s suppression he stood trial for treason. His lawyer contended that his client had not maliciously intended the demonstration to be an act of treason against the Crown; and in truth, Gordon had consistently opposed violence and called for restraint. The jury accepted this reasoning and exonerated him.
Though acquitted of the treason charges, Lord George was quarrelsome enough to get himself into other legal entanglements. Eventually he was sentenced to five years imprisonment for assorted defamations of the British judicial system, the Queen of France and the French ambassador; and he was further burdened with some huge financial penalties and bail requirements that he was unable to pay. And so he spent his remaining years in Newgate prison until his death in 1793 at the age of forty-three.
But just before his imprisonment the mercurial lord took a surprising step. He converted to Judaism, adopting the name of Israel ben Abraham. He grew a beard down to his waist, underwent circumcision, and became meticulous in his observance of the sabbath, the dietary laws and other minutiae of orthodox ritual. At one of his trials he stubbornly refused to remove his hat. An observer reported that “his Lordship has officiated in a principal Synagogue in Birmingham, as a Chief of the Levitical Order”!
Dickens wrote that he became known for his generosity in distributing charity to needy inmates irrespective of the recipients’ religious affiliations.
Gordon’s conditions at Newgate do not appear to have been very oppressive. They permitted him to conduct his prayers, provided him with kosher food, and he entertained visitors. Although his hospitality was generally extended to all comers, he was quite particular when it came to Jewish guests—he insisted on meeting only with those who were fully observant, while denying entry to any who failed to uphold proper religious standards.
It is easy to dismiss his sudden religious metamorphosis as just another eccentric quirk of an erratic personality. Well before the 1780 upheaval, the maverick parliamentarian had acquired a reputation for his incoherent rambling oratory and abusive belligerency towards opponents. Many observers assumed that he was simply deranged. Recent scholarship stresses his links to radical libertarian movements.
However, it is likely that there were deeper reasons for his attraction to the faith of Israel.
As with many liberal thinkers of his time, especially in Scotland, Gordon was involved in Freemasonry which cultivated esoteric pseudo-Jewish teachings about Solomon’s Temple and dabbled in Kabbalah. Furthermore, from early in his career Gordon found inspiration in Jeremiah’s messianic vision that the Lord will lead the house of Israel “out of the north country.” His opposition to the Catholic Relief Act may have been driven less by religious intolerance than by strategic concerns about allowing masses of Catholics to augment the ranks of the British imperialist forces arrayed against the American colonists. During his brief military service in America he became a vocal supporter of the American ideal of liberty and a staunch critic of slavery.
There are scholars who argue that Lord Gordon’s affinity to Judaism was a logical outgrowth of long-established themes in Scottish nationalist ideology. Like embattled Christian sects through history, Scots who fought against the Popes or the English monarchy liked to identify themselves with the ancient Israelites in upholding a sacred covenant though outnumbered by their oppressors. There was a widespread belief that many Scots were descended from Jewish refugees expelled from England under Edward I (a theory confirmed by their alleged aversion to pork); and the Jacobites (supporters of the Stewart dynasty) were known to practice circumcision.
In their struggles against England, the Scots had a longstanding admiration for the Maccabees who offered an inspiring model of a small force overcoming a populous army. The 1320 “Declaration of Arbroath,” a manifesto of Scottish independence, depicted Robert Bruce as one “who like another Maccabaeus or Joshua” boldly fought for his people’s liberty.
John Bower’s fourteenth-century epic of Scottish nationalism The Bruce devoted a stirring chapter to this theme. In phraseology that recalls the Jewish “‘Al ha-Nissim” prayer, the author extolled the triumph of Bruce’s small band against the massive English armies, declaring that “these heroes were like the Maccabees who, as the Bible says, with great bravery and valour fought many a tough battle to deliver their country from evil bondage. They wrought so by their prowess that with few followers they won victory over mighty kings, and made their country free, for which their name should be praised.”
But then again—Handel composed his “Judas Maccabeus” oratorio to celebrate the English victory over the Scots at Culloden.
At any rate, we must admit that “MacCabee” sounds like a quintessentially Scottish name.