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Medieval W. Christendom
Jewish presence in medieval western Christendom was fostered by the lay
authorities in order to stimulate the economic growth of their realms and—at the same
time—to enrich their coffers. Exploitation of Jewish financial assets—often achieved
with considerable help on the part of the authorities—became increasingly important as
Europe, especially its western sectors, surged forward from the twelfth century onward.
The first step in exploitation of Jewish assets involved securing Jewish presence.
To the extent that Jewish settlement—especially the presence of the wealthiest and most
mobile of the Jews—was fluid, rulers risked losing valuable Jewish revenue through
relocation of Jews into alternative domains. Thus, from the late twelfth centuryon, many
of the most sophisticated rulers of western Christendom sought to fix Jewish residence,
through direct arrangements with the Jews themselves, through treaties with neighboring
holders of Jews, and eventually through wide-ranging decrees. Slowly, Jewish mobility
was in fact limited in significant ways.

This reality, in concert with some of the theological notions of Jewish servitude,
gave rise to terminology of “Jewish serfdom.” To be sure, the status of Jews was quite
different from and superior to that of medieval serfs. Nonetheless, the fixing of Jewish
settlement did in fact diminish both the mobility and the status of the Jews of medieval
western Christendom.

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