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Introduction: Economic Flexibility

Medieval W. Christendom
The great horizontal divide in Europe between south and north had major
implications for its Jews, especially in the sphere of economic activity. The Jews of the
south, long-time residents of the Italian peninsula, southern France, and the Iberian
peninsula, show early in our period considerable diversity in their economic outlets. This
is particularly true for the Jews who had lived under Muslim rule in the southern parts of
the Italian and Iberian peninsulas and were eventually absorbed into the Christian sphere
through conquest. Under Muslim rule, these Jews had occupied almost every rung on the
economic ladder, from the lowest to the highest, and this diversification was maintained
at least initially under Christian rule as well.

In northern Europe, the economic situation was quite different. Jews came into
the north to fill limited economic niches and were never successful in diversifying into a
broader range of economic activities. Initially, the northern European Jews came as
merchants involved in trade, both long range and more circumscribed. With the passage
of time, these Jews moved into money lending, to fill the vacuum created by the rapidly
expanding European economy coupled with the Church’s assault on Christian usury.
Given the early Jewish specialization in trade, including occasionally selling on credit, it
is not surprising that Jews should have been well prepared to move into the money
lending business. Jewish money lending was carried on at a variety oflevels, from the
paltriest to the most extensive and profitable. In the countries of northwestern Europe,
some Jews were able to amass—at least for a period of time—large fortunes; further
eastward, in central and eastern Europe, Jewish money lending was carried on a far more
modest scale.

With the changes in the European economy during the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, the Jews of southern Europe began to specialize increasingly in money lending,
as had happened already among their northern co-religionists. While the level of
specialization in the south never reached the same proportions as in the north, money
lending increasingly became the mainstay of Jewish economic activity across southern
Europe as well.

Money lending has never been a popular economic activity; the fact that it was
being carried out by Jews made it even more disreputable for many medieval Christians.
Nonetheless, it is clear that this generally unpopular Jewish economic activity in fact
played a useful—often indispensable—role in medieval Europe.

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