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Overview: The State and the Jews

Money Lenders

Jewish money-lenders in medieval France

Given the considerable negativity of the Church’s doctrines, policies, and imageries and the lack of pre-1000 Jewish population in western Christendom, the obvious question is how a burgeoning European Jewish population developed in the period between 1000 and 1500. The answer lies in the fact that some—but by no means all—elements in European society were interested in fostering Jewish presence and that the Jews themselves were attracted to dynamically developing western Christendom. The most important of the majority elements committed to bringing Jews to western Christendom were the secular rulers of Europe, who saw in the Jews a valuable resource and potentially useful allies. The positive perspectives of the ruling class were not shared by other important sectors in society and were always mitigated by the complex doctrines and policies of the Roman Catholic Church and the deteriorating popular imagery of Judaism and Jews. Nonetheless, the interest of the rulers of Europe in the Jews and their power to create positive conditions for Jewish life constituted the key—from the majority side—to evolving Jewish circumstances in medieval western Christendom.

The Roman Catholic Church was concerned with the spiritual well-being of medieval western Christendom and was very much constrained by pre-existent doctrines and policies. The secular authorities of Europe were focused on the material circumstances of their realms and their own immediate interests; they were relatively unfettered by pre-existent doctrines and policies. This is not to say that there were no prior realities that impinged on these rulers. While the Church, by virtue of its focus on the spiritual, could be oblivious to the mundane differences that distinguished the various sectors of a highly heterogeneous European continent, the secular authorities were deeply affected by these differences. For comprehending the alternative fates of the diverse Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom, the regional differences that divided the various geographic areas of Europe must be fully recognized.

The fault lines in medieval Europe were both horizontal and vertical. Perhaps the most significant fault line lay in the distinction between the Mediterranean lands of southern Europe and the more remote lands of the north. The Mediterranean lands of the south had been fully absorbed into the Roman Empire and had been richly infused with Roman civilization and culture. Remnants of Roman civilization and culture were (and are) everywhere palpable across the southern tier of Europe; in contrast, the lands of northern Europe had been only brushed by contact with Rome and had preserved much of their Germanic heritage. In a general way, the southern sector of medieval western Christendom was far more advanced in the year 1000 than were the areas of the north. That situation, however, was to change rapidly and dramatically.

By virtue of its inclusion in the Roman world, the southern sectors of Europe had long been populated by Jews. Jewish communities were to be found all across the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. To be sure, the largest of these communities in the year 1000 were to be found in those areas of Europe that were under Muslim control, specifically the southern sectors of the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. As noted, the only Christian areas that harbored small Jewish enclaves were the central and northern regions of the Italian peninsula, southern France, and the northern regions of the Iberian peninsula. The reality of Jewish presence in some areas of Christian Europe in the year 1000 and the more imposing reality of sizeable Jewish communities in areas that would be conquered by Christian warriors beginning in the eleventh century created the backdrop to the growth of European Jewry in the southern tiers of the continent. The remarkable vitalization of western Christendom subsequent to the year 1000 took place most markedly in the heretofore backward north. By the year 1500, England and France had emerged as large and powerful monarchies on the Western scene, contesting the kingdoms of Spain for preeminence. Indeed, part of the French monarchy’s success lay in its absorption of previously independent southern territories into the expanded royal domain, centered in the north. Paris and London were the greatest cities of medieval western Christendom by the year 1500; strikingly, they had both been backward provincial towns five hundred years earlier. There is perhaps no more eloquent testimony to the centrality of northern Europe in the great awakening of medieval western Christendom that took place between 1000 and 1500.

Prior to the year 1000—unlike the situation in southern Europe—there were no old and well-established Jewish communities in northern Europe. Jews had traveled across and traded in the reaches of northern Europe, but had not chosen to settle there. The vitalization of these heretofore backward areas and the encouragement offered by its rulers stimulated Jewish immigration. Jews moved northward in increasingly large numbers and founded important and creative Jewish settlements. Not surprisingly, these Jews were regularly seen as dissidents—the only legitimate non-Christians in the area—and as newcomers, with all the resistances that dissidents and newcomers normally elicit.

There was a second major fault line as well, one that proceeds on a vertical axis, and that is the distinction—particularly noteworthy in the north—between western Europe, on the one hand, and central and eastern Europe on the other. In the year 1000, the most potent political authority in western Christendom seemed to be the German emperor. Rooted in imperial lore and tradition, the German throne seemed likely to remain the strongest political power among the emerging states of western Christendom. Such was not, however, to be the case. The far less imposing kings of France, England, and Iberia learned how to manipulate the feudal system to their advantage, slowly converting local rule and royal prerogative into large, stable, and increasingly puissant monarchies. Germany slipped behind its more westerly neighbors in economic development, political maturity, and cultural creativity. Further east, at the fringe of medieval western Christendom, such late-blooming kingdoms as Hungary and Poland slowly began to develop toward the end of our period. Finally, there is yet one more important geographic distinction, involving interior areas of western Christendom and those exposed to outside forces. On many levels, differences emerged between those lands generally insulated from outside aggression and with a relatively homogenous population (in which Jews were prominent as the only legitimate dissenters), on the one hand, and territories that bordered on other realms and in which populations were heterogeneous on the other.

The lands of the east—Italy in the south and Hungary and Poland in the north—were very much exposed to external intrusion, as was the Iberian peninsula in the southwest. There were salient differences between exposed and interior areas in terms of majority self-image and in terms of the populations with which the Christian majority (even in a few instances the Christian ruling minority) had to deal. We must remain fully aware of these geographic distinctions. They played a key role in the developments of well-rooted of Jewish life in the south, the establishment of important new Jewish communities in the rapidly developing north,the banishment of these new Jewish centers to the eastern peripheries of northern Europe toward the end of our period, and the eventual disappearance of almost all Jewish life from the more advanced western sectors of Europe by the year 1500.

While it is convenient to talk of the Jewry of medieval western Christendom, it is vital to keep firmly in mind that in fact we must think of the Jewries of medieval western Christendom, a set of Jewish communities whose circumstances and fates differed markedly from one another. The secular authorities were deeply concerned with economic issues, with improvement of the material circumstances of their realms; their approach to the Jews and the issues they presented was very much conditioned by this focus. The concentration of Jewish population in the Islamic world and to a lesser extent in the Byzantine Empire made the Jews attractive as potential conveyors of the material achievements of these more developed areas into a western Christendom struggling to challenge its more advanced competitors. The Jews as agents of material maturation is a theme recurrently encountered in the history of the various Jewish communities of medieval western Christendom.

In southern Europe, this special Jewish role took one form; in the north, it took a somewhat different tack. In the former case, especially in Sicily and Spain, Jews had become well integrated into Muslim societies. As rapidly maturing Christian military strength translated into conquest, the conquerors were faced with the problem of maintaining the level of achievement of the areas they were in the process of absorbing. Particularly urgent was maintenance of urban economy and culture. For the Christian conquerors, the well-integrated Jews were especially useful. The Jews had not been displaced from ruling authority and harbored no dreams of rebellion against the new rulers and return to the status quo ante. For the Jews of the newly conquered areas of southern Europe, the overriding issue was treatment. Favorable treatment would make them loyal adherents of the new order and the conquering Christian rulers.

From Spain during the central period of the reconquest of the peninsula, we have numerous charters addressed to the Jews of newly absorbed areas. These Jews were reassured as to their physical safety, were promised extensive commercial and industrial privileges, were often accorded tax advantages, and were sometimes given valuable land on which to build their public facilities and private homes. The desire of the conquering Christian rulers to win over these valued allies and to utilize their economic skills is palpable. Clearly, this positive view of the Jews was not necessarily shared by all elements in Christian society; it was, however, dominant among the rulers and was critical to the Jews.

The dynamic in the north was somewhat different. There, the circumstances did not involve conquest and a pre-existent Jewish community. In northern Europe—an area lagging in all respects, the critical issue was rapid development of the economy, in a way that would eventuate into military, political, and cultural power. As noted, the development of northern-European society and civilization was even more rapid than that of the south, transforming a backward area into a dominant sector of the West. For the rulers of northern Europe, most of them rather modest in the extent of their power during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Jewish immigrants offered—first and foremost—the potential for economic stimulation and growth. Jews were perceived as useful in bringing the business expertise of more sophisticated areas into backward northern Europe. We have a number of fleeting reflections of this positive perspective on the part of northern- European rulers. The fullest and most revealing of these sources comes from the founding of the Jewish community of Speyer in 1084. Happily, we have both the founding document itself and a later Jewish reflection on the process. The bishop of Speyer, in his charter of 1084, indicates clearly that economic advancement of his town lay at the root of his decision to invite Jews- “When I wished to make a town out of the village of Speyer, I, Rudiger, surnamed Huozmann, bishop of Speyer, thought that the glory of our town would be augmented a thousand-fold if I were to bring Jews.” Clearly, the contribution anticipated from these Jewish settlers was economic.

Bishop Rudiger proceeds to indicate the mechanism for attracting Jewish settlers. After detailing a number of boons conferred on these Jews—areas of the town designated for Jewish settlement, a wall to protect them from hostile burghers, land for a cemetery, trade rights, judicial autonomy, freedom from certain ecclesiastical infringements, he concludes- “In short, in order to achieve the heights of kindness, I have granted them a legal status more generous than any the Jewish people have in any city of the German kingdom.” Jews could be attracted by the terms offered them to settle. Bishop Rudiger ends his charter of invitation by providing signed and sealed authentication of the document as permanent testimony to the status of the Jewish community of Speyer. While a useful ending to the document from the Jewish point of view, such authentication could of course by no means guarantee positive treatment over the succeeding decades and centuries, as conditions might change and in fact did.

What more precisely were the economic benefits that Jews were expected to confer? Again, the situations in southern and northern areas differed. In the south, where Jewish settlement was well established and Jews were fairly well integrated into the economy, the anticipated Jewish contribution was diversified. In those areas in the process of conquest, the new Christian rulers hoped that Jews would stay and assist in maintenance of the prior economic order. A loyal and effective urban population in the newly conquered areas was key to further Christian successes. In the north, maintenance of a status quo ante was not the issue; rapid economic development was the major objective. In these lagging northern areas, the Jews were expected above all else to contribute their mercantile expertise. The charter of Bishop Rudiger of Speyer and similar late-eleventh and twelfth-century charters highlight trade rights, suggesting that the Jewish immigrants were concentrated in buying and selling.

During the twelfth century, new circumstances and needs in western Christendom produced new economic opportunities for its Jews and further incentives for governmental support of these Jews. The twelfth century saw an accelerating pattern of economic development, on the one hand, and an increasingly powerful Church demanding religious reforms on the other. Among the major targets of reforming ardor was the sin of Christian usury, of Christians taking interest on loans to other Christians. Given the combination of economic pressure for flow of capital created by the rapid maturation of western Christendom and the Church’s countervailing efforts to eradicate
Christian usury, a new avenue of economic opportunity was created for Europe’s Jews. Since they were not bound by the prohibition of taking interest from Christians and since they were already heavily involved in business—especially in the north, Jews could move fairly quickly to fill an economic vacuum, and they in fact did so, again with the support of many of the political authorities of western Christendom.

If we compare the charter of Bishop Rudiger of Speyer to the influential charter given by Duke Frederick of Austria to his Jews in 1244, we can sense dramatically how thoroughly Jewish economic activity had shifted in the intervening century and a half. In 1084, the only clause that dealt with Jewish economic rights guaranteed the Jews of Speyer “the right of exchanging gold and silver and of buying and selling everything they use.” In striking contrast, the charter of 1244, which included thirty beneficial stipulations for the Jews of Austria, devoted fully ten of these stipulations to Jewish economic rights. Each of these ten stipulations addressed one or another aspect of Jewish money-lending. There can be little doubt that the economic backbone of the thirteenth-century Jews of Austria—and the Jews of Poland and Hungary whose charters were based on the Austrian model—was money-lending.

Jewish money-lending developed in two basic directions—the simpler and less lucrative pawn-broking reflected in the Austrian, Polish, and Hungarian charters and the more sophisticated government-backed lending that reached its zenith in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England and France. Pawn-broking represents a relatively primitive form of guaranteeing the return of the loan disbursed. The borrower leaves a pledge of value equal to or more than the obligation undertaken to the lender. Should the borrower subsequently default, the lender is already in possession of goods of equal or greater value. While this simple form of money-lending requires little governmental assistance, the Austrian, Polish, and Hungarian charters indicate that there were many complex issues that could emerge and in which the authorities could be most helpful to their Jewish money-lending subjects.

The more sophisticated and lucrative form of money-lending involved the extension of funds against land as collateral, which Jews could not of course take into their direct possession at the time of the loan. This kind of money-lending involved much larger sums and much higher profits; it could only take place, however, with the backing of powerful and effective governments. In case of default, it was the ruling authorities that would insure Jewish possession of the land put up as collateral. These larger and more lucrative loans thus deepened the bonds already cited between the Jews and their overlords. Now, in addition to providing requisite security, the authorities constituted the backbone of Jewish business as well.

The more sophisticated forms of money-lending that first developed in England and France required accurate record keeping and governments with the power to enforce obligations. Accurate governmental record keeping emerged first in England, then spread to France and subsequently the Spanish kingdoms. By the early thirteenth-century, loan documents in England were being written in three copies, with one going to the lender, one to the borrower, and the third deposited in a royal chest for safekeeping. The English monarchy and the French as well were by and large assiduous in enforcing the obligations increasingly well documented. As we shall see shortly, the full records proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they protected the money disbursed by the Jewish lenders; at the same time, they provided the authorities with extensive information on Jewish wealth, useful at points of heavy taxation.

Jewish money-lending provided a new form of economic grounding for the Jews first of northern Europe and subsequently of all of western Christendom. At the same time, it harbored a number of potential dangers, most of which in fact materialized. In the first place, excessive concentration in any sector of the economy is always precarious for individuals or communities. Jewish economic activity heavily grounded in money-lending always meant that, if—for one reason or another—that economic grounding were weakened, Jews would be highly vulnerable. In addition, money-lending and banking more generally have never generated popular approbation. Normally, borrowers are deeply appreciative at the time of the loan, but feel much differently at the time of repayment. Given the ecclesiastical condemnation of Christian usury, all usury was tainted with the odor of sinfulness, even if Jewish money-lending was ecclesiastically sanctioned.

In fact, with the passage of time, Church leadership became concerned with the new economic avenue it had opened for Jews. By the early thirteenth century, the Church was heavily involved in efforts to protect Christian society from what it perceived as evils associated with Jewish money-lending. The most famous initiative in that direction was the canon of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 prohibiting excessive rates of interest on Jewish loans. With the passage of time, many ecclesiastical leaders rethought the permissibility of Jewish lending at interest. While prohibition of Jewish usury altogether remained a minority view within the Church, it did enhance governmental and popular negativity to Jewish lending.

Finally, Jewish money-lending of the more sophisticated variety deepened the relationship between the Jews and their overlords in unhealthy ways. The secular authorities of western Christendom had fairly full information on Jewish business and wealth and could exploit that wealth rather effectively.

Money-lending contributed positively to the economic development of western Christendom during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It also enabled the Jews of western Christendom to support themselves; it in fact enabled a small number of Jews to achieve great wealth. Money-lending was, however, hardly an unmixed blessing; it entailed a number of significant liabilities. The rulers of western Christendom—in a number of different ways—saw in the Jews a valuable element in their incessant struggle for development of their realms. Jews were perceived as urban dwellers who might stimulate the economy of the areas in which they settled. To be sure, there was an additional and more immediate advantage that the Jews provided. The rulers of northern Europe were constrained by a conservative system of taxation, which allowed little leeway for tax innovation. As northern-European principalities matured, ever larger sums of money were required to pursue increasingly ambitious military and peaceful plans. The conservative tax system—essentially a system grounded in custom—served as a major constraint. New ways to
access the burgeoning wealth of rapidly developing principalities were required, and the Jews provided precisely such access. The safeguards offered by appeal to traditional taxation were hardly available to the Jews. Since they were so deeply dependent on the secular authorities for basic protection and—with the passage of time—for business support as well, Jews were hardly in a position to withstand governmental demands for increased taxes.

While there is no reliable way of ascertaining the level of Jewish contribution to governmental coffers during the Middle Ages, there is nonetheless broad consensus as to the reality of significant Jewish contribution to governmental income, especially in the more sophisticated principalities and monarchies of the western sectors of Europe. Indeed, there was always the danger of exploiting Jewish wealth to the point of destroying Jewish business capacity. Robert Stacey has documented this danger in England of the 1240’s, arguing that the heavy taxation levied by King Henry III in fact destroyed the economic base of English Jewry.

We have seen in prior sections that ecclesiastical policy toward the Jews of western Christendom and popular perceptions of these Jews deteriorated during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, the same is true for the posture of the governing authorities as well. The key protectors of Jewish interests turned increasingly negative, again especially in the most advanced, westerly areas of northern Europe. The factors influencing the diminution of governmental support—indeed in many cases the fostering of governmental hostility—were many and diverse.

The new and more limiting stance of the Church certainly played a role. Especially the ecclesiastical assault on Jewish money-lending posed serious threats to governmental support for this mainstay of Jewish economic activity. The legislation of the Capetian kings of France during the first half of the thirteenth century shows a pattern of steady withdrawal of governmental support for the officially sanctioned and supported money-lending, which had for nearly a century stimulated the French economy and enriched some of the French Jews. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the pious Louis IX, who had absorbed the extreme ecclesiastical position that denied the Jewish right to take interest altogether, ordered his Jews to desist from usury or to leave his realm. The impact of the new and more limiting stance of the Church can be discerned on King Edward I of England as well.

At the same time, the accelerating popular hostility toward the Jews—grounded in traditional Church imagery but exacerbated by the newness of the Jews in northern Europe, by their pioneering economic activities, by their close alliance with the secular authorities, by the competitive envy of the rising urban class, and by the high level of anxiety in western Christendom generally—took a toll as well. Medieval monarchs and barons were hardly democratic in their thinking and behavior; nonetheless, the will of the populace could not be totally dismissed. Minimally, anti-Jewish actions taken by rulers might well be greeted by popular approbation, and many rulers were well aware of this opportunity to curry popular favor.

Governmental actions harmful to Jewish interests took a number of different forms. The first was acceptance of the increasingly injurious dictates of the Church. As noted, the mid- thirteenth century Capetian monarchy of France was especially accepting of the new ecclesiastical demands for limitation of Jewish money-lending. Throughout western Christendom, the innovative ecclesiastical insistence on Jews wearing identifying garb—initially resisted by many of the rulers of western Christendom—began to be enforced by a growing number of rulers. In addition, the Church’s new campaign to win over Jews through forced sermons and disputations also found increasing governmental backing.

A second thrust of governmental activity deleterious to the Jews was enhanced taxation. As noted, the rulers of western Christendom—always under financial pressure and strain—saw in the Jews ready access to funds otherwise closed to them. Good sense dictated measured taxation, which would maximize profit while enabling the Jews to maintain their business activities, grounded in the give-and-take of capital. Unduly heavy taxation ran the risk of destroying the foundations of Jewish economic activity. However, good sense did not always win out. Chafing under heavy burdens and aware of popular resentment of the Jews, some rulers opted to tax beyond reason. Ready access to money-lending records fueled this kind of cupidity. In both England and France, recurrent heavy taxation of the Jews weakened the Jewish communities to the point where they could no longer produce the revenues they once had.

On occasion, rulers could be affected by the deteriorating imagery of the Jews, accepting anti-Jewish allegations judicially or—in rare cases-even assaulting Jewish communities in support of popular grievance. Thus, for example, in a fairly well-documented incident, The important Count Theobald of Blois upheld the claim of Jewish malicious murder of a Christian youngster—even in the face of lack of a cadaver. This move was, to be sure, repudiated energetically by Theobald’s overlord, King Louis VII of France, but it was an injurious precedent. Curiously, King Louis’s own son, King Philip Augustus, attacked a Jewish community in a neighboring barony in support of the claim that the Jews of that town had been responsible for the death of Christian there.

The final step that might be taken by governmental authorities was banishment of the Jews entirely from given domains. It will be recalled that the Church took the position that Jewish presence was legitimate in Christian society. When individual Jews broke the laws—religious or secular—that constrained them, they were of course subject to the courts and to appropriate punishment. When the Jewish community as a whole seemed to be guilty of major offenses, then expulsion of such Jewish communities was deemed permissible. In the spate of significant expulsions that began to afflict European Jewry toward the end of the thirteenth century and continued to the end of our period, rulers who chose to banish their Jews always grounded their edicts of banishment in some alleged misdeeds of the Jews that could not be corrected except thorough removal of the offending Jews. During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the purportedly incorrigible Jewish behavior revolved around money-lending. The unwillingness of the Jews to abandon their nefarious money-lending was the supposed reason for the decision to remove them. While there were often other more mundane factors at work as well, such as the desire for
revenue or the need to placate one or another element in society, every expulsion had to be grounded in Jewish misdeed. The final expulsions of our period, from the Spanish kingdoms in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, were portrayed as the result of the deleterious Jewish impact on the large number of New Christians on the Iberian peninsula. So long as Jews remained—it was claimed—the grievous problem of backsliding into Judaism on the part of these New Christians could not be solved.

Local expulsions began in northern France in the later twelfth century. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, the new tendency accelerated. In 1290, Jews were expelled from England, and in 1306 the same fate befell the Jews of royal France. Expulsion became a feature of Jewish life throughout western Christendom during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with Jews expelled recurrently from diverse domains. In some instances, these Jews were recalled; in other instances the banishment became permanent. The culminating expulsions of our period took place on the Iberian peninsula in 1492 and 1497. The Jewish communities expelled at this point were among the very oldest in western Christendom and were deemed by many immune from expulsion. That even these oldest of European Jewish communities might be banished reflected the extent to which the new and negative governmental stance became the norm, at least in the most westerly and advanced areas of western Christendom.

Enhanced Jewish settlement in western Christendom, begun so promisingly at the turn of the millennium, seemed to end on a distinctly negative note. The secular authorities—the major sponsors of Jewish presence in Europe—had turned their backs on the Jews whom they had earlier cultivated so assiduously. Over the five centuries between 1000 and 1500, however, the support of the authorities had resulted in the strengthening of old Jewish communities and the establishment of new Jewish settlements. The Jews of western Christendom—with the encouragement of the secular authorities—had enriched the areas in which they settled, had created new centers of Jewish life, and had embellished the legacy bequeathed by their predecessors. In the process, they had laid the foundations for modern Jewish life in the Christian West.

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