Economic Flexibility


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.

Secondary Literature

  1. Y. Assis, Jewish Economy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon 1213- 1327- Money and Power (Leiden- E. J. Brill, 1997).
  2. M. Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (Princeton- Princeton University Press, 2004), 176-209.
  3. M. Meyerson, Jews in an Iberian Kingdom- Society, Economy, and Politics in Morvedre, 1248-1391 (Leiden- Brill, 2004).
  4. A. Toaff, Love, Work & Death- Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria (London- Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998), 195-253.
  5. M. Toch, “Between Impotence and Power- The Jews in the Economy and Polity of Medieval Europe,” Poteri economici e poteri politici secc. XIII-XVIII (1999) 221-243 2003 [Reprinted in his Peasants and Jews in Medieval Germany].


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