ECONOMIC ACTIVITY OF JEWS IN THE MIDDLE AGES

JEWS, MONEY, POVERTY


an anti-Semitic illustration of two Jews counting money and keeping accounts

Jews were mostly poor people until the 20th century. In Europe, they lived predominantly is shtetls (ghettos). In Europe, moneylending and trading were about the only professions that were open to them. Although many owned shops and loaned money for a profit, and some were rich, as one villager said, "many were poor and sold goods from baskets in the streets." In North Africa some were nomadic Bedouin peddlers who were unable to own land.

Modern anti-Semitism has is roots in the 19th century when global capitalism emerged as a major force and Jews emerged from their ghettos and became visible as successful bankers, financiers and entrepreneurs. Jews were blamed for being greedy and fostering the ills associated with capitalism and undermining the communal nature of society itself. The Rothschilds were held up as an example of Jewish power and avarice.

“Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a forged 19th century document which claimed power-hungry Jews plotted with Freemasons to take over the world. No one knows who forged it. It was employed to persecute both Jews and Freemasons. Hitler was among those who used the document to back up his views.

In Eastern Europe, Jews were best known as moneychangers. Russians and other Slavic people have traditionally believed that buying and selling goods to make a profit or charging interest on loans was "cheating one's neighbor." This belief arises in part from the tsarist institution of mir , the periodic redistribution of land in accordance with family size. Russian anti-Semitism stems partly from the fact that Jews were the only ones allowed to lend money and trade goods.

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Jewish Economic Activity in the Middle Ages

Because making money from interest was viewed as a sin by most Christians in medieval Europe many Jews were employed as moneychangers, pawnbrokers and moneylenders. Jews were not restricted from charging high interest by church rules against usury. Moneylenders sometimes charged interest rates as high as 40 percent a year. Occasionally, however, Jews were expelled from towns by greedy lords so their goods were seized. As a consequence the Jewish moneylenders often charged high interest rates to cover the risks of simply being a Jew.

Three facts predominate when considering the important role of Jews in the Medieval economy. In most places and times, medieval Jews were legally unable to participate in agriculture, the economic activity of the vast majority of both Christian and Muslim populations. There is a lot of evidence that scattered Jewish communities kept in contact with each other. Finally, although credit was essential to economic activity, lending money on interest (usury) was forbidden by Muslim and Christian law [although there were, in practice, many Christian money-lenders]. (Jewish law also forbids usury within the Jewish community, but permits loans to those outside). The result of these situations was that Jewish economic activity had to focus on professional skills, trading, or credit provision.

In Eastern Europe, they were best known as moneychangers. Russians and other Slavic people have traditionally believed that buying and selling goods to make a profit or charging interest on loans was "cheating one's neighbor." This belief arises in part from the tsarist institution of mir , the periodic redistribution of land in accordance with family size. Russian ant-Semitism stems partly from the fact that Jews were the only ones low to lend money and trade goods.

Fourth Council of Toledo (A.D. 633): On Jews Keeping of Slaves


Boleslav of Bohemia and Jewish slave trader

The Council of Toledo in the Visigothic kingdom in Spain took the place of the Witenagemot among the English and was dominated by the clergy. Among other provisions for the year 633 it decreed that Jews might not possess Christian slaves, that freedmen under Church patronage might not withdraw from it, that the children of freedmen might not lose their status, and that qualified freedom might prevent ordination. [Source: J. D. Mansi, ed., Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, (Paris: H. Welter, 1901), Vol. X, pp. 635-637; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 283-284, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

A selection from the Fourth Council of Toledo (A.D. 633) “On Jews Keeping of Slaves’ reads: “66. By the decree of the most glorious prince this sacred council ordered that Jews should not be allowed to have Christian slaves nor to buy Christian slaves, nor to obtain them by the kindness of any one; for it is not right that the members of Christ should serve the ministers of Anti-Christ. But if henceforward Jews presume to have Christian slaves or handmaidens they shall be taken from their domination and shall go free.

“70. Men freed by the Church (since the one who freed them will never die) must never withdraw from the Church's patronage. Neither, indeed, must their posterity, according to the decrees of former canons. But lest perchance their freedom should not be apparent in their children, and lest their posterity should struggle against their natural state of being free, and remove themselves from the patronage of the Church, it is necessary that these same freedmen as well as their children should make a profession before their bishop, by which they acknowledge that from being slaves of the Church they have been made freedmen. And they must never leave the patronage of the Church, but let them rather, according to its value render submission or obedience to this patronage or protection.

“73. Those who have been so freed by their masters, that the patron requires absolutely no submission from them-those, if they be free from all crime, may freely take clerical orders; for it is known that they are absolved by direct manumission. Those who are manumitted, yet owe some submission to their patron, for the reason that they are held subject by the patron in servitude, are positively not to be promoted to the ecclesiastical order, lest when the master so wishes slaves should be made from clerics.

“74. Concerning the slaves of the Church, it is allowed to make them priests and deacons in parishes; nevertheless, let right living and honest habits commend them; also for that reason let them be previously manumitted and receive the full liberty of their new status, and at length let them succeed to ecclesiastical honors; for it is contrary to religion for those to remain subject to serfdom, who have received the dignity of holy orders. But whatever has been granted to such men through their freedom, or whatever has been theirs by right of inheritance, or conferred by anyone in any manner whatsoever, they may not transfer to other people in any way; but all their goods ought to belong after their death to the Church by which they were manumitted. Moreover, all opportunity is forbidden them, just as to the other freedmen of the Church, of accusing or testifying against the Church; but if they aspire to this, not only shall they lose the benefit of liberty but also the promotion they have deserved, not by the worthiness of their nature but from the necessity of the times.”

Despite the opposition of the Church, the Jews, under the protection of western monarchs, still possessed Christian serfs in the thirteenth century. On “The Keeping of Slaves by the Jews,” 1204, Pope Innocent III wrote in a letter to King Philip Augustus of France: Moreover, although it has been decreed by the Lateran Council that Jews should not be allowed to have Christian slaves in their houses, either under pretext of nursing their children, or as servants, or for any other reason whatsoever, but that those who presume to live with them should be excommunicated, yet they do not hesitate to have Christian servants and nurses, upon whom they sometimes practice abominations such as it rather becomes you to punish than us to point out.” [Source: J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1855), Vol. CCXV, pp. 501-503; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 301-302, [Source: sourcebooks.fordham.edu].

Routes of the Jewish Merchants to the East, 847


Jewish merchant in Tiflis, Georgia

Paul Halsall of Fordham University wrote: “ From the time of the barbarian invasions until the time of the Crusades, Semitic merchants conducted most of the inland trade of Europe. The routes they followed were the main Asiatic arteries of trade and their European tributaries. Many of the kinds of goods flowing to and from the Orient are mentioned in this document: [Source: From: Joseph Jacobs, “Jewish Contributions to Civilization,” (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1919), pp. 194-196, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 151-152, sourcebooks.fordham.edu].

“These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman (Greek), the language of the Franks, Andalusians, and Slavs. They journey from west to east, from east to west, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the west eunuchs, female and male slaves, silk, castor, marten, and other furs, and swords. They take ship in the land of the Franks, on the Western Sea, and steer for Farama (Pelusium). There they load their goods on the backs of camels, and go by land to Kolzum (Suez) in five days' journey over a distance of twenty-five parasangs. They embark in the East Sea (Red Sea) and sail from Kolzum to El-Jar (port of Medina) and Jeddah (port of Mecca); then they go to Sind, India, and China. On their return they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to Kolzum, and bring them to Farama, where they again embark on the Western Sea. Some make sail for Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans; others go to the palace of the king of the Franks to place their goods.

“Sometimes these Jew merchants prefer to carry their goods from the land of the Franks in the Western Sea, making for Antioch (at the mouth of the Orontes); thence they go by land to Al-Jabia (?) where they arrive after three days' march. There they embark on the Euphrates for Bagdad, and then sail down the Tigris to Al-Obolla. From Al-Obolla they sail for Oman, Sind, Hind (Hin dustan), and China. All this is connected one with another.

“These different journeys can also be made by land. The merchants who start from Spain or France go to Sous al-Akza (Morocco), and then to Tangiers, whence they march to Kairuwan (Tunisia), and the capital of Egypt. Thence they go to Al-Kamla, visit Damascus, Al-Kufa, Bagdad, and Basrah, cross Ahwaz, Fars, Kirman, Sind, Hind, and arrive at China. Sometimes they likewise take the route behind Rome, and passing through the country of the Slavs, arrive at Khamlij, the capital of the Khazars. They embark on the Jorjan Sea, arrive at Balkh, betake themselves from there across the Oxus and continue their journey toward the Yurts of the Toghozghor, and from there to China.”

Bishop of Speyer: Grant of Lands & Privileges to the Jews, 1084


Jew (with the hat) before a queen in the Codex Manesse, around 1340

Grant of Lands & Privileges to the Jews, 1084 reads: “In the name of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, I, Rudiger, surnamed Huozmann, Bishop of Speyer, “When I made the villa of Speyer into a town, thought I would increase the honor I was bestowing on the place if I brought in the Jews. Therefore I placed them outside the town and some way off from the houses of the rest of the citizens, and, lest they should be too easily disturbed by the insolence of the citizens, I surrounded them with a wall. Now the place of their habitation which I acquired justly (for in the first place I obtained the hill partly with money and partly by exchange, while I received the valley by way of gift from some heirs) that place, I say, I transferred to them on condition that they pay annually three and a half pounds of the money of Speyer for the use of the brethren. [Source: Altmann & Bernheim, eds., Ausgeuvahlte Urkunden zur Erlauterung der Verfassungsge schichte Deutschlands im Mitzelalter, (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1904), p. 156, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 101-102, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

“I have granted also to them within the district where they dwell, and from that district outside the town as far as the harbor, and within the harbor itself, full power to change gold and silver, and to buy and sell what they please. And I have also given them license to do this throughout the state. Besides this I have given them land of the church for a cemetery with rights of inheritance. This also I have added that if any Jew should at any time stay with them he shall pay no thelony. Then also just as the judge of the city hears cases between citizens, so the chief rabbi shall hear cases which arise between the Jews or against them. But if by chance he is unable to decide any of them they shall go to the bishop or his chamberlain. They shall maintain watches, guards, and fortifications about their district, the guards in common with our vassals. They may lawfully employ nurses and servants from among our people. Slaughtered meat which they may not eat according to their law they may lawfully sell to Christians, and Christians may lawfully buy it. Finally, to round out these concessions, I have granted that they may enjoy the same privileges as the Jews in any other city of Germany.

“Lest any of my successors diminish this gift and concession, or constrain them to pay greater taxes, alleging that they have usurped these privileges, and have no episcopal warrant for them, I have left this charter as a suitable testimony of the said grant. And that this may never be forgotten, I have signed it, and confirmed it with my seal as may be seen below. Given on September 15th, 1084, etc.”

Henry II of England (1133 –1189): Concerning Loans From The Jews

A part of a proclamation by Henry II of England (1133-1189) “Concerning Loans From The Jews” reads: “24. Chapter Concerning the Jews: All debts and pledges of Jews shall be written down, lands, houses, rents, and possessions. But a Jew who conceals any of these things shall be in forfeit to the lord king both in his person, in what he has concealed, and in all his goods and chattels. Nor shall it be lawful for the Jew ever to recover what he has concealed. [Source: William Stubbs & H. W. C. Davis, ed., Select Charters of English Constitutional History, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913), p. 256, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 176-177, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


Henry II of England

“And let six or seven places be provided where they may make their declarations; and let two lawful Christians, and two lawful Jews and two lawful clerks be appointed. Let the Jews make their declarations in the presence of those men and in the presence of the clerk of William of the church of St. Mary and of William of Chimilli, and let the charters of their declarations be made in the form of a chirograph. One part of the chirograph shall remain with the Jew, signed with the seal of him to whom the money is lent; and the other part shall remain in the common chest to which there are three locks, to which the two Christians shall have one key, the two Jews another, and the clerk of William of the church of St. Mary and of William of Chimilli shall have the third. Moreover let there be three seals and let those who have the keys affix the seals. But the two clerks shall have a roll of the copies of all charters, and as the charters are changed so let the roll be changed. Three denarii shall be given for each charter; half by the Jew and half by him to whom the money is lent; and the two clerks shall have two denarii and the keeper of the rolls shall have the third denarius. No declaration shall be made in future, no payment made to a Jew, nor shall any change be made in the charters except in the presence of those mentioned or of the greater part of them, if they are not all able to be present. And the said two Christians shall have one roll of receipts of payments to be made to Jews in future, and the two Jews shall have one, and the keeper of the rolls shall have one.

“Also every Jew shall swear upon his roll that all his debts, pledges, rents, goods, and possessions have been written down by him, and that he has hidden nothing, as we have said. And if any one learn that some one has hidden something, let him reveal it secretly to the judges sent to him, and let them detect and expose forgers of charters, and clippers of coins, and likewise concerning false charters.”

Concerning Loans to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, 1173

In Concerning Loans to the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, Jocelin de Brakelond wrote in 1173: “This transaction violated the laws of the Church with respect to the pledge given in sacred vessels and vestments. The rate of interest, it will be seen, was 25 per cent per annum, a rate which was more than the monastery could afford. The protection afforded by the king to the Jews is shown by the message of the almoner summoning the abbot to answer for the financial embarrassment of his monastery and the transaction made. [Source: J. G. Rokewode, ed., Chronica Jocelini de Brakelonda, (London: Camden Society, 1840), p. 2, reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 175-176, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


“Whence it happened that every monk who held office had his own seal, and of his own will contracted debts with Christians and Jews. Often the silk vestments and gold vessels and other ornaments of the church were pledged, without the sanction of the brethren. I saw a bond made to William Fitz-Isabel for 1,040 pounds; but I knew neither the cause nor the origin of this. And I saw another bond made to Isaac, the son of Rabbi Joce, for 400 pounds, but I do not know why. And I saw a third bond made to Benedict the Jew of Norwich, for 880 pounds; and this was the origin and cause of this debt. Our buttery was destroyed and William the sacristan undertook willy-nilly to restore it and he secretly borrowed from Benedict the Jew 40 marks at usury, and he gave him a bond sealed with a seal that used to hang near the shrine of St. Edmund, with which the gilds and fraternities were accustomed to seal, but which afterwards, but too late, to the joy of the monks, was broken. When that debt had increased to 100 pounds the Jew came with letters from the lord king about the sacristan's debt; and then at length was revealed what had lain hidden from the abbot and the monks.

“Then the abbot was angry and wished to depose the sacristan, alleging the privilege of the lord Pope that he could depose the sacristan whenever he wished. But some one came to the abbot and, speaking for the sacristan, so prevailed upon the abbot that he allowed a bond to be given to Benedict the Jew for 400 pounds, to be repaid at the end of four years, namely for the 100 pounds to which it had already increased at usury, and for another 100 pounds that the same Jew had lent to the sacristan for the abbot's needs. And the sacristan undertook in full chapter to repay all the debt and a bond was made and sealed with the seal of the monks, but the abbot disagreed and did not apply his own seal since that debt did not apply to him. But at the end of four years the debt could not be repaid, and a new bond for 880 pounds was made, to be repaid at stated intervals, namely, 80 pounds a year. And the same Jew had several other bonds for smaller debts, and another bond which was for fourteen years, so that the sum of the debt owing to that Jew was 1,200 pounds. And the almoner of the lord king indicated to the lord abbot that he should go to the king about such great debts.”

Note of a Double Loan Arising from a Tax, 1203


Jew with a money purse on the Eglise Saint Pierre et Saint Paul in Rosheim

Note of a Double Loan Arising from a Tax, 1203: “Abbot Hubert is here borrowing from a money-lender (Manno) to pay back a debt to Iacopo the Jew. The rate of interest is 20 per cent per annum and there is a double pledge, monastic property in the one case, and the guarantee of Iacopo, son of Galgani in the other. The clause about the renunciation of protection of the law and the clause about the payment of damages in the event of a dispute arising are typical clauses in medieval contracts. [Source: P. Santini, ed., Documenti dell'Antica Costituzione del Comune di Firenze, in Documenti di Storia Italiana, (Firenze, 1895), Tome X, Vol. I, p. 372; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, eds., A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 177-178, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

In the year 1203. May twenty-ninth. To the witnesses investigating this matter, namely, Cambio Giungni, Maczo the son of Melliorelli Galigarii, and Rugerio Tebaldoli, greeting. Hubert by divine consent Abbot of the church and monastery of St. Michael of Passignano, foreseeing advantages to the said church and for payment of usury to Iacopo, son of Uguiccioni the Jew, for the denarii which he had received from him in payment of taxes to the commune of Florence on behalf of the community of Summofonte has accepted from Manno, son of the late Gianni Macci, twenty pounds of good denarii, which denarii he promised to return and pay to him in the next six months or before with interest of four denarii per pound per month. Otherwise he has promised to give him double the sum as a penalty and to emend and pay all damage and expenses arising because of this, and he has promised to give the same interest if he holds it beyond this time.

“And for the better observing of all these terms and for holding them inviolable and for payment of the penalty, if there be need, he has pledged and handed over to him as a pledge Guernerius his colonus and a man of Mezola, brother of Peruczi, with all his possessions, serfs, and service. And if this pledge be unsuitable, or if it be made over to some other person, or if any one have prior claim, he has pledged to him as guarantee all the other goods of the monastery worth triple the debt and has received free possession from him. But if it be void he may then hold, sell, pledge, or alienate the said pledge in any way and take as a penalty logria not reckoned in the said debt and in all these matters he has renounced all claim to money not specified. Besides, Iacopo, son of the late Galgani, renouncing all aid of law in this case, and constituting himself chief debtor, has promised to the said Manno, under pain of double penalty, to give and pay all the said debt, capital and interest within one month from the time of the investigation if the said abbot does not pay and if action (in court) is granted against the said abbot and monastery. — Done at Florence, etc.

Pope Innocent III Protests Royal Protection in France of Jewish Money-Lenders, 1204


Pope Inocent III

In a “Protest to Philip Augustus of France Against Royal Protection of Jewish Money-Lenders,” Pope Innocent III wrote in 1204: “Philip Augustus and Innocent III were in a dispute at this time about the taking of Normandy from John of England. The Pope complained of the royal protection granted to the Jews and of their usurious practices as money-lenders, but, though Philip often banished them, he always allowed them to return on payment of a fine. [Source: J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, (Paris, 1855), Vol. CCXV, pp. 501-503; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, eds., A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), p. 178, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

“But if sometimes those to whom they entrusted their money at interest produce Christian witnesses to the fact of repayment, more credence is placed in the document which the indiscreet debtor has left with his creditor through negligence or carelessness than in the witnesses he produces. Nay, in such a matter witnesses are not permitted against the Jews, so that their insolence has gone so far that-we refer to it with shame-the Jews of Sens built next to a certain old church a new synagogue, not a little higher than the church, in which place they celebrate their services in the Jewish rite. This they do, not as was the case before they were ejected from the kingdom, i.e., in a low tone, but with a great clamor, not scrupling to avoid disturbing the more holy celebrations in the church (of the Christians).”

Usury of the Christian Cahorsins, 1235

The Cahorsins, along with Lombards, were a Christian group associated with money-lending in the Middle Ages. Matthew of Paris wrote in “The Usury of the Cahorsins” (1235): “The Caursines (or Cahorsins) derived their name from the city of Cahors but the term is usually applied to money-lenders. The real Caursines were capitalist Christian bankers whose clients were the rich and powerful in society. In England their unpopularity was due to their officiating as papal brokers, and to the heavy rates of interest they charged. [Source: Matthew of Paris, English History, trans. J. A. Giles, (London: H. G. Bohn, 1849), Vol. I, p.2; reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, eds., A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 179-180, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

“In these days prevailed the horrible nuisance of the Caursines, to such a degree that there was hardly any one in all England, especially among the bishops, who was not caught in their net. Even the king himself was held indebted to them in an incalculable sum of money. For they circumvented the needy in their necessities, cloaking their usury under the show of trade, and pretending not to know that whatever is added to the principal is usury, under whatever name it may be called.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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