Complicating Myths: Moneylending in Iberia

Sarah Ifft Decker on The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

Jews began to settle in Vic, a mid-size city in northwestern Catalonia, only in the mid-thirteenth century. The community remained small—about 150 Jews at its height—but generated a massive amount of surviving documentation. The Arxiu i Biblioteca Episcopal de Vic—a church archive located in the center of the city, next to the cathedral—includes among its substantial holdings a series of twenty-eight Libri Iudeorum, meaning “Books of the Jews” in Latin. The volumes, dating from 1250 to 1350, each contain hundreds of individual contracts, yielding a treasure trove of several thousand documents related to the Jewish community of Vic.

The Myth of the Jewish Moneylender. 2 vol. Julie L. Mell. Palgrave. 2017.

These books comprise part of an even larger collection of notarial registers, books filled with copies of legal contracts drawn up by the city’s notaries. The notaries were public officials, and by drawing up contracts for their clients, they transformed private transactions into public and enforceable facts. Scholars refer to the increasing reliance on notaries in the medieval Western Mediterranean as the rise of “notarial culture.” In some cities, including Vic, the notaries created special series of registers for different types of contracts. Because religion was such a fundamental aspect of identity in the medieval world, the notaries saw transactions involving Jews as a separate category, and therefore recorded most documents related to Jewish business in a dedicated set of volumes: the Libri Iudeorum.

Notarial documents like the Libri Iudeorum of Vic have become essential sources for medieval social and economic history, including Jewish history. They also help to complicate Julie Mell’s new revisionist study, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender. Notarial evidence obscures certain aspects of Jewish social and economic life, while presenting others as disproportionately important. Jewish moneylending provides a particularly good example of the ways in which notarial evidence can be misleading. Over ninety percent of the contracts recorded in the Libri Iudeorumdocument loans made by the Jews of Vic to Christians living in the city and its hinterlands. Does this mean that moneylending accounted for ninety percent of Jewish business? Almost certainly not, because certain types of contracts do not appear in these volumes. When Jews transacted with other Jews, they often preferred Hebrew contracts—few of which have survived—to Latin contracts drawn up by Christian notaries. As a result, intra-Jewish business and transmission of property remains under-represented in the notarial evidence.

Notarial documentation also renders invisible the many forms of economic exchange that did not require a contract. When people purchased goods and paid immediately in cash, for example, they did not seek notarial contracts. Going to the notary took time and cost money, and it only seemed worthwhile when people most felt the need to obtain proof of the transaction. Loans, in particular, demanded notarial involvement: creditors relied on notarial documentation to ensure repayment, and debtors wanted proof that they had repaid their debts. While some creditors may have extended small loans in exchange for pledges, such loans would have typically been less profitable and less secure. However, even if we acknowledge that the surviving documentary evidence disproportionately emphasizes moneylending as a form Jewish work, the high volume and proportion of Jewish credit transactions nonetheless suggests that many Jews relied on moneylending for some or all of their income.

So how important was the business of credit to the Jews of Vic and other Western Mediterranean cities? In The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, Mell argues that scholars have dramatically overstated the importance of credit in medieval Jewish economic life. Insufficiently critical reading of medieval Christian texts on usury, combined with modern stereotypes about Jews and commerce, led scholars to develop what Mell calls the narrative of the “Jewish economic function.” According to the traditional story, Jews in the early Middle Ages primarily worked in commerce. With the expansion of the European economy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Jews were pushed out of commerce, forbidden to own land, and barred from the craft guilds. As a result, the only economic option left to Jews was moneylending—a field that Christians willingly left to them, on account of Church prohibitions against usury. Western European monarchs protected Jews, but only because they benefited from the heavy taxes paid by wealthy Jewish moneylenders. When they had sucked the Jews dry, they succumbed to Christian popular resentment of Jewish creditors, and expelled the Jews from their kingdoms. Mell draws on empirical evidence from thirteenth-century England and Marseille, as well as critical re-reading of texts medieval and modern, to build her argument. The English evidence, she claims, demonstrates that only a tiny Jewish elite worked in moneylending, while the evidence from Marseille indicates that Jews continued to work as merchants rather than moneylenders well after the European Commercial Revolution.

Strikingly, Mell omits any significant discussion of the medieval Iberian Peninsula, where a number of scholars have long recognized the breadth and complexity of Jewish economic life. Jews in both the Crown of Aragon and Castile owned property; notarial contracts record Jews buying and selling both rural and urban real estate, and profitably renting these holdings to both Christians and Jews. Scholars have used scattered references in the notarial registers of Catalonia to trace Jewish involvement in the coral and silk industries, and in regional and international Mediterranean commerce. Nor were all Iberian Jews wealthy, and engaged in high-status, high-profit occupations. Notarial contracts and Hebrew responsaliterature (legal queries sent to rabbinic authorities and their rulings) refer to poor Jews who worked in the homes of their wealthier coreligionists, as servants or wetnurses, as well as Jews of middling economic status who worked as butchers or synagogue functionaries.

The evidence from the Iberian Peninsula, however, suggests that we cannot omit credit entirely as we seek to build a more complete picture of Jewish participation in the medieval economy. Credit transactions comprise over ninety percent of contracts in the Libri Iudeorum of Vic, yet only about one-third of contracts in the city’s general registers. The under-representation of intra-Jewish economic activities accounts in part for this disparity. But especially given the small size of the Jewish community of Vic, we must assume that most Jews relied on regular commercial interactions with Christians to earn a living. Yet we must not assume that the Jews of Vic were more likely than their Christian counterparts to work in occupations that generated less notarial documentation. Hence, we are left with the overall impression that credit formed an important part of Jewish economic life in Catalan cities, albeit far from the only Jewish occupation.

The disparity between the Catalan notarial registers and the evidence Mell employs from England and Marseille raises important questions about the possibilities of regional variation in Jewish economic life, and how to craft synthetic arguments in the face of such diversity. Based on a comparison between tax records and loan contracts from England, Mell found that only about thirty percent of taxpaying Jews extended even a single loan, and the top ten percent of Jewish creditors extended more than half of all extant loans. She therefore argues that only the wealthiest Jews extended loans at all, and only a tiny fraction of the Jewish population worked professionally as moneylenders.

The numbers from Vic tell a very different story. In the year 1318, Vic had twenty Jewish taxpaying households. Between 1310 and 1320, thirty-nine Jews extended at least one loan, and thirteen extended five or more. Many households had multiple lenders; the top thirteen lenders in fact represent only nine households, as in four cases both husband and wife worked at least semi-professionally in credit. These numbers imply that at least in Vic, most Jewish households that were solvent enough to pay taxes had at least one member who worked part- or full-time as a moneylender. Even if Vic is an extreme case, evidence from elsewhere in Catalonia also affirms the importance of credit as a source of income beyond the upper echelons of Jewish society. At the very least, the divergence between the Catalan and English evidence suggests that the role of credit in Jewish economic life differed throughout Europe, weakening the impact of both the traditional “Jewish economic function” argument and Mell’s revisionist portrayal of moneylending as only a minor part of Jewish economic life.

Comparison with Marseille once again raises intriguing questions. Mell found that Jews appeared more often as debtors than as lenders in the notarial registers of Marseille. The same cannot be said of Vic, nor of other Catalan cities. The city of Girona, where the records of Jewish and Christian business were mingled together in shared registers, offers a better basis for direct comparison with Marseille. Even when we include sales of goods made to Jews on credit, a random sample of Girona’s notarial registers from 1311 to 1350 yields 5,287 Jewish loans to Christian debtors, compared with only 560 loans (441 of which are sales of goods on credit) made by Christians to Jews. In Girona, Jews loaned to Christians far more often than they borrowed from them.

Did the Jews of southern French Marseille differ so dramatically from their Catalan neighbors? It is worth noting that while Mell acknowledges the fragmentary nature of the surviving notarial evidence, she does not raise the question of how issues of survival might affect the overall portrait of Jewish economic life in Marseille. The virtual absence of Jews from most of the notarial registers of Barcelona, combined with the existence of a few extant registers composed almost exclusively of Jewish transactions, has led me to suggest that the notaries of Barcelona, like their counterparts in Vic, recorded most Jewish business in dedicated registers. Could the infrequency of Jewish loans to Christians in Marseille reflect the loss of city Libri Iudeorum? We are left to wonder how the vagaries of survival might impact Mell’s argument.

Medieval Jews’ involvement in credit evidently varied by time and place, and credit always formed but one of a number of medieval Jewish occupations. Mell rightly points out the uncomfortably close relationship between historians’ emphasis on medieval Jewish credit and modern stereotypes linking Jews and money. Nor did these stereotypes disappear after the mid-twentieth century. Nearly a quarter of Americans blamed “the Jews” a moderate amount or more for the 2008 financial crisis, and popular film franchises including both Star Wars and Harry Potter have employed a combination of visual and economic stereotypes to code aliens and fantastical creatures as Jewish. In both our research and our teaching, scholars of Jewish history would do well to think critically about to what extent modern concepts color our perception of medieval Jewish economic life. Yet we cannot entirely ignore medieval Jewish moneylenders, who appear on the pages of notarial registers and other documents as real men and women, not simply as myths. Medieval Jewish communities undoubtedly contained plenty of “paupers, thieves, bards, butchers, merchants, and merry wives” —but these figures lived, worked, and prayed alongside Jewish men and women working part- or full-time as moneylenders. Even some of the butchers, merchants, and merry wives on occasion turned to credit as a supplementary source of income. If we overly downplay the work of Jewish moneylenders, we risk creating a new but still misleading narrative.

Sarah Ifft Decker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Rhodes College. She is a social and economic historian of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean; her research focuses in particular on how gender and religious difference shaped the options available to medieval women. She received her B.A. from Swarthmore College, her M.A. from The Jewish Theological Seminary, and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She has published several articles on subjects including Jewish women’s moneylending and Jewish divorce practices in medieval Iberia. Her first book, The Fruit of Her Hands: Jewish and Christian Women’s Work in Medieval Catalan Cities is under contract with Pennsylvania State University Press.