Jewish Moneylending? Questioning Paradigms, Shattering Myths

Julie Mell responds to the forum on The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

Eppur si muove – “And yet it moves . . . ” (attributed to Galileo)

Jews and money have again become a subject of heated language and public debate. Alt-right and white supremacist groups are giving new currency to old tropes. The Jewish Museum London has staged a provocative exhibit “Jews, Money, Myth.” Jewish Studies scholars are engaging economic issues after a long hiatus and querying foundational assumptions in the field. The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, reviewed in this forum, challenges the historical narrative that depicts medieval European Jews as principally moneylenders (and as Europe’s principal moneylenders): Jews, so runs the traditional narrative, provided an essential economic function – credit – when the Church prohibited usury, and tragically (and ironically) suffered an antisemitic backlash for doing so. The book argues that the myth of “the economic function of the Jews” has become a meta-narrative, a framework within which historians investigate the past, but which remains unquestioned itself. This narrative limits and distorts our historical understanding of Jewish history and European history, and it perpetuates a dangerous discourse on Jews, Judaism, and money, despite its philosemitic politics.

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

The Myth makes a two-fold argument. It shatters “the economic function of the Jews” and shows how revising this paradigm in Jewish history can transform European history. Part I deconstructs the paradigm from a theoretical angle, exposing its logical contradictions and obsolete theoretical basis, when considered in the context of “the medieval commercial revolution” and the early medieval gift economy – two paradigms associated most prominently with the names of Robert Lopez and Georges Duby, respectively. Part II deconstructs it from an empirical economic angle by analyzing the weak evidence for the strongest medieval example of the Jewish moneylender – thirteenth-century England. Part III demonstrates how the revision leads to a new understanding of the Church’s usury campaign, medieval Mediterranean trade, and medieval concepts of value and money. The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender is about the meta-narrative, about the Kuhnian paradigm (or more precisely the “disciplinary matrix”), which provides the framework for research, but is not questioned itself.

The reviewers in this forum lose sight of the larger arguments of the book and reduce it to a simplistic, factual question: Were there or were there not Jewish moneylenders in medieval Europe? Sarah Ifft Decker cites the notarial registers from the small Iberian town of Vic as evidence of Jewish moneylending, arguing that “we cannot omit credit entirely as we seek to build a more complete picture of Jewish participation in the medieval economy,” otherwise “we risk creating a new but still misleading narrative.” Rowan Dorin brings a counter example from fifteenth-century Italian towns’ contracts with professional Jewish moneylenders to argue that there is au contraire a “Jewish economic function” since lending secures the livelihood, and often the lives, of these Jewish communities. Pinchas Roth, in contrast to these reviewers, suggests how rabbinic texts can bolster a revisionary history, and his examples from English responsa (legal briefs) dealing with ownership, risk and responsibility illustrate well the need for the critique launched in The Myth.

The Myth never argues that there were not Jewish moneylenders in medieval Europe. Jews, like Christians, lent money and used credit in medieval Europe, and some Jews were professional moneylenders. What is in contest between the author and the first two reviewers is Jewish difference. The conventional historical narrative emphasizes Jewish difference through the figure of the Jewish moneylender. The Myth emphasizes the economic similarity between Jews and Christians, eschewing Jewish difference constructed around money and moneylending. For credit, lending, and investment were omnipresent during the high middle ages, from merchants to urban townsfolk, from peasants to popes, from Cistercian estates to Franciscan loan and pawn shops. Local Christian moneychangers and bankers were found in every corner of Europe, along with foreigners. In short, most moneylenders were not Jews. Most credit did not pass through Jewish hands in medieval Europe. The Jews, alas, were not the motor of capitalism or modernizers of the European economy. Their economic profile is similar to that of non-Jews. They had no unique economic function: They were Europeans.

Ifft Decker’s principal challenge is drawn from the town of Vic’s Books of the Jews, notarial registers in which 90% of the documents relate to loans from Jews to Christians. Ifft Decker brings in the Jewish moneylenders of Vic to help her establish “the breadth and complexity of Jewish economic life.” But what new information does this small sample of moneylenders bring to the table? The notarial documents discussed in The Myth documenting Jewish merchants in the large port of Marseille were brought to show that Jews in some places were never pushed out of trade, and that we need to open our eyes more to the variety and range of Jewish economic occupations. The example of Vic then simply reasserts the conventional paradigm. The Myth also suggests that we should carefully consider all evidence before falling back on the moneylending convention. In the case of Vic, for example, we should query why there were “Books of the Jews,” when they began, and how they were related to legal and administrative institutions. My hunch is that they were a form of Christian surveillance over Jewish loans like the English loan chests, instigated precisely because the old theological stereotype of materialist Judaism, combined with the new usury campaign and crusading, made Jewish lenders suspect to the church in a way that Christians were not. Records of Jewish moneylending are not evidence that Jews did it any more than Christians, only that they were surveyed in ways Christians were not.

Rowan Dorin brings in the northern Italian cities of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, which granted limited rights of settlement to Jewish moneylenders, as a refutation of the arguments of The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender. Jews had an “economic function,” he says, and one must face the “hard truth” – that “without moneylending the Jews would never have been welcomed to such communities in the first place.” Quite so. But to take these northern Italian towns as paradigmatic is problematic. First, these towns were not without Christian moneylenders, merchants, and capital, as Dorin well knows, having written a dissertation on Italian moneylenders. And everywhere Italian moneylenders were wealthier and more important lenders than Jewish moneylenders. Every economic act has an “aneconomic function.” What does this prove about the classic paradigm on “the Jewish economic function”?

Second, it is a serious error to project the pattern of fifteenth-century northern Italy onto thirteenth-century England. Jews were not resident in the northern Italian towns previously, and only the richest representatives of Jewish communities were invited, although a more diverse Jewish population accompanied them. Anglo-Jews had been living in England for a century or two and were not legally aliens. Most Anglo-Jews were not rich moneylenders, but rather poor. Nor was Anglo-Jewish residence dependent on Jewish lending – this is Cecil Roth’s old “royal milk cow” paradigm. Jews were never permitted to practice usury in England, Italy or elsewhere, and it is nonsensical to state that Jews were “permitted to lend at interest.” Everyone was “permitted to lend at interest,” for “interesse” was a legal concept created by Christian theologians and canon lawyers to denote legally permissible interest. Rather, Jews were different, because they were outside the legal jurisdiction of the Church as non-Christians. But at the request of prelates, Christian kings policed Jewish lending, and royal surveillance over Jewish lending is what has created the archives that fuel the myth.

Dorin and Ifft Decker both fail to consider the intellectual and religious history of the Christian concept of Jewish moneylending, documented in a lifetime of work by Giacomo Todeschini. As he shows, Franciscan economic thought built a vision of the market as a system of relationships based on reciprocal trust and credibility in which religious faith, citizenship, and social status were closely linked to the economic common good. Invitations issued to Jewish moneylenders by northern Italian towns challenged this framework and became a catalyst for a conflict over credit and the credibility of those who participated in the market. Christian polemics against Jewish lending consequently changed radically from being politico-economic to wholly economic. Jewish moneylending became the negation of the common economic good of the civic body. Here, we see the birth of a new binary – the benevolent Christian merchant and the nefarious Jewish moneylender Shakespeare represented so well in The Merchant of Venice. The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender complements Todeschini’s intellectual history with empirical economic evidence and historiographic analysis.

The third reviewer, Pinchas Roth, argues that rabbinic responsa can flesh out our picture of Jewish economic life – yes. (I couldn’t agree more that rabbinic responsa are a rich legal and historical source, which receive far too little study.)Hitherto the conventional scholarly paradigm has shaped our reading of rabbinic legal texts. Rather, what is needed is a fresh study of Jewish economic and legal thought with the openness advocated in The Myth, and one heavily contextualized in the Christian and Islamic legal systems. But when responsa are used for piece-meal social history, our interpretations hang heavily on the disciplinary matrix. For example, the responsa Roth discusses in his review can be read as evidence of Jewish peddling in medieval England. But the very category of the peddler, like that of the pawnbroker, is problematic historically. The Jewish peddler is a well-known nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figure, but can it be imported back to thirteenth-century England without subscribing to a gross anachronism? Alternatively, these responsa could be read as referring to “merchants” and “investors” – rather than “peddlers.” Medieval investment contracts (both the rabbinic iska and the Latin commenda) stipulated shares in risk and profit for the active agent and their sleeping partner(s). The main intellectual exercise of these responsa may have been to work out the relationship between the roles of merchant and investor in the iska and the roles of watchman and borrower discussed in the opening of the Talmudic tract Bava Metzia. The aim of The Myth is precisely to make us aware of the preconceptions with which we approach the historical record. This holds true for rabbinic texts as well Latin documents.

The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender is not a book about Jewish moneylending in medieval Europe, nor a history of Jewish economic activity. It is a book about the modern construction of a historical narrative about the Jews in medieval Europe. To suggest that it replaces “one set of sweeping generalizations with another,” as Dorin and Ifft Decker do, misses the fundamental aim of the book – to deconstruct a modern scholarly paradigm. The Myth can be criticized for not offering a synthetic narrative to replace the one deconstructed (and for not problematizing enough the categories of “moneylender” and “merchant”). But it surely cannot be accused of making a sweeping generalization, only an urgent admonition to re-examine our assumptions about Jews, money, and moneylending.

Resistance is not without its value, however. The reviewers focus on areas that require reconsideration in regard to the old paradigm on Jews and moneylending: the Iberian Peninsula, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, and medieval rabbinics. I am presently engaged in re-evaluating a fourth: the early modern German Court Jews.

Julie Mell is Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University.  She teaches courses in medieval history and Jewish history.  Her research focuses on the Jewish communities in medieval Europe.  Her book The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender (Palgrave, 2017) challenges commonplace narratives about Jews and their moneylending function in the commercialization of Europe.