On Myths and Moneylenders

Rowan Dorin on The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

In the century following the Black Death, new Jewish communities sprang up in cities and towns throughout northern Italy. Most of the new immigrants were from German-speaking lands, where successive waves of persecutions and legal restrictions had dramatically disrupted the established landscape of Jewish life. Others hailed from the venerable Jewish communities of southern Italy. Among these new arrivals were merchants, physicians, tailors, rabbis, even dance teachers. But no matter their principal occupation, nearly all of them shared one thing in common, beyond their religion: they worked as moneylenders, or lived alongside someone who did. For such was the price of their admission into their new communities: in exchange for the right to live in the town, practice their religion freely, and be protected from arbitrary taxation, the newly arrived Jews agreed to lend money at interest to their Christian neighbors.

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

The agreements – or condotte – that spell out these obligations and privileges survive by the hundreds in Italian archives, along with countless pages concerning the circumstances and negotiations that gave rise to them. Some Catholic clerics applauded such efforts, seeing it as better for the infidel Jews to engage in usury than for good Christians to be so tempted. Others thundered against the arrangements, condemning all moneylending as damnable and destructive. But time and time again, whether welcoming new Jewish residents, responding to calls for their expulsion, or seeking replacements for Jews who had moved on to greener pastures, civic officials (such as those in Padua in 1430) observed that “it was advantageous and necessary to ensure that, following custom, there should be moneylenders.”

So it would surely have come as a surprise to these officials, and likely to the Jews as well, that “medieval European Jews had no economic role, no economic function in Europe,” as Julie Mell declares at the end of her new two-volume study, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender. This sweeping generalization is presumably meant as a retort to the equally sweeping generalizations proffered by long-dead German scholars who gave “the Jews” a starring role in their grand models of economic and social change. With the notable exception of Max Weber, the writings of such scholars now go mostly unread, but Mell suggests that their assumptions and assertions continue to influence popular understandings of the medieval Jewish experience.

Among such persistent misconceptions, according to Mell, is the notion that “Jewish moneylending propelled Europe forward.” As Mell herself admits, economic historians (not to mention Weber himself) have long dismissed such specious claims, whether they concern the renewal of European economic growth following its post-Roman decline or the expansion of European commerce in the high Middle Ages. Equally discredited is the belief that Jewish financial innovations helped spark the transition to capitalism, a central theme for many of the German scholars whose intellectual trajectory Mell traces in the first part of her book. Two hundred years after the birth of Karl Marx, scholars continue to debate what exactly capitalism is, and where and when and why it began. Perhaps the only thing on which every scholar of capitalism would agree is that it was not brought about by “the Jews.” Moreover, to judge from most recent work on the origins of capitalism, the European Middle Ages as a whole have likewise been pushed offstage, with Atlantic slave traders replacing Florentine cloth merchants as the avatars of the new era.

But it is one thing to dismiss the notion that Jews (or rather, Jewish moneylenders) provided the impetus for European economic development, and quite another to insist that medieval Jews served no economic function in Europe. What Mell seems to mean by this assertion is that medieval European Jews did not universally have an exclusive role within the European economy as a whole – in other words, that alongside Jewish moneylenders there were also Jewish “paupers, thieves, bards, butchers, merchants, and merry wives.” That is surely true. Yet it is equally true to observe that the Jews’ ability to emigrate from Cologne or Naples and resettle in northern Italy resulted from the local demand for credit, and the Jews’ ability to supply it. From the perspective of the town councillors, who were deliberating over the conditions of Jewish settlement, the fact that many of the potential newcomers were merchants or physicians (or dance teachers, for that matter) was incidental to the moneylending services that they swore to provide. It does not seem a stretch, then, to speak of an “economic function” for the Jews of northern Italy in the later Middle Ages. To resort to such language is not to imply that moneylending was the Jews’ only activity, but rather to acknowledge the hard truth that without moneylending, the Jews would never have been welcomed to such communities in the first place.

A similar point might be made for medieval England, to which Mell devotes two long chapters. Nowhere else in Europe is there such an abundance of archival evidence for medieval Jewish moneylending, which was regulated by the Crown and supported through legal privileges. As Mell shows through a meticulous analysis of this evidence, the overwhelming majority of loans in the middle decades of the thirteenth century were made by a small Jewish elite, and many Jews made no loans at all. Such insights are novel, and they encourage further investigation of the social makeup of England’s Jewish community. Yet it is hard not to conclude that Mell pushes the significance of these findings too far. Her analysis depends heavily on documentary evidence dating from the year 1240, but historian Robert Stacey suggested decades ago that Jewish wealth in that year was much more concentrated among a small elite than was the case earlier or later in the century – thus making it a risky baseline for generalizations. Moreover, the surviving medieval loan records reveal only a sliver of those whose livelihoods relied on the revenues from moneylending: they preserve the names of those making the loans, but they say nothing at all about their clerks, agents, and servants. To limit the economic importance of moneylending to those whose names appear on the loan rolls is to adopt too restrictive a lens.

More troubling is Mell’s trivializing of the increasingly exorbitant fiscal demands that were imposed on the Jewish community by an impecunious Crown. In the span of a single decade, the Jews of England – who made up roughly 0.1% of the total population – were twice forced to account for one-quarter of the annual royal revenues. Such astonishing sums could not be met through the paltry earnings of Jewish clerks and midwives. Rather, as the records themselves clearly demonstrate, they were paid largely by the wealthiest members of the community, whose wealth was derived largely (even if not exclusively) from moneylending. In short, there can be little doubt that from the late twelfth century to 1275 (when Jewish lending was formally banned), it was the profits from moneylending that provided the economic foundations for continued Jewish existence within the realm.

In seeking to minimize the importance of moneylending to the Jews of medieval England, Mell often downplays compelling evidence to the contrary. She argues, for instance, that there was “no special protection for Jews as moneylenders.” This argument overlooks the obvious advantage that Jews were legally permitted to lend at interest, whereas Christians who were convicted of doing the same were liable to have all of their movable wealth confiscated after their deaths. In addition, historian Paul Brand has shown that royal officials routinely assisted in the collection of Jewish debts without requiring legal proceedings to establish the debtor’s liability (as was the case for ordinary cases of debt) – yet another instance of governmental support for Jewish moneylending that was unavailable to their Christian competitors.

More striking still, despite Mell’s repeated insistence that scholars have paid too little attention to the range and distribution of Jewish economic activities in medieval England, her own book says almost nothing about pawnbroking. To be sure, the activity of Jewish pawnbrokers has left but shadowy traces in English archives – but even such traces are sufficient to reveal its economic importance (as shown by the work of Zefira Rokeah and others). Moreover, pawnbroking was central to stereotypes about Jews and Jewish lending in the Middle Ages (to say nothing of later periods). Mell’s silence on this point is thus doubly regrettable: not only does it distort her conclusions about the prevalence of moneylending (considered broadly) among England’s Jews, but it also prevents her from grappling with the place of pawnbroking in the construction of the myth that she seeks to dismantle.

In describing her own scholarly quest, Mell repeatedly returns to the image of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, albeit in the sense of undertaking an impossible challenge rather than fighting imaginary giants. Her declared enemy is the “gigantic, many-armed discourse associating Jews, Judaism, and money,” and her principal strategy is to downplay the centrality of moneylending to the economic lives of medieval Jews. Such a strategy has the virtue of drawing our attention to the many Jewish men and women who occupied themselves with other pursuits, and whose experiences are too easily buried beneath the necessary generalizations of historical writing. But we should not replace one set of sweeping generalizations with another. One can surely acknowledge the diversity of Jewish economic life while also recognizing that for countless Jewish communities across late medieval Europe, their collective livelihoods – and often their lives – depended on their continuing ability to lend.

Rowan Dorin is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University. He is at work on a book project, Conflicts of Interest: Money and Mass Expulsion in Late Medieval Europe.