Who Speaks for the Jews? Latin and Hebrew Sources

Pinchas Roth on The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

In The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, Julie Mell aims to uproot several long-held and largely unquestioned assumptions about the nature of Jewish communal life in medieval Europe. Specifically, Mell grapples with the “myth” that most medieval Jews worked as moneylenders, that this work made them wealthy, and that their moneylending activity was a major component in the European economy. Although concerned primarily with matters of economic history in England, northern France, and Provence, Mell’s findings touch on many other aspects of medieval Jewish society – its place within the majority society of Christian Europe, its internal socio-economic dynamics, and the significance of gender roles within those dynamics. I will happily leave the appraisal of Mell’s statistical and economic analysis and her engaging historiographical account of the rise of the “myth” to those qualified to perform it and will instead suggest a few ways in which rabbinic texts can shed further light on the social reality of Jewish economic activity in medieval England. Works of halakhah (roughly translatable as Jewish law) were produced throughout the Middle Ages in each of the regions discussed in The Myth, and in many other regions as well. That literature, especially responsa, or rabbinic legal findings penned as answers to concrete questions, can serve as an extraordinarily rich resource for historians seeking to understand pre-modern Jewish life. As Haym Soloveichik has famously shown, use of rabbinic texts as historical sources raises many methodological challenges; but it can serve as an important corrective to the many studies (including Mell’s) that draw conclusions about Jewish society based exclusively on documents produced by the members of the dominant culture.

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

Jewish communities began to emerge in northern Europe around the ninth century. No financial documentation exists from that early period, but historians have long claimed that European Jews primarily engaged in long-distance trade during the Early Middle Ages, only to be forced out of that field and into moneylending in the High Middle Ages. Michael Toch has demonstrated that although trade was a significant Jewish occupation during this early period, moneylending can be found alongside it from the earliest documented stages. Toch drew this conclusion based on comments found in rabbinic responsa, since he demonstrated convincingly that Christian sources – in which Jews usually appear as stock figures playing a literary or theological role, rather than as representations of real people known to the authors – do not provide trustworthy information about early medieval Jewish life in Europe.

Mell questions Toch’s conclusions that both trade and moneylending were significant Jewish occupations in early medieval Europe, not because Toch’s sources do not mention those occupations, but because those sources do not justify generalizations about “Jews.” As Mell puts it: “why should an elite male define the economic profile of ‘Jewry’ more than an impoverished Jew/ess?” The rabbinic sources utilized by Toch do provide snippets of information about women. In most cases, the women whose economic activities are mentioned in the responsa belonged to precisely the same wealthy mercantile elite as the men, who are certainly mentioned more frequently: examples include widows controlling their late husbands’ estates and wives who participated in their husbands’ business dealings. While there is no doubt that some Jews in early medieval Europe, male and female, were poor, aside from vague references (such as the case of a man who bequeathed his possessions to the poor) the early medieval responsa do not deal with the Jewish non-elite. Mell’s call for a more inclusive definition of Jewry is unquestionably justified. However, as I will argue further on, responsa literature ought to be considered an indispensable resource in studying the history of medieval Jews. Pitfalls abound, the sources are often spotty, but they are among the only texts that view Jewish society from the inside and ignoring them confines any study of Jewish life in the Middle Ages to an irreparably external perspective.

Identifying the dangers of skewed perspective, and the methodological challenges of overcoming it, are central to The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender. Part Two of the book, comprising two chapters and more than 150 pages, is titled “Some Facts: Merry Old England.” England offers optimal conditions for uncovering the full spectrum of medieval Jewish economic activity. The surviving administrative and financial archives from medieval England are far richer in “Facts” than similar documentation in other parts of Europe during the same period. Chapter 5 (“An Economic Function for the Crown?”) combines data on Jewish payment of taxes and tallages with analysis of English law in order to proffer a more balanced account of the place of the Jewish community within the medieval English economy. Depending on their ideological viewpoint, earlier writers portrayed Anglo-Jewry either as having taken advantage of the Christian English population or as milked dry by royal greed. Rather than a foreign body in the body politic of England, Mell portrays the legal standing of the Jews as being fundamentally no different from other demographic groupings in English society. Yet Mell’s conclusion is itself the product of a particular viewpoint, since social status is always in the eyes of the beholder. Whether or not Jews received the same treatment under English law and royal policy that other inhabitants of the kingdom did, Hebrew sources make it clear that English Jews themselves viewed elements of royal policy towards them as illegal and felt, in general, that they were maltreated because of their religion.

More directly relevant to the Jewish community itself, Chapter 4 (“‘Rich as a Jew’? Wealth and Lending among Anglo-Jews”) considers and compares different types of financial documents. Tallage rolls for various cities (the earliest, the Northampton Donum, dates from 1194), intended to enforce extraordinary payments above and beyond regular taxes, list the amounts of money collected from individuals according to their relative wealth. Often, the tallage rolls reveal two or three Jews who shouldered a majority of the payment on behalf of the remainder of the Jewish community. Jews who were too poor to pay taxes were not listed in such rolls, but at least one surviving document from 1242 lists all the Jews of Lincoln, including the non-taxable poor. The Crown implemented efforts to survey the loan documents held by Jews at any given moment in time, which were kept in municipal “archae.” Periodic scrutiny provided the royal administration – and modern scholars – with a snapshot of the distribution of debt among the Jews of each city that allows for distinctions between large-scale moneylending operations and the occasional subsistence loan. Pooling the data from these sources and tabulating it in a variety of ways, Mell argues that only a very small financial elite drew their livelihood from moneylending. In terms of taxable wealth, the community was dominated by a tiny minority, 10% or less of the total Jewish population in thirteenth-century England. But even among those Jews who were reasonably well-off, only a small number made their living as moneylenders. “Over two-thirds of the Jewish population in the thirteenth century was at the lower end of the urban economic scale with assessed wealth comparable to masons and carpenters, journeymen and servants, and peasants eking out a living.”

These findings are quite startling, and they demand serious rethinking about the medieval Anglo-Jewish community – a process that has already begun, in the wake of this book’s publication. For example, Dean Irwin has suggested that many Jews in medieval England can be located within networks centered around prominent individuals. This means that, although only a very small number of people were located at the pinnacle of the economic pyramid, many more people benefitted from them in ways that are not necessarily reflected in the documents analyzed by Mell.

Thinking about the social fabric that connects people of differing wealth and status within a community can be helpful if we consider a valuable corpus of material about medieval English Jewry that does not figure in Mell’s study. Dozens of legal rulings and responsa by English rabbis can be found scattered in the margins of medieval rabbinic literature, and they afford a precious internal view of Anglo-Jewish life. Yet these sources come with their own methodological challenges. Among them is the fact that several of the rabbinic leaders whose writings have been preserved were themselves members of the ultra-rich class of Jews identified by Mell. The most prominent examples are Benjamin of Cambridge, whose name appears numerous times in the Tosafot literature of medieval France and also at the top of the list of Jewish taxpayers for the Northampton Donum of 1194, and Elijah Menahem of London, the most prolific Jewish writer of medieval England and one of its wealthiest men. Thus, rabbinic literature from medieval England was written by a small elite, perhaps even more exclusive than the rabbinic elites of other European communities during the Middle Ages. It is safe to assume that their perspective and their legal writings were impacted by their personal circumstances and privileges. At the same time, if magnates such as these were involved in teaching boys in the yeshivah, adjudicating cases of civil and family law among Jews, and offering solutions to the problems of ritual law brought to them by Jewish laypeople, they cannot have been as isolated from the majority of the Jewish community as their disproportionate wealth might lead us to believe.

With those reservations in mind, I would like to suggest some ways in which rabbinic literature can enrich and complicated the picture of English Jewry as it emerges from Mell’s analysis of the fiscal documents. For example, Elijah Menachem of London (d. 1287) and his father Moses took up the question of what legal responsibility Jewish peddlers held for the goods they were selling. According to rabbinic law (Mishnah Baba Metzia 7:8), if a bailee or watchman (shomer) loses an object he was charged with protecting, his responsibility for the loss of the object varies depending how the object came to vanish. A paid watchman is liable only if the object was stolen or lost, but not for a loss caused “through a force greater than these”; in contrast, a borrower (who uses the object for his own benefit) is liable in all cases. The question posed to Elijah asks how the Jewish peddlers of medieval England were to be defined.

A question [to] Rabbi Elijah of London, of blessed memory. If a person gives his fellow an object to sell, and pays him his fee, the seller has the status of a paid watchman, and not a borrower since the benefit is not entirely his. But if someone was planning to sell his goods, and a middleman came and asked to sell them so that he might make a profit – in that case, the seller (= the middleman) is a borrower since all the benefit is his, since the owner did not intend to send him to sell it and he (the middleman) is doing so purely for [his own] benefit. The seller is liable for accidental damage. (Ms Vercelli, Seminario Vescovile C 1, fol. 50v)

This responsum reflects an economic reality in which Jews bought and sold, sometimes on their own and sometimes as agents for others. The uncertain status of the middleman reflects a web of economic networks – sometimes a Jewish peddler acted independently, while at other times he was working for a wealthy businessman. In the course of his intricate response, Elijah Menahem of London suggested that during the time of the Talmud, all artisans were also peddlers who intended to sell their own wares. Perhaps this implies that in thirteenth-century England Jewish occupations were more distinct, and that Jewish artisans often sold their products wholesale to distributers.

Elijah Menahem’s responsum is followed immediately in the Vercelli manuscript by a second discussion by his father, Moses ben Yom Tov of London:

A case of a woman who sold clothing. One piece of clothing that had been given to her to sell was lost through no fault of hers. They asked him (i.e., Moses of London) what to do. He responded that a distinction must be made. There are cases when middlemen are given clothes or dishes to sell for any price they can, and if they do not sell, they receive no pay. In other cases, they say “sell at this price, and [if you manage to sell it for a higher price], the difference is yours.”

Moses assumed that the woman in this case belonged in the second category of peddlers, and therefore was liable for the lost clothing, but he expressed the same initial uncertainty as his son later would about the precise legal nature of the arrangement. Yet another possibility, discussed by Elijah Menahem in a different responsum (ms. Vercelli, fol. 70r), was that two partners would travel together to the market in order to sell their merchandise and split the profits. These responsa help confirm Mell’s claim that Jews in medieval England engaged in a variety of economic pursuits beyond moneylending. The vast disparities in income and tax-assessment within the community were often bridged by formal or informal networks of employment, investment, and agency. Commercial arrangements like those discussed in these responsa often generated no official documentation, since they were small-scale ventures that involved neither real estate nor Christians. By contrast, legal questions could arise even when the amounts of money involved were insignificant. Responsa provide access to segments of Jewish society that remain hidden in more formal economic documentation.

The rich troves of Latin documents from medieval England that have fed generations of research into medieval Anglo-Jewry will hopefully continue to yield new insights and arouse new debates. Julie Mell’s analysis and the provocative questions she has raised must be considered in the process of reconstructing and contextualizing the lives of Jews in medieval England. Carrying that task out responsibly and fairly requires a careful consideration of all the available data, Latin and Hebrew.

Pinchas Roth is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Talmud and Oral Law at Bar-Ilan University.