Jewish Commerce in Christendom

European Christians regulated Jewish commerce.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

Jews in European Commerce: Not A Decisive Role

There is little doubt that Jews played an important role in commerce, perhaps particularly in international trade, in Christian Europe; yet it is an exaggeration to claim that they played a “decisive” role, for surely the Venetian and Genoese Christian merchants were far more important, as were later the Lombards and Frisians.

jewish commerce in christendomNevertheless, Jews did have certain definite advantages, such as sharing a common language (thus Jewish merchants from France and Germany were able to converse in Hebrew at least with their colleagues in eastern Europe, and in Muslim counties or in Sicily, where Greek and then Arabic were the spoken languages), and also through the use of such things as letters of credit and checks, recognized by Jewish “bankers” (to the extent that these, essentially money changers and lenders, could be called bankers).

In point of fact, however, aside from some isolated cases we hear next to nothing about such Jewish traders. The major instance of Jewish involvement in trade with Muslim countries was slaves, but even here Jews served as middlemen in the ultimate sale of Scandinavian and other as yet non-Christian slaves to Muslim purchasers.

Travel Restrictions Curtail Trade

Another factor that no doubt inhibited any significant involvement of European Jews in international trade would have been the reluctance, indeed the refusal, on the part of rulers to allow them to travel outside of the borders of their countries… There were, nevertheless, some exceptions to this that show certain merchants must have received special privileges for such trade. Thus, a man from Germany went to North Africa and entered into a partnership with another Jew to sell merchandise, and he went from one country (or city) to another but was unable to sell anything, and therefore gave the merchandise to another to take to “the city of the king” where it could easily be sold. He then told his partner that he would received his profits when that man returned, but Rashi said that this was not proper, in case the other man never returned…[Rashi (1040-1105) was the foremost French talmudic commentator of his time.]

Fares and Fairs

As in the Muslim world, so also in Europe, Jews, along with other merchants, had to pay various tolls and duties; sometimes these were paid in pepper, a valuable commodity. The freedom of travel that Jews enjoyed was nevertheless restricted to some extent by Jewish law. Thus there was a ruling that if a Jew owns a ship or wagon he is not allowed to rent it to a gentile to use on the Sabbath. Caution must be used however, in taking too literally infrequent references to Jews “owning “ ships, which in many cases merely meant that they temporarily hired a vessel for commercial purposes.

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Norman Roth is a professor of Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.