Jewish Commerce in Christendom

European Christians regulated Jewish commerce.

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Jewish merchants in Europe were in danger of robbery or worse on the often unsafe and unprotected roads. A worse fate befell two Jewish merchants, Benjamin the “noble” from far off Vladimir in Russia and Abraham the Scribe from Carnetan in Normandy, who in Cologne, in 1161, were falsely accused by a Christian woman of defrauding her with copper instead of silver coins. They were immediately arrested and in spite of efforts by the local Jews put on trial by the bishop and sentenced to death. At the last minute, by bribery, the Jewish community succeeded in securing their release. Letters were circulated far and wide to warn of the dangers should any Jewish merchant be accused of lying or deceit.

Jewish merchants also played an important role in medieval fairs, particularly those of Cologne, Champagne, and Troyes, but also others throughout Europe. Some were accustomed to exchanging money for profit, as Rashi wrote in the name of Gershom of Judah, who prohibited giving someone at the fair in Cologne a silver mark worth twelve ounces and having it exchanged at the fair of Mayence for thirteen ounces, which violates the laws of interest. Agobard of Lyons complained that by order of king the local fair was postponed from Saturday to any other day the Jews might prefer….

Christians Resent the Competition

From the Christian side, there was increased hostility toward Jewish merchants and shopkeepers, just as there was toward Jewish moneylenders. An interesting example comes from a complaint (1412) concerning the Jews of Retimo (Italy), where the local inhabitants complained that the Jews, “not content with the interest and the incalculable profit “ they obtained from usury and business partnership contracts, “capture all profit and proceeds that are obtained from the art and profession of commerce,” and that they occupy all the stalls, shops, and stores of the town so that Christians are unable to have shops there. Accordingly, the Venetian senate, to whom the complaint was addressed, revoked an old privilege granting Jews permission to have shops outside the Jewish quarter.

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