Jewish Moneylending

The profitable money business between Jews and Christians often became tense.

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As noted elsewhere, fanciful theories have been advanced as fact with regard to Jews either having been “forced,” or voluntarily choosing to abandon landholding, and with no alternative choosing moneylending as a livelihood. Not one scrap of evidence has ever been produced to support such theories, and in fact there is no evidence. Undoubtedly the above statement by authoritative rabbis are correct: the ever increasing tax burdens, on the one hand, and the relatively large profits to be made with virtually no risk, on the other, encouraged Jews to engage in moneylending on ever larger scales.

Christian Moneylending: Ignored Laws, High Interest

Another factor that has sometimes been suggested, the lack of alternative availability of lenders owing to church prohibitions on usury, ignores reality in favor of theory. While it is true that canon law, beginning in the late twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth, placed absolute prohibitions and harsh penalties on Christian lending on interest, it is also true that these measures were frequently ignored in practice even by churches, monasteries, bishops and the popes themselves.

Italian merchants were present in France and Germany and ever ready to lend money, charging such rates of interest as the market would allow. It has frequently been pointed out that the rates of interest charged by Jews never approached the rates charged by Christian lenders, including Church authorities…

Strange Relationships

Just as Jews lent money to Christians, so they also frequently borrowed money from them, also on interest. Indicative of this strange and often uncertain relationship that existed between Jews and Christians is an interesting responsum concerning a Jew who had borrowed money from a Christian and asked a Jewish friend to give him the money to repay the debt. Then some other Christians came and robbed the houses of the Jews (the question was whether the debtor was not required to return the money that his friend had given him, since it would anyway have been stolen, had he not given it to him: the answer was. that h e was obligated to repay it.).

However piously Church officials protested against “usury;” they were themselves quite willing to borrow money from Jews. Already in the ninth century we hear of priests selling church vessels to Jews, and later such object were frequently given as pledges for loans, in spite of the protests of the cantonists and civil law…Jews also had to be careful about taking surety objects that later could be claimed to have been stolen (although at times laws protected Jews against such charges) or “bloodstained garments” that could be suspicious.

It was certainly prudent and necessary to have some form of security, in the way of pledges, for loans to Christians, since it was often easy enough for the borrower simply not to repay the loans…Eventually it became necessary for civil authorities, and particularly the kings, to enact measures protecting the moneylending privileges of the Jews and to ensure that they were repaid.

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