Jewish Moneylending

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

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Did Jews Actually Charge Exorbitant Interest?

There is not doubt that some Jews, at least, charged what today would be considered exorbitant rates of interest. There is the report, for example, of the abbey of Saint-Benigne in Dijon (France), which in 1196 borrowed 1700 livres (pounds) from a Jew at the rate of 65 percent. For eleven years the abbey could not pay anything on the loan so that the debt had grown to 9825 livres. In Marseilles, the abbey of Saint-Victor in 1185 owed 80,000 sous to the Jews of the city and granted them some property, which would have included churches in payment. To avoid this “scandal” of Jews owning churches, the bishop of Antibes assumed the debt himself.

On the other hand, it must be realized that these rates of interest were annual, and rarely did loans to individuals, at least, remain unpaid for as long as a year…As we have seen, though, in some cases the debtors made few or no payments for years, and then complained bitterly about the high interest.

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