Introduction: Jousting with Windmills
Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question.”2 This book will scrutinize the facts that “we think we know best” about medieval Jews, question how and why the tale of Jewish lending became a compelling narrative in the modern period, and explore what may be gained by thinking outside of the box. The story of Jewish moneylenders is well known to the educated public and college students, to academics, journalists, and museum curators. It revolves around the “economic role” or “function” of European Jews and goes something like this3: Most Jews were merchants in the early Middle Ages and moneylenders in the High Middle Ages. Jews were drawn, propelled, or pushed out of trade and into lending in the High Middle Ages, because they were uniquely positioned to fill the new economic niche of credit. European economy was expanding dramatically in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But the Church prohibited usury, preventing the easy flow of credit necessary for economic development. Jews, not being Christian, were not subject to the laws on usury, on the one hand. On the other hand, Jews were prevented from owning land and joining craft guilds. As Christians moved into trade and pushed Jews out, Jews adapted their commercial expertise and accumulated capital by lending on interest. Strong centralizing monarchies in western Europe protected and privileged Jewish moneylending. For rulers would then ruthlessly squeeze out the surplus capital collected by Jewish creditors through special royal taxes levied on the Jewish population. Ironically and tragically, Jews suffered an antisemitic backlash against Jewish “usury,” even as Jewish moneylending propelled Europe forward. This antisemitic backlash morphed into antisemitic fantasies, pogroms, and expulsions.