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Medieval Jewish Moneylending and the “Jewish Economic Function” Reconsidered

Tue, December 18, 10:15 to 11:45am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Federal 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel seeks to highlight an emerging new perspective on the common notion of a Jewish “economic function” in the Middle Ages and early modernity. According to this widespread interpretation, Jews were excluded from many professions and channeled into moneylending by non-Jewish rulers, who then exploited their concentration in moneylending for both economic benefit (in good times) and as a scapegoat strategy (in bad times). What if, however, the historical data were to be read against this picture? What ways of understanding the medieval Jewish position in non-Jewish society would be opened up by a broad reconsideration of their economic position? And how might such a reconsideration affect the thinking of scholars of later periods of Jewish history, as well?

Rowan Dorin argues that while anxieties concerning Jewish “usury” play a prominent role in narratives of medieval European Jewish expulsions, most medieval Jews did not specialize in moneylending, and Catholic doctrine broadly permitted Jewish lending and forbade Jewish expulsion. Meanwhile, widespread Christian moneylending rarely inspired secular sanctions. One group of Christian moneylenders, however, did suffer repeated expulsion and threats. The discourses about these so-called “Lombards” and “Cahorsins” challenge traditional arguments concerning the role of moneylending in the history of Jewish life in medieval Europe.

Avinoam Yuval-Naeh focuses on the prolific Puritan controversialist William Prynne’s polemic against Jewish readmission to England in 1655-1656. As the most vociferous opponent of the scheme, one might have expected Prynne to foreground the charge of Jewish usury - yet he does not. Yuval-Naeh argues that the growing commercialization of English society created a new polemical environment in which it was no longer useful to emphasize this charge.

Finally, Sam Brody addresses ways in which modern historiography has relied on the image of the medieval Jewish moneylender, and possible implications of the revision of this picture for depictions of Jewish modernity as economically continuous with medieval times. Drawing on the work of Julie Mell, Brody will highlight the idea of the Jews as “harbingers of economic modernity” insofar as this idea depends on a prior notion of a medieval Jewish economic function for its salience.

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