Shatzmiller J. (1990) “The best Jew in the world”: another look at medieval Jewish usury

Joseph Shatzmiller (1990) Shylock reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society, Berkeley, University of California Press, 250p.*


From February to July 1317, a trial opposing a Jewish moneylender called Bondavin to his client Laurent Girard took place in Marseille. Bondavin accused Laurent of not having paid back a 60-sols loan (15). A significant sum, but nothing extraordinary compared to Bondavin own’s fortune (certainly several hundred pounds) (21). So why did Bondavin engaged in a procedure if not for money?

Bondavin: the best Jew in the world

Bondavin and his father Abraham were amongst the most active lenders in Marseille. In 1310 alone, they were involved in 14 trials for unpaid loans (about 25% of those judged by the court), demanding a total of 1399 sols (22). Bondavin had been accused of being involved in usury, to keep his reputation clean he had to go to court (41).

As many Jewish families of the time, the Bondavins’ clan was rather small (from 5 to 9 depending of the year) [see annex 1] (48). But this may be due to the fact that they had only rather recently settled in Marseille (around 1280-90) (49). Bondavin’s father had bequested him the quite impressive amount of 500 pounds. Most of this wealth came from money-lending although a part originated from maritime trade (50). The family business was rather large, Bondavin had seven known agents and ought to have granted tens of loans every week (51). The Bondavins were amongst the richest Jews in Marseille but they were not involved in the community’s administration (52).

Jewish money lenders treaty their best clients (ma’arufia) particularly well (137). They granted them lesser rates, they introduced them to lenders in other places (139), they guarantied loans the clients subscribed to other lenders, they agreed not to take pawns, they agreed to do business on Sabat day (140) gave more time to the client to pay back the loan (161) and even offered them presents (141). Sometimes the monopoly of a given lender on a client was even guarantied by the rabbis (138). Thanks to such strategies, Bondavin managed to gain the trust of some of the most important characters of Marseille (noblemen, churchmen, notaries, judges, merchants) who all agreed to testify in his favour at the trial (151). Noticeably Bondavin also asked poor citizens to testify for him and explain the court how generous and rightous he was (152).

Bondavin in the trial tried to appear as a good man as well as a serious money lender.

Rules of the game

In case of non-payment, the clients faced important punishments enforced by the city’s institutions (prison, exile out of town, house of arrest, having his properties seized by the creditors) (24). The church had also a system in place to protect moneylenders: clients were summoned by the ecclesiatic court and forced to pledge to pay back their loan. If they defaulted it was considered as perjury and they were excommunicated (25).

But the moneylenders themselves were often accused of trying to foul their clients for instance by keeping the receipt proving the debt had been paid back (as in the Bondavin v. Laurent case) (27). This accusation of being a ‘false-lender’ was extremely serious, and when judged guilty the lenders had to pay sizeable fines (34) often amounting two to five times the amount of the sum falsely lended (35).

Against usury

The condemnation of usury by the Church made being found guilty of it a dreaded prospect for money lenders. To avoid being spotted the principal and interest’s respective amounts were almost never indicated thus it was impossible to know whether the lender enjoyed a profit in the operation (37). Punishment for usury was extremely heavy: a fine six times the amount of the loan in Provence for instance (39).

But rulers such as Frederic II saw usury as a “necessity for mankind”. The Jews were not part of the Christian brotherhood so could be pawnbrokers without falling under the interdiction to lend money to one’s brother. But 13th century theologians (Thomas Aquinas) started seeing the Jews as brothers and usury as a sin as such, regardless who was involved a bit like theft and murder (67). Violences against the Jews became more common (71).

Moneylending in Provence and in Europe

In early fourteen-century Aix-en-Provence, only 12% of the loans were paid back in time, 38% were paid back with 7 to 12 months late and over 48% were paid back 2 to 20 years late (21). Late pay back and even default ought to have been fairly common in Bondavin’s time. The business was still pretty much informal as the paperwork was expensive and often omitted when the loan was not significant (30).

To protect the population from the lenders’ greed, the rulers put in place a maximum rate for money-lending (25% in Provence in the 1200s, 43.3% in England a century earlier, 86.6% in Germany in the 13th century) (78). In the same way, the monarchs often authorized their subjects not to reimburse a third of the debt due to the Jews (79). This line of thinking emerged from the  idea that the Jews were the personal serves of the king (80).

Almost everyone was constantly in debt, the money-lender was a familiar figure to all  [see annex 2] (102). Colleagues and neighbours lent to each others, notables, notaries and churchmen were also often asked for loans (118). Thus usury was often a part-time job (121). On the other hand there was also professional Christian bankers Italians and Cahorsins; the value of their financial activities was significantly higher than the Jews’ (122). The Italians were mostly present in the major urban centers and their lending activities often overlapped with commercial ones (125).

In general the Jews mostly lended to the lower social stratas of the medieval society while their Christian counterparts usually served the elite (104). Rich Christian often lent money to the Jews who used this source to increase their stock of liquidity (120). The Jews in the cities and lesser towns were the epicenter of the credit system of the surrounding villages. Loans were usually granted for a short period of time (105). The clients owned often money to several lenders. Being in debt was normal, common “chronic” even (108).

As a result, money-lending and particularly the Jewish money-lending was regularly presented as an essential form of aid to the poors (113). The importance of loans was so well-known that the inhabitants of San Gimignianonin 1311 even required the Romans to send them a Jew (117).

The serves of the king: credit and Jews

In France and Aragon the system quickly became yet another way to tax the Jewish communities. They had to pay for the kings not to impose fines on them for usury or grant a debt remission to their subjects or simply not to be expelled (83). The Jews were accused to oppress not only the individuals, but the state itself, this justified the taxes. The Jews were regularly asked to give up usury and adopt a real productive occupation (90). The Spanish king Alfonso XI in 1348 even offered the Jews to settle in new rural villages (91). But the English king Edward I opted for another option: the Jews were expelled from in kingdom in 1290 (92) even though he was perfectly aware of the economic and fiscal loss that went along with this decision (93). Many other rulers also expelled the Jews in the following centuries (96).

But Jewish money-lending was often accepted because 1. the Jews were already damned, usury was just one mortal sins amongst many 2. the Jews were rarely allowed to do anything else than money-lending (132). they were less greedy than their Christians counterparts (133) (to the point that nine years after the Jews were expelled from France the king had to give up to popular pressure and allow them back) (135).

But in other periods and in various places, usury was accepted by the authorities (98).


Thus the Jewish pawnbroker cristalized the various paradoxes of the medival society. They may be very well regarded or burn on the stakes, but they remained essential to society.

* Here I use the French translation Shylock revu et corrigé: les juifs, les chrétiens et le prêt d’argent dans la société médiévale, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2000, 327p.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: