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Economic Pursuits of the Jews in the Middle Ages
The Jews in the middle ages progressed economically through various occupations. Their economic status was very volatile for many reasons. No area of Jewish life in Western Europe offers such a perpetual change as the economy does. The Jews most specifically participated in international trade, crafts, slave trade, local trade, and most popularly in money lending.
The Jewish people participated in commerce in the countries of western Mediterranean . However, Jewish roles in commerce were rather limited because Syrian merchants in Gaul who supplied the population with luxury articles imported from the East monopolized the whole commerce scene . There would be a consistent war between Muslim and Christian fleets at sea, which left the Jewish merchants at a neutral status. As a result, Jewish merchants who were kidnapped at sea by pirates had a better chance of getting their ransom paid by their co-religionists . Jewish merchants had become very competitive which supposedly put some fear on others. Consequently, in 945, the Venetian government ordered its ship owners not to carry Jewish passengers .
Jewish merchants traded in amber, textiles, hides, arms, spices, precious stones, and other luxury articles . Their clientele consisted mainly of royal and ducal courts and the aristocracy, both secular and clerical . There were other groups engaged in international trade, and Jewish merchants were not the dominant role in the commerce scene . In the cities re-conquered from the Muslims in Spain, Jews played a decisive role in the revival of commerce and industry, and especially in the production and merchandising of clothing . As well, England’s Jewry had a role in commerce, too .
After the year 1100, The Jewish role in international trade began to decline . The Hansa cities began to replace the Jewish traders. Their ships were heavily armed, and were no match for the Jews .
Some believe that Jews controlled the slave trade . Jews were also accused of kidnapping Christian children and selling them to Muslims in southern Spain. The proportion of Jews among the slave traders was smaller than their proportion in international trade . Jewish participation in trading Christian slaves was limited because a Christian ruler sometimes protected it . The Jewish merchants faced many unfair obstacles because of blunt discrimination. The Christian merchants were not faced with these same obstacles such as not being able to trade other Christian slaves.
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Jews also participated in local trade, however were not nearly as productive as they are in international trade . They dealt in clothing, salt, agricultural products and wine . The Jewish local trade evoked more resentment among Christian competitors than did Jewish participation in international trade . Bishop Agobard changed the market day from Saturday to a weekday in order to accommodate the religious needs of the Jewish merchants . However, Christian merchant guilds were often so strong that they succeeded in almost monopolizing for their members the exclusive right to deal in certain wares . The rise of Jewish taxes had a negative effect on Jewish merchants, which had forced them to turn towards money lending for a living .
Jews were involved in commerce in every Catholic country. However, this was not the case with the crafts. Rabenu Tam stated that Jews did not engage in manual labour . When King Edward I attempted to re-structure English Jewry economically, he encouraged Jews to participate in crafts . Jewish craftsmanship was a major field of Jewish economy in Italy . Here, a majority of the Jewish population engaged in the crafts. A major area of Jewish craftsmanship in Sicily was the production and dyeing of silk. Jews were recognized by the emperor and were encouraged to continue engaging in crafts. In fact, much of Jewish commerce in Sicily consisted of merchandising silk . The country in which masses of Jews, if not their majority, earned their living as artisans was Spain. Jewish craftsmen worked together in many branches of the crafts, including blacksmithery .
In the later part of the Early Middle Ages, Jews began to engage in lending money on interest to Christians . Feudalism was the economic and political system that characterized Christian Europe during the Middle Ages , therefore leaving the rich and powerful nobles with the land. The Jews were left outside feudalism, with no protection for their land . The 12th and 13th century Jews of Ashkenaz began to move out of farming into money lending because of many political instabilities and discrimination towards Jews . Jewish merchants could no longer compete with the Christian merchants who had monopolized the whole scene already, and the post-Crusade roads were extremely dangerous , therefore leaving money lending as a possible economic opportunity for the Jewish people. There was not much competition in the money lending market because Christians were forbidden to participate in money lending because lending money on interest was found to be immoral by the Church , which accordingly made the money lending Jews pertain an immoral image as well . The money lending Jews were looked at with distain despite the fact that they were performing a vital economic function . The Jews would set very high interest rates that were authorized by the kings, because of the lack of security regarding repayment of loans .
In conclusion, random discriminations towards the Jews forced them to move around to various occupations. Just like today, the Jewish people made great merchants and businessmen. As a fact, the Jews were the most productive in money lending and were the best at it during their time. A negative force pushed the Jewish people towards money lending which however left a positive impact on the Jewish economic society.
1. Shulass. The History of the Jewish People, volume 2.
2. Jon Bloomberg. The Jewish World in the Middle Ages. Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 2000.