Court Jews

Court Jews were purveyors who provided food, fodder, and munitions to the European courts in return for special privileges.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from The Course of Modern Jewish History (Vintage Books).

The Risks and Rewards of a Being Court Jew

The kings and dukes of the early modem era, continually engaged in bitter dynastic wars, were in equally continual need of supplies and munitions from all parts of Europe. The purveyors and factors who provided those supplies were almost invariably Jews, the only people capable of mobilizing Jewish peddlers throughout Europe to act as their purchasing agents. 

joseph suss oppenheimer court jew

Joseph Suss-Oppenheimer

The Jews were imaginative, mobile, and trained in exploiting the opportunities of purchase, in appraising values, in buying up war surplus. Many a Jewish businessman in the seventeenth century laid the foundation for his modest fortune by the swift purchase and disposal of the debris left on the battlefield of the Thirty-Years War.

Of course, foraging for one's duke behind enemy lines, or even within one's own lines, was dangerous work, and not infrequently Jews were caught and executed as spies. But risky as it was, the Jews were willing to chance it, for as a rule, the reward transcended the prerequisites of financial profit. It was common for a duke to grant his Jewish purveyor the right to live outside the ghetto on a permanent basis, the right to live at court and share the privileges of Christian courtiers. These were incentives of the most dazzling attractiveness, and the Jews found them irresistible…

Oppenheimer et al.

The Jews bankers and purveyors of the seventeenth century were a strange breed of adventurous, ambitious men. Samuel Oppenheimer of Heidelberg, for example, served as a contractor for Elector Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate, and this relationship opened many other royal doors to him. At the end of the seventeenth century, when Louis XIV of France was the most dreaded predator in Western Europe, Emperor Leopold I of Austria, a fanatical Catholic, was obliged to turn to Oppenheimer for help; he was the one person who could provide the Hapsburg armies with food, fodder, and munitions.

The Austrian emperor's confidence was not misplaced. Oppenheimer's agents, his widely placed business friends and relatives provided him with the necessary supplies. Moreover, the supplies were turned over to Leopold on credit; while Oppenheimer himself borrowed from his fellow Jewish purveyors, from Aron Beer of Frankfurt, from Loew Sinzheim, the Court Purveyor of Mainz, from Moyses Isaac, the Court Jew of Bamberg, and others. When Oppenheimer died in 1703, the Court of Vienna faced virtual bankruptcy, forAustrian finances were integrally tied in with Oppenheimer's. The Hapsburgs recouped, however, by turning to yet other Jewish purveyors.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.