Reprinted with permission from the author.
Jews in European Commerce: Not A Decisive Role
There is little doubt that Jews played an important role in commerce, perhaps particularly in international trade, in Christian Europe; yet it is an exaggeration to claim that they played a “decisive” role, for surely the Venetian and Genoese Christian merchants were far more important, as were later the Lombards and Frisians.
Nevertheless, Jews did have certain definite advantages, such as sharing a common language (thus Jewish merchants from France and Germany were able to converse in Hebrew at least with their colleagues in eastern Europe, and in Muslim counties or in Sicily, where Greek and then Arabic were the spoken languages), and also through the use of such things as letters of credit and checks, recognized by Jewish “bankers” (to the extent that these, essentially money changers and lenders, could be called bankers).
In point of fact, however, aside from some isolated cases we hear next to nothing about such Jewish traders. The major instance of Jewish involvement in trade with Muslim countries was slaves, but even here Jews served as middlemen in the ultimate sale of Scandinavian and other as yet non-Christian slaves to Muslim purchasers.
Travel Restrictions Curtail Trade
Another factor that no doubt inhibited any significant involvement of European Jews in international trade would have been the reluctance, indeed the refusal, on the part of rulers to allow them to travel outside of the borders of their countries… There were, nevertheless, some exceptions to this that show certain merchants must have received special privileges for such trade. Thus, a man from Germany went to North Africa and entered into a partnership with another Jew to sell merchandise, and he went from one country (or city) to another but was unable to sell anything, and therefore gave the merchandise to another to take to “the city of the king” where it could easily be sold. He then told his partner that he would received his profits when that man returned, but Rashi said that this was not proper, in case the other man never returned…[Rashi (1040-1105) was the foremost French talmudic commentator of his time.]
Fares and Fairs
As in the Muslim world, so also in Europe, Jews, along with other merchants, had to pay various tolls and duties; sometimes these were paid in pepper, a valuable commodity. The freedom of travel that Jews enjoyed was nevertheless restricted to some extent by Jewish law. Thus there was a ruling that if a Jew owns a ship or wagon he is not allowed to rent it to a gentile to use on the Sabbath. Caution must be used however, in taking too literally infrequent references to Jews “owning “ ships, which in many cases merely meant that they temporarily hired a vessel for commercial purposes.
Jewish merchants in Europe were in danger of robbery or worse on the often unsafe and unprotected roads. A worse fate befell two Jewish merchants, Benjamin the “noble” from far off Vladimir in Russia and Abraham the Scribe from Carnetan in Normandy, who in Cologne, in 1161, were falsely accused by a Christian woman of defrauding her with copper instead of silver coins. They were immediately arrested and in spite of efforts by the local Jews put on trial by the bishop and sentenced to death. At the last minute, by bribery, the Jewish community succeeded in securing their release. Letters were circulated far and wide to warn of the dangers should any Jewish merchant be accused of lying or deceit.
Jewish merchants also played an important role in medieval fairs, particularly those of Cologne, Champagne, and Troyes, but also others throughout Europe. Some were accustomed to exchanging money for profit, as Rashi wrote in the name of Gershom of Judah, who prohibited giving someone at the fair in Cologne a silver mark worth twelve ounces and having it exchanged at the fair of Mayence for thirteen ounces, which violates the laws of interest. Agobard of Lyons complained that by order of king the local fair was postponed from Saturday to any other day the Jews might prefer….
Christians Resent the Competition
From the Christian side, there was increased hostility toward Jewish merchants and shopkeepers, just as there was toward Jewish moneylenders. An interesting example comes from a complaint (1412) concerning the Jews of Retimo (Italy), where the local inhabitants complained that the Jews, “not content with the interest and the incalculable profit “ they obtained from usury and business partnership contracts, “capture all profit and proceeds that are obtained from the art and profession of commerce,” and that they occupy all the stalls, shops, and stores of the town so that Christians are unable to have shops there. Accordingly, the Venetian senate, to whom the complaint was addressed, revoked an old privilege granting Jews permission to have shops outside the Jewish quarter.