Three things are painful for the body:
heart attack is painful,
intestinal pain is even more paintful,
but an empty pocket is the worst of all.

(Kohelet Rabbah 7)

The violence and Christian fervor of the First Crusade (1096-99) unleashed a tide of hatred and violence. Increasing restrictions on the Jews caused major changes in their status and livelihood in northern and central Europe; they were gradually driven out of trade by reduced profits and poor security caused by the inimical attitude of society towards them. Jews were denied any share in the Christian towns and craft guilds, which were quickly becoming the only framework for trade and crafts. While the economy was expanding and needed a steady supply of money (i.e., precious metals) to do so, there was little money available in Christian Europe. Large quantities of precious metals had been withdrawn from circulation and used by the nobility and church for regalia, jewelry and church utensils. The limited monetary supply that remained in Christian hands was invested in commercial "partnerships" that allowed to the lender/investor to both profit from and circumvent the Church's prohibition on interest-bearing loans.

At the same time, Jews who had reduced their commercial activity did have money available and were looking for new ways make a living. The difficult realities of the period also encouraged Rabbis of the period to become more lenient as regards the traditional ban on moneylending, permitting Jews to lend money on interest, at least to Gentiles.[*] Thus money-lending became the primary business of Jews in England and western Europe. At first municipalities, noblemen and the church were the main borrowers, but the market soon expanded to include other classes as well.

Some loans were secured by document, without collateral, but most loans were given on the double surety of a written deed and collateral. Although technically excluded from commerce and trades, Jewish moneylenders frequently engaged in occupations related to the repair and sale of the unredeemed collateral in their hands.

Since interest rates were high (33% or more) repayment of loans was often difficult and the needy debtor often came to hate the Jewish creditor (who had helped him out of his own need). Feeding on this hate as well as religious enmity and social isolation, many anti-Jewish persecutions had dual economic and religious motivations. The instigators were as interested in destroying the records of their debts as they were in eliminating the infidels in their midst. This was one of the reasons that a central archive of debt deeds was established in 13th-century England. These archives also served the authorities' desire to supervise Jewish lending and maximize tax collections.

The Church's prohibition against usury did not prevent Christian rulers from exploiting Jews as their agents for usury — and then extorting most of the profit from them. Moratoria on debt owed to Jews, outright confiscation and expulsion were also tools used to direct most of the profit from Jewish money lending away from Jewish hands.

[*] Especially important was Rabbi Jacob b. Meir Tam, (c. 1100 - 1171, France) who summarized the reasons his leniency as followings: "Today people usually lend money on interest to gentiles... because we have to pay taxes to the king and princes and everything serves to sustain ourselves [kedei hayyenu]. We live among the nations and it is impossible for us to earn a living unless we deal with them. It is, therefore, no more forbidden to lend at interest ... than it is to engage in any other business." [back]
Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing).
Ben-Sasson, History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press

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