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The political and economic relevance of Jewish loans for the dukes of Austria during the late Middle Ages


The Judenregal (right to the Jews), originally defined as an exclusive regal right, was a much-coveted prerogative among the territorial princes of the Empire for both political and financial reasons during the late Middle Ages (Toch 2013, pp. 48-9). The dukes of Austria, officially enfeoffed with the Judenregal in 1331 (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, p. 278, no. 338), actually managed to establish almost exclusive sovereignty over the Jewish population of their lands in the first half of the 13th century. The close attachment of the Jewish subjects to their duke was cemented with Duke Frederick H's privilege for the Austrian Jews in 1244 (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 35-7, no. 25). This ducal privilege accommodated the immigration of Jews into the duchy and created a valid legal basis for this group that was to last until medieval Jewish settlement in Austria came to a violent end in the early 15th century.

The privilege was issued with the clear intention of promoting and legally safeguarding Jewish settlement in Austria, with economic utility - unsurprisingly - being the duke’s first priority. The numerous provisions concerning Jewish pawnbroking and moneylending leave no doubt that as far as the duke was concerned, the only desirable occupation for Jews in Austria was the money business - other occupations were not mentioned at all, indicating that while they were not forbidden, they were of no interest to the duke (Chazan 2010, p. 124). The privilege simultaneously established a direct attachment of the Austrian Jews to their duke by subordinating them to his chamber, that is the ducal treasure, going so far as to establish that financial penalties levied for attacks against the Austrian Jews were to go largely to the duke. Based on this charter, the Austrian dukes granted their Jews protection and favours; in exchange, the Jews had to pay them substantial taxes and accept ducal control of their business (Brugger 2016, pp. 268-9).

Jewish moneylenders between duke and nobility

The dukes of Austria were not the only territorial princes who encouraged Jews to go into the credit business. At a time of intense debate on the generalmorality of interest-taking, the disapprobative stance of most ecclesiastical authorities (Gilomen 2018) could not diminish the demand for credit which was part and parcel of the general development towards a more moneybased economy. Jewish moneylenders were often seen as one (albeit not the only) way to resolve that problem, even though the majority of loans were at all times granted between Christian parties (Löhrmann 1990, pp. 249-50). The well-established stereotype of a Jewish ‘monopoly’ on moneylending on interest has been thoroughly debunked (Brugger et al. 2013, pp. 156-8); a study of the Austrian source material that focuses on the credit business in general (as opposed to studying Jewish loans exclusively) shows that Christian creditors found various ways to circumvent ecclesiastical prohibitions on interest-taking or ignored them altogether (Brugger 2004, pp. 23, 107-9).

At first, these sources mostly resulted from contacts between the Christian and Jewish social elites; written sources concerning lower-class business transactions only became more numerous in the course of the 14th century. This should not be seen as an indication that Jewish-Christian business relations were restricted to the upper social classes of both groups in this period. On the contrary, the aforementioned first ducal privilege for the Austrian Jews indicates that the ‘smaller’ pawnbroking business was the norm, not the exception: ten of the 31 paragraphs dealt with pawnbroking, while only one touched upon bigger credit transactions between Jews and Christian noblemen. However, the smaller business transactions (pawnbroking and short-term loans for small sums of money) were not yet considered important enough to warrant a written record, which is illustrated by the fact that debt inventories and similar sources which shed light on smaller Jewish business transactions in other parts of Europe did not exist in Austria at the time (Brugger 2016, p. 269).

For that reason, the bulk of the surviving source material on Jewish business from the 13th and first half of the 14th centuries consists of charters documenting financial dealings between the elite of Jewish financiers and noble debtors. The economic changes of the period caused financial struggles for many noble families, although some also proved remarkably apt at working the new, more money-based system in their favour. However, Jewish moneylenders were hardly ever the first choice of Austrian noblemen who needed to raise money. The nobility was well aware that failure to settle their debts could lead to the loss of pawned goods, which usually meant land: fields, vineyards, and houses were the most common pledges. Noble families tried to avoid losing landed estates that way and often preferred to borrow from their family members so that unredeemed pledges would remain part of the family property. With a few exceptions, members of the nobility regarded the services of Jewish moneylenders as a last resort if no other solution was available (Brugger 2004, pp. 107-8). Another factor in this reluctance was the close connection between the Austrian Jews and the duke - since the Jews were direct subordinates of the ducal chamber, indebtedness to them could render a debtor more dependent on the duke’s benevolence than many nobles were comfortable with.

Those misgivings were hardly baseless since the Austrian dukes repeatedly interfered in loan transactions on behalf of their Jewish subjects. By putting pressure on noble debtors to repay their Jewish loans, the dukes tried to prevent economic damage to their Jews which, in turn, would have affected their own profits from the Jewish tax (Brugger 2004, pp. 39-41). During the early period of Habsburg rule in Austria, which was a time of power struggles between the new ruling family and the nobility of the land, Duke Albrecht I even went a step further: Leutold of Kuenring, instigator of a rebellion of the Austrian nobility against the duke, had to submit to Albrecht I in 1295 and to promise (among other things) to compensate the duke’s Jews for everything ‘he had taken from them or owed them’. If the Jews should put too much financial pressure on Leutold, the duke promised to appoint an arbiter (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 94-5, no. 89) - a clear threat to the influential nobleman that it was entirely up to the duke to decide how much access to Leutold’s property his Jewish creditors were getting, thus making sure that Leutold would not risk opposing Albrecht I any more (Löhrmann 1990, p. 117).

It is therefore not surprising that it was mostly families from the lower ranks of the Austrian nobility, risen to a position of power in the duke’s service, who were willing to use the financial services of the duke’s Jewish subjects. The most spectacular example in this regard was the Lower Austrian ministerialis Kalhoch of Ebersdorf: in 1298, Kalhoch purchased the ducal office of chief chamberlain - an office whose holder exercised vicarious jurisdiction over the Austrian Jews since 1244. Kalhoch had raised the required sum in part through a loan from his Jewish lender of many years, Lehman from Vienna. However, he subsequently found himself having trouble paying the money back; in late 1305, he resorted to the drastic measure of pawning the office of chief chamberlain including all income arising therefrom (explicitly including all revenue coming from the Jews) for seven years to his creditor Lehman to cover a debt of 800 pounds of Viennese pence. However, Lehman could only claim the income from the office, while the corresponding authority of the chamberlain was transferred to another ducal official, the Hofmarschall Dietrich of Pillichsdorf, until such a time that the office was redeemed - presumably a condition imposed by the duke, whose approval was required for this arrangement (Brugger 2004, pp. 69-81). Kalhoch, who managed to establish his family among the elite of the Austrian nobility, could only take such financial risks because his loyalty to the dukes ensured that the dukes would not use his debts to a Jewish creditor against him.

Considering how keen the dukes of Austria were on Jewish moneylenders doing business in their territory, there is surprisingly little evidence of the dukes themselves taking out loans with their Jewish subjects. In 1225, the Jew Teka stood surety for Duke Leopold VI of Austria for 2000 marks which the duke had to pay the king of Hungary as part of a peace treaty, but even though Teka owned a house in Vienna, he was mostly active in the service of the Hungarian king and can hardly be considered an Austrian Jew (Wiedl 2010, p. 242). In the course of the 14th century, some Austrian dukes seem to have used nobles as middlemen, who would take out loans with Jewish creditors for which the duke ostensibly stood surety, while the wording of the debt instruments suggests that the real debtor was in fact the duke himself (e.g. Brugger & Wiedl 2005, p. 253, no. 298). It is not entirely clear why the Habsburg dukes were so coy about being indebted to Jewish moneylenders, given that such debts were hardly an unusual occurrence for territorial princes during that timeframe. Reversely, there is frequent evidence of the dukes repaying their own debts to Austrian nobles by amortizing the Jewish loans of the nobleman in question, although not always by redeeming them outright. Since Jewish creditors had no way to enforce repayment from the duke himself, debt instruments from the middle of the 14th century onwards often contained the debtor’s formulaic promise not to transfer the debt to the duke - a provision that was very likely demanded by the Jewish creditors, although there was little they could do if the duke still decided to take over the debt (Brugger 2012, pp. 339-40).

While the Habsburg dukes hesitated to take out direct loans with their Jewish subjects, they readily pledged their revenues from the Austrian Jewry to their Christian creditors. The Jewish tax in particular could be pawned to ducal retainers and allies alike, especially during times of war. In 1320, the Austrian duke Frederick the Fair, who was fighting against Ludwig the Bavarian for the German crown, affirmed a debt of 1200 marks in silver owed to his ally, the archbishop of Salzburg. Duke Frederick promised to ensure that the chamberlain would settle two-thirds of the sum from the Viennese Jewish tax (Wiedl 2012a, pp. 375-7). From then on, the dukes frequently used mortgages on the Jewish tax as a comparatively safe way to raise money, especially since the holder of the Judenregal not only had the right to collect the regular annual Jewish tax, but also to levy special taxes as an extraordinary measure. When Dukes Albrecht III and Leopold III found themselves in massive financial difficulties during the 1370s, they signed the entire financial administration of their lands, including the Jewish tax, over to a consortium of three ducal officials and two citizens of Vienna for the duration of four years (Lackner 2002, pp. 45-9). In such a context, the Austrian Jews became a source of ducal income among many that could be pledged at will - a concept that could be reconciled with the ducal promise of protection for the Jews because of their special status as subordinates of the duke’s chamber (Toch 2013, pp. 104-6).

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