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Ducal protection of Jewish credit business

The privilege of 1244 had granted the ducal chief chamberlain vicarious jurisdiction over the Austrian Jews. However, the chamberlain rarely appears as a judge in documentary sources relating to Jewish affairs; much more commonly, he corroborated credit transactions between members of the nobility and of the Jewish economic elite with his seal (Brugger 2004, pp. 85-6). The consultation of the chief chamberlain was supposed to ensure that the documented agreement was binding for both sides, which was fundamentally in the interest of all involved parties.

The chamberlain also occasionally supported Jewish creditors in their efforts to collect their receivables from noble debtors, sometimes in collaboration with the index ludeorum' (justice of the Jews): for example, Duke Frederick the Fair tasked the acting chamberlain Reinprecht of Ebersdorf and the Viennese index ludeorum During Piber to assist all Jews resident in Austria in collecting their receivables in 1317 (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, p. 198, no. 209). From the perspective of the territorial prince, it was important to ensure that the income of his Jewish subjects - especially of the economic elite of Jewish financiers - was not diminished as a result of their financial dealings with Christians since that would have reduced the revenues the duke could expect from the Jewish tax.

Their close connection to the Austrian duke, and his financial interest in furthering their profits from credit transactions, was an important factor in the prospering of Jewish communities in Austria during the 13th century. However, their dependency on ducal protection left the Austrian Jewry in a precarious situation during the first half of the 14th century, which brought about the first major persecutions of Jews in the Duchy of Austria (Brugger et al. 2013, pp. 208-19). Unlike most German cities, Austrian towns had little power over the Jewish community in their midst, which also meant no financial profit and therefore no reason to value or protect them, while Jewish credit business was often seen as unwelcome competition and Jewish privileges were considered an unfair economic advantage over Christians (Wiedl 2013, pp. 201-8). It is therefore no coincidence that the first persecutions were carried out by the citizenry of the towns where the Jews lived, not by any secular or ecclesiastical authority.

An assault on a group who was under the protection of the duke and so closely linked to him that it technically belonged to his treasure constituted a direct challenge to the duke’s authority which he could not tolerate. While ducal protection usually proved too slow or ineffective to prevent outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence, the dukes often attempted to punish the attackers afterwards, although the severity of their reaction depended on a number of political and economic factors that had little to do with the Jews themselves (Brugger 2016, pp. 270-8). Still, by learning from the experiences of previous persecutions, Duke Albrecht II was able to keep the Jews of Austria mostly safe during the period of the Black Death (Brugger & Wiedl 2010, pp. 94-8, no. 645-7), which was accompanied by massive outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence (usually instigated by municipal authorities or even territorial rulers) in many other territories of the Holy Roman Empire in the middle of the 14th century (Muller 2004, pp. 256-7).

The general willingness of the Austrian dukes to protect their Jews and to punish their attackers earned them harsh criticism from the clergy. Duke Albrecht II was reproachfully dubbed ‘patron of the Jews’ (fautor ludeorum} (Brugger & Wiedl 2010, p. 98, no. 647), an epithet which had already been used for his older brother and predecessor Duke Rudolph III (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 156-7, no. 147). In the latter text, the Cistercian author Ambrose of Heiligenkreuz also turned the commonplace stigmatization of Jewish moneylenders as usurers into a vehicle for polemical criticism of the ruler’s policies by explicitly accusing the duke of protecting ‘his most beloved Jews’ in order to profit from their usury (Wiedl 2012b, pp. 319-20).

Not only the clergy was aware of the fact that the Jews played a mostly financial role for the duke - municipal authorities repeatedly tried to use the Jewish population of their city as a bargaining chip when they were quarrelling with the duke over legal or financial matters. During the widespread persecutions that followed an alleged Jewish host desecration in the Lower Austrian town of Pulkau in 1338, the city of Vienna forced the Viennese Jewish community to agree to a severe reduction of interest rates on Jewish loans in return for protection. The privilege of 1244 had allowed the Austrian Jews a weekly interest rate of eight pence per pound but, in 1338, the Jewish community had to ‘voluntarily’ lower the maximum weekly interest rate on loans taken out by Viennese citizens to three pence per pound. In spite of the financial losses they were bound to suffer from the lower profit margins of Jewish moneylenders, Dukes Albrecht II and Otto had to agree to the reduction in order to keep the Viennese Jewry safe (Brugger 2013, pp. 194-5). Although both the Hebrew and the ducal charters (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 336-8, nos 439-40) were addressed to the citizens of Vienna only, the interest rate of eight pence subsequently disappeared almost completely - albeit as part of a larger-scale development that was limited neither to Jewish loans nor to Austria, since interest rates were generally declining during the 14th century (Wenninger 1991, p. 290).

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