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Ducal encroachment on Jewish credit business and its limits

While there is no evidence that Jews in the Duchy of Austria fell victim to violent persecution during the second half of the 14th century, ducal protection of Jewish business was weakening. The persecutions had demonstrated to the Christian population that the Jews were vulnerable and that the protection they received from the dukes had its limitations - but more importantly, the dukes themselves were beginning to lose interest in protecting Jewish business as the economic relevance of Jewish moneylenders waned (Wiedl 2009, p. 301). The Jews became one source of ducal income among many, while their status as a group under the direct protection of the duke lost significance. An early indicator of the gradual loosening of ducal protection was a ducal charter, issued in 1330 for the chamberlain Reinprecht of Ebersdorf. The charter gave the chamberlain permission to take the money which Dukes Albrecht II and Otto owed him from the Jewish tax and, in case he shouldn’t get his money, to hold the wealthiest Jews captive until they had paid Reinprecht the sum he was owed (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 316-17, no. 407).

Social markers of the Jewish loan clientele were shifting as well: the surviving sources indicate that a growing number of Christian clients now came from lower classes, no longer from the nobility and the urban elites (Toch 2008, pp. 197-9). This might partly be due to the fact that financial transactions between Jews and lower-class Christians were now more likely to be recorded because of the emergence of Judenbiicher (libri ludeorum), which documented Jewish loans, during the second half of the 14th century (Wiedl 2013, pp. 218-19). However, it may also indicate a gradual decline in the social status of the majority of the Jewish population, especially since Christian credit business was growing steadily at the same time, which diminished the importance of Jewish moneylenders (Brugger 2016, pp. 278-9).

At the time, more and more rulers throughout the Empire were considering the option of alleviating their financial problems by seizing Jewish property (Toch 2013, p. 64). In Austria, Dukes Albrecht III and Leopold III started to extort money from rich Jewish subjects by holding them captive until they paid huge sums as ransom (Brugger et al. 2013, p. 220). Another indication that Jewish business interests were no longer the dukes’ main concern after the middle of the 14th century was the growing number of Totbriefe (‘killing letters’), ducal decrees which cancelled the debts of persons or institutions without any compensation for the Jewish moneylender in question (Brugger 2012, pp. 331-3). They were most often issued to the benefit of Austrian nobles - usually because the duke owed the nobleman in question money for his services. Sometimes, they were also used as a means of punishing Jews who left the duke’s territory without explicit permission (Löhrmann 1990, pp. 217-20). Duke Rudolph IV (1358-1365), who placed great importance on stressing his sole right to rule over‘his’ Jews (up to the point of including it in his famous falsification of imperial privileges for Austria known as the Privilegium mains}, was especially quick to issue ‘killing letters’ for the purpose of punishing the ‘flight’ of a Jew from his lands - an accusation that was facilitated by the general mobility of the Jewish economic elite. Rudolph often chose to take over outstanding Jewish loans instead of simply annulling them; in some cases, he acted so aggressively that his brothers and successors Albrecht III and Leopold III considered it necessary to rescind their late brother’s decrees in order to encourage a wealthy Jewish financier to return to their territory (Brugger 2012, pp. 335-7).

The severe ducal extortion policies generally seem to have been abrogated in the mid-1380s because they had brought the Jewish population to the limits of their economic capabilities (Löhrmann 1990, pp. 291-2). New ducal privileges for the Jews, granted by Dukes Wilhelm and Albrecht IV in 1397 and 1401, can thus be regarded as attempts at damage limitation, as the dukes realised that they had to enact countermeasures if they did not wish to lose the Jewish population as a source of income altogether. The aforementioned privileges confirmed the old rights of the Jews in Austria, offering the Jewish population protection from violence and plunder and promising Jewish creditors the eschewal of ducal debt cancellations as well as the assistance of the Austrian Landmarschall in the collection of their receivables (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, pp. 191-2, no. 2147, pp. 233-5, no. 2220).

Ducal mandates tasking the Landmarschall with the support of Jewish creditors were indeed issued both in 1397 and in 1401 (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, p. 186, no. 2141, pp. 239-40, no. 2227). The Landmarschall had already been deployed on occasion as a ducal representative in Jewish tax issues in the last third of the 14th century. The collection of debts owed to Jews by the nobility may have been a particular responsibility in his remit; it would explain why Landmarschall Rudolph of Wallsee-Enns was already instructed to assist Jewish moneylenders in the early 1380s (Brugger & Wiedl 2015, p. 373, no. 1771). In a privilege issued in 1402, Dukes Wilhelm and Albrecht IV not only aimed to regulate the stagnating collection of the Jewish tax, but also tasked the Austrian Landmarschall above all other officials with the protection of the rights of the Jews - a task which remained his responsibility until the end of Jewish settlement in medieval Austria (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, pp. 256-7, no. 2255).

Matters of authority relating to Jews also became a factor in the conflicts concerning the guardianship of the underage Duke Albrecht V that arose between representatives of the other Habsburg lines after Duke Albrecht IV’s death in 1404 (Niederstiitter 1996, p. 239). Of particular interest in this context is a statement by the Austrian territorial estates dated September 1406 which prescribed that the guardian should uphold the old rights of the Jews in Austria, including assisting them in the collection of debts (Lampel 1927, p. 163, no. 18295). At a time when a growing number of territorial rulers or municipal authorities throughout the Empire decided to expel their Jewish population altogether (Wenninger 1981), there was still (some) interest in preserving the economic capability of the Austrian Jewry in general, and of Jewish moneylenders in particular, during the early years of the 15th century.

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