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Credit practice by Christians and Jews in Prague

The general shortage of cash in the early modern society meant that loans were also an important pillar of the economy in Bohemia during the Rudolphine period. They were essential for wholesalers, who needed capital (cash) to purchase goods abroad, and also for medium-sized and small merchants who conducted business on the local market. The nobles were the ones most often interested in a loan in Prague (Bohemia) because their demanding lifestyle, court appearances, and construction of Renaissance residences as well as the every-day running of their households resulted in their constant need for money which they were often unable to fulfil using just the income from their estates. The monarch and his government apparatus were permanent clients requiring loans, the needs that increased after new military conflicts with the Turks flared up.

There were a number of moneylenders among the Christians and Jews in Prague whose services differed depending on their social standing and wealth. Some Prague burghers (both men and women) also lent money and mostly provided smaller loans to their neighbours - craftsmen or merchants - for their trade. These loans, up to a maximum of several tens of threescore of Meissen groschen, were usually registered by means of simple debt certificates (cedule fezane) or were possibly registered in the relevant municipal ledgers. However, there were also more ambitious individuals among these burghers, capable of providing very large loans to interested parties in the value of hundreds of threescore of Meissen groschen. Such loans were provided in the Old Town by, for example, Mikulas Cernohorsky of Horomefice (f after 1588) or Magdalena Sipafova (f 1579), the wife of the jurist Pavel Kristian of Koldi'n (1530-1589).

Other people who were interested in increasing the value of their money were the holders of various court and land offices. These included the imperial councillor and regional council president of the Old Town Jan Vaclav Popel of Lobkowicz (1561-1608), imperial councillor Jan Vchynsky of Vchynice (J1590), and the Lord Chamberlain of the Bohemian Kingdom Bohuslav Felix Hasistejnsky of Lobkowicz (1517-1583). Another group that had money were the imperial courtiers and general members of the monarch’s court. Money lending provided them with the opportunity to increase their finances. This business was conducted by, for example, the court archivist and manager of the Rudolphine collections, Ottavio Strada Senior (1550-1606), his wife Barbora, and also by court architect Ulrico Aostalli de Sala (1525-1597), court gem cutter Ottavio Misseroni (1567-1624), and the most important artist of the Rudolphine court - Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611) (Bunatova 2011, pp. 164-6). Their clients were often also Prague Jewish merchants and financiers. Some of them certainly needed cash for trading on foreign markets. However, other cases indicate more speculative financial transactions in which these creditors from among court, land officials, and courtiers were involved together with the Jews.

From the end of the 15th century, the participation of Christians and Jews in financial transactions was the subject of legislative regulation that endeavoured to restrict them in their activities as effectively as possible by implementing prohibitions. In practice, this collaboration had various forms and degrees of participation by individual persons in the profits from money lending. This concerned various financial operations, the true content of which was often hidden in official (municipal) ledgers and masked by various fictional entries about debts or the purchase of goods. One model of a so-called prohibited collaboration was described in detail in the Diet resolution from 1601 (Bondy & Dworsky 1906b, pp. 749-50). This consisted of a Christian who had cash available and provided a Jew with funds at a 6% interest rate which the Jewish financier then lent to someone else at an interest rate of 24.76%. If we calculate in this model example that the Jew was able to legally apply an interest rate of up to 24.76% and equally divided the profits with his Christian associate, then the Christian’s profits would be higher than if he had lent the money directly at the legal 6% interest rate.

This method, during which the Jewish financier conducted business using not only his own capital, but also the money he borrowed from nobles or wealthy burghers, was also practiced by Jews in Krakow in the 16th and 17th centuries (Balaban 1912, pp. 168-70). This was an advantageous partnership for both parties. On the one hand, there was a group of Christians who had cash but sometimes lacked the necessary business experience or familiarity with the environment to appreciate their money suitably and safely. On the other hand, there were enterprising Jews on the Bohemian financial market with contacts; they were capable of quickly finding suitable parties interested in a loan but lacked the necessary cash to provide it. In these cases, both groups collaborated and participated in the profits from the loan (Bunatova 2011, pp. 167-8).

Money lending was also an important element in the business portfolio of Prague wholesalers who increased their income from the wholesale of foreign goods in this manner. This particularly concerned the wealthiest Prague merchants who were often first- or second-generation immigrants from Lutheran, German-language regions. For instance, Jan Nerhof senior of Holterperk (J 1607), Valentin Kirchmajer of Reichvice (f 1595), Tomas Hebenstreit of Streitenfels (f 1604), and his daughter Estera Teuflova (J 1624) with her husband Jan Teufl of Zeilberk (f 1607). They provided large loans to members of leading Bohemian noble families, to whom they also supplied foreign goods, but we can also find them among the creditors of Bohemian rulers. For example, in 1587 Emperor Rudolph II owed the merchant Tomas Hebenstreit 9,142 threescore of Meissen groschen and owed Valetin Kirchmajer 2,000 threescore of Meissen groschen (Snemy ceske VII, 1891, p. 149ff).

The financiers whose loans also helped cover the growing state expenditure of the Habsburg monarchy included a Prague wholesaler of small goods Lorenc Stark of Starkenfels (f 1617) who managed his company for unbelievable 43 years. By 1617, he had lent the court treasury (Hofzahlamf) an amount of around 44,580 threescore of Meissen groschen which was secured by the Bohemian land tax and was also gradually paid off using the collected taxes. After his death, he left receivables owed by 140 debtors with a total value of over 123,219 threescore of Meissen groschen as well as other assets. Some of these debts were owed for supplied goods, some for loans provided mostly to noble clientele (Bunatova 2019, pp. 182-3).

The situation among Jews developed along similar lines. However, their legal options for providing loans were significantly constrained throughout the 16th century. They chiefly loaned money to the monarch who took advantage of the situation as Jews were considered servants of the royal chamber (servi cameras) from a legal aspect and were forced to pay the monarch for their protection. These enormous loans, which were free of interest in the best case and were of the nature of non-repayable loans in the worst case, were provided to monarchs by the Prague Jewish community as a whole.

Emperor Rudolph II also found a reliable loan provider in the banker Marek Mordechai Meisel (1528-1601). He provided financial services to members of the monarch’s family as early as the 1580s. However, Meisel’s loans to the emperor increased massively in 1597-1598 when he lent the court treasury (Hofzahlamt) a total of 126,000 Rhenish guilders, always at an interest rate of 24.76%. This money was intended for covering war expenses during conflicts with the Turks.

Banker Meisel was rewarded for his services with a number of privileges which His Imperial Majesty summarised in 1598 (Bondy & Dworsky 1906b, pp. 714-17). These rights concerned finance and the goods trade, the court jurisdiction applying to Meisel and his wife Frumet, and the privilege to execute a free will. The freedoms granted to Meisel were very close to those that the so-called court Jews (Hof/uden) enjoyed. To name a few of the privileges granted: when providing a loan, Meisel was permitted to execute a debt certificate with the debtor (schuldbrief), to which the debtor was required to affix his seal (if he had one) and his personal signature. In other specific cases the debtor also had to have a guarantor. Meisel was also able to have his receivables registered in the ledgers of the Prague Burgravate and also potentially recover them before its court. However, the fickleness of the emperor’s favour and of the privileges he granted is demonstrated by the fact that immediately after Meisel’s death in 1601, all the privileges he had been granted were withdrawn and his property was mostly confiscated at the emperor’s orders (Bunatova 2011, pp. 148-58).

While Meisel was chiefly involved in financial activities, there were a number of other Jews who combined money lending with trade. This was also the case of his father-in-law Isaac Rofe or, for instance, the branching Impresor, Altschul or Weisel families. They imported goods from abroad but were also active as buyers of agricultural crops from noble estates. They also lent money to the owners of these estates and provided them with other services. They sought out other customers interested in products from the estates (e.g. wool, grain, butter) with whom they negotiated the entire transaction and also arranged the relevant legal matters. The sale of these products was usually arranged under a business loan, which was interest-free for the first six months. Jewish brokers also prepared the text of debt certificates, negotiated the business terms with both parties, arranged the signatures of both parties, collected potential deposits, and subsequently also transported the crops to the customer at the arranged destination (Bunatova 2016b, pp. 44-8).

Jewish immigrants who moved to Prague at the end of the 16th century from Italy were also very enterprising. This was the case of Abraham Sacerdoti who conducted extensive transactions between Italy and Central

Europe and utilised his contacts at the courts in Innsbruck, Mantova, and his familiarity with the commercial environment in Verona, Bolzano, and Prague during his activities. The wholesalers rabbi Ventura de Bacchi and Israel Porta, who had settled in Prague, also had extensive business contacts with the Gonzago family in Mantova and at the Rudolphine court.

The notional successor to Mordechai Meisel in the role of banker to the Habsburg rulers was Verona native Jacob Bassevi (1570-1634) who was two generations younger and was the first Jew in the Habsburg monarchy to be granted noble status with the predicate von Treuenburg. He settled in Prague in 1611 but he had already been granted the position of court Jew (Hofjude), along with his brother Samuel, in 1590 by Rudolph II. He then provided financial services to Rudolph’s successors, Matthias of Austria (1611-1617) and Ferdinand II (1617-1619, 1620-1637).

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