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Jewish credit business in the urban context of late medieval Austria


Medieval Jewish settlement in today’s Austria1 took place rather late compared to other parts of the German-speaking area. In the south, the first Jewish settlement can be traced in Friesach, an enclave of the archbishop of Salzburg in the Duchy of Carinthia, in the 12th century (Wenninger 2015, pp. 341-3); in Austrian and Styrian cities, full-fledged Jewish communities developed from the early 13th century onwards, particularly in Vienna, Krems, Wiener Neustadt, and Maribor (today’s Slovenia). Although it was the urban centres that attracted the majority of Jewish settlers, the number of Jews dwelling in the countryside should not be underestimated.

The legal position of the Austrian Jews living was for the most part defined and assigned by the ruler. Therefore, legal provisions dealing with Jews and the (urban) Jewish credit market can mainly be found in documents issued by territorial princes: general privileges for the Jews were issued by the ruler and applied to all Jews living under their governance, and also town charters were for the most part issued not by the municipality, but by the lord of the town. A single exception for Austria is Emperor Frederick H’s privilege for the Jews of Vienna, that repeats his imperial privilege from 1236 and emphasises his claim to the Judenregal during his power struggle with the Austrian duke (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 31-2, no. 20). Yet apart from remaining immediate subjects to the ruler throughout the Middle Ages, Jews in Austrian towns were subjected to a variety of legal systems - the town laws and legal systems of manorial lords (and ladies) as well as the common law, be it codified or oral.

The legal basis for Jewish life was the ducal privilege of 1244 that put the Jews of Austria under the sovereign rule of the duke (see the contribution of Eveline Brugger) and was extended to their other territories by the Habsburg dukes, and also adapted in most of the neighbouring countries (Magin 1999, pp. 354-60). The privilege emphasised the duke’s interest in Jewish monetary business and laid claim to his judiciary prerogative, which was stressed by an explicit exclusion of the municipal court (Brugger &

Wiedl 2005, pp. 35-7, no. 25). Economic control was in part given to the office of the Judenrichter (index iudeorum, Justice for the Jews), usually a member of the respective town’s upper-class citizenry, who had limited rights of supervision over the selling of unredeemed pledges. Despite the strong ties to the ruler many of the judenrichter enjoyed, the towns were generally interested in expanding the office’s competences, gradually transforming the office into an at least partly municipal one.

Due to the duke’s financial interest, the regulations of the privilege focussed mainly on moneylending and pawnbroking and thus laid the basis for both the Jewish credit business and the cities’ continuing attempts to modify them to their benefit. While many of these articles were a genuine creation of the ducal chancellery, the central part, the right of the Jews to clear themselves of the suspicion of having accepted stolen goods as pledges by taking an oath (= Statute of the Market, Toch 2013a, p. 211), stood in the tradition of the imperial regulations from the late 11th century (Toch 2013b, pp. 46-7). Most territorial rulers within the Holy Roman Empire had granted this right to their Jewish inhabitants; over time, it became a major point of contention between the territorial princes and their cities, with the latter seeking to abolish or at least curtail the Statute (Magin 1999, pp. 352-400).

Urban policy regarding Jewish moneylending

The policies of the Austrian cities were aimed at mitigating the regulations of the 1244 privilege or, at least, at benefiting in some ways from the Jewish community. Already late-13th-century town charters therefore addressed two concerns that became the main conflict issues between ruler and towns: the questions of jurisdiction and of control over the Jews’ economic activities. Due to the cities’ limited power base, their 13th-century attempts at modifying the regulations to their benefit remained restricted to altering single articles. Towns strove to weaken the Jews’ legal position by changing the place of jurisdiction (the synagogue), by at least partially involving the municipal judge, and by replacing the required Jewish witness with one or more Christians, a development that was by no means unique to Austrian towns (Gilomen 2009, pp. 24-6). Other issues raised in the 1244 privilege such as penalties for hurting and killing Jews, for devastating cemeteries and synagogues, and for rape, were hardly ever touched upon by municipal legislation (Wiedl 2013, pp. 209-11). In economic regards, the main issues that remained predominant throughout the town charters of first half of the 14th century were, apart from excluding Jews from specific professions, directly connected with money-lending: the limitation of interest rates, and the regulation of pawnbroking.

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