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Early attempts

In 1308, the citizenry of the Carinthian town of St. Veit, seat of the ducal court, took advantage of the ongoing struggle between the Carinthian

Duke Henry VI and the Austrian Duke Frederick the Fair for the Bohemian crown. The latter, having managed to take hold of the Carinthian towns, was willing to acquiesce to the citizens’ demands. The articles introduced by the St. Veit citizenry therefore represent a prime example for a town’s wishes regarding the regulation of Jewish credit business: in a quasi-negation of the Statute of the Market, Jews were forbidden to accept any potentially stolen goods in pawn at all, and were furthermore forbidden to take anything in pawn from a person unknown to them, a regulation that must have proven extremely harmful to the everyday business of Jewish pawnbrokers who at least partially relied on walk-in customers. Most town charters of the 14th century did (or could) not go that far and thus strove at expanding the list of items the 1244 regulation forbade the Jews to accept in pawn: to the bloodstained or soaked (i.e. illegally appropriated) objects, towns added specific items that were mostly of ecclesiastical (chalices, tunicles) and economic or agricultural provenance (unprocessed yarn and cloth, unground corn; Wiedl 2013, pp. 211-12). Comparison with other cities shows that defining and limiting the range of pawnable objects was a core interest of towns throughout the Holy Roman Empire, and that the objects chosen were rather similar (Maimon 2003, p. 2184; Müller 2012).

Apart from pawnbroking, the reduction of the Jewish interest rate was the central bone of contention between the towns and their respective rulers. The maximum rate of eight pennies per pound per week that had been set by the 1244 privilege was already being undermined by late-13th-century efforts: the forged town charter of Wiener Neustadt from the late 1270s cut down the interest rate to three or four pennies and combined this with additional improvements for the debtor such as denying the creditor’s right to compound interest during the first month after default of payment. Other towns went along the same lines and tried to at least sneak in small benefits, such as the Carinthian town of Villach: while the privilege issued by the town lord, the bishop of Bamberg, followed the 1244 privilege to a large extent, the loss of compound interest in the first month was added, as was the addition of chalices and tunicles to the forbidden pawn objects (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 255-7, no. 302).

Municipal policies after 1338

Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the complete dependence on the ruler’s protection left the Jews in a precarious situation (Müller 2004, pp. 254-6). In Austria, this first came to pass in the wake of the persecutions that followed an accusation of host desecration in the Lower Austrian town of Pulkau in 1338. The persecutions went far beyond the local scope and affected many Jewish settlements in Austria, Moravia, Bohemia, and Carinthia, whereas the largest Jewish community in Vienna remained safe, albeit at a(n) (economic) price. Recognising danger the Jews were in, the Viennese citizenry seized the chance to make use of the persecution to their own advantage: in

June 1338, with the persecutions only just abating, the Jewish community had to agree to a severe reduction of the interest rate for loans given to Viennese citizens in return for protection. In their charter, the Jewish community of Vienna spoke of the ‘clemency’ the citizens were showing them in times of their distress, and to show their ‘gratitude’, they had promised to lend the pound only against a maximum interest of three pennies per week, a serious decrease from the 1244 interest rate of eight pennies. The Jewish community’s consent alone was however not considered sufficient - as sovereigns over all Austrian Jews, the dukes would consider the city’s action an interference into their rights as well as a threat to diminish the income of the ducal treasury due to its negative affect on the Jews’ fiscal power. Therefore, the city of Vienna sought ducal approval, which the Austrian Dukes Albrecht II and Otto had to grant due to the precarious situation of their Jews (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 336-8, nos 439 and 440). Business documents from the mid-14th century indicate that the interest rates had indeed decreased notably, yet this is true for transactions in both urban and rural areas, correlating with a general weakening of the ducal protection.

Vienna was not the only town that seized the opportunity to exploit the Jews’ precarious situation: in September 1338, the bishop of Passau granted a new municipal law to his Lower Austrian town of St. Pölten that included two articles aimed at limiting Jewish credit and pawnbroking business: no Jew was allowed to accept houses, tunicles, unground corn, and bloodied clothing as collateral from citizens or other episcopal subjects living within the city, unless they could produce a concession by the municipal judge. Furthermore, every Jewish moneylender had to present their debenture bonds and moveable pledges thrice annually to the municipal judge, who would in return confirm the submission in writing. Should a Christian debtor die within a year and the Jew not be able to present the judge’s corroboration, the debtor’s heirs were no longer liable to pay the debt (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 341-2, no. 444). These articles show for the first time in Austria a more encompassing municipal control exerted by the town judge; it is all the more interesting since no Jewish presence can be traced in St. Pölten after 1338 when the city’s Jewish population had most likely been murdered (Wiedl 2013, p. 217).

 
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