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Jewish moneylenders and their clientele

The earliest (traceable) business connection of citizens of an Austrian town with a Jewish creditor dates back to the year 1264 when two citizens of Krems that housed the second-largest Jewish community (after Vienna) took out a loan with the Jew Ismael of the same city (Brugger & Wiedl 2005, pp. 56-7, no. 42); the transaction also marks the first actual appearance of a Judenrichter in Austria who corroborated the business deal. Up until the mid-14th century, only the urban upper classes appear in the business documents due to a general lack of written source material for the lower strata of the social scale. Usually, the urban debtors take out the credit together with their wives, while widows are commonly accompanied by other relatives but do appear on their own as well (e.g., Geyer & Sailer 1931, pp. 434-5, no. 1449). Jewish women played an important role as moneylenders particularly in the smaller-scale pawnbroking business, as the high number of entries concerning female moneylenders into the Judenbuch of the Scheffstrasse indicates, whereas Jewesses from prestigious families counted high-ranking citizens and nobility among their clientele and could grant high credit sums (Keil 1999). The amounts taken out in loan varied greatly and could be as small as a few pound pennies (mostly Viennese pennies, although also Hungarian and Bohemian florins and the Aquileian mark appear), depended not only on the debtor’s needs, but also their credit-worthiness which could result in more, or more valuable pledges, and the Jewish moneylender’s financial capacities. Sums exceeding 100 pounds were rare among the urban clientele.

The majority of the records do not inform us about the debtor’s reason to take out the loan. Credit periods were usually sought to be kept short and varied between a few days and several months; if a loan was intended to run over a longer time period, the business partners normally agreed upon partial repayments. Otherwise, on the due date that was fixed in the obligation (and usually also noted down in the cadastre and mortgage registers), a pre-agreed-upon amount of money had to be paid back that included not only the capital but also the interest accrued over the initial credit period, meaning that with a few exceptions, the actual interest rate for the original capital cannot be deduced. Only in the event of default, the interest rate mentioned in the document would become effective as of the due date; in addition to this default interest, compound interest could apply in a long-standing loan. To evade these higher interest rates, many debtors sought new agreements shortly before the due date, usually by either a partial payment or, even more commonly, by pawning additional collaterals. In the late 14th century, interest rates seem to have been rather fixed at three, sometimes only two pennies per pound, meaning that the interest rate of eight pennies allowed to Austrian Jews in the 1244 privilege had long vanished from everyday business reality. The interest rates of what is referred to as ‘daily interest’, a (mostly) short-term loan where the debtor was subjected to interest with immediate effect, could go up to five pennies per week; this type of loan was the most unfavourable for the debtor and usually only taken out in dire need.

Municipalities themselves as debtors appear sparingly in the Austrian source material. A few small-scale loans from Sopron (Brugger & Wiedl 2015, pp. 204-5, no. 1477 and p. 220, no. 1506) with Jews from the neighbouring Wiener Neustadt can be traced, the only city that appears (rather) frequently as a debtor to Austrian Jews is Bratislava who had business contacts with Jews from the small Lower Austrian towns of Marchegg, Hainburg, and Weiden that were close by, or with Jews from Vienna who had migrated there from Bratislava (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, index lemma Pressburg). When in need of a higher loan however (of over 400 Hungarian florins), the city approached Jews from Vienna (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, pp. 228-9, no. 2215), as did the city of Brno, who, when taking out the considerable loan of 1000 pound pennies, turn to the Steuss family in Vienna, the wealthiest Jewish moneylenders of the duchy (Brugger & Wiedl 2018, p. 82, no. 1973). Brno also appears in a long list of debtors that includes the Moravian Margrave Jobst and the Bohemian marshal who had taken out a loan of over 2000 pounds from an equally long list of Jewish creditors from Vienna, Salzburg, Krems, Wiener Neustadt, and Herzogenburg (Brugger & Wiedl 2015, pp. 410-11, no. 1840).

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