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Jews before court

Disputes over loans and forfeited pledges make up a large part of trials before municipal and manorial courts, where Jews appear both as plaintiffs and as defendants and can be seen exhausting the same legal remedies that were accessible to their Christian counterparts (Wiedl 2016). Jews and Christians sued each other over all sorts of economic issues, from overdue outstanding debts and unredeemed pledges to disputes over duties and levies as well as every-day neighbourhood conflicts. These trials not only show the inclusion of Jews into the municipal system of duties and rents but give evidence of their knowledge of the various judicial systems they were subjected to. Apart from municipal and manorial courts, Jews could appear before what is referred to as the Judengericht (‘court for the Jews’), a court established to adjudicate in conflicts between Jews and Christians that consisted of an equal number of Jewish and Christian assessors and was headed by the Judenrichter (not to be confused with the Bet Din, the internal rabbinical court). Traces of this court are almost non-existent before 1400 and scarce still in the 15th century, which indicates that the Judengericht might not necessarily have been a comprehensive entity. In the few existing documents, all from the duchy of Styria and concerning the Judengericht of the towns of Graz (1404) and Judenburg (1451, 1465, and 1474), the respective Judenrichter settled economic disputes over outstanding debts (Rosenberg 1914, pp. 167-8, no. 20, pp. 170-2, nos 24 and 25), assigning the respective Jews their right to the thus forfeited pledges.

Economy in polemics

The Jewish usurer is a central figure in anti-Jewish polemics. Apart from general fantasies about the rapacious Jewish nature, many polemics also centred on the Statute of the Market. Stigmatised as the ‘very old but truly diabolic law’ that allowed Jews to ‘be fattened and revel in luxury’ by Peter the Venerable, it does not surprise that municipal anti-Jewish expressions, that were often economy-focussed, targeted the Statute. ‘Since the accursed Jews have much better rights towards the Christians than the Christians towards the Jews’, a paragraph in a privately commissioned compendium of legal regulations of Vienna from before 1360, scathingly sums up the right of the Viennese Jews to clear themselves from the suspicion of fencing by oath, and further identifies the Christian pawnbroker as ‘the poor man [who would] lose his pennies he had borrowed on the pledge’ if said pledge turned out stolen beforehand. In contrast, pledges ‘caught up in the Jew’s power’ remained in the Jew’s possession regardless of (as the compendium suggests) the questionable legitimacy of their acquisition. Half a century later, the chronicle of the monastery of Klosterneuburg draws upon a similar image in its comment on the fire that had ravaged the Jewish quarter of Vienna in 1406: it had impoverished more Christians than Jews, since the Christians had lost their pledges that had been kept in the burnt-down houses of the Jews, while, implicitly, the Jews still could, or would, demand their loans back and benefit from Christian misery (Wiedl 2018, pp. 67-8).


Jewish life in the Duchy of Austria came to a violent end during the Viennese Gesera of 1420/21 instigated by Duke Albrecht V. The citizenries profited from the murder and expulsion of the Austrian Jews by an at least partial annulment of their debts and by donations of the former Jewish houses the duke had confiscated. In the late 15th century, it was the Estates of the Duchies of Styria and Carinthia as well as the Archbishopric of Salzburg who were the driving forces behind the expulsion of the Jews from these territories in 1496 and 1498, respectively; the city of Graz requested that the Jewish houses were given to their citizens of Graz even before the expulsion decree had been issued (Brugger et al. 2013, p. 203, pp. 221-7). Similar developments had taken place all over the Holy Roman Empire where territorial princes and municipal authorities had expelled their Jews, with economic reasons being but one of the arguments.

The Austrian cities had never played that much of a defining role in Jewish medieval life. Their citizens, however, had not only been the Jews’ business partners, debtors, and occasionally also creditors, but also their next-door neighbours with whom the Jews had lived for centuries. With the rise of the citizenry in the financial sector, Jewish moneylenders were not needed any more (Wenninger 1981) and it was their neighbours who, without hesitation, exploited their loss of ducal protection that had, at that time, been reduced to a mere financial exploitation.


Research for this chapter was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): P32396 and preceding projects P28610, P24405, P21237, P18453, P15638.


1 The geographical realm of this chapter focusses mainly on the cities within the medieval duchies of Austria, Styria, and Carinthia as well as the archbishopric of Salzburg.


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