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Jewish money-lenders in medieval France

Jewish money-lenders in medieval France – Jews in medieval Europe

A hard time for the Jews

The Middle Ages in Europe were a difficult time for the Jews. Many Jews lived in Western Europe between about 1000 and 1500 AD, but all the rulers were Christians, and almost all the people who had any power were Christians.

The Jews in the Levant
History of the Jews
Jews in the Islamic Empire
Medieval religions in Europe
All our medieval Europe articles

These Christians thought Jews were different and strange. They suspected Jews of sympathizing with the Islamic arch-enemies of the Christians, so possibly traitors too. In many places, laws blocked Jews from owning land, and so they could not be farmers (or not very successful farmers). Jews also often had to live in special Jewish sections of towns, called ghettos (GET-toes).

Knights killing Jews at the time of the First Crusade (1000s AD)

Knights killing Jews at the time of the First Crusade (1000s AD) – Jews in medieval Europe

Jews as bankers

Because Christian laws said that Christian people could not lend money out at interest, and yet most kings and queens need to borrow money, the Jews played a big role in the medieval economy as moneylenders. But lending money to kings is risky. Sometimes the king paid the money back, and the Jews made some money.

Usury: lending money at interest
Paper money and letters of credit
History of money

Jewish culture in the Middle Ages

Even though life was always risky, Jews built successful lives in medieval Europe. They opened schools, like the one that the scholar Rashi organized in the 1000s in northern France. Children learned to read Hebrew as well as local languages. The Jews celebrated Hanukkah and Purim and Passover. They went to synagogues.

Who was Rashi?
What is a synagogue?
Medieval Hanukkah

In southern Europe – Spain, Italy, Greece, and especially Sicily – many Jews made their living not as bankers but as traders. Often Jewish families established brothers or sisters or cousins in different Mediterranean ports. That way they could have representatives they trusted. They sold European wool cloth, coral, and wine to the Islamic Empire and to the Crusaders in the Levant. In return, they brought back steel, silk, sugar, glass, medicines, and paper.

The medieval European economy
The Silk Road in the Middle Ages

Why did England and France throw out the Jews?

Other times the king found it easier to just throw the Jews out of his kingdom, or to make a new law saying that Christians didn’t have to pay Jews back the money they had borrowed. King Edward I of England, for instance, solved some of his money problems by throwing all the Jews out of England in 1290 – and they were not allowed back for more than 300 years.

Edward I of England
Blanche of Castile

Some of these British Jews moved to the Netherlands. Other British Jews tried to move to France, where Blanche of Castile‘s old policy still protected them. But King Philip IV threw them out of France in 1291.

Why did Poland welcome the Jews?

In other parts of Europe, though, some kings welcomed the Jews. Many Jews moved to Poland from England, France, and Germany after the First Crusade, when many Crusaders killed Jews at home as well as Muslims in Jerusalem.

Medieval Poland
The First Crusade
Who were the Mongols?
The Black Death

After the Mongol invasions in the 1200s, the Polish kings encouraged thousands of German Jews to move to Poland, bringing money and education to rebuild their ruined country. The Polish kings gave these Jews special privileges to encourage them to move to Poland. Then when the Black Death came to Europe in the 1300s, many Christians in Germany blamed the disease on the Jews, and again they were killing Jews, so many more Jews chose to move to Poland for safety.

Why did Spain throw out the Jews?

In 1492, when the Christian king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella finally finished reconquering Spain from its Muslim rulers, one of the first things they did was to force all of the Jews in Spain to leave. Some of these Jews moved to the Netherlands, but most of them sailed to North Africa, to the Hafsids there, or across the Mediterranean to the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed the Jews enthusiastically.

Ferdinand and Isabella
The Hafsids in North Africa
The Ottoman Empire
Jews in the Islamic Empire

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Learn by doing: play the dreidel game
Jews in the Islamic Empire

Bibliography and further reading about Jews in the Middle Ages:


Jews in the Islamic Empire
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