Shylock Without Usury

Shylock Reconsidered: Jews, Moneylending, and Medieval Society

by Joseph Shatzmiller
University of California Press, 255 pp., $35.00

God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England

by Norman Jones
Basil Blackwell, 217 pp., $49.95

The Merchant of Venice

a play by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Hall

Early in 1317, a Marseilles court heard the case of a Jewish moneylender named Bondavid of Draguignan. His accuser, Laurentius Girardi, claimed to have paid back sixty shillings borrowed of the Jew, though Bondavid still had the bond in his possession and was still trying to collect on it. “A Shylock,” we have assumed on good evidence, could expect little mercy in a Christian court. Yet Joseph Shatzmiller accomplishes here what Carlo Ginzburg has done with particular trials for heresy and witchcraft—he uses a single legal process to pry open a partly hidden world.

The moneylender Bondavid, precisely because the charges against him were so serious, counterattacked on two fronts. He brought depositions against the immorality of his accuser, who was alleged to have broken Christian laws against the preservation of his oath; and Bondavid produced twenty-four prominent Christian witnesses who swore to the social benefits of his own banking practices. (Four of Bondavid’s respectable witnesses had, with a fifth man, made up the panel that served the Council of Marseilles in promoting the canonization of Saint Louis of Anjou.)

Shatzmiller asks why Bondavid was considered so valuable a member of the Marseilles community. The answers take him into the whole world of pretense, evasions, and bad conscience that surrounded the medieval ban on usury. In certain places and times, Jews were supposed to be the only authorized takers of interest, since their law forbade usury only between fellow Jews. Because Jews were not allowed certain other forms of activity, open only to citizens of Christian states (through membership in professional and artisan guilds or inheritance of lands in the parish system), moneylending was one of the few economic activities left for Jews to live by.

As creditors in a feudal world where so much property was frozen, Jewish moneylenders were a convenience. But theirs was an exemption that carried with it few other legal privileges; and when debts became burdensome to a society, the Jewish holders of notes were easy targets for confiscation or worse. (Louis IX perfected the confiscation of Jewish property as a way of filling state coffers.) Often Jews could carry on their banking only by paying the authorities “kickbacks” or protection money.

That is the customary picture of Jewish moneylenders in the Middle Ages, and one that is true as far as it goes. But where does that leave Bondavid in Marseilles? The truth, carefully hidden in various ways, was that Christians were the major usurers of the Middle Ages. Even where Jewish moneylenders were allowed entry and activity, they tended to serve lower, poorer borrowers (as opposed, say, to the great Italian bankers who financed Europe’s monarchs and nobility). Thus they incurred popular hostility, as the creditors with whom some ordinary people had most direct report (if not experience).

Yet when Jewish moneylenders were, as often, driven out of a Christian realm, the exactions of Christian usurers made many people regret their departure. In 1306, for instance, the Jews …

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