Who exactly were Court Jews, anyway?

 


(Jewniverse via JTA)—If you were a member of the European royalty or nobility in the early modern period, and you were strapped for cash, chances are you’d ask your Court Jew for a loan.

The Court Jew—a position of strange esteem dating as far back as the 12th century and spanning nearly all of the Middle Ages—was a banker who reliably lent money to European higher-ups. Typically they were Jews of means who had made their money peddling, or organizing other peddlers, and as Jews were exempt from the Christian sin of usury. It was this exemption that gave these Jews entrée into the world of privilege—though it is not, contrary to popular belief, how Jews got their start in the world of money lending.

And what a world of privilege it was. Court Jews could live anywhere within the Holy Roman Empire, could buy houses, slaughter meat ritualistically, maintain a rabbi, sell goods wholesale and weren’t taxed higher than the Christians. In fact, because of their freedom to settle where they pleased, several large cities were opened to Jewish populations: Brunswick, Breslau and Dresden saw their first Jews thanks to the Court Jews. But perhaps best of all, they didn’t even have to wear the Jewish badge.


Zachary Solomon is a Brooklyn-based writer and current Fiction MFA candidate at Brooklyn College. You can find him at zacharycsolomon.wordpress.com and on Twitter at @z_solomon.

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