HomeFeatureMoney and the pursuit of wealth: Part 13... were medieval Jews money...

Money and the pursuit of wealth: Part 13… were medieval Jews money lenders?

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MERCHANTS from ancient times, to the present, have carried products from places where they are plentiful and inexpensive to sell in areas where they are scarce and expensive.  

Chinese maps of the State of Qin, dating to the 4th Century BC, show some of the first traces of the study of spatial aspects of economic activities.  

Maps created by different European powers described the resources likely to be found in American, African and Asian territories.  

The earliest travel journals included descriptions of the native peoples, the climate, the landscape and the productivity of various locations.  

These early accounts encouraged the development of trans-continental trade patterns and ushered in the era of mercantilism. 

A map showing ancient merchant routes.

In the middle of the 9th Century, a Persian geographer wrote of the routes used by the Franks to engage in trade with China.  

Their ships would hug the shores, hoping to avoid the Moslems and pirates, until arriving in the Levant and, by combination of land and water travel, they would reach the Indian Ocean, from where they crossed over to the trading cities.  

However, such ventures were generally not common in this time of distress.

Commercial activities, however, were largely the sphere of non-Europeans.  

Commerce with the East was almost completely controlled by Jewish, Greek and Syrian traders.  

The Syrians concentrated on trade between their lands and the Orient.  

While some Byzantine colonies remained in Italy, there was little trade between them and the East, while the Greek merchants dealt with the East through intermediaries. 

By then, Jewish merchants had become more visible.  

In the interior regions of Europe, they virtually had all of the trade.  

Not so in the developed coastal areas where they had to compete with Italian Christians and Moslems.  

Thus, the Jewish merchants dominated trade between Europe and the eastern Mediterranean as well as points to the East. 

While Europeans learned of the inner life from the Church, they discovered the world beyond Europe from the Jewish merchants.  

The medieval Jews were often portrayed as money lenders, but they were predominantly merchants.  

These merchants spoke Arabic, Persian, Roman, Frankish (French), Spanish and Slavonic.  

They travelled from the East to the West and from the West to the East by land as well as by sea.  

From the West, they brought eunuchs, slave girls, boys, brocade, beaver skins, marten furs, as well as other varieties of fur, and swords. 

They embarked in the land of the 

Franks on the Western Sea (the Mediterranean) and sailed toward al-Farama (Egypt). 

There, they loaded their merchandise on the backs of camels and proceed by land to al-Qulzum.  

They embarked on the Eastern (Red) Sea and proceeded from al-Qulzum to al-Jar and to Jiddah (Arabia); then they went to Sind (between Persia and India), Hind (India) and China.  

On their return from China, they loaded musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon and other products of the eastern countries and returned to al-Qulzum, then to al-Farama and, from there, they embarked again on the Western Sea.  

Some of them sailed for Constantinople in order to sell their merchandise to the Romans. Others proceeded to the residence of the king of the Franks where they disposed of their merchandise.

This role of the Jews as traders was due to several factors; they were barred from military employment and while Jews were not prohibited from owning or dealing in land and engaging in agriculture in some parts of Europe, in many others, they were forbidden to do so. 

There was anti-Semitism in Europe during the early Middle Ages, and the sentiment intensified during the Crusades — nor were Jews at ease in Moslem countries.

Around the year 1000, an economic recovery began in Europe that was due, in part, to an increase in agricultural production which, in turn, resulted from the introduction of redesigned tools, such as heavier plows, the more widespread use of three-field rotation techniques and the more efficient use of draft animals.  

The windmill also came into extensive use at this time. 

These devices, which had existed in Hellenistic times, were redesigned and now appeared in great numbers while the lords obliged their peasants to use them to make them more productive. 

These changes and improvements made it possible to feed Europe with fewer peasants, freeing some for commerce and manufacturing while also providing the merchants with additional goods to trade.  Europe was poised once again for expansion, driven in part by the pursuit of wealth.

In the 11th Century, Europe started to meet the political and economic challenges posed by Islam and Byzantium.  

In 1036, the Normans, from north central France, struck out against Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy and, by 1053, one of their leaders, Robert Guiscard, had established a kingdom there while other Normans took Sicily, and Christian nobles were on the march in Spain.  

Italian city-States, barred from commerce by the Moslems, were eager to retake the eastern Mediterranean. 

Finally, there was the matter of wealth, which the Moslems had and the Christians lacked. These could only be obtained through trade and conquest. 

 Amalfi, on the eastern coast of Italy, possessing a good port in an area poorly suited for agriculture, turned to the seas.  Its fishing fleet was sent out to catch and then salt fish, which became an important trade item.  

As one of Italy’s most southerly ports, Amalfi was well-positioned to trade with the Byzantines and Moslems. It exchanged salted fish, wine, olive oil, fruit, grain, timber and linen with Egypt and other lands to the south for wax, gold and ivory.  

The city flourished.  In 972, a Baghdad merchant wrote that Amalfi was “…. the most prosperous city of Lombardy, the noblest, the most illustrious for its conditions, the richest and the most opulent.”

 But the city was open to invasion and had strong competition from nearby Naples and Gaeta, as well as the more distant Salerno. In 1073, along with other Italian cities in the region, Amalfi fell to the Normans.  While Amalfi chose the sea as its highway, others were willing to chance land transport as ‘caravan merchants’.

A historian writing on the ‘caravan merchants’ said: “Flemings from Arras and Italians from Asisi, two towns that produced large quantities of cloth, a major trade item. They would sell their cloth and use the funds obtained to purchase pepper, alum and other products not available in their areas… (sic),” as they pursued the desire for money. 

Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.  For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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