Introduction: The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

Nina Caputo on The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender

Julie Mell’s The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender sets out to trace the genealogy of one of the most commonly accepted “truths” about medieval European Jewry: that medieval Jews, barred from nearly all occupations in Christian society and not bound to comply with church ordinances, found themselves forced into the narrow but essential niche of lending money at interest to Christian borrowers. Christian anti-Judaism combined with resentment and hostility on the part of debtors made Jews vulnerable to scorn, antagonistic rhetoric, and at times violent outbursts. And as often happens when well-known truths are subjected to intense scrutiny, Mell’s findings raise questions about the foundations on which this narrative is built. Tracing the history of modern critical historical and sociological study of Jewish economic practices, Mell argues that the preoccupation with Jews as money lenders was very much a modern trope, the product of historical, socio-economic, and demographic shifts that took place during the late nineteenth century, including integration of Jews into European academic institutions and the historical role of Jews into German academic discourse.

Mell has written a challenging and daring book. Unlike most historical monographs today, this book navigates two very different – though intertwined – chronological and rhetorical contexts. It interrogates the history of ideas that laid the foundation for the narrative about medieval Jewish economic history accepted today and it reexamines some of the medieval documentary evidence used to demonstrate the dominant narrative. As such, Mell’s conclusions challenge scholars to undertake a thorough reconsideration of how they conceptualize medieval Jewish communities, their position in Christian society, especially regarding their economic role in western Christendom. The essays in the forum grapple with the implications of Mell’s call for a radical revision of the standard narrative of medieval Jewish economic history. Each author has undertaken to engage the book from a particular perspective. Pinchas Roth (Bar Ilan University) examines the contribution this book makes to the historiography on the Jews of England and the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. Sarah Ifft Decker (Indiana University)  considers the contribution of Mell’s work to historiography on the economic history of Jews in Europe. And, finally, Rowan Dorin (Stanford) explores its contribution to historical interpretations of medieval usury and economic history more generally.

Nina Caputo is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Florida. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Caputo is a scholar of medieval Jewish history and interfaith relations in medieval Europe. Her first book, Nahmanides in Medieval Catalonia: History, Community, Messianism, explores the history of encounters between Jewish and Christian interpretations of history and redemption.