How the Church Turned Jews into Moneylenders


Ever wonder how Jews became synonymous with usury? Is it just because they were always “good with money?” Or was it, as Roman Catholic doctrine held, the devil that made them do it?

Actually, it was the Church itself.

By the time Shakespeare introduced Shylock to the theatergoing world in The Merchant of Venice (1598), medieval Europe had already built up over four centuries of fear, loathing, and scorn for the ubiquitous Jewish moneylender. That so many Jews had careers in moneylending was seen as yet more evidence of Jews’ craven nature, and another justification for humiliation, persecution, and in some cases, expulsion.

Lost in the fog of anti-Semitic fervor was the fact that Jews had become Europe’s moneylenders because the Church, in the 12th and 13th centuries, launched an intense and protracted effort to stop Christians from collecting interest from other Christians. The Church’s reading of the anti-usury passages of the bible, however (Deuteronomy 23:20-12), permitted Jews to lend to Christians at interest. Jews, who in Central and Eastern Europe were prohibited from landholding and handicrafts guilds, had an opportunity to make a living. And with the rapid economic expansion taking place throughout northern Europe, especially in France, the robust flow of capital became a necessity, and an opportunity.

The rest, unfortunately, is history.

Recommended from JTA