Published by EH.Net (October 2023).
Rowan Dorin. No Return: Jews, Christian Usurers, and the Spread of Mass Expulsion in Medieval Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. 374 pp. $49.95 (hardback), ISBN: 978-0691249823.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.
In No Return, historian Rowan Dorin wants to relook at the subject of usury expulsion in medieval Europe, particularly England and France, because of several faults in scholarship and gaps in analysis. “The reoccurring expulsions of Lombards and other foreign money lenders have attracted scant scholarly attention, and what little has been written about them is frequently wrong,” he writes in the introduction (p. 4). In other words, Jewish usurer expulsions can only be understood within the larger category of usurer expulsion—which would seem to be an obvious observation but apparently isn’t.
The fact is, Dorin explains, “From the beginning of the thirteenth century to the middle of the fourteenth, every major European polity that ordered the expulsion of its Jewish community also ordered the expulsion of foreign Christian usurers” (p. 4). Why was this? How did it happen? What qualified and how did these expulsions shape society? These are some of the questions the book explores. It is divided into three sections: Part I (early expulsion in the 1100s), Part II (the “canonizing” and “codifying” of expulsion in documents and decrees), and Part III (changes and evolution in expulsion in the 1200s-1300s).
Christian usurers are often forgotten “in part to the stubborn (and often pernicious) narrative according to which medieval Jews held a near-monopoly over medieval moneylending” (p. 10). This error of historians affects economic history in various ways.
“…the limited awareness of these professional Christian moneylenders also stems from both the highly localized nature of most relevant studies, and their absence from canonical studies of medieval economic history. Throughout much of the twentieth century, vigorous debates over the rise of modern capitalism and the development of modern commercial techniques led scholars to focus on the great banking firms of Siena and Florence, rather than on the ‘pawnbrokers’ whom they saw as disconnected from the animating force of international finance.” (p. 10).
Professional moneylenders or bankers (Jewish and Christian) were typically “vital nodes within the social and economic systems” where they existed. “A trio of interlocking trends underpinned their rising presence in high medieval Europe: the surging growth of trade and commerce; the increasing ease of mobility and migration; and the expanding fiscal needs of princes and prelates” (p. 8). Some laws limited interest rates, “commonly [to] 43.3% per annum” (p. 8). “Preachers regularly reminded Christian lenders of the threat of eternal damnation should they fail to make amends for their sinful practices” (p. 9). Expulsion—similar to exile, where people or groups are removed to the outside of a political boundary—was frequent in medieval Europe for “heretics, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, and many others” (p. 228), though it is remarkable in some ways because the Roman Empire and other political entities usually put people in prison or limited their abilities within the imperial domain, not simply kicked them out of it (p. 5).
Dorin makes it clear that expulsion for usury was highly political and continually changing. A “given transaction might be usurious to one observer but not to another, and what one authority might blithely allow might be vociferously condemned by another” (p. 11). One could also be a usurer by association—profiting by bankers, which was an “expansive conception that underpinned thirteenth-century arguments that all Jews were usurers” (p. 14). “Usurer” was a relational accusation more than an official role, and bans were grounded in both protectionist economic concerns and theological/ethical concerns, as well as antisemitism.
The central part of the thirteenth century saw “ecclesiastical practices, royal precedents, and baronial demands collectively reinforcing the presumption that foreigners engaging in usury should be expelled from the realm” (p. 79). Then came the Second Council of Lyon (1274) and in various monarchical decrees, which were not isolated forbiddances of financial practice:
“In seeking to slow the spread of Christian moneylending, the drafters of the Lyonese decrees had created a battery of novel secular punishments to bolster the existing cluster of spiritual sanctions. In particular, following the recent example of King Louis IX of France, the drafters had embraced expulsion as punishment for usurers. Deliberations during the council, however, led to the narrowing of the new sanction’s reach: in order to target more precisely the Lombards and Cohorsins who were provoking ecclesiastical angst, the final promulgated version specified that it was “foreign” usurers who were to be expelled.” (p. 120).
The Council formed the basis of a new wave of expulsions. It was cited in local legislation and in language for penalties; around 1300, new confessional treatises and documents were distributed throughout society, “Then, a century later, Observant Franciscan preachers began to draw on the decree in their sermons” (p. 141).
But despite this codification, it wasn’t entirely clear who should be expelled. In contrast to earlier practice, “English royal rhetoric would soon condemn all Jews as usurers, while French measures against foreign usurers would broaden to encompass all Italian merchants within the realm” (p. 146). Furthermore, as chapter 7 demonstrates, the laws weren’t really enforced; the sanctions “failed miserably in their duties” (p. 170). This again made expulsion political; “some bishops embraced expulsion only as a means of punishing lenders who fell on the wrong side of local political squabbles, while others who mandated expulsion in their diocesan statues failed to implement it within their domains” (p. 195). In some cases, “[o]nly if Jews rebelled against princely authority or otherwise abused their ‘privilege’ of alien status did they merit expulsion” (p. 201). In Castile, the law “forbade all Christians lending at interest by the mid-thirteenth century, and reoccurring parliamentary complaints led to the temporary extension of his prohibition to Jews and Muslims in 1348” (p. 222). By 1492, it was apparent that usury had little to do with anything, when “the king and queen ordered all Jews who would not convert to Christianity to depart from their realms”—creating a “mass exodus and flood of forced conversions” which “destroyed what had been the most vibrant and venerable Jewish community in Europe” (p. 224). There was little rhyme or reasons in the long haul; “those who had long thought themselves safe from expulsion’s reach might suddenly be driven from their homes, while others could live in fear for decades and ultimately escape unharmed” (p. 234).
No Return is original, scholarly, and highly specialized. Those interested in medieval European economy will find it a fascinating journey and correction to several problematic stereotypes about usury and Jewish banking at that time. The three-hundred-year story covered in the book reminds one of how monarchy in combination with the lack of clear human rights and consistent economic policy results in arbitrary and needless suffering of many people. It connects with the themes of settler colonialism and mass expulsion in Lorenzo Veracini’s Colonialism: A Global History (Routledge, 2023; reviewed here); whether it’s fear of sin, xenophobia, economic inequality, or racism, those with concentrated and unchecked power unfortunately have the means to make their fears come to life in banishing people out of their world.
Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.
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