Evidence that the Majority of Medieval English Jews were not Moneylenders

The collective Western mind still today erroneously sees “the Jews” of medieval England as moneylenders. It is generally accepted that the Jews functioned to create a more liquid economy and to provide the crown with much needed financial support. However, while it is true that a select handful of Jews did operate as professional moneylenders, I will argue that the vast majority of Jews could not, and did not, operate as professional financers. The method I have employed to prove this thesis is to conduct a close economic analysis of the document E. 101/249/4. This document is the result of an archa scrutiny (an archa was a chest, held in each major town, within which were deposited any and all loans contracted within the town) that King Henry III ordered in preparation for the collection of his 1241-42 tallage of 20,000 marks. It is composed of two sections. The first section is found on membrane one recto. It is a summary of the returns of the aforesaid tallage and is especially valuable because it provides the names of every adult Jew in Lincoln in 1241-42. The second section provides the actual results from Henry III’s archa scrutiny. It contains eight hundred and eighty-six loans and takes up the vast majority of the document. The results of this economic study convincingly refute the idea that all Jews lent money and that all moneylenders were Jews. Of the one hundred and fifteen Jews listed in the first section (membrane one recto) only thirty-eight had loans in the Lincoln archa; the remaining seventy-seven Jewish residents of Lincoln simply did not lend money. Further, by carefully analyzing the loans found in the archa, one finds that a full seventy-four percent of all loans found in the archa were held by only ten men, and thirty-two percent were held by Aaron of York alone! The remaining seventy-five Jews with loans in the archa collectively held only twenty-six percent of the value of all the loans contained in Lincoln’s archa. These results are significant, for they overturn the nearly ubiquitous assumption that “the Jews” functioned only as moneylenders in medieval England. It is an assumption that is well entrenched in even academia today, and one that I hope to begin to dissolve with this thesis.

Margolis, Ethan Levi. “Evidence that the Majority of Medieval English Jews were not Moneylenders, with an Emphasis on Document E. 101/249/4.” (Under the direction of Dr. Julie Mell.)

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