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La loi du lucre

Claude Denjean



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1At a time when the social consequences of the “crisis” and the crimes of “traders” are highly topical, this book examines the profits deriving from freely-available credit in broad perspective. Based on unpublished 13th-century court records preserved in the archives of Catalonia, it revives the term “usury” and points in the direction of a “de-enslaved” history of the Jews which describes the convergences and divergences between the Jewish and Christian value systems. A systematic comparison of the issues in Jewish and Christian societies helps to gauge the part played by structures and the part played by individuals in the evolution of those societies.

2In 1297 the chancellery of Jaime II of Aragon conducted an enquiry into usurers. There were diplomatic and political considerations—papal influence, popular clamour, the development of an administration and the expansion of royal appellate justice—that prompted the taking of steps to correct immoderate interest rates. The royal enquiries were intended to clean up business without destroying the economy. Such proceedings bring out stories born of suspicion towards usury, full of hitherto-unpublished details regarding the mechanics of credit and the functioning of Catalan-Aragonese justice which, while not absolutely forbidding the charging of interest, sought to specifically define fair exchange. Witnesses and accused narrate the ins and outs (ignored in other sources), describing the means used quite candidly by one and all to make a profit, including bankruptcy. At a time of crisis of confidence, these trials show to what extent human qualities are an essential factor in the marketplace. Businessmen, more often Christians than Jews, had perforce to observe a rule whereby a fair price was determined by the financial market. The body politic eschewed usury, and yet the Jews remained part of society. Indeed, the stereotyping of Jews as usurers was in its infancy, and Jewish moneylenders can be found in positions of trust and as members of the body politic. We have found no evidence of a credit squeeze. However, Jews could never be counted among the faithful because their very religion branded them as infidels.

3Usury was like reputation (fama); it could be good or bad, ranging from stringency to lenience, from injustice to fairness. This depended on the goodness of their word. The monarchy sought to ensure good practice through a system of justice that took account of popular feeling, hostile to Jewish usurers, and by taking care in its political actions to avoid unrest and rioting while ensuring observance of the divine prohibition. In this way it consolidated its power by presiding over a dialogue. It acted throughout as if the rules defining usury by the Jews applied to everyone. Besides, usury was more financial speculation than usurious lending. The trials sought to arrive at a collective definition of a fair price, the only judicial yardstick for proving fraud. The plaintiffs challenged the transfer of profits as assets, thus hampering the formation of a new social category. A process deriving from new economic practices was diverted, or even checked, blocking an avenue to integration of the Jews. In this way an entirely non-stereotypical judicial practice and discourse contributed to the stereotyping of both “usurer” and “Jew", a development that was further accentuated by the scarcity of short-term credit. There was a thinly-veiled process of stigmatisation, all the more dangerous in that it did not condemn profit and was neither anti-semitic nor anti-Jewish, and that the procedure, for all it was summary, inquisitorial even, afforded those accused a means of defending themselves. The end result was a process of irrealisation in which Jewishness and the popular conception of usury came to be conflated, a viewpoint perpetuated by historians through an agonistic view of relations between Jews and Christians. The fact that this interpretation is based on false premises does not make it any less pertinent in the realm of discourse. The development of individuality in society offered no other course, for there was no question of a generally-applicable social contract including Jews, and divine choice was not a subject of direct discussion. The metonymy whereby usurer means Jew is thus a logical one, for the fidelitas of the Jew is manifold rather than single. Thus, while the criminalisation of usury was never more than marginal, wrongful acts were exceptional, the inquisition was bridled and the political constitution of the Crown of Aragon promoted a model in which the Jewish minority was well integrated and was defended by the monarchy, that minority was yet deemed to be beyond the pale.

© Casa de Velázquez, 2011

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