I’ve been reading Yom Tov Assis’ books about the Jews of Aragon (for Gabriel’s orals: The Golden Age of Aragonese Jewry and Jewish Economy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon).

On the one hand, he describes the period 1210-1327 as a Golden Age for the Jews. On the other hand, he presents it as a time of extreme tension and social unrest, building all the time to the doom of 1391-1492 (1391: the Church really gets stuck into the Jews. 1492: expulsion of the Jews from Spain).

His basic project is to do a systemic survey of the materials in civil sources e.g. court archives and Jewish sources e.g. responsa literature of the Rashba, the Ritva, the Ramban, the Ran, etc., and the two books are the pictures he paints with them – one economic, the other more social.

He reminds us at several points that we tend to have documentary evidence for when things go wrong, not for when they go right. He is also aware that his data is rather extensively based in tax records, so his picture is necessarily rather weighted towards matters financial.

So, here’s the picture I have from Assis:

This period covers four kings – Jaime I, Pedro III (his son), Alfonso III (his son), and Jaime II (Alfonso’s brother). The Crown of Aragon is a scattery bunch of territories, which are constantly being ceded, seized, and whatnot. This is terrifically expensive, and the king always needs money.

Christian society is basically feudal, but the Jews are outside Christian society, in that they belong to the king. They aren’t slaves, but they and all their stuff belong to him.

They’re like a herd of cash cows, seriously. He wants them to be basically pretty happy and healthy and engaging in commerce and suchlike (trading in wheat, oil, spices, cloth, Muslim slaves, real estate; moneylending), so that he can milk them regularly – that is, he can tap them for money frequently and heavily. He uses financial enticements to get them to settle in newly-conquered territories, as well – useful.The Jews are a major source of income for the king (although Assis only once, in two books, uses a percentage figure, grr).

One of the first things I learned was about this system of privileges. You need a privilege for practically everything in the Crown of Aragon. Examples: building a wall around the Jewish quarter, repairing the synagogue, having a bakery, moving to a new city. Also, being allowed to have gates in the wall, and to close the gates when Christian mobs come howling by. Not being stoned in the street by Christians is a privilege too.

Privileges cost money. This suits the king. Like this:
JEW, to KING: Can I please have the right not to be stoned in the street?
KING, to JEW: Sure. That’ll be £500.
CHRISTIAN, to KING: Hey, what if we give you £600, can we have the right to stone Jews?
KING, to CHRISTIAN: Oh, okay, sure.
KING: Yay, status quo is preserved and I have £1100! Smithers, make an appointment for the Jews next week.

The king is doing this continual balancing act between the Church and the Jews. On the one hand, the Jews are his cows and they mean money, which he needs. On the other hand, the Church thinks the Jews are disgusting and should be converted or otherwise got rid of. So the king placates the Church, letting them impose sermons and compulsory disputations and the like upon the Jews, but he’s giving the Jews all sorts of getout clauses, such as the right not to listen to the sermons, or the right to field a good rabbi in the disputations. Pragmatically, he doesn’t want them converting; they aren’t cash cows once they’ve converted.

Over time, the Jews become less useful to the king (more about that soon!) and the Church (independently) becomes a great deal more a) zealous b) powerful, so the balance strikes in the church’s favour more often, until 1492. Until then, the king is always trying to prove that he’s a good Christian whilst simultaneously keeping his Jews healthy so that they’ll keep making money for him.

CHRISTIANS, rampaging at the gates: Let’s kill the Jews!
JEWS: Phew!
KING: Spare a tenner till Tuesday?
JEWS: *tinkle tinkle clink* (that is the sound of a cash cow being milked)
CHRISTIANS: *disperse grumbling*
JEWS: Truly, this a golden age!

Detail: in some places, the Jews don’t have a bakery of their own, so they use the Christian bakery nearby. Over Pesach week, the Jews aren’t using the Christian bakery, and the Christians are annoyed that they take less profit that week. So the Jews have to give money to the bakery for the bread they aren’t buying so that the Christians won’t be discommoded.

The Jewish communities (defined by area; theoretically every Jew was answerable to some community or other. There was a nice bit where a Jew got fined for having a breakaway minyan in his house one Yom Tov) were basically autonomous–the Jews may have belonged to the king, but he didn’t want the tedious jobs of running the communities; he left that to them–but the king got involved rather often. There were lots of Jews at court (sometimes as physicians, diplomats and the like; sometimes as merchants and moneylenders) and if they weren’t happy with the way the community was treating them they tended to get the king involved, thus:

RICH JEW: I want the third aliyah on Yom Kippur.
COMMUNITY: But you beat your wife. We want to give it to Dan, who has donated a new roof this year.
RICH JEW: WAAAAHHHHH!!!!!! King king they’re not being NICE TO ME! By the way, do you want a tenner till Thursday?
KING: Dammit Jews, give him the third aliyah on Yom Kippur.
COMMUNITY: Damn, we have no power. Sucks to be us.

So there was this rather awkward situation where all the Jews were cows, but there were strata: Rich Cows With Influence At Court, and Poor Cows With Taxation But Basically No Representation.

(The rich cows are doing okay. There’s quite a lot of scholarship, art, music, and other Golden Age type stuff going on. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot better than the situation in e.g. France, even for the poor cows.)

Enter taxes.

The Jewish quarter is quite often near the king’s quarters (and in places without palaces, the king rather often does an Elizabeth I and goes On Progress, staying with the Jews:
KING: Hey, we’re spending April by you, okay?
100 COURTIERS: And us!
JEWS, to KING: Hullo again. Seems like no time since last year, eh?
JEWS, to COURTIERS: Could you please not take all the beds?
JEWS, to their families: Guess we’re sleeping in the stables again this month, kids.
CHRISTIANS: Let’s go see the king, and mob a few Jews on the way!
RICH JEWS: Let’s hang out in the court so we don’t get killed!
POOR JEWS: Sucks to be us.) so that he can keep an eye on the Jews. He also has a collection of tax-assessors, so that he can have an idea of how much money the community can drum up.

Tax time works like this:
KING, to the JEWS OF BARCELONA: You lot have to give me £50,000 this year.
THE COMMUNITY LEADERS: Okay. Rich Reuven and Swanky Shimon and Lush Levi can pay £10,000 each and the 200 poor people can pay £100 each and we’ll be good.
RICH REUVEN: Oh hell no, I’m not paying taxes.
RICH REUVEN, to KING: Hey king. Can I have a privilege to be exempt from taxes please? Here’s £5000.
KING: Sure! This is great, now I get £55,000!
THE COMMUNITY LEADERS: Rats. Now all the poor people have to pay £150 each because we have to come up with the £50,000 somehow.
POOR JEWS: That’s not fair! King, ki–
KING: If you lot don’t behave I’m going to start taking away your privileges.
POOR JEWS: Sucks to be us.

The communities are continually scrambling to come up with the tax money, in addition to having to pay for privileges (like the right to not be killed by rampaging Christians). They tax pretty much anything you can think of (sales tax, property tax, tax on loans, tax on certain sorts of income, there’s even a tax on weddings and people who are visiting from out of town) to get the money together. Plus they have internal expenses, like feeding the destitute, building walls to keep out Christians, and so forth. Those have to be paid for too. One is reminded of the line in the Mishneh Torah which says if someone won’t contribute to the community tzedakah funds he is beaten until he contributes – really like that. The king doesn’t really care so long as he gets his taxes. And his loans, and his little presents and fines and privilege payments. This becomes increasingly burdensome as it becomes harder and harder for the communities to stay afloat financially.

So basically – the Jews belong to the king, like cows; practically everything we take for granted as a right has to be bought as a privilege; the king is continually squeezing the Jews for money; there’s a festering divide between rich and poor Jews; this, with the pressures of the squeezes, makes the communities financially less healthy over time; this makes them less useful to the king as cash cows so he doesn’t stand to lose as much by letting the Church have their way with the Jews; as the church becomes more powerful in general the pressure increases; sucks to be a poor Jew, and eventually it sucks to be a rich Jew too.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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