The Magna Carta’s very Jewish underpinnings
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The Magna Carta’s very Jewish underpinnings

800 years after its signing, a look at the Jewish clauses in the document widely praised as the foundation for enshrining civil liberties

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

People gather at the riverside meadow west of London as the Red Arrows RAF display team fly over the Magna Carta memorial in Runnymede, England, during a commemoration ceremony Monday June 15, 2015, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the groundbreaking accord called Magna Carta. (Steve Parsons / Pool photo via AP)
People gather at the riverside meadow west of London as the Red Arrows RAF display team fly over the Magna Carta memorial in Runnymede, England, during a commemoration ceremony Monday June 15, 2015, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the groundbreaking accord called Magna Carta. (Steve Parsons / Pool photo via AP)

Things were coming to a head when the Magna Carta was signed by King John 800 years ago on June 15, 1215, in Runnymede near Windsor.

And as the rebellious barons and recalcitrant king brokered a short-lasting peace — via a pact hailed as a founding legal document enshrining human rights, civil liberties and the use of authority — Jewish history gained another footnote.

It was a time when Jewish moneylenders could be wealthier than the king of England, since, thanks to the iron grip of the Catholic Church’s usury laws, Jews were the only avenue for loans — much-needed advancements the king’s noblemen required to go off to war.

But it was also a period when lands were forfeited upon default, and when poor orphans and widows were beholden to repay the loans of their deceased male heads of household.

The era was, in short, ripe for banking regulations.

Among the 3,500 Latin words written and signed upon calfskin that day were two “clauses” (a system of 63 sections was devised in 1759) that directly dealt with England’s Jews.

Jews were relative newcomers to the land, brought to England from France as bankers by William the Conqueror of Normandy in 1066. Legally treated as chattel by the king, the Jews of Europe, rejected the Catholic Church’s stringent reading of the biblical commandment against charging a “brother” interest as a prohibition against all loans, instead reading the biblical verses as an interdiction against lending to coreligionists.

Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror (center) with his half-brothers. (Public Domain, via wikipedia)
Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror (center) with his half-brothers. (Public Domain, via wikipedia)

Since throughout most of Europe, Jews were forbidden to own or work land, they created a niche position through which Christians could obtain funds and Jews a livelihood.

It could have been the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and it was — for some. But in practice, the king, as “owner” of the Jews, was obviously the biggest beneficiary.

‘Jews were accidental agents in a substantial land transfer to the king, and in increasing his powers nationally’

Any forfeited land — which could not legally be held by Jews — “reverted to their master, the king, who systematically built up his holdings. It meant that the Jews were accidental agents in a substantial land transfer to the king, and in increasing his powers nationally,” wrote Rabbi Jonathan Romain in a 2014 Jewish Chronicle piece.

By the time of King John’s father, Henry II, most major English towns and cities had a flourishing Jewish community. Henry used the Jews as tax collectors and, taxing and fining the Jews heavily as well, put them under royal protection. But that “protection” was precarious at best. When the wealthiest man in England, Aaron of Lincoln (1125-1186), died, all his assets were “inherited” by the state coffers.

Ultimately, to document loans and the Jews’ holdings, the Exchequer of the Jews was founded. A division of the Court of Exchequer at Westminster, it also operated as a system of regulating taxes and court cases against the Jews in England from the late 1190s.

A 13th century rendition of Richard 'the Lionheart,' Richard I of England, being anointed during his coronation in Westminster Abbey. (public domain, via wikipedia)
A 13th century rendition of Richard ‘the Lionheart,’ Richard I of England, being anointed during his coronation in Westminster Abbey. (public domain, via wikipedia)

In 1194, Henry II’s son, King Richard I, ordered that “all the debts, pledges, mortgages, lands, houses, rents, and possessions of the Jews shall be registered… no contract shall be made with, nor payment, made to, the Jews, nor any alteration made in the charters, except before the said [church officials].”

Interestingly, when Richard I, known as “the Lionhearted” for his bravery in battle, was crowned, he banned all Jews (and women) from attending his investiture. Regardless, some wealthy Jews persisted in bringing gifts to the new king. They were reportedly flogged by the king’s courtiers and thrown out of the castle.

The humiliation of these wealthy Jews purportedly spawned a rumor that King Richard wanted all Jews killed. A pogrom ensued in London, with lives lost and many Jewish homes destroyed. Richard, needing the Jews’ capital for a further military campaigns, ordered a cessation of violence against them and had its instigators executed.

Essentially, Jews were pariahs in contemporary England. Theologian William de Montibus (1140-1213), perhaps not coincidentally from the same town of Lincoln as the wealthy Jew Aaron, summed up his feelings for them in the oft-quoted, “Jews are the sponges of kings, they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings despoil and deprive poor men of their goods.”

‘Jews are the sponges of kings, they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings despoil and deprive poor men of their goods’

King John, mockingly called in history the “Lackland,” was also no friend to the Jews, and imprisoned some of the community’s more wealthy members, including an important money-lender Isaac of Norwich.

However, John drew the ire of noblemen and Jew alike through his unprecedentedly heavy taxation. Ingeniously, as the noblemen increasingly turned to the Jewish moneylenders for funds, upon their defaulting of the loans, the king received the parcels of land used as collateral.

The Magna Carta was an attempt by the Archbishop of Canterbury to broker peace between the king and the barons through a legal document that curtailed the king’s powers.

As recorded in an informative February Times of Israel blog post, Clause 10 states, “If anyone who has borrowed money from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before the loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest so long as the heir is under-aged, whosoever tenant he be and if that debt fall into Our hand We will not take anything except the principal sum contained in the agreement.”

‘If anyone die owing a debt to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt’

Clause 11 states, “And if anyone die owing a debt to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; if the dead man leave children under age, they shall be provided with necessaries in keeping with the holding of the deceased and the debt shall be paid out of the revenue, reserving however service due to overlords; and debts owing to others than Jews shall be dealt with in the same manner.”

As Romain in the Jewish Chronicle wrote, “The fact that these were listed as numbers 10 and 11 among the 62 [sic] clauses indicates the importance of the consequences of Jewish loans to the barons.”

Additionally, a writer in The Occidental Observer found, “What is interesting about clauses 10 and 11 is how prosaic and matter of fact they are… There are no diabolical fantasies of blood libel or any religious content at all. It is just business that is at issue, but underlying the dry prose is anger at Jewish moneylending.”

The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period, authenticated with the Great Seal of King John. (Public Domain via wikipedia; British Library)
The Magna Carta (originally known as the Charter of Liberties) of 1215, written in iron gall ink on parchment in medieval Latin, using standard abbreviations of the period, authenticated with the Great Seal of King John. (Public Domain via wikipedia; British Library)

However, only the original 1215 Magna Carta directly refers to Jews. The later 1216, 1217, 1225 and later versions do not.

Unfortunately this “omission” is likely due more to the Jews’ waning wealth than to any new humanitarian interest. Between 1219 and 1272, the Jews were taxed 49 times for enormous sums.

In 1274, Edward I codified the “Statute of Jewry,” which stated, “Each Jew, after he is seven years old, shall wear a distinguishing mark on his outer garment, that is to say, in the form of two Tables joined, of yellow felt of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.”

By 1287 in the duchy of Gascony, the destitute king of England, King Edward I, tested out a brilliant venture capital scheme: expel Jews and assume ownership of their assets. Meeting success, a wildly popular Edict of Expulsion was written in 1290, and the Jewish community was banished from England.

Some 350 years later, the Puritan Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell began to woo wealthy Dutch Jews — and their trade interests — to England.

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