Francesca Trivellato on The Promise and Peril of Credit

The Promise and Peril of Credit takes an incisive look at pivotal episodes in the West’s centuries-long struggle to define the place of private finance in the social and political order. It does so through the lens of a persistent legend about Jews and money that reflected the anxieties surrounding the rise of impersonal credit markets.

What are the promises and the perils of credit?

This is a book about the distant past, but to understand its import, we may think about the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the foreclosure crisis, a few radical voices called for an end to capitalism. But most people, in one way or another, demanded a fairer capitalism in which Main Street gains as much as Wall Street, and in which ever more intricate financial instruments provide for all and not just for savvy and well-connected insiders. The problem is that we cannot agree on what constitutes fair capitalism. Variations of this ideological and regulatory struggle have existed in Europe since the year 1000, when the Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages set in motion the first sustained period of demographic and economic expansion on the continent after the fall of the Roman empire. The more people participated in market exchanges, the more difficult it became to distinguish reliable from bad borrowers, trustworthy from shady bankers.

What is the legend that the books uncovers?

The legend tells the story of Jews fleeing the kingdom of France sometime between the seventh and the fourteenth centuries who invented marine insurance and bills of exchange in order to salvage whatever they could of their assets. The legend is false: Jews did not invent marine insurance and bills of exchange, though they were chased from France multiple times during the Middle Ages and every expulsion was accompanied by confiscation of goods. The first rendition of the legend appeared in print in 1647 in a collection of maritime laws.

What are bills of exchange?

Marine insurance at the time worked in the same way as modern insurance works, but bills of exchange are no longer in use. They were at once a credit instrument and a way of transmitting money abroad in a foreign currency. Picture MoneyGram meets a personal check. Materially, they were slips of papers even smaller than a modern check, scribbled in code (details can be gleaned on the book cover). Bills of exchange allowed merchants to transfer funds rather than risk the theft or the loss at sea of their silver coins. In the hands of the most experienced merchants, they were used to conduct complex speculative financial transactions that were entirely divorced from the purchase and sale of material goods. Bills of exchange symbolized all that was abstract, intangible, arcane, helpful but also potentially dangerous in the growing credit economy of early modern Europe. They were the derivatives of their time.

Why should we care about the legend that attributed to medieval Jews the invention of bills of exchange?

Because it was a preferred way in which until a hundred years ago writers discussed a question that is central to the history of the West: how can we expand the number and range of people who enter the marketplace but control their good behavior? The impersonality of the market is both appealing and threatening. Before and after Adam Smith, the invisible hand was only one of the idealized solutions to the problem of oligopolies. Many writers resorted to Jewish usury as a metaphor to denounce the asymmetries of powers that plagued the market. In this they were assisted by stockpiles of anti-Jewish prejudice images. In its original formulation the legend I discuss adapts this arsenal of anti-Jewish sentiments to denounce the dark forces that could led good Christian borrowers to loose small and large fortunes. Jews were a universal symbol of financial malpractice, to attribute the invention of Europe’s key credit instruments to Jews did not mean that Christians could not put those instruments to good use, but it meant that marine insurance and bills of exchange were tainted by usury as their original sin.

If the legend is as important as you claim, why does no one knows about it?

There are several reasons the legend is forgotten. Bills of exchange have fallen out of use and we have ceased to wonder where they came from. Moreover, economic historians now tend to search for the origins of those financial institutions that have survived into the present, notably the stock market, which developed in 1600 but affected many fewer people than the hundred thousands who handled marine insurance and bills of exchange. There is also a tendency to assume that Jews, both real and imaginary, mattered to European economic thought only in the Middle Ages, before the emergence of a secular “science of commerce” emerged. This is simply not true. Religious language continued to inform most economic writing in the early modern period. To accuse a Christian merchant of being “Jewish” was a way of equating their behavior to that of Jews, who supposedly wished to rob Christians of their wealth.

How did Jews react to the circulation of this legend?

I wish I knew what Jews told each other about a story that some of them surely heard in one version or another. Some Jewish writers did engage with the legend in writing, especially in the nineteenth century. To my knowledge, the first to do so was the father of British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had his children baptized, making his son’s political career possible. In some quarters, the legend was a source of Jewish pride and fed the genre known as Jewish-contributions-to-civilization by touting Jewish financial prowess. Other Jewish authors firmly rejected a legend that they saw as mobilizing insidious stereotypes.

Why don’t you ever mention Shylock in a book about Jews and credit?

Some historians have tried to pin down the sources of Shakespeare’s imagination by establishing whether one Jewish merchant or another living in the Venice ghetto in the 1590s may have served as a model for the great English writer. I regard such efforts as futile: literary imagination is not more or less compelling because it is based on identifiable facts. But if we want to judge one of the masterpieces of Renaissance theater by its empirical validity, then The Merchant of Venice would fail the test. The pound of flesh is only one of the dubious references in the play. Shylock would have lent money to Antonio by means of a bill of exchange. Only poor Christians had to deposit a pledge to borrow a small sum in the ghetto. A patrician like Antonio could borrow by using his reputation as collateral. After 1589, when international Jewish merchants hailing from Iberia found a safe haven in Venice, Antonio would have found Jewish merchants able and willing to issue him a bill of exchange. The figure of Shylock really tells us that the Jewish usurer, one of the most long-lasting figments of the Western imagination, was a protean symbol that encompassed stereotypes of both the parasitic Jewish poor and the rapacious Jewish capitalist.

Francesca Trivellato is professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period.