Business Ladies in the Middle Ages - The business practices of Jewish women in the Middle Ages

St. Pölten/Vienna (Austrian Science Fund) - Until the middle of the 13th century, money lending, the activity traditionally associated with the Jews, was essentially a male preserve. It is only after this time that there are increasingly frequent references in the sources to Jewish women as money lenders. Martha Keil from the St. Pölten Institute for the History of the Jews in Austria has, with the support of the Austrian Science Fund, researched Jewish women in the Middle Ages with astonishing results. She has proved that the increasing business activity by Jewish women and their improved legal position went hand in hand with exclusion from the synagogues.

Alongside the job of maid, money lending was the most common job performed by Jewish women in the Middle Ages. Up to a quarter of all loans were made by women, most frequently by widows. "The capacity of possession, legal capacity, mobility, the ability to read and write, good manners and, above all, strong self-confidence, were the prerequisites for the Jewish women's business activity," explains Keil. Wives were increasingly able to administer their property themselves, while widows were increasingly given the right of disposal of the family property. The increasing business activity improved the women's status within the Christian legal system, within which business conflicts between Jews and Christians were settled.

Female tax collector
"Women clearly also had tax liability. The Jewish tax was levied collectively and collected by members of the Jewish community. This "public office" was in principle held only by men. Only Selda von Radkersburg took on duties vis-à-vis her community in 1338, which she performed in the capacity of tax collector - but this was an exception in the Middle Ages in Austria," stresses Keil. The business contacts with Christians resulted in the Jewish community being influenced by the Christian environment. Similarly to the Christian patriarchal system, Jewish women were successively forced out of the synagogue. From the end of the 13th century onwards, there is evidence of this process of excluding women from worship, community prayer and rituals. The more active Jewish women were in Christian-Jewish public life, the more invisible they became in the synagogue and the community. The swearing of an oath was, for example, essential for business practice: "The oath only became valid through touching the Torah inside the synagogue. Since women were not allowed to enter the male preserve of the inner sanctum, the Rabbis of the 15th century found a compromise: they placed the Torah in the arms of the woman taking the oath at the entrance to the synagogue."

Dr. Martha Keil
Institute for the History of the Jews in Austria, St. Pölten
T +43 2742 77 171-12

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CLOOS + PARTNER, Public Relations Agency
T +43 1 710 85 99

November 5th, 2001