A Jewish take on Magna Carta
The 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta falls on June 15. It is a significant document not only in the history of England and the history of democracy, but also in the history of the Jews. There is a surprising (to some) aspect to the seminal document of British constitutional monarchy.
If you tune into the right channels on the wireless this weekend – don’t you love how that word has gone from archaic to high-tech in less than a generation? – you will probably hear much about the anniversary of this pivotal document. You might not hear about the Jewish angle to the story.
The Magna Carta emerged, effectively, as a constitutional document in the days when constitutional limits to the rights of kings were unknown. England’s King John was confronted by 25 barons who weren’t so happy with their relationship and, lo, faced with the threat of insurrection, he became the accursed monarch who, with the stroke of a quill, under duress, set the stage for the limitations of divine right that have resulted in the reduced British monarchy we see today.
Eight centuries ago, the king had his barons and knights, the nobles had their vassals and so on down the feudal pecking order. And then there were the Jews.
Jews in England at that time, and in many places at other times, existed outside the carefully proscribed feudal system. There were advantages to this exclusion – who wants to be a serf? – until there were not. The king was the protector of the Jews, which seemed like a sweet deal – until it was not.
Like nobles, Jews had a direct relationship with the monarch. Unlike nobles, they had little in the way of leverage when the relationship went south. For the masses, there was nothing endearing in the Jews’ special relationship to the king.
The Magna Carta is a document that, for the first time, set limits on the rights of the king in his relations with his nobles and, by extension, theoretically anyway, his public. Appropriately enough, it also outlined the relationship between the king, nobles and Jews.
This turned out to be a problem. The Bible forbids “usury,” the application of interest on loans “to your brother.” Christians, under a widespread interpretation, would not lend with interest to other Christians. The ironic corollary to this is that Christians did not lend at all, or at least not often. Jews, on the other hand, forbidden from owning land, banned from many of the crafts guilds, were seriously limited in their professional options. Jews found niches as butchers and in some other fields, but moneylending was a lucrative option where few options existed. It was also a dangerous position for a socially vulnerable group. Who doesn’t love a lender in the brief period of time when you need money? But who needs the demands for repayment?
At a time – the first time – when the king was being held to account, being in cahoots with the monarch was not a summer day in Yalta. Or Dorset, as the case may have been.
Since Jews could not own real estate, debtors who died saw their estates confiscated by the Jews’ protector, the king. The Magna Carta codified that, if a subject died indebted to a Jew, the obligation owed would revert to the king, but without interest. Likewise if the Jewish debt-holder dies – if the Jew to whom money was owed died before the debt was repaid, the interest would be forgiven.
Another clause specified that debts were to be paid through liquid assets, not through land, which meant that the king could not expand his real estate holdings through his relationship with Jews, thereby reducing the value to the king of this special relationship. And new taxes were imposed on Jews that exhausted the community economically, further reducing their worth to the monarch.
When John’s son, Henry III, was on the throne in 1253, he declared: “No Jew remain in England unless he do the king’s service, and that from the hour of birth every Jew, whether male or female, serve us in some way.”
By the end of that century, the last Jew was expelled from England, a consequence, in no small part, of clauses in the Magna Carta and their intended and unintended consequences.