Thursday, July 31, 2008

Of Prostitutes and Jewish Usurers: a Case of Medieval Christian Tolerance

Analogies were often drawn between the toleration of Jewish lending and the toleration of prostitution, which, by confining sin within limits and subjecting it to public control, helped to guarantee good order by preventing the seduction of innocent and respectable women at the hands of lecherous men. As Saint Augustine had written in his early treatise, De ordine, of the late fourth century, “ What can be called more filthy, more worthless, more wicked and dishonorable than whores, pimps and other such baneful creatures? But take away harlots from human affairs and you will trouble everything with unbridled lust and passion.” Sisto Medici seized on the parallel and concluded, after elaboration on Augustine and on the principle of the lesser evil, that “the wickedness of usury should therefore be permitted, no less than the brothels of harlots. … However, infidel women cannot be so generally or properly licensed to commit such fornication lest by their beauty the captivated souls of the faithful be seduced into infidelity, a danger which does not occur where usury is concerned.” (Brian Pullan, Jewish Banks and Monti di Pieta” pg. 71. The Jews of Early Modern Venice. Ed. Robert Davis and Benjamin Ravid.)

You have to give the medieval Church credit. They were very rational and logical in their own pragmatic way. The Church in Italy was remarkably tolerant of prostitution. The reason for this was that they believed that, if they banned prostitutes, men would be more likely to satisfy their lusts with other men. Better to tolerate prostitution then to tolerate homosexuality. As for the argument that if men went to non Christian prostitutes they would be lead to heresy; the rabbis in Spain thought along similar lines and argued that it was better to have Jewish prostitutes then have Jewish men going to non Jewish prostitutes. (See David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence pg. 135-36)

This is also a very good example of a situation where hatred and tolerance could co-exist. Just because you hate someone does not mean that you are going to severally persecute them and you can like someone and still persecute them. The important thing is whether it is in your self interest to tolerate somone or not. When trying to understand why Jews were tolerated in some places and persecuted in others the important issue not whether certain places or rulers were “open minded,” “enlightened” or “tolerant.” What really mattered was whether or not someone thought it was in their interest, or in the interest of society at large, to have a Jewish presence. If having Jews around served a constructive purpose then just as one tolerated the existence of other undesirables, such as prostitutes, one also tolerated Jews.

As an interesting side note, there is a connection here that Pullan does not mention. It was Augustine, who Pullan brings down as arguing for the toleration of prostitution, who formulated the famous “witness doctrine,” which became the basis for the toleration of Jews in medieval Christian thought. (We will be discussing this in detail in later posts. Stay tuned!)


Anonymous said...

This is really strange. I am actually reading that book as we speak. I can't remember how I found your blog, but I'm delighted by this.

I'm an undergraduate studying history. I focus mainly on historiography during the Renaissance, but I'm in the early stages of a project on the Venice Haggadah. I'm at a small liberal arts college, so there are no faculty doing work in anything even remotely related to the topic. It's cool to see someone else working in this area.

I'm hoping to go to grad school in history after this, and I'm currently struggling with how to integrate my interest in Jewish history with my wider interests in the politics of writing history. I keep getting told that writing about Jews (even when they're from the same region and time period as the gentiles I'm also researching) is a different field than studying Catholics.

Sorry, I'm getting off topic. It's just nice to see someone who shares my research interests.

Izgad said...

It is always good to meet a fellow student of history. What college are you studying at?

I presume the book you are talking about is Jews in Early Modern Venice. Robert Davis, one of the editors, is a professor of mine, and an excellent one at that. His focus is on early modern Italian history, not Jewish history. He is a historical anthropologist in the style of Peter Burke and Edward Muir. Yet here he did a project involving Jewish history. While Jews and Christians may be different fields, they overlap a lot more than you might think. The other book I mentioned in the post, Communities of Violence, is actually a great example of this and I highly recommend it. (I will, hopefully, be doing a separate post on it at a future point.)