F. Trivellato: The Promise and Peril of Credit

The Promise and Peril of Credit. What a Forgotten Legend about Jews and Finance Tells Us about the Making of European Commercial Society

Trivellato, Francesca
Histories of Economic Life
Anzahl Seiten
XVI, 408 S.
$ 45,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tom Tölle, Abteilung Europäische Geschichte, Universität Hamburg

“Insurance policies and bills of exchange [...] are the posthumous invention of Jews, according to the remarks of Giovan[ni] Villani in his universal history.” – Étienne Cleirac

The previous sentence, written in 1647 by a French provincial lawyer in Bordeaux, is a lie. But some lies have a long history worth investigating. They span across the centuries, resurfacing periodically, until they reach our own time. Francesca Trivellato’s new book tells the story of this particular lie: how Jews, who fled from medieval Italy to France invented marine insurance and bills of exchange to protect their assets. From its humble, but formative origins in the handbook cited above, she follows the legend through its eighteenth-century reverberations in old regime France and its European neighbours onto the pages of three stylites of modern economic thought. Trivellato uses the geological metaphor of “karstic” landscapes – in which water washes out soluble rock creating cavernous systems underneath – to summarise how this “forgotten tale of the origins of European financial capitalism” spread (p. 216).

From a small opening at the surface level, Trivellato’s enquiry charts these cavernous landscapes often at unexpected depths. Above all, her account advertises for an economic history conversant with its neighbouring disciplines in Jewish, cultural, and intellectual history. Where this conversation is lacking – either due to the marginal role of premodern economic history in economics departments, of economic history in history departments more generally, or of economic questions in Jewish history – problematic misconception take root. Despite Albert Hirschman’s famous thesis to the contrary, for instance, Trivellato underlines that “commerce played a minor role, if any at all, in the political emancipation of Jews” (p. 157).[1] She also criticises the partial rehabilitation of Werner Sombart in more recent literature defining with precision his share in substantiating the myth of Jewish bills of exchange through his uncritical readings of Wilhelm Roscher and highly selective borrowings from Jewish history.[2]

Étienne Cleirac’s Us et Coustumes de la Mer (1647), a text now largely forgotten, provides the central entry into the labyrinthine system, which Trivellato maps, however. Through selective quotation and downright fiction, Cleirac’s text was able to update well-established medieval tropes of Jewish usury as chapters 2 and 3 detail. The figure of the Jewish usurer had already been used to set apart acceptable and unacceptable business practices drawing particular attention to Christians transgressing into “Jewish usury”. Marine insurance and bills of exchange, long-distance and abstract, came to symbolise the commercial revolution of the late Middle Ages (chapter 1). Bills of exchange, for instance, allowed merchants to make payment in a different location and currency. Over time they also became the subject of resale and speculation with currency exchange rates. Beyond their function, these devices symbolised instruments of private finance spanning vast distances without public involvement (p. 225), and fears about (failing) self-regulation and the poorly understood effects of bills of exchange ran wild. In this iteration as in later ones, the legend put a finger on a central problem of private commerce: To what extent should “legal, economic, and symbolic hierarchies” affect transactions with a stranger (p. 226)?

This common problem took on different forms in different places, as Trivellato shows. The peculiarities of old regime France, and the region of Bordeaux in particular played a central role in establishing and perpetuating this specific myth (chapter 4–6). The immediate context of Cleirac’s publication responded to the specific position of Portuguese New Christian merchants in Bordeaux, who – unlike elsewhere in Europe – were still forced to live in outward conformity to Christian religion (chapter 4). The myth tying (invisible) Jews to abstract financial devices spread widest in the context of French economic reform during the grand siécle. It was not just included in Jacques Savary’s immensely successful merchant manual Le parfait négociant (1675), but also prominently reiterated by Savary’s son (chapter 5). Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) played another important role in the transmission, even though the author had only a passing interest in Jews. His account gave the tale a positive spin in which Jewish acumen overcame “Christian obscurantism”, while the “moral of this” mid-eighteenth-century “tale was […] bounded by a political order that made no space for equal rights for Jews” (pp. 135, 139). The legal emancipation as a result of the French Revolution, by contrast, soon saw a backlash against the Jewish minority, and the legend tagged onto these ever-changing fortunes.

A chapter on European transmission follows the myth to Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, and the United Provinces (chapter 6). In Britain, for instance, William Blackstone included references to it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1770), but the tale’s authenticity also met with scepticism due to its French origins, while in parts of the Empire Italians were generally credited with the invention of bills of exchange. Alongside tropes of Jewish usury, Montesquieu’s many acolytes, from a Scottish Jacobite over German cameralist Jakob Friedrich von Bielfeld to Cesare Beccaria, helped perpetuate the bifurcated myth into and through the eighteenth century. Useful appendices make the raw data about this protracted transmission as well its central sources available. Following the author’s analysis, the legend won most traction, where Jews lived and where using it had a large explanatory potential as result.

Instead of an in-depth investigation of nineteenth-century works on commercial and maritime law, Trivellato’s last thematic chapter (chapter 7) turns to three stylites of economic thinking: Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Werner Sombart all saw the end of the Middle Ages as a pivotal turning point in economic history. In the case of Marx, she sets his stereotypes apart from other contemporary ones, since he uses Jews as a pars pro toto for society. Sombart, by contrast, played a central role for the myth’s transmission. He introduced a version of the tale found in Wilhelm Roscher into his own account. In Sombart’s Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911) he argued that Jews brought the transition from personal to impersonal economic transactions to maturity in the sixteenth century. Weber famously rejected Sombart’s argument – with no less stereotypical assumptions about alleged tribalism – suggesting that Jews were not able to spearhead impersonal transactions, since they were loyal only to Jews. In the conflict between Sombart and Weber, Trivellato acknowledges the Orientalist mindset of Weber’s approach, but proves Sombart’s highly selective reading of his sources to be much shoddier.

Admittedly, Trivellato points out the largest shortcoming of her nuanced account herself (p. 197): Economic history lacks a bottom-up investigation of the kind presented here – with an eye on regional and national peculiarities – that asks to what extent these tropes influenced nineteenth-century practice from the evolution of legal discourse through popular economic discourse to the nascent discipline of economics. This chapter of the “politics of Jewish commerce” remains, by and large, unwritten, and it merits more research beyond the intellectual Höhenkamm or scandals such as the Dreyfus affair.[3]

The relevance of Trivellato’s findings is immense, however. If any proof is needed that the myth of an intimate connection between Jews and financial instruments – invisible, cunning, and speculative – is alive and well today, one need only consider the campaign against George Soros. By thoroughly internationalising this campaign, the European extreme right has turned attacks on Soros into an anti-Semitic legend about immoral philanthropy. In a speech in 2018, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, one of the early instigators of this particular legend, drew a distinction between “his” people and Soros: “We fight against an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hidden, not straightforward, but smart, not honourable, but dishonourable, not national, but international, who does not believe in work, but speculates with money, who has no homeland of his own, but pretends to own the entire world.”[4]

Not just calling a lie a lie, but exploring in depth how lies were mobilised to address deep-rooted and powerful fears at the heart of capitalism forms a central accomplishment of Trivellato’s work. The book is highly relevant today and truly inspiring.

[1] Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interest. Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph, Princeton 2013.
[2] See her p. 386 (n. 18–22) on engagements with Roscher by Maristella Boticini, Zvi Eckstein, and Adam Sutcliffe.
[3] I borrow the phrase from Jonathan Karp, The Politics of Jewish Commerce. Economic Thought and Emancipation in Europe, 1638–1848, Cambridge 2008.
[4] Quoted in Felix Schlagwein, Wie George Soros zum Feindbild wurde, in: DW Online, 27.05.2020, <https://www.dw.com/de/wie-george-soros-zum-feindbild-wurde/a-53572731> (14.12.2020): „Wir kämpfen gegen einen Feind, der anders ist als wir. Nicht offen, sondern versteckt, nicht geradlinig, sondern schlau, nicht ehrenhaft, sondern unehrenhaft, nicht national, sondern international, der nicht an Arbeit glaubt, sondern mit Geld spekuliert, der kein eigenes Heimatland hat, aber so tut, als ob er die ganze Welt besitzt.“

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