By Karl Radl
Jews have long been linked with banking and loans in the popular understanding of medieval history, but what has somewhat been forgotten is that in addition to this reputation they were also linked – as today – with financial crimes.
A good example of this… shall we say… bad habit is coin clipping. This is the practice of debasing the coinage – when it was still actually made of precious metals – by clipping off the edges of the coins, thus reducing their size and weight while they ostensibly retained the same market value. This generated wealth for the coin clipper by providing them with an additional store of precious metals.
Clearly, the more currency that passed through the hands of the coin clipper, the more wealth they could generate. The fact that the Jews were the principal moneylenders in medieval England up till their expulsion by King Edward I in 1290 (1) and that they produced one the richest men in England in the medieval epoch (2) places them in prime position to be potentially the worst culprits.
This impression is confirmed by the fact that Jews primarily functioned as lenders to the landed classes, especially the crown and aristocracy; (3) were an almost exclusively urban population, (4) and worked as moneylenders and bullion dealers specializing in silver plate. (5)
Thus, when the medieval monastic chronicler Matthew Paris relates as follows in his ‘Major Chronicle’ (i.e. ‘Chronica Majora’), we should take his comments seriously:
‘Moreover the above-mentioned king, noticing that the English money, which was extremely useful to traders in his kingdom because of its metal, had been very much diminished in value and impaired by the swindlers who are called coin clippers, order that any sterlings found in his kingdom not of the legal weight were to be melted down at once, so that neither the merchants nor the trade should any longer be troubled by such spurious money. The same thing was now feared in England owing to the considerable diminution in the value of the coins. Moreover it was said and discovered that the coins were being circumcised by circumcised people and infidel Jews who, because of the heavy royal taxes, were reduced to begging. Other crimes, too, were said to have originated with them.’ (6)
As well as:
‘At this time, the English money was so intolerably debased by money-clippers and forgers that neither the inhabitants nor even foreigners could contemplate it with serene eye or an even temper. The coins were clipped almost to the inner circle and the inscription round the border either completely deleted or very badly defaced. It was therefore proclaimed in the king’s name by public criers in towns, fairs and markets that no one should accept a penny that was not of legal weight and circumference nor should such a coin in any way be used by a vendor, buyer or in exchange; violators of this decree to be punished. Some trouble was taken to discover these falsifiers so that, if judicially convicted of the crime, they might be suitably punished. After a most through enquiry, some Jews and some notorious Cahorsins, and a few Flemish wool merchants, were found culpable. The lord king of the French ordered all such people found in his kingdom to be exposed to the winds by being suspended on gibbets’ (7).
Paris’ mention of Cahorsins and some Flemish wool merchants engaging in the practice is not surprising. As Dyer notes, they also engaged in the practice of money lending and were subject to royal protection like the Jews (8). They were thus able to engage in the practice of coin clipping profitably due to the quantity of coins that consistently passed through their hands.
Roth has attempted to use the presence of non-Jewish coin clippers to claim that the Jews didn’t engage in the practice in any significant way, (9) but even he is compelled to admit that Jews did engage in it (10). This counter-argument is debunked by citing two among the several known cases we have of Jews engaging in coin-clipping.
Firstly, we have the case of Milo de Eveske (otherwise Cohen) who was executed for coin clipping in 1255 (11). Milo was no small fish; he was one of the most senior Jews of Bristol, a member of the ‘Jewish Parliament’ responsible to the Crown, (12) and a major financier in his own right (13). He was also the father of the influential Jewish community figure and financier Cresse de Eveske (aka Gedalya Cohen). (14)
Secondly, we have the case of Aaron of Ireland – the son of Benjamin of Colchester – who was prosecuted, found guilty and substantially fined for having created silver plate made of coin clippings and then having tried to sell this for a further profit to Christian merchants in 1286 (15).
We know Aaron was guilty because when he was challenged by the merchant he immediately ran off and threw the incriminating evidence (i.e. the silver plate) in the river, from which it was then recovered and used against him in court (16). Once again, Aaron was no small fry; he was the head of the substantial Jewish community in Colchester, as well as the much smaller Jewish presence in Ireland (17).
These two cases serve to demonstrate the fact that the Jews engaged in coin clipping were not just a few bad eggs – as Roth would have us believe – since these are senior Jewish community figures, not Jewish peddlers trying to make a few extra pennies here and there. These cases serve as evidence of a systematic practice in which they were able to engage because of their economic position as the premier moneylenders in medieval England.
Thus, the charge of coin clipping is both founded in fact and provides additional justification our taking medieval forebears seriously on the subject of Jews and Judaism, rather than viewing their comments as mere idle prejudice.
(1) Christopher Dyer, 2002, ‘Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850 – 1520’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, p. 196
(2) Cecil Roth, 1964, ‘A History of the Jews in England’, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press: New York, p. 15
(3) Dyer, Op. Cit., p. 178; also see Rodney Hilton, 1975, ‘The English Peasantry in the Later Middle Ages’, 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: New York, p. 183
(4) Dyer, Op. Cit., pp. 178; 195
(5) Ibid, p. 211
(6) Richard Vaughan (Ed and Trans.), 1984, ‘Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century’, 1st Edition, St. Martin’s Press: New York, p. 95
(7) Ibid, pp. 139-140
(8) Dyer, Op. Cit., p. 223; also Robert Chazan, 2006, ‘The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500’, 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York, p. 165
(9) Roth, Op. Cit., pp. 74-75
(10) Ibid, p. 121
(11) Judith Samuel, 1997, ‘Jews in Bristol: The History of the Jewish Community in Bristol from the Middle Ages to the Present Day’, 1st Edition, Redcliffe: Bristol, p. 29
(12) Ibid, p. 28
(13) Ibid, p. 29
(14) Ibid, pp. 28-29
(15) Ibid, pp. 35-36; Louis Hyman, 1972, ‘The Jews of Ireland: From the Earliest Times to the Year 1910’, 1st Edition, Israel Universities Press: Jerusalem, p. 4
(16) Samuel, Op. Cit., p. 35
(17) Ibid; Hyman, Op. Cit., p. 4