Princes and Jews in 15th Century Italy

By Pierre Savy

Influential historians such as Cecil Roth, Attilio Milano, and others noted long ago that late medieval Italian princes generally implemented more welcoming and protective policies towards the Jews than oligarchic regimes (“republics”) did–an attitude that may appear counter-intuitive, should one believe through the anachronistic lens of today that accepting religious diversity is typical of republican regimes, whereas autocratic regimes go together with intolerance. Clearly, things are far more complex.

My research, devoted to Princely policies towards the Jews in Northern Italy (1370-1520)[1], set to be published by French publisher PUF in Spring 2023, intends to focus on this issue with the intent to go beyond the simple explanation of the economic benefit of a Jewish presence that, after all, could have been equally beneficial to non-princely regimes. My hypothesis is that princely policies towards the Jews were a touchstone in the history of state-building processes, as well as central to the function and value of princely power, here investigated without drawing on theoretical literature, but from an empirical perspective. It basically consists in “thinking (politics) with the Jews” (“Is it still Jewish studies?”, one might wonder on a blog devoted to medievalJewishStudiesNow![2]): but “thinking with” does not necessarily imply conceiving of the Jews as completely passive. On the contrary, it gives the opportunity to see how Jews negotiated, informed, circumvented, and, in short, partly determined the princely policies where they lived in Northern Italy.

One of the main results of my research is that Jewish communities were those among many others; and that such heterogeneous political entities were better accepted in princely systems than in republican ones. Jews were referred to with a political lexicon comparable to the lexicon used for valley communities, autonomous towns or even feudatories; they occupied a comparable political space; they sometimes enjoyed the position of citizens, whatever the meaning of citizenship was, be that permanent or provisory, extended or limited. The same prince who sought to reduce diversity by imposing his authority to all, under the strong concept of being a “subject” (Italian suddito) was striving to achieve a political programme which, fundamentally, was not that of a fluid and homogeneous society, but that of a power exercised over many particularisms, that were broadly accepted as long as order, security and justice were respected: “our intention is that every Jew should be able to live in our country safely”, a Milanese ducal official wrote in 1452.

Archivio di Stato di Milano, Missive, 2, f. 161r, 22 September 1450, ducal letter to Giovanni Boldezono: concession of the stronghold of Lachiarella to the Jew Manno of Pavia (“[…] dare domum sive rochetam Giarele Mano ebreo pro duobus annis […]”).

Jews therefore continued to play a decisive economic role within the majority society, in moneylending, of course, but also in trade, crafts and professions such as medicine, engineering or, more occasionally, on the cultural level: they benefited from a position of “integrative marginality”, an oxymoron inspired to me by some works of Ariel Toaff, meaning that being “in the margins” paradoxically gave them important socioeconomic possibilities. But their presence could be abruptly interrupted, or the very modalities of their acceptance could be very easily rediscussed. In addition, tensions and threats seemed greater as time passed. In a word, Jews, even if they kept occupying positions of intermediaries (middlemen) and had a certain social proximity to power, lived in a position of uncertainty.

It is difficult to define the Jewish awareness of this phenomenon in the present state of knowledge. On the one hand, we have the feeling that the Jews were loyal to the princely regime, perfect subjects of the prince, confident in a vertical alliance, like a Jew of Savoy, Vivando, who, when attacked in 1443, shouted: “Savoy, Savoy, help, help”. On the other hand, on the theoretical level, in the little that is still known about the perception of contemporary realities by the Jews of Italy, a leader like Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) adopted an original political thought, essentially anti-monarchical, arguing that to choose a king in this world was to ignore the true king, God, whom we empirically observe is on the side of the republics, more prosperous and less corrupt than the principalities. The political perceptions of the actors therefore do not necessarily coincide with the general picture I am drawing, due to the weight of the Spanish experience of 1492 (the expulsion), the negative evolution of the princely states at the end of the century and, perhaps most importantly, the overwhelming weight of theological-political considerations in the author’s positions.

All this is part of a long history. The relatively good position that the Jews enjoyed in 15th-century Italy was not the prefiguration or the prehistory of the progress made during the Enlightenment, but it did constitute stages in the progress of the idea of rights: it must have somehow and somewhere instilled the idea that Jews too could be citizens and/or subjects. A non-linear and non-cumulative progress, though – so that the worst can happen and, indeed, has happened.

Today, at a time when the security of the old royal alliance is wavering, when distrust of a republican system whose promise is no longer entirely fulfilled is growing, and when, finally, the manifestations of an uncertainty that we could (or wanted to) believe had been overcome are increasing, reflecting on the goodness of regimes that were undemocratic and unequal may seem to be symptomatic of a crisis. But, above all, if one of the interests of our profession consists in revealing worlds that have been forgotten or that are now difficult to conceive of, then the study of this princely benevolence in Northern Italy during the pre-modern era, however now counter-intuitive, merits a return to scholarly focus.

[1] Les politiques princières à l’égard des Juifs en Italie du Nord (1370-1520) was the title of the unpublished part of my habilitation à diriger des recherches supervised by Prof. Guido Castelnuovo and defended on 16 February 2022 in the Université d’Avignon.

[2] To be honest, the question of “whether it is medieval?” is another, in my opinion less interesting, question.

Pierre Savy is Director for Medieval Studies at the École française de Rome. He is involved in various collective research projects on minorities and religious identities in the medieval West. Along with his forthcoming monograph Les princes d’Italie du Nord et les Juifs au XVe siècle (Paris: PUF, 2023), his publications include Seigneurs et condottières : les Dal Verme. Appartenances sociales, constructions étatiques et pratiques politiques dans l’Italie de la Renaissance (Rome, École française de Rome, 2013); Edition, Introduction and Notes of: Martin Luther, Des Juifs et de leurs mensonges (1543), transl. Johannes Honigmann (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2015); as well as the edition, with Judith Kogel, of: Meïr ben Siméon de Narbonne, Lettre à Louis IX sur la condition des Juifs du royaume de France, transl. Judith Kogel (Paris, Éditions de l’éclat, 2017). He recently published a collective Histoire des Juifs. Un voyage en 80 dates, de l’Antiquité à nos jours (Paris, PUF, 2020) translated into Italian in 2021, English translation currently in press.

About Hannah Teddy Schachter

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Doctoral Fellow of the ERC-funded research group "Beyond the Elite: Jewish Daily Life in Medieval Europe" led by Prof. Elisheva Baumgarten. While my PhD explores the relationships between Jews and royal women--specifically queens--in 13th-century France, my further research considers how Jews danced and incorporated musical movement into their lives during the European Middle Ages.

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