Skip to main content

Did Jews Really “Control the Economy”?

A Look at Jewish Merchants in the Early Middle Ages

The proverbial Jewish merchant appears in world literature throughout the Middle Ages in what is most often a less than complimentary light.  Christian sources especially tend to portray Jewish businessmen as greedy, sly, and dishonest.  Since historians base their theories on the sources available to them, some go so far as to conclude that all commerce and trade between the Christian and Muslim worlds in the Middle Ages was monopolized by Jews.1Michael Toch. The Jews in Europe, 500-1050. Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. I, Cambridge 2004.

Not surprisingly, anti-Semites have used these theories to claim that Jews have always controlled the world economy and to blame the Jews for all of the world’s ills. In this article, we will examine both Jewish and non-Jewish sources as we attempt to present a more accurate picture of the Jewish role in the world economy in the Early Middle Ages.

The World in the Early Middle Ages

Title: Three Jewish merchants
Author: Johan Martin Bill Roth
Date: Possibly, 1829-1851

The time period we will focus on, is roughly the years 500 – 1000 CE, which is generally referred to as the Early Middle Ages or Dark Ages. This time is referred to as “dark” because it was a period of  decline in the civilized world following the fall of the Roman Empire, marked by a lack of structure and stability. There were no major empires and societies lacked central leadership.

By the end of the 7th century, the newly emerged religion of Islam had come to prominence.  Muslim leaders quickly gained followers and set out to conquer the world, taking over one country after another.

Their only formidable opponent was Christianity, which slowly gained strength in Western Europe under the unifying umbrella of the Catholic church.  In the 8th century, the Christians managed to halt the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.  By 800 CE, the Frankish king Charlemagne had himself crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a newly formed polity that sought to lay claim to the glory once possessed by the original Roman Empire.

Thus, at the beginning of the 9th century, the civilized world was divided into two major enclaves: the Muslim world and the Christian world.  Their mutual hostility occasionally erupted into armed conflict, with each trying to seize parts of the other’s territory.  This situation would continue for the rest of the Middle Ages, with ongoing battles over Spain, as well as the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

Jews as Ambassadors Between the Christian and Muslim Worlds

Title: Harun al-Rashid receiving a delegation of Charlemagne in Baghdad
Artist: Julius Köckert (1827–1918)
Date: 1864
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The hostility between East and West made traveling between them difficult for both Muslims and Christians.  Jews, however, were able to travel freely between and within the Muslim and Christian worlds, and thus, both sides employed Jews to facilitate communication.

The names and specific details of most Jewish travelers in that era do not appear in the annals of history. However, there is one Jewish traveler whose name and mission are known to us from a Frankish source.

Eginhard of Franconia, secretary, and biographer of Emperor Charlemagne, describes the delegation Charlemagne sent in 787 CE to Harun-ar-Rashid, the king of Persia.  In 801 CE, the delegation returned, or more accurately, only one member of the delegation returned alive and well – a Jew named Isaac. Eginhard writes,2Quoted in Elkan Nathan Adler’s Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts, Dover Publications, New York, 1987.

[T]he Jew Isaac, whom he [Emperor Charlemagne] had sent four years previously to the King of the Persians with Sigismond and Lanfred, was returning with great presents, but, as to Lanfred and Sigismond, they were both dead. The Emperor then sent the Notary Erchinbald to Liguria to prepare a fleet to carry the elephant and the other things which Isaac was bringing with him…

In the month of October of this year (801), the Jew Isaac returned from Africa with the elephant, entered the Port of Vendres and passed the winter at Vercelli, because he could not cross the Alps, which were covered with snow.

On the 20th July, Isaac came and brought to the Emperor the elephant and other presents which the King of the Persians had sent him. The elephant’s name was Abulabaz.

Thus, the Frankish emperor used the services of a Jew to maintain contact and good relations with the Persian king.  Historians suggest that Isaac was sent with the Frankish delegation as an interpreter.  As evident from this quote, travel in those times was dangerous and not everyone was able to return home safely.  Even an elephant could not cross the Alps in the winter, and the Jewish traveler had to postpone the journey back home till the snow melted.

Trade Between the Christian and Muslim Worlds

Title: Aloe
Description: Aloe, mentioned as one of the trading items by ibn Khordadbeh, was popular since ancient times. This picture of aloe is from a 515 CE Greek book
Date: 515
Source: Juliana Anicia Codex
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the dangers that travel entailed, many Jews took advantage of their unique ability to travel freely among both Muslims and Christians.  Commerce became a popular and lucrative occupation for Jews.

In the 9th century, a Muslim geographer Abu’l-Qasim Ubaydallah ibn Abdallah ibn Khordadbeh wrote, The Book of Ways and Kingdoms, where he described the lands, people, and cultures of the east. He included a description of Jewish merchants he called ar-Rhadaniya (rendered in English as Radanites or Radhanites). Ibn Khordadbeh wrote,3Quoted in Elkan Nathan Adler’s Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages: 19 Firsthand Accounts, Dover Publications, New York, 1987.

These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman (i.e. Greek and Latin), the Frank, Spanish, and Slav languages.  They journey from West to East, from East to West, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the West eunuchs, female slaves, boys, brocade, castor, marten, and other furs, and swords… On their return… they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries.

Ibn Khordadbeh proceeds to outline the different routes traversed by the Radanites.  We will come back to those routes later in this article.

There are very few other sources that mention the Radanites, and none of them offer more information than does ibn Khordadbeh. Thus, ibn Khordadbeh’s description of Radanites drew much attention from historians, who concluded that there was a whole class of Jewish merchants.

In his study of the Radanites,  historian Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz writes that “during the 9th century possessed substantive trading advantages in the Mohammedan world because of the unity of Judaism, a common language (Hebrew), and the existence of Jewish communities along recognized trade routes.”4Louis Isaac Rabinowitz. Jewish Merchant Adventurers: A Study of the Radanites. E. Goldston, 1948.

Some historians went so far as to suggest that these Jewish merchants held a monopoly on all trade between east and west.  Rabbi Rabinowitz continues, “Consider the profits the Radanites stood to make by transporting Indian and Chinese goods to Christian Europe where they had a virtual monopoly as well as along the entire length of the North African littoral as far as Morocco, and past the Pillars of Hercules to Spain.”

Other historians argue against Rabinowitz’s notion of a Radanite monopoly and maintain that they were but a small minority among medieval merchants.  Israeli historian Michael Toch analyzes the available evidence and concludes5Michael Toch. The Jews in Europe, 500-1050. Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. I, Cambridge 2004. that “at no point did Jewish trade constitute the critical mass needed to provide the bridge between Occident and Orient.”

Why Were the Jewish Merchants Called Radanites?

Description: Drainage basin of Rhône River
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given the sparsity of information available about the Radanites, there is much disagreement, among historians about which part of the world these Jewish merchants were from, and as well, about the name “Radanites” itself.

Israeli historian Moshe Gil analyzes the different theories in his article, The Rādhānite Merchants and the Land of Rādhān.6Moshe Gil. The Rādhānite Merchants and the Land of Rādhān. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. Vol. 17, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 299-328.  He explains that the dispute revolves around whether the Radanites originated in the west or in the east. Ibn Khordadbeh’s description begins with the journey from west to east and then discusses the journey from east to west.  Based on this order, some historians believe that the Radanites originated from western Europe and suggest that the name is related to the name of the Rhône river that flows through that area.

Gil, however, argues that the place-name “Radhan” is of Persian origin and refers to a district on the eastern shore of the Tigris river.  He suggests that the reason ibn Khordadbeh begins his description from the west is because it is the more intriguing part of the story for the easterners and the main destination of travelers from the east.  In addition, Gil brings other sources to support his assertion that Jewish merchants were especially active in the east, including Geonic responsa that deal with commerce.

It is also possible that the Radanites comprised a whole network of Jewish merchants. Thus, an individual Jewish merchant did not necessarily traverse the whole trade route but might have been a link in the commercial chain, traveling to the next destination and passing his merchandise on to a different Jewish merchant to take it further along the route.

There are certain Geonic responsa that seems to demonstrate the existence of such commercial networks.  For instance, the Geonim were occasionally asked to arbitrate disputes among business partners where, in one case, the two partners lived a distance of a two months’ journey from each other, and in other cases, where the merchandise was transported by ship by one partner to another.7Jacob Mann. The Responsa of the Babylonian Geonim as a Source of Jewish History. The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 2/3 (Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920), pp. 309-365.

Where did the Radanites Travel?

Title: Map of Pelusium in Egypt
Description: Map of Lower Ancient Egypt, showing the Nile and major cities and sites of the Dynastic period (c. 3150 BC to 30 BC).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khordadbeh describes four different routes traversed by the Radanites. They are:

  1. By ship from France to Pelusium (Egypt), then by camel to Suez, then by boat from al-Kolzum to al-Jar and al-Jeddah (Mecca and Medina on the Arabian Peninsula), then by land to Pakistan, India, and China.  On the return trip, they would travel by land to al-Kolzum (Suez) to Pelusium, and from there, some Radanites would proceed by ship to Constantinople while others would travel to the palace of the King of the Franks.
  2. From France by ship to Antioch (modern-day Turkey), then by land to al-Jabia (on the bank of the Euphrates, in modern-day Iraq), then by ship on the Euphrates to Baghdad (modern-day Iraq), then by ship down the Tigris to al-Obolla (on the Persian Gulf in modern-day Iraq), then by ship to Oman, Pakistan, India, and China.
  3. From France or Spain by land to Sus al-Aksa (Morocco), then by land to Tangier, then by land to Kairouan (Tunisia) and Egypt, then to Ramleh (Eretz Yisrael), Damascus (Syria), al-Kufa (modern-day Iraq), Baghdad (modern-day Iraq), Basra (modern-day Iraq), Ahvaz (modern-day Iran), Fars (Persia), Kerman (modern-day Iraq), Pakistan, India, and China.
  4. From Rome through the country of the Slavs (Eastern Europe) to Khamlidj (also known as Atil, the capital of Khazaria), then by ship over the Caspian Sea to Balkh (modern-day Afghanistan), then across the Oxus river to Yurt, Toghuzghuz (today a province in China), and China proper.

From this exhaustive list, we see that the Radanites traveled throughout the known world at that time, traversing all existing trade routes.  This is why some historians concluded that the Radanites formed the backbone of commerce in the Early Middle Ages.

However, Professor Toch argues8Jacob Mann. The Responsa of the Babylonian Geonim as a Source of Jewish History. The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 2/3 (Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920), pp. 309-365. that “Jews were but one element, significant only for their religious difference, among many more merchants of different creeds and nations.” He analyzes sources from that time period and concludes, “The only thing these sources do say is that there were both Jewish and non-Jewish merchants, and thus by simple logic no-trade monopoly.”

Commerce in Geonic Responsa

While non-Jewish sources on the Radanites are scant, Jewish sources from the Early Middle Ages provide much more information about the daily lives of Jewish merchants and the challenges they faced.

The Jewish historian Jacob Mann analyzed the Geonic responsa of the time, and his research confirmed that Jews in the Early Middle Ages were involved in extensive travel and commercial activity, including some of the transportation of merchandise mentioned by ibn Khordadbeh.  In his article, The Responsa of the Babylonian Geonim as a Source of Jewish History,9Jacob Mann. The Responsa of the Babylonian Geonim as a Source of Jewish History. The Jewish Quarterly Review, Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 2/3 (Oct., 1919 – Jan., 1920), pp. 309-365. Mann wrote,

Several responsa show that Jews frequently travelled on the large navigable rivers like the Tigris, Euphrates, and the Nile.  They traversed the Mediterranean in pursuit of a livelihood.  The Geonim were consulted as to the observance of the Sabbath on board the ship.  Similar questions were asked about how the Sabbath should be kept while travelling in caravans. In one responsum, Sherira [Gaon] mentions that Jews from the west (probably from Spain or Morocco) would come in caravans to Egypt traversing a great distance through desert land.  Jews used to travel far and wide in their business enterprises, which often kept them away from their homes. This must have happened very frequently causing the Bet-Din to take the matter in hand, since it entailed many hardships for women who were left without their husbands for years.  R’ Natronai (of Sura, 853-6) states that the Bet-Din used to warn and to enjoin those that left their homes for business purposes not to stay away too long, especially when their wives objected to their husbands taking long and dangerous journeys.

Mann elaborates on the dangers involved in these journeys:

Jews frequently encountered dangers on account of robbers and brigands, and had to give up all their money in order to save their lives… frequently they were exposed to chicanery on the part of the various authorities of the many towns and municipalities through which they passed, and this constant struggling of the Jew with the circumstances around him made him versatile and able to help himself in every emergency.

What can we conclude from the information we have about the Radanites?  Jews were certainly heavily involved in commerce in the Early Middle Ages, and perhaps made a significant contribution to world trade.  However, commerce entailed taking risks and encountering dangers.  Jewish merchants did the best they could in the face of these challenges, consulting their rabbis when questionable situations came up.

Did the Jews in the Early Middle Ages control the economy? Certainly not.  They took advantage of the opportunities available to them to support their families and their communities, and despite the bleak atmosphere of the Dark Ages, the Jewish communities of the time grew and prospered in relative peace.

Jewish Merchants and Slave Trade

Title: Christian prisoners are sold as slaves on a square in Algiers
Author: Jan Luyken
Date: 1684
Source: Rijksmuseum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khordadbeh lists slaves as the top merchandise that Radanites transported from west to east. Understandably, 21st century readers cringe at the notion. We will now explore the role of Jewish merchants in the slave trade in the Early Middle Ages.

That slavery was an essential component of the economy in that time period is an indisputable fact. Many sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish, demonstrate that some Jews at the time owned slaves while others were slaves themselves. Thus, Jews purchased individual slaves for their own households.

However, whether Jewish merchants bought large groups of slaves for the purpose of resale is questionable.  In fact, a later mention of the Radanites by the Muslim geographer Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadhāni does not mention slaves at all in its list of Radanite merchandise.

In addition, the slave trade raises halachic issues. There is a prohibition against selling a non-Jewish slave – who had lived and worked in a Jewish household and accepted upon himself the mitzvos mandated for slaves – to a non-Jew. One can argue that this prohibition does not apply to slaves owned temporarily with the explicit purpose of resale, who never become members of the Jewish household.

Professor Miriam Frenkel of Hebrew University discusses this issue in her article The Slave Trade in the Geniza Society.10Miriam Frenkel. The Slave Trade in the Geniza Society. Slavery and the Slave Tradein the Eastern Mediterranean (c. 1000–1500 CE). Edited by Reuven Amitai and Christoph Cluse.  She quotes a shaila addressed to Rav Nachman Gaon, head of the Sura yeshiva in the years 872-879:

It is usual in our places to buy slaves cheaply and there is no merchandise as good as this. Is it permitted to sell them immediately? For only one [slave] out of a hundred accepts the Jewish commandments, and we have a lot of profit from [selling] them.

Rav Nachman Gaon responded,

Since they do not accept the commandments, it is permitted to sell them to Gentiles – for when the Sages said: ‘One may not sell Israelite slaves to the Gentiles’, this refers to slaves who observe the commandments, but as for these, who do not accept the commandments, it is permitted [to sell them to Gentiles].

From this responsum, we can conclude that slave trade by Jewish merchants was at the very least a questionable practice that required a psak halacha. The phrasing of the question suggests that the reason the questioner is interested in selling slaves is because those slaves were not willing to accept the mitzvos. It is not clear whether he is actively involved in slave trade or is simply seeking to avoid loss by selling those slaves who would not adapt to a Jewish household.

Based on a survey of this and other responsa, Professor Frenkel concludes, “It is thus plausible to assume that Jewish traders were indeed involved in the slave trade down to the ninth century but gradually withdrew from this activity until they totally renounced it by the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.” She goes on to bring evidence for the decline in Jewish slave trade after 9th century.

However, Professor Michael Toch, also of the Hebrew University, argues that slave trade was never a major Jewish industry to begin with.11Michael Toch. Was There a Jewish Slave Trade (or Commercial Monopoly) in the Early Middle Ages? Stefan Hanß, Juliane Schiel (eds.), Mediterranean Slavery Revisited (500-1800), Zürich 2014: Chronos, 421-444.  He goes through many sources that refer to Jews buying or selling slaves and shows that none of them indicate a significant Jewish involvement in slave trade. The Christian sources, in particular, while especially vicious when discussing Jews owning slaves, do not indicate that those slaves were resold for profit. They only demonstrate that Jews at the time owned household slaves and that Christians were very concerned about those slaves taking on Judaism.

Professor Toch concludes,

Altogether, one text for the 5th to 7th centuries and two more for the 8th to 11th centuries portray Jews buying and selling slaves. Most of the other sources usually cited are wholly irrelevant; others can be more convincingly read as evidence for the purchase, employment and selling of household slaves. We must thus come to the conclusion that there is no textual basis for the slave-trade thesis.

He goes on to show that there is no archeological evidence for active Jewish slave trade, nor is there any evidence of heavy involvement in slave trade in the Jewish sources from that time period. He writes, “[T]he absence from the slave trade is borne out in full by the legal sources extant in Hebrew since the 10th century.  The only slaves mentioned in this huge corpus of writings are household servants, male and female… For Middle Eastern Jewry too the huge corpus of documentation fails to provide evidence for any significant slave trade.” Professor Toch concludes,

The slave-trade thesis has only a tenuous basis in historical reality. Even though Jews might perhaps have participated to some degree in the trade, they never constituted a noteworthy element in it. They surely did not dominate it.

%d bloggers like this: