Et si quis moriatur, et debitum debeat Judaeis, uxor ejus habeat dotem suam, et nihil reddat de debito illo; et si liberi ipsius defuncti qui fuerint infra aetatem remanserint, provideantur eis necessaria secundum tenementum quod fuerit defuncti, et de residuo solvatur debitum, salvo servitio dominorum; simili modo fiat de debitis quae debentur aliis quam Judaeis.
And if anyone dies, and owes a debt to Jews, his wife is to have her dower and pay nothing towards that debt. And if there are surviving children of the deceased who are under age, their needs are to be provided for them in proportion to the dead man’s tenement, and the debt is to be paid from the residue, saving the service owed to the lords. Debts owed to others besides Jews are to be dealt with in like manner.
Clause 11, as it finally appeared in Magna Carta (some important alterations had first to be made to it), was primarily concerned to mitigate the effects on dependents, whether these were widows or under-age children, of indebtedness to Jews on the part of deceased husbands and parents. English Jews stood in a unique relationship with the king, who gave them the protection they needed against the hostility felt for them in society at large, as a result of their religious practice and also of their activities as money-lenders. Unlike Christians, Jews were permitted to lend money at interest, and did so at high rates – usually forty-three per cent per annum. Royal protection was given at a price, however, in that the resources of Jews were liable to what could be heavy taxation, while debts to them frequently passed into the hands of the king, who could then collect them as if they were owed to himself. Because they lived principally by money-lending, Jews had no option but to pass on the effects of such exactions to those with whom they dealt.
Henry II and Richard I made relatively limited use of their powers over Jews, but John exploited them to the utmost, especially in the second half of his reign. He imposed a massive tallage – an arbitrary levy – on them in 1210, enforcing payment by brutal methods which clearly shocked contemporary chroniclers, and made every effort to secure the payment of the many Jewish debts which had come into his possession. He also put his executive powers at the disposal of Jews who were trying to recover their debts, in return for ten per cent of the money owed. By 1212 John’s exploitation of Jewish resources had become so deeply resented that the king himself offered to ease up on it, but his financial needs soon led to a renewal of pressure, on Jews and their debtors alike. There is in fact very little precise evidence for the practices which Clause 11 of Magna Carta were intended to prevent, but references to widows having to pay to the king, sometimes over many years, debts which had originally been owed to Jews, and to widows protecting their dowers against royal demands which had similarly originated in Jewish debts, suggest that this clause met genuine needs. That the Charter did not do more to restrain the crown in its exploitation of its effective control over Jews may have been due to an understanding that Jewish financial skills, and in particular their ability to provide cash to those who needed it, were essential to the country’s economic life, and also to a feeling on the part of the barons that the king’s particular relationship with English Jews was something they were only entitled to interfere with in a strictly limited way.
John deals with Loretta de Braose and Isaac of Norwich (The Itinerary of King John)
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