Court Jew

Court Jew

Court Jew (from German: Hofjude(n), Hoffaktor) is a term, typically applied to the Early Modern period, for historical Jewish bankers who handled the finances of, or lent money to, European royalty and nobility.

Examples of what would be later called court Jews emerged in the early medieval period, when the royalty, the nobility and the church borrowed money from Jewish bankers, or employed them as financiers. Jewish financiers could use their family connections, and connections between each other, to provision their sponsors with, among other things, finance, food, arms, ammunition, gold and precious metals. In return for their services, court Jews gained social privileges, including being granted noble status for themselves. Some nobles wanted to keep their bankers in their own courts. And because they were under noble protection, they were exempted from rabbinical jurisdiction.

By the high medieval period, the majority of the European Jewish community were engaged in financial occupations, and the community was a financially highly successful part of the medieval economy (Arkin, 1975; Ben-Sasson, 1976).[1] Ben-Sasson (p. 401)[2] writes: "Western Europe suffered virtual famine for many years in the tenth and eleventh centuries, there is no hint or echo of this in the Jewish sources of the region in this period. The city dweller lived at an aristocratic level, as befitted international merchants and honored local financiers." In the first half of the high medieval period, by most parameters, the standard of living of the Jewish community was at least equal to that of the lower nobility (Roth, 2002).[3] However, despite this economic prosperity, the community was not safe. In the second half of the high medieval period, religious hostility increased to the extent that it manifested itself in the form of massacres and expulsions, culminating in the eventual expulsion of all Jews from most of Western Europe in the late medieval period.

From early medieval times, Jewish financiers could amass personal fortunes and gain political and social influence. Sometimes they were also prominent people in the local Jewish community and could use their influence to protect and influence their brethren. Sometimes they were the only Jews who could interact with the local high society and present petitions of the Jews to the ruler. However, the court Jew had social connections and influence in the Christian world mainly through the Christian nobility and church. Due to the precarious position of Jews, some nobles could ignore their debts. If the sponsoring noble died, his Jewish financier could face exile or execution. A famous example of this process occurred in the 1100s, after the death of Aaron of Lincoln (1125–1186), who had been wealthiest man of 12th century Britain, his wealth exceeding even the King's.[4] After his death, King Henry II requisitioned Aaron's assets over a number of decades, setting up a court for the purpose known as "Aaron's Exchequer". According to the Gervase of Canterbury, the 'Saladin tithe' of 1188 had estimated that the Jewish community of England, numbering significantly less than 1% of the population or less than 3000 people,[5] owned some 30% of the country's wealth; however, within just over a century, the entire Jewish community had been massacred or expelled.


Positions and duties in Early Modern and Modern Europe

Court Jews, called also court factors, and court or chamber agents, played a part at the courts of the Holy Roman emperors and the German princes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and at the beginning of the nineteenth. Not always on account of their learning or their force of character did these Jews rise to positions close to the rulers: they were mostly wealthy businessmen, distinguished above their co-religionists by their commercial instincts and their adaptability. Court rulers looked upon them in a personal and, as a rule, selfish light; as being, on the one hand, their favorites, and, on the other, their whipping-boys. Court Jews frequently suffered through the denunciation of their envious rivals and co-religionists, and were often the objects of hatred of the people and the courtiers. They were of service to their fellow-Jews only during the periods, often short, of their influence with the rulers; and as they themselves often came to a tragic end, their co-religionists were in consequence of their fall all the more harassed.

The court Jews, as the agents of the rulers, and in times of war as the purveyors and the treasurers of the state, enjoyed special privileges. They were under the jurisdiction of the court marshal, and were not compelled to wear the Jews' badge. They were permitted to stay wherever the emperor held his court, and to live anywhere in the Holy Roman Empire, even in places where no other Jews were allowed. Wherever they settled they could buy houses, slaughter meat according to the Jewish ritual, and maintain a rabbi. They could sell their goods wholesale and retail, and could not be taxed or assessed higher than the Christians.

Their Sovereigns sometimes assigned them the role of local tax collection from the above named classes of the ruler’s subjects. These roles built up a long (and some would say still) standing enmity between the Jewish (educated middle and upper) professional class, and the Christian lower middle, working, lower and agricultural classes. The resentments had far-reaching consequences in the history of European Jews.

When the ruler’s bad economic decisions or profligate personal household spending resulted in a decline in national income or a rise in interest rates, with the resultant failure in small share Christian businesses and farms, the Court Jews domestically and abroad were easy to be blamed by the sovereign and his lesser nobles.

From 19th century central and eastern European industrialization and into the European wars and economic depressions of the 20th century the working classes and lower middle classes, small share entrepreneurs, and small scale farmers would draw upon these historical stereotypes. These Christian classes would rally against “International Jewish Money-Capitalism” and because of these beliefs support anti-Jewish policies.

At the Austrian court

The Holy Roman Emperors from the House of Habsburg kept a considerable number of court Jews. Among those of Emperor Ferdinand II are mentioned the following: Solomon and Ber Mayer, who furnished for the wedding of the emperor and Eleonora of Mantua the cloth for four squadrons of cavalry; Joseph Pincherle of Görz; Moses and Joseph Marburger (Morpurgo) of Gradisca; Ventura Pariente of Trieste; the physician Elijah Chalfon of Vienna; Samuel zum Drachen, Samuel zum Straussen, and Samuel zum Weissen Drachen of Frankfort-on-the-Main; and Mordecai Meisel, of Prague. A specially favored court Jew was Jacob Bassevi, the first Jew to be ennobled, with the title "von Treuenberg".

Important as court Jews were also Samuel Oppenheimer, who went from Heidelberg to Vienna, and Samson Wertheimer (Wertheimher) from Worms. Oppenheimer, who was appointed chief court factor, together with his two sons Emanuel and Wolf, and Wertheimer, who was at first associated with him, devoted their time and talents to the service of Austria and the House of Habsburg: during the Rhenish, French, Turkish, and Spanish wars they loaned millions of florins for provisions, munitions, etc. Wertheimer, who, by title at least, was also chief court factor to the electors of Mainz, the Palatinate, and Treves, received from the emperor a chain of honor with his miniature.

Samson Wertheimer was succeeded as court factor by his son Wolf. Contemporaneous with him was Leffmann Behrends, or Liepmann Cohen, of Hanover, court factor and agent of the elector Ernest Augustus and of the duke Rudolf August of Brunswick. He also had relationships with several other rulers and high dignitaries. Behrends' two sons, Mordecai Gumpel and Isaac, received the same titles as he, chief court factors and agents. Isaac Cohen's father-in-law, Behrend Lehman, called also Bärmann Halberstadt, was a court factor of Saxony, with the title of "Resident"; and his son Lehman Behrend was called to Dresden as court factor by King Augustus the Strong. Moses Bonaventura of Prague was also court Jew of Saxony in 1679.

Intrigues of court Jews

The Models were court Jews of the margraves of Ansbach about the middle of the seventeenth century. Especially influential was Marx Model, who had the largest business in the whole principality and extensively supplied the court and the army. He fell into disgrace through the intrigues of the court Jew Elkan Fränkel, member of a family that had been driven from Vienna. Fränkel, a circumspect, energetic, and proud man, possessed the confidence of the margrave to such a degree that his advice was sought in the most important affairs of the state. Denounced by a certain Isaiah Fränkel, however, who desired to be baptized, an accusation was brought against Elkan Fränkel; and the latter was pilloried, scourged, and sent to the Würzburg for life imprisonment November 2, 1712. He died there 1720.

David Rost, Gabriel Fränkel, and, in 1730, Isaac Nathan (Ischerlein) were court Jews together with Elkan Fränkel; Ischerlein, through the intrigues of the Fränkels, suffered the same fate as Elkan Fränkel. Nevertheless, Nathan's son-in-law, Dessauer, became court Jew. Other court Jews of the princes of Ansbach were Michael Simon and Löw Israel (1743), Meyer Berlin, and Amson Solomon Seligmann (1763).

The Great Elector

The Great Elector, Frederick William, also kept a court Jew at Berlin, Israel Aaron (1670), who by his influence tried to prevent the influx of foreign Jews into the Prussian capital. Other court Jews of the elector were Gumpertz (died 1672), Berend Wulff (1675), and Solomon Fränkel (1678). More influential than any of these was Jost Liebmann. Through his marriage with the widow of the above-named Israel Aaron, he succeeded to the latter's position, and was highly esteemed by the elector. He had continual quarrels with the court Jew of the crown prince, Markus Magnus. After his death, his influential position fell to his widow, the well-known Liebmannin, who was so well received by Frederick III (from 1701 King Frederick I of Prussia) that she could go unannounced into his cabinet.

There were court Jews at all the petty German courts; e.g., Zacharias Seligmann (1694) in the service of the Prince of Hesse-Homburg, and others in the service of the dukes of Mecklenburg. Others mentioned toward the end of the seventeenth century are: Bendix and Ruben Goldschmidt of Homburg; Michael Hinrichsen of Glückstadt, who soon associated himself with Moses Israel Fürst, and whose son, Reuben Hinrichsen, in 1750 had a fixed salary as court agent. About this time the court agent Wolf lived at the court of Frederick III of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Disputes with the court Jews often led to protracted lawsuits.

The last actual court Jews were Israel Jacobson, court agent of Brunswick, and Wolf Breidenbach, factor to the Elector of Hesse, both of whom occupy honorable positions in the history of the Jews.

Examples of court Jews

In fiction, Isaac the Jew in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe serves this purpose to Prince John and other nobles.

See also


  1. ^ Arkin, M. (ed.) (1975) Aspects of Jewish Economic History. The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia
  2. ^ Ben-Sasson, H. (1976) A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press, Cambridge
  3. ^ Roth, N. (2002) Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages V.7. Routledge, London
  4. ^ The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500 , Chazan, Robert (2006). New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-521-84666-8. 
  5. ^ Prestwich, Michael (1997), Edward I, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-3000715-7-4
  6. ^ Abrabanel/Abravanel at
  7. ^ Van Cleave Alexander, Michael. The first of the Tudors: a study of Henry VII and his reign, Taylor & Francis, 1981, p.97.
  8. ^ Deutsch, Gotthard; Feilchenfeld, Alfred. Josel (Joselmann, Joselin) of Rosheim (Joseph Ben Gershon Loanz) at
  9. ^ Meisel at
  10. ^ Deutsch, Gotthard. Jacob Bassevi Von Treuenberg at
  11. ^ Gottheil, Richard; Freimann, A. Leffmann Behrends at
  12. ^ Singer, Isidore; Kisch, Alexander. Samuel Oppenheimer at
  13. ^ Singer, Isidore; Mannheimer, S. Samson Wertheimer at
  14. ^ Genealogy Data Page 1948,
  15. ^ Guggenheim Family Tree
  16. ^ Krauss, Samuel. Joachim Edler von Popper. Ein Zeit- und Lebensbild aus der Geschichte der Juden in Böhmen. Vienna, 1926.
  17. ^ Singer, Isidore; Templer, Bernhard. Israel Hönig (Edler Von Hönigsberg) at
  18. ^ Singer, Isidore; Baar, H. Israel Jacobson at


  • L. Donath, Geschichte der Juden in Mecklenburg, Leipsic, 1874.
  • S. Haenle, Geschichte der Juden im ehemaligen Fürstenthum Ansbach, Ansbach, 1867;
  • Jahrbuch für Geschichte der Juden und Judenthum. 1 (1860); 239 et seq.;
  • D. Kaufmann, Samson Wertheimer, der Oberhoffactor und Landesrabbiner, Vienna, 1888;
  • M. Wiener, "Liepmann Cohen und Seine Söhne", in Monatsschrift. xiii, 161 et seq.;

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