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June 15: The Magna Carta and the Jews

June 15, 2011

The Magna Carta (“Great Charter”), a breakthrough document in the evolution of democracy, was signed under duress by King John of England on this date in 1215, five days after the barons of the land had seized the city of London. The document, which placed some limits on the king’s power, contained two provisions about Jews and money-lending. Medieval Christians were forbidden by Church law from lending money at interest, so much of the money-lending industry was concentrated in Jewish hands. This profited the king, who needed financial credit and also plundered Jewish wealth through levies and confiscations. (If a Jew died with monies owed, the King had the right to collect the debt.) The Magna Carta did not alter this arrangement or prohibit imprisonment for debt, but imposed two reforms: it assured that debts would not accumulate interest or become burdensome for underage heirs or widows.

“Jews are the sponges of kings, they are bloodsuckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings despoil and deprive poor men of their goods.” —William de Montibus