Jews and Muslims in the Portuguese Economy [Before the Inquisition]

Traditional studies examining the economic role of medieval Jews have generally placed a very heavy emphasis on their role as usurers and tax farmers. More recent research on the economic life of the Jewish communities established in the Kingdoms of Castile, Navarre and Aragon has nevertheless presented a much more complex picture.186 The composite picture that arises from the scattered archival data, particularly through the research undertaken by Tavares, reveals that the traditional portrayal of the limited economic role of the Jews is also simplistic and very far from the reality in Portugal. The sources point to the Jews, and also to the Muslims, as having actively engaged in a wide-ranging number of economic activities that encompassed agriculture, artisanry, commerce, money-lending and tax farming.

Portuguese Jews and Muslims were both actively involved in agriculture. Members of both minorities not only possessed allodial lands but also leased them in emphyteutic contracts. Muslims, as the foral dos mouros of 1170 and its thirteenth-century derivatives indicate, were involved in the production of olive oil, figs and even wine. Their involvement in agriculture continues to be documented well into the fifteenth century.187 The role of Jews in agriculture is also well documented despite repeated complaints of the commons in various parliaments that the Jews should be made to work the land and raise livestock.188 João II granted Jews the privilege of working in their olive and fig groves and vineyards on Sundays.189 It was of course particularly important for Jews to be able to produce their own kosher wine. A fifteenth-century list of fruit producers drawn up by the council of Loulé reveals that these included Christians, Jews and Muslims.190

Artisans of both minorities were heavily involved in craftwork. Portugal, with a relatively small population that had been struck hard by the Black Death in the fourteenth century, was short of skilled craftsmen and manpower.191 A survey of the professions known to have been practised by Jews in the leading Portuguese cities between 1383 and 1450 has revealed that tailors, weavers and cobblers formed the predominant professional groups. In Leiria a similar study for the whole of the fifteenthcentury produces eleven tailors, ten cobblers and nine blacksmiths.192 The involvement of Jews in metalwork—as blacksmiths, goldsmiths and armourers—is particularly noticeable. The Crown particularly appreciated the expertise of Jews in the production of weapons and accordingly privileges and pensions were granted to a number of Jewish armourers. In Lisbon the dominant trades of the Muslim community were hemp and carpet weavers and potters whilst in Elvas Muslim cobblers dominated the trade.193

Small and impoverished towns were anxious to attract skilled artisans, including Muslims and Jews, as settlers. In 1455 the town council of Mourão complained to Afonso V that the town suffered from a shortage of cobblers, tailors, pottery workers and shearers. Apparently no Christians proficient in these occupations were willing to settle in Mourão unless they received a pension that the cash-strapped council could not afford. Instead the council turned its attention to attracting Jews and Muslims proficient in these crafts to settle in Mourão. The town council successfully petitioned the Crown to grant Jews and Muslims proficient in these trades the same privileges as those held by the Christian citizens and inhabitants of Mourão.194 When the town council of Elvas attempted to persuade the Crown to exempt the Muslim population of the portagem tax in 1455, they added that such a measure “might result in some Castilian Muslims coming to live in that town, which would be to our service.”195 Unsurprisingly, towns strove to retain skilled Muslim artisans. In 1449, representatives of the towns of Silves, Faro and Lagos came together to ask the Crown to exempt a Muslim artisan producing packsaddles from municipal and communal taxes “because there is no one else who masters this skill.”196 Similarly, Ahmad Castellão, a resident of Évora, was apparently such a skilled carpenter that in 1466 he was exempted from a number of taxes levied by the Crown, municipality and comuna.197

Portuguese Jews were especially active in commerce. Within the realm, Jewish artisans and merchants travelled to sell their wares at fairs or visited villages. In the parliament of 1472, the commons protested that travelling Jewish salesmen selling woollen cloth in the villages of the regions of Beira, Trás-os-Montes, Minho and Riba-Coa were competing unfairly with the fairs of Lamego, Guarda and Trancoso.198 Jews were engaged in the retail of agricultural produce away from the regions of production. Jewish merchants from Portugal were also active beyond the borders of the realm. Fifteenth-century Valencian documents reveal the presence of Jewish merchants from Portugal in that hub of Mediterranean commerce.199 At the request of João II, the Catholic Monarchs offered royal protection to all Portuguese Jews trading in their dominions.200 The Portuguese archives contain thirty-two surviving permits to export and import merchandise granted by the Crown between 1466 and 1491 to Jewish merchants. The recipients of these licences were practically all members of prominent Jewish families residing in Lisbon including the Negro, Abas, Latam, Vivas and Abravanel families.201 Documents reveal that these Lisboetan Jews were involved in the profitable trade of sugar produced on the Island of Madeira as well as the export and import of products to and from Portugal. Their role in the importation of textiles from Castile, Flanders and England was particularly noticeable.202 The lucrative returns on their commercial investments made these families extremely wealthy and allowed them to have connections amongst the highest ranks of Portuguese aristocracy. A measure of the wealth of these Jewish merchants can be gathered from their contributions to the 60 million reais that Afonso V raised for the defence of the realm by means of an emprésitmo in 1478–80. The wealthy Guedelha Palaçano and Isaac Abravanel contributed the colossal sums of 1,947,415 and 1,680,000 reais respectively. These sums were far in excess of those lent by other lenders and numerous other Jewish merchants lent lesser sums. In total a fifth of the individuals lending to the Crown in 1478–80 were Jews.203 These men certainly impressed Münzer, who recorded that “extremely wealthy Jews are found [in Lisbon], nearly all merchants, who live off the work of their slaves.”204

Portuguese Muslims participated in international commerce, though on a far lesser scale. The Crown granted a number of Portuguese Muslims the right to trade outside the realm, usually in return for some form of guaranty that they would return.205 In a few cases, the desire to develop trading links even led the Crown to view the emigration of its Muslim subjects in a favourable light. Thus, for instance, on 20 May 1469, Afonso V granted Yūsuf, a resident of Lisbon, the authorisation to reside in the “Muslim territory” (terra dos mouros). Yūsuf was authorised to return to Portugal and leave again “freely whenever he wishes (. . .) because we have cause to expect that he shall return to our lands with things (cousas) that will be to our service.” The King extended his protection to his person and merchandise and also ordered that he should be well received aboard Portuguese ships.206 The Crown also granted Muslim merchants from Castile, Granada and North Africa visas to enter Portugal. In 1472, for example, Allecem (Alī?), a Muslim from Fez, was granted a licence to trade in Portuguese dominions.207

Portuguese Jews practised money lending and tax farming but there is little documentary evidence of Muslim involvement in either of these activities during the fifteenth century.208 Even amongst Jews, both of these activities were restricted to individuals with the necessary capital to invest in them. Few Jews depended upon these activities as their primary means of subsistence and most were merchants, artisans or physicians and they also included women. A law of 1340 prohibiting usury by Jews never seems to have been applied.209 Our sources provide few details concerning small-scale loans to peasants or artisans but reveal that loans were also made to members of the high nobility and the royal family. The wealthy merchant families of Lisbon acted as the bankers of the Crown and nobility. The will of Prince Fernando, son of João I, reveals that the deceased infante owed debts of 52,000 reais to a member of the Abravanel family.210 Later Afonso V repaid Isaac Abravanel 200,000 reais and Palaçano 46,900 reais for the payment of 1500 ducats in Rome.211

The farming of direct and indirect taxes was not the exclusive preserve of Jews but was also practised by enterprising Christians. In the large towns only a small group of wealthy Jewish merchants took part in tax farming. In the towns and regions within the interior of the realm, contracts to collect taxes were handed out to small Christian and Jewish merchants.212 From the reign of Duarte, the law prohibited Jews from serving as tax farmers for the Church.213 It is interesting to note that complaints against Jewish usury, so frequent in the parliaments of the fourteenth century, disappear in the parliaments of the following century and were substituted by protests against the Jewish participation in the collection of royal revenues.214

Source: The Persecution of of the Jews and Muslims of Portugal, pp. 72-77


186) J. Ray, The Sephardic Frontier. The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia (Ithaca, 2006), 55–71; B. R. Gampel, The last Jews on Iberian soil: Navarrese Jewry, 1479–1498 (Berkeley, 1989), 22–49. For Aragon see Y. T. Assis, Jewish Economy in the Medieval Crown of Aragon 1213–1327. Money and Power, (Leiden, 1997) and M. D. Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (Princeton, 2004), 109–137.

187) M. F. L. de Barros, A comuna muçulmana de Lisboa, 87–98.

188) Such complaints were made at the parliament in 1352 (Cortes Portuguesas. Reinado de Afonso IV, 126) and by the representatives of Lamego in 1456 (A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 13, fol. 104; Leitura Nova, Beira, bk. 2, fol. 46v).

189) A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. João II, bk. 8, fols. 212v–213 and 148–148v; bk. 21, fols. 131v–132.

190) A. Iria, Documentos Portugueses: O Algarve e os Descobrimientos (Lisbon, 1956), II, 2, 437–476. The date given by Iria is 1412. Professor Tavares has argued that the type of currency mentioned in this document makes it more likely to date from 1450. M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, Os judeus em Portugal no século XV, 1, 334, n. 63.

191) See V. Rau, A. H. de Oliveira Marques, I. Vicente Gonçalvez, L. A. de Oliveira Ramos and H. C. Baquero Moreno, “Para o estudo da peste negra em Portugal”, Bracara Augusta, 14–15 (1963), 210–240.

192) M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, Os judeus em Portugal no século XV, 1, 303–5; S. A. Gomes, “Os judeus de Leiria medieval como agentes dinamizadores da economia urbana”, Revista Portuguesa de Historia, 28 (1993), 19–20.

193) M. F. L. de Barros, A comuna muçulmana de Lisboa, 87–98; F. B. Correia, Elvas na Idade Média, unpublished M.A. dissertation, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, (Lisbon, 1999), 2, 586–591.

194) The privileges were confirmed by João II on 13 September 1486 (A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. João II, bk. 8, fol. 219v).

195) “. . . nos pediees que nom pagasem e que seria cousa alguus mouros castelaãos se virem morar a essa villa, o que seria nosso serviço e a vos fariamos mercee.” A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 15, fols. 80–81v; A.N.T.T., Leitura Nova, Odiana, bk. 3, fol. 171.

196) “. . . não hão outro que saiba do dito officio . . .” A.N.T.T., Leitura Nova, Guadiana, bk. 3, fols. 235–6, chapter 4; H. da Gama Barros, “Judeus e mouros em Portugal em tempos passados”, Revista Lusitana, 35 (1937), 188–9.

197) A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. João II, bk. 12, fol. 136 (confirmation of an earlier privilege).

198) A. de Sousa Silva Costa Lobo, História da sociedade em Portugal no século XV, 257. 199 In 1484, for instance, Jahudà Astori “Juheu del realme de Portogal” sold a slave in Valencia. An earlier document of 1457 refers to “certs juheus mercaders portugueses” who left the town of Morvedre near Valencia without paying the proper duties: M. D. Meyerson, A Jewish Renaissance in fifteenth-century Spain (Princeton, 2004), 116. For other references to Portuguese Jews in Valencia see L. Piles Ros, “Judíos extranjeros en la Valencia del siglo XV”, Sefarad, 7 (1947), 357–8 and J. Hinojosa Montalvo, “Judíos portugueses en Valencia a fines de la Edad Media”, Revista de Ciências Históricas, Universidade Portucalense, 10 (1995), 221–234. It is likely that Portuguese Jews also traded in Navarre. A document of 1485 mentions a Jew, referred to solely as “el Portugués”, who was accused of murdering another Jew in the town of Cascante. M. Zubillaga Garralda, Los judíos del reino de Navarra. Protocolos notariales de Cascantes 1436–1496 (Pamplona, 2003), 351, doc. 808.

200) A. de la Torre and L. Suárez Fernandez, Documentos referentes a las relaciones con Portugal durante el reino de los Reyes Catholicos, 2, 210.

201) For a list of these licences and references see M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, Os judeus em Portugal no século XV, 1, 285.

202) A. M. P. Ferreira, A importação e o comério têxtil em Portugal no século XV (Lisbon, 1983), 80.

203) A. Braamcamp Freire, “Os sessenta milhões outorgados em 1478”, AHP IV, 425– 438; M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, Os judeus em Portugal no século XV, 1, 176–182.

204) “Reperiuntur hic ditissimi Judei, qui quasi omnes merces vendunt, qui ex solo sclavorum suorum labore vivunt.” H. Münzer, “Itinerarium Hispanicum”, ed. L. Pfandl, Revue Hispanique, 48 (1920), 88.

205) A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 20, fol. 146.

206) “. . . levremente cada vez que lhe aprouver e tornasse per sua terra porquanto esperamos que aja de tornar a nossos regnos com algumas cousas de noso serviço.” A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 31, fol. 43. See also A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 31, fol. 107.

207) A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 29, fol. 15. For other similar examples see Isabel M. R. Mendes Drummond Braga, “Contribução para o estudo da mobilidade dos mouros forros em Portugal nos séculos XIV e XV”, La Peninsula Iberica en la era de los descubrimientos 1391–1492 (Seville, 1997), 2, 1681–1687.

208) A rare reference to Muslim usurers is made in the 1267 customs of Évora. PMH, Leges, II, 78.

209) Ordenações Afonsinas, bk. II, title 96.

210) A.N.T.T, Livro 1º dos Reis, fols. 85–92; Monumenta Henricina, 6 (1964), 108–132.

211) A.N.T.T., Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, bk. 1, fol. 16v; A.N.T.T., Leitura Nova, Estremadura, bk. 8, fol. 70.

212) M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, Os judeus em Portugal no século XV, 1, 313–330.

213) Ordenações Afonsinas, bk. II, title 68.

214) M. J. P. Ferro Tavares, “O cresimiento económico e o antijudaísmo no Portugal medieval”, La Peninsula Iberica en la era de los descubrimientos 1391–1492 (Seville, 1997), 2, 51–67.

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