Antisemitism in History: The Early Modern Era, 1300–1800

Especially after the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, antisemitism changed in ways that reflected new cultural, intellectual, and political realities. During the first centuries of the early modern era in Europe, Jews were invited to settle in central and eastern Europe—and to return to western Europe after expulsion from time to time —with certain permissions and protections as well as restrictions on residence and occupation.

Under the "protection" of early modern rulers and landholding aristocrats, Jews were permitted and encouraged to perform managerial and commercial tasks that the ruling classes had neither the skills nor inclination to perform themselves. Since the Catholic and Orthodox Churches banned usury (lending money at interest) and generally looked down upon business practices as immoral, Jews came to fill the vital (but unpopular) role of moneylenders for the Christian majority.

Jews were permitted to engage in commerce, supply, manufacturing, finance, handicraft manufacturing, and the free professions—including art, music, literature, theater, and, as it developed, journalism. Jews also were permitted to work as managers on landed estates and tax collectors. A small minority of Jewish individuals and families did very well and were therefore conspicuous. Most Jews engaged in commerce and handicrafts production for the local market, and were often as poor as the peasantry among whom they lived and who bought their wares.

On the other hand, central and east European rulers forbade the Jewish settlers from owning land, from serving as officers in the military, and from holding positions in state service unless they converted to Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, after the Reformation in the sixteenth century, one of the Protestant denominations). Absolutist rulers consolidated modern states in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries and loyalty to a nation increasingly competed with religious confession as a central human identifying marker in the nineteenth century. Jews, who still endured the above restrictions, hence did not become associated in the popular mind with the most "noble" professions of early modern central and eastern Europe (where the majority of Jews lived): landed aristocracy, military service, and state service.

As central and east European guilds increasingly denied membership to Jewish handicraftsmen (unless they converted), Jews were increasingly forced out of small-scale manufacturing. Among the stereotypes that were developed or reinforced by these special permissions and restrictions on the Jews were that

  • Jews did not work hard or produce goods with their hands
  • Jews chose to work with money and to trade in goods they did not produce because of their skills, their greed, and their desire to manipulate and cheat Christians
  • Jews were cowards in a fair fight and avoided military service
  • Jews preferred meaningless study and frivolous entertainment to hard, creative work
  • Jews were insincere and potentially disloyal in that they converted to Christianity to obtain material benefits.