Occupations and economic activity
The earliest economic activity of Jews in Central Europe was related to the needs of princes and bishops, especially for luxury items such as fur, silk, oriental spices and drugs. During the 11th century, Jews expanded their customers and the volume of trade. They traded in a broad range of raw materials, such as precious metals, metal dishes, wine, grain, salted fish, horses and cattle, dyed skins, wool and clothes. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Jews participated in the mint and administration of finance, leasing customs and taxes and as experts for mint and taxes, for the Dukes of Austria, the Tyrol and the Archbishops of Salzburg.
Moneylending increased in the 12th and 13th centuries, due to the efforts of the Church to prohibit Christians from loaning money on interest. At the time of their migration to Vienna from the end of the 12th to the end of the 13th century, the Jews were already regarded as experts in money and precious metals in Europe. This specialization included coin production, the collection of tolls and taxes, money changing and, above all, money lending. The main customers of the burghers and Jews were landowners, leading politicians and their noble retinues. Also a number of abbeys borrowed from Jews. Short-term loans were granted to owners of vineyards who needed to pay their day laborers. This activity was of considerable importance in the wine-growing area around Vienna, since wine was a major economic sector that contributed to the city’s growth. Customers presumably came from all classes of society; women were also allowed to take out small loans without their husbands’ approval. The main focus, however, was landowners.
Towards the end of the 13th century a few Jews had the position of house “bankers” for noble families. A noble debtor would normally pledge a piece of land. If he had difficulties in repaying the debt, he had to give the Jewish moneylender access to his entire property. The Duke helped the Jews assert claims of this nature, since he regarded Jewish assets as part of his own treasury. Anyone who would take possession of property belonging to Jews was regarded as having caused damage to the Duke's treasury.
The money for loans was provided by individual households, although larger sums were frequently transacted by corporate groups acting together. Sometimes Jews also co-operated with Christians. There are even some cases of Jews who borrowed money from Christians. Widowed moneylenders were also known. Plume from Klosterneuburg, founder of the prestigious Steuss family, is only one example. Widows took over their husband’s businesses if the children were too small or they were not interested and the next possible successor was a grandchild. Sometimes the reason was the need to concentrate capital, to have the ability to lend large sum of money. As a result, the leading families were closely connected and their viability safeguarded the existence of the entire community.
Many Jews regarded money transactions as ethically suspect. Rabbi Schalom of Wiener Neustadt, acknowledging the necessity of this occupation for earning one’s living, justified the practice by declaring that money lending allowed scholars a greater opportunity to devote more time to study, and the layman who lent money a greater opportunity to help the poorer scholars from his profits.
Despite the restrictions of the merchant guilds and the government which limited its sphere of activities, Jewish enterprise extended into many fields of commerce. One of the businesses conducted by Austrian Jews was export-import. Wine, an important commodity since it is an essential part of the Shabbat dinner, was traded with Italy, sugar and rice was imported from Crete. Other goods were cheese, oil, jewels, clothes, lumber and horses. Jewish merchants had stalls in the city markets and Jewish peddlers sold their merchandise to Jews and non-Jews among the peasant and villagers. The Jewish bookseller sold not only Hebrew tomes, but also non-Jewish works, especially books on medicine, music and mathematics. They traded articles necessary for Jewish religious practice, such as “Etrogim” from Italy, which were used in the Sukkot rituals (Jewish holiday).