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The Consilia of Alessandro Nievo: On Jews and Usury in 15th Century Italy

In anticipation of the Library’s upcoming program, “La Città degli Ebrei/The City of the Jews: Segregated Space and the Admission of Strangers in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice,” – a conference held in collaboration with the Embassy of Italy and the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice – this post will highlight an item that attendees will be able to see on display before and after the day’s lectures.

Alessandro de Nevo's Consilia

The first page of text of the 1560 Venice edition of Alessandro Nievo’s Consilia [Photo by Donna Sokol]

The program will feature a display of rare books and documents related to the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, drawn from the Law Library of Congress, the Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, the European Division and the Hebraic Section of its African and Middle Eastern Division. Items from the Law Library will document some aspects of the legal status of Jews in pre-modern Europe.

One fascinating item from the Law Library, the Consilia Contra Judaeos Fenerantes of Alessandro Nievo (composed between 1440 and 1455 in Padua), relates to the question of whether or not usury is permissible. The issue of usury was important in medieval and early modern Europe. Traditionally, the Catholic Church forbade Christians to lend money to other Christians at interest, basing its prohibition on the Vulgate’s translation of Luke 6:35. Prohibitions can be found in the Decretum of Gratian (q. 3, C. IV and q. 4, C. IV) and in chapters 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 13 of the Decretals of Gregory IX. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 enacted a proposal of Pope Alexander III to make all those who violated this prohibition subject to excommunication. This situation made it difficult for people to raise capital, and since the need for capital was persistent, many Christians were open to finding ways to work around the prohibition. One solution was to allow non-Catholics to practice moneylending. This seemed viable, because canon law did not ostensibly apply to non-Catholics, and non-Catholics were in any case not subject to ecclesiastical punishments. Along these lines, many princes throughout Europe adopted the habit of playing host to Jewish communities so that the local Jews could practice moneylending to the benefit of local trade, industry and war-making without the threat of papal excommunication hanging over the Jews or, more importantly, over the prince who made use of them. The fact that Jews were severely restricted from entering most trades in most cities helped to establish this compromise as a trend.

Detail of an engraving depicting De Nevo lecturing to students of Canon Law

Detail of an engraving depicting Nievo lecturing to students of Canon Law [Photo by Donna Sokol]

While this practice became well entrenched, it did not sit well with all pious Catholics. The Consilia of Alessandro Nievo is an example of a legal opinion that opposed the employment of Jews for moneylending. Alessandro Nievo was born in Vicenza sometime around 1419 and likely studied in Padua. He spent most of his life teaching canon law in his hometown, where he died in 1485. His literary output includes a number of published consilia, comments on the Decretals of Gregory IX and an edition of both the Decretum of Gratian and Antonius Roselli’s Tractatus de Legitimatione Emendetior. It also included the present work, the famous Consilia Contra Judaeos Fenerantes. In this consilium, Alessandro Nievo argued that Jewish moneylending ought to be forbidden on the basis of the Church’s responsibility for Jewish souls. Usury, he argued, was a mortal sin. As such, St. Peter and consequently the Church had no authority to grant a dispensation for it.

Here is a very abbreviated account of some of the principle lines of argument the author follows in his brief (with considerable debt to this work):

Are the Jews sinning by lending to non-Jews? Some authorities sought to prove that they were not – this would furnish the Church with a rationale for a hands-off approach to Jewish usury. Nievo, however, answers affirmatively – even according to the old law – reasoning that a blanket ban on usury which he identifies in Psalms 15:5 overrides the limited prohibition of lending at interest that can be found in Deuteronomy 23:20 (“You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite”). David, the author of the Psalms was a king, whereas Moses, who wrote Deuteronomy, was merely a leader.

Title page of the edition of Alessandro de Nevo's Consilia

Title page of the 1560 Venice edition of Alessandro de Nevo’s Consilia [Photo by Donna Sokol]

Should the church intervene to oppose the Jews’ commission of this sin? Many people in Nievo’s time made the claim that since the Jews were damned by virtue of their refusal of the Christian faith, the additional sin of usury was of no particular interest or importance – the Jews had much bigger issues to worry about, so to speak. This approach had the liberalizing effect of allowing Jewish moneylending to continue. Nievo, however, argued that the Church cared for all souls, regardless of their adherence to the faith. More pressing was that a loan made a borrower a slave to the creditor. Thus Jewish moneylending made Jews into the masters of their debtors. But this was contrary to the Gospel which made Jews slaves and set Christians free.

Should the Church tolerate, rather than permit, Jewish usury in light of its probable positive effects? Distinguishing toleration from active endorsement, some authorities used a demonstration from the Church’s tradition of tolerant practices toward Jewish ritual and communal practices to defend the current practice of tolerating Jewish usury.  Nievo, however, strictly limited the case of tolerance of Jewish customs to an example that St. Augustine cited – Jewish religious rituals alone were tolerated because they served the faithful as a memorial to what a Christian was before he was set free by Christ. This limitation excluded moneylending.

Was it permissible for towns to issue userers’ licenses to Jews? Some authorities sought to withdraw the question of Jewish moneylending from the scope of ecclesiastical law and to reframe it as a question of municipal law. Nievo, however, reasserts the Church’s preeminence. What the Church has no authority to permit cannot be permitted by the towns which are inferior to the Church in authority. In answering this question, Nievo also reacted to claims that human society cannot do without usury as a source for capital, contending that such a belief demonstrates a doubt in the solicitude of God, and is therefore a blasphemy.

The Consilia Contra Judaeos Foenerantes

The Consilia Contra Judaeos Fenerantes [Photo by Donna Sokol]

The Jewish Ghetto of Venice, like other enclaves of Jewish life in Europe, contributed substantially to the growth of the Venetian economy in part because of the services of moneylenders. Venice granted Jews a monopoly on pawnbroking as early as 1366. Nievo’s consilium became influential during the 1460s as Franciscans campaigned to reduce the strength and influence of Jewish moneylenders in Italy, a movement which led to the establishment of the Montes Pietatis. For more on Nievo and his publications, see here. To learn more about the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, please join us at 2:00pm on May 24, 2016 for what is sure to be a fascinating event.

Nievo, Alessandro, -1484. Consilia Alexandri de Nevo. Nvnc primvm in lvcem aedita. Adiectis insvper svmmariis, cvm repertorio alphabetica serie materias copiosissime complectente, Nicolao Pignolato authore. Venetiis: [Apud Cominum de Tridino] 1560.

Nievo, Alessandro, -1484. Consilia contra Judaeos fenerantes. Nuremberg, Friedrich Creussner, 1479.


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