Magna Carta and Anti-Semitism

Many sacred constitutional texts have unfortunate provisions.  The Constitution countenanced slavery (while using euphemisms for the word).  The Declaration of Independence called Native Americans “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”  And the Act of Settlement of 1701 barred anyone who “shall profess the Popish Religion or shall marry a Papist” from the Crown.

Magna Carta’s embarrassment is its description of Jews.  One provision stated: “If anyone who has borrowed from the Jews any sum of money, great or small, dies before the debt has been paid, the heir shall pay no interest on the debt so long as he remains under age.”  Another added that “if any man dies indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt.”  This latter provision adds that “[s]o shall it be done with regard to debts owed persons other than Jews,” which makes you wonder why Jews were singled out earlier.  At that time, the Church took a strong position against loaning money at interest, which in practice made Jews the only creditors, so Magna Carta could have just said “anyone who has borrowed money” or “if any man dies indebted” to achieve the same result.  I would be curious to hear more from medievalists or English legal historians on this point.

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2 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Chief Justice Roberts talked about the Magna Charta in a recent speech. Might be interesting to you.

  2. AndyK says:

    I don’t believe prohibition on “usury” is the same as a prohibition on charging interest on a loan.

    These prohibitions might largely be heuristics to identify those lenders who demanded potential liability on the loan BEYOND up-front collateral and the value of the assets to be acquired with the loan. That’s not to justify the racism.

    I’m interested in the broader question of what we might learn from older prohibitions on usury (and phenomena like Jubilee year and bankruptcy) in light of student loan debt and other forms of intergenerational poverty.