For many years, the Sephardic Jewish community of early modern Livorno prospered thanks to the welcoming conditions offered by the Tuscan Grand Duchy on the one hand and the ingenuity and expertise of its prominent merchant members on the other. Having arrived in Livorno following the invitation of Cosimo I, the Jews enjoyed privileges, which became known as the Livornine. These privileges allowed them to live freely, neither confined by the walls of a ghetto nor restricted by outward distinguishing signs on their clothing or headdress. They were exempt from various taxes, allowed to buy and own property, and to employ Christian servants and wet-nurses.1 They established many community institutions, a sumptuous synagogue, a ritual bath, several academies, and boasted celebrated printing houses and a literary academy.
As in many other Jewish communities of the time, the massari, the lay leaders of the community, were in charge of social assistance, and one or more gabbaim (beadles) collected weekly fees for the various needs of community members, such as care of the sick, burial of the dead, and provisions of food and clothes for the poor, among others. The massari tried to maintain a centralized control of the assistance to ensure its fair distribution.2 The flourishing community also became known for its numerous confraternities, which provided beneficial aid of various kinds to its members. The first confraternities were set up after the separation of the Livorno community from its “mother” community of Pisa in 1613.3 The number of confraternities grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the community eventually upheld some sixty different confraternities—an outstanding number4 —especially for a community that comprised between two thousand five hundred to three thousand people at its peak, toward the end of the seventeenth century, mostly of Portuguese background,5 when it represented about ten percent of the population of the town.6
In what follows, I would like to concentrate on an examination of the founding statutes of the most important and richest confraternity of the Livorno community: the dowry society, or the Hevra de Cazar Orfãs e Donzelas, founded in 1644–5, with the approval of the Grand Duke.7 This Hevra, was a kind of confraternity8 that functioned uninterruptedly for a period of almost three centuries.9 Interestingly, as its statutes demonstrate, the Hevra combined various aspects of community life for its members: membership provided recognition of the member’s social status as one of the wealthy leaders of the community and guaranteed a respectful burial usually reserved for important people; it gave members the opportunity to work for a morally worthy cause in line with both the community mores and the Duke’s sanction; no less important, while the Hevra actually assisted young girls and their families, it also provided a safe and apparently profitable channel of investment.
1 Adhering to Local Mores
Jews in Italy were as concerned about family honor as were the Catholics.10 This was certainly true for Italian Jews, and especially for Sephardic Jews, whose “obsession with lineage” fashioned by their Iberian heritage, made “any taint on a family name and pride a most serious matter.”11 The explicit aim of the Italian Sephardic dowry confraternities was to provide dowries for Jewish maidens of good moral character and conduct,12 “virtuous, poor orphans and damsels who are not orphans,” as stated in article 17 of the Livorno Hevra de Cazar Orfãs e Donzelas. Jewish and Christian communities alike were anxious to secure formal, institutionalized marriages for their flocks, and did their utmost to discourage clandestine marriages.13 Consequently, article 26 of the Livorno dowry confraternity, itself an elite institution, states that only if a girl marries and receives the berakha (blessing) of a rabbi “according to our Holy law,” would she be eligible for assistance. If she “married in any other way,” she would have to return any money received. Importantly, as Yosef Kaplan points out, regulations regarding the sanctification of marriage that were adopted by Western Sephardic communities, even more so than those of other Jewish communities in the early modern period, “played a primary social role […] in protecting the interests of the social elite,” denying “members of the common classes the possibility of breaking into the social elite,” while reflecting the “great degree of class differentiation” among Spanish and Portuguese Jews.14 The Italian Sephardic dowry confraternities employed a system that bore certain financial similarities to that of the Florentine Christian Monte delle Doti fund,15 though naturally on a much smaller scale than the Florentine government could boast. The Livorno dowry confraternity was comparable to the initial Monte delle Doti, insofar as its members belonged to the community oligarchy,16 and the main beneficiaries were their daughters and relatives.17
The Jewish dowry provided the bride with her share of her father’s estate, especially critical if she was later divorced or widowed, since it would then constitute the woman’s entire wealth.18 The ketubah, or marriage contract,19 was also meant to set the newlyweds on a viable economic path, and its total amount, made up of the bride’s dowry and the groom’s tosefet (addition or dower),20 were written down in the husband’s business ledger. Francesca Trivellato points out that “Livornese Sephardim relied on dowries more than on external investors to finance their business ventures,” and demonstrates that the ketubah could become a crucial component of a couple’s livelihood in cases of bankruptcy, a common occurrence at the time.21 A 1582 Florentine law stipulated that in such cases, “a merchant has to repay his wife before he could pay any debts to third parties,” and this rule applied to both Christian and Jewish Tuscan merchants,22 as reiterated and granted in article 14 of the 1593 Livornina.23 Jewish women were entitled to the restitution of their dowries as well as to all or most of the dower, and their ketubah therefore provided greater protection for a large part of a merchant’s assets in cases of bankruptcy.24 Thus the ketubah, in addition to the Sephardic custom of consanguineous marriages, fortified the inextricable link between marriage and business.25 Dowries, as amply evident in the fascinating case Trivellato investigates, appear to have been extremely important for Livorno Jews, not only in the period of the subsequent eighteenth century discussed by her, but already for the founders of the dowry confraternity of 1644.
2 The Model of Previous Sephardic Dowry Confraternities
The statutes of the Livorno dowry confraternity were mainly modeled on its sister Sephardic dowry confraternities of Venice and Amsterdam, founded in 161326 and 1615, respectively. The differences between these first Sephardic dowry societies resulted from conditions “unique to each area and the contacts that emerged between these communities and the crypto-Jews who arrived from the Iberian peninsula,” as Moisés Orfali writes.27 Bodian, for her part, finds that variations between Venice and Amsterdam resulted from both external and internal “essential and structural differences.”28 Indeed, the Amsterdam community studied the Venetian confraternity’s regulations in order to found its own, “especially tailored to the Amsterdam situation,”29 while Livorno later used the Venetian one as a model.
The Amsterdam Dotar represented the elite’s “most ambitious and original” effort to turn Amsterdam into the center of the entire Portuguese Nation,30 though an implicit agreement appears to have existed between the Venice and Amsterdam confraternities to operate “within different geographical spheres.”31 Thus, while the Venice confraternity targeted girls from the Mediterranean area, from Constantinople to North Africa and Gibraltar, Amsterdam focused on northwestern Europe.32 The Amsterdam Dotar even had representatives in various places, from Danzig to Saint Jean-de-Luz and later in the New World, who discreetly informed families about the possibility of application to the lottery.33 The dowry confraternities’ main purpose, especially of the Amsterdam confraternity, was clearly to attract “maidens to the Jewish world, marry a Jewish partner, and save them and their families for Judaism.”34 Amsterdam candidates, whether they resided in places where they were still compelled to lived outwardly as Christians, or had arrived in Amsterdam and returned to Judaism, were thus required to confess their belief in “the unity of the Lord of the universe and the truth of his Sacred Law.”35
It seems that the purpose of the Amsterdam dowry confraternity was the “re-judaization” of those who had remained in places where they still lived as Christians, such as in the south of France: while candidates could be New Christians, they would only receive the money once they celebrated their marriage in a Jewish community.36 The Venetian society statutes also had provisions for secret New Christians living outside Judaism.37
Both the Venice and Amsterdam confraternities were soon compelled to limit their scope, and give priority to local girls in their cities, in view of the growing demand made on their funds.38 By the time the Livorno confraternity was set up, each of the other confraternities had already restricted its activities, and it thus stands to reason that from its inception, the Livorno confraternity concentrated its efforts in providing dowries for local girls, either born or residing in the town, or “from it in any other place” (article 17).
The Livorno dowry confraternity statutes reflect the connections maintained between members of the community and their families and business partners who had remained in Iberia, so much so that the confraternity leaders sought ways to protect members who considered traveling there, concomitantly protecting the investments of the confraternity. The danger was clearly very great, as attested by many cases of conversos who, having lived in Livorno as Jews, returned to Spain and were subsequently burned at the stake in Madrid.39 The effort to dissuade members from traveling to Iberia is apparent in the phrasing of the revised 1727 statutes,40 which are similar to regulations of other communal organs41 and to other communities. Another conspicuous connection to Iberia is noticeable in the fact that the aid given by the early Sephardic confraternities in Venice, Amsterdam, and Livorno was overtly exclusive and aimed at Sephardic girls.42 The confraternities accepted the candidacy of girls of Portuguese or Castilian lineage, either on their father or mother’s side.43 In the three confraternities, the capital was considered kodesh and the members made sure that it would increase by collecting dues from new members as well as from various fines. The members were not allowed to touch the capital in any way, invest it or distribute its revenues to eligible candidates, unless there was a surplus allowing them to do so.44
Livorno’s confraternity openly claimed to be based on its Venetian predecessor;45 accordingly, its annual meetings were held during Passover rather than on Purim, when the Amsterdam meetings were held, though both dates point to the converso character of these institutions.46 Other similarities were the number of officials responsible for the operations of the confraternities, and the way the lottery was conducted.
The most important similarity for our present discussion, is that like the Venetian confraternity,47 the Livorno Hevra was established as a charitable society whose major role was to assist its members who could reside in Livorno and in other places.48 This was particularly noticeable regarding the Livorno society’s members, who “were principally concerned with the welfare of their own confraternities and relatives.”49
3 The Livorno Dowry Confraternity
The Livorno dowry confraternity was a latecomer on both the Sephardic and the economic scene. Since it primarily targeted Livorno girls, the dowry confraternity can be viewed as one of the key elements in the consolidation of the local Sephardic community. The town of Livorno had remained a remote outpost so that for several years, Jewish merchants would continue to live in nearby Pisa while conducting their affairs in the port of Livorno. The performance of a proper Jewish wedding must have been particularly important for a community whose members were former conversos, and wished to encourage and fortify the Jewish character of the nascent community.
The Jewish community of Livorno was a close-knit one, administered by five massari, elected for a one-year term. The massari of 1644 were themselves among the founding members of the dowry confraternity.50 Membership in the confraternity was a sign of belonging to the dominant class, and among the names appearing on the 1645 list of members, thirteen (or twenty percent) were massari, and of those, seven were elected massari no less than four times over the years; twenty-four other members (or thirty-six percent) held a number of community offices, and most were prominent merchants.51
The system of the dowry society of Livorno, as it was laid down in its initial statutes of 1644–5, was profitable enough to continue functioning until it was dismantled by the Italian state in World War I, when assets of all charitable organizations were confiscated for war orphans.52 The statutes of the Livorno Hevra were altered several times over the years, though they remained similar in principle to the founding statues of 1644–5. A more thorough comparison of the changes is beyond the scope of the present study.53
The procedure of casting the ballot and electing the yearly beneficiaries was as follows: maidens fourteen or older who wished to be considered had to present their candidacy to the deputies during the month of Adar, before Passover, and no later than the first day of Nisan. The deputies would write each girl’s name on a ballot, and these would be placed in a box. Another box contained silver and golden balls. A ball would be randomly drawn along with each name. The procedure would be repeated a number of times. Each time, the name and the color of the ball drawn with it were recorded, and eventually the total number of times that a name appeared along with a golden ball was tallied. A name that appeared with a golden ball in three quarters of the total number of draws was declared a successful candidate.
The Hevra would distribute as many dowries as the revenues of that year allowed, but only entire dowries were given (as opposed to the Venetian Ashkenazic confraternity for example, which continuously decreased the amount of money given per dowry in order to provide dowries to as many girls as possible). Orphan girls only needed two-thirds of the draws, and they received further preference over the others since they would not be subjected to a second balloting, as could happen to a girl who was not an orphan.
This confraternity was apparently particularly successful for several reasons: the founders of the confraternity took into account the interests of the Grand Duke of Florence, and hence could rely on his support. Thus, as stated in the Italian preamble to the statutes addressed to the Duke and signed by the Governor of Livorno on 27 May 1644, the founders of the confraternity assert their aim is not only to “benefit the poor” but also to “better attach our nation to the most felicitous action” of the Duke. The official aim was to assist the virtuous poor, a morally commendable purpose that enabled keeping the poor under the control of the community leaders. The Duke, satisfied that they maintained an honorable community that took charge of its female members and promised to be lucrative to boot, sanctioned the centralized authority of the community leaders.54
In addition, the confraternity was conceived in order to help its members face the many adversities threatening them all. Recurrent waves of plague, highway robbery, piracy and shipwreck, bad investments and other misfortunes of trade, and the menace of bankruptcy were all part and parcel of their reality. The need for stability was particularly acute if they were to continue to develop new financial ventures, which benefited their families, the community, and indeed the town. Most importantly, the Hevra was a source of strength for the wealthy members of the ruling oligarchy.55 Thus, being a member was not just a sign of prestige, but also an indication of financial credibility.
The daughters of the rich founders not only had precedence in receiving dowries, as stated in article 20 of the statutes, but their dowries were significantly larger than those of the needy girls. They could receive three hundred pieces of gold, six to seven years after their fathers had entered the Hevra, and even up to ten years after a father renounced his membership (article 18). Members’ granddaughters and nieces received one hundred and fifty pieces of gold (article 20). Although in principle, only one girl from each family could benefit from the Hevra each year, if there were enough revenues two sisters could receive the same amount (article 18). Only in the absence of members’ daughters, granddaughters or nieces, could “poor meritorious girls” present themselves to the confraternity, though again, servant girls who worked in members’ houses would be preferred (article 23), and receive as many dowries of one hundred pieces of gold as available funds permitted (article 21).
Seen in a broader context, this phenomenon can be construed as similar to the raison-d’être of Christian confraternities in the sense that they served as “an instrument for maintaining the governing class.”56 Richard Trexler’s exposition challenges modern notions of social classes and presents an alternative definition by which economic situation (or one’s net worth) defined what kind of poor a person was. An impoverished rich person would thus become a povero vergognoso, an “ashamed poor,” rather than having to join the ranks of the “born-poor.” Although inclusion in this group depended on the person being regarded as dignified—a status whose nature it is difficult to establish precisely today—here were certainly poor nobles, as well other people in need of assistance, according to their own or others’ standards.57 Economic fluctuation was great and solidarity among the oligarchy was a necessity if they were to preserve their status, which was sanctioned not only by the ruling classes but also by the society at large. The reason was likely grounded in the belief, prevailing since the middle ages, that there was a natural link between virtue and high social standing,58 but one could surmise there was also a pragmatic motivation: the rich must remain rich in order to keep the economic system functioning, and to assist the poor to some extent.
4 Founding Members of the Dowry Society
The decision (referred to as “decreto” in the text, since it was to be approved by the Duke) to found the dowry society was signed on the 27th of March 1644, at a meeting of twenty-nine of the members of the community of Livorno. The seven regulators of the Hevra who were chosen at this meeting were Abraam de Pax with 18 ballots in favor, 9 against, and 2 abstentions; Isaque Ergas de Venetia with 22 in favor, 4 against, and 3 abstentions; Abraam Vaas Peña who received 17 votes in favor, 10 against, and 2 abstentions; Ishaq Ergas de Liorne with 19 votes in favor, 7 against, and 3 abstentions; Jacob Israel Amnom who received 17 in favor, 10 against, and 2 abstentions; Jacob Israel de Tunes with 15 in favor, 12 against, and 2 abstentions; and David Bueno who received 19 votes in favor, 9 against, and 1 abstention.
The list shows that no single member received a unanimous vote. This fact, as well as the breakdown of the votes, demonstrates that there was no one dominant leader in the community but rather a group of men about whom there was a consensus. The document is duly signed by Daniel di Jacob Serrano, the community Cancelliere.59
Fifteen months later, in June 1645, the confraternity was formally set up, with forty-seven signatories.60 In their previous meeting, the regulators had elected Isach de Abram Ergas as depositary and the members were required to present their contributions to him in cash in return for a receipt. Their names and their contributions were duly recorded in the minute book of the Hevra. Initially, the list contained one more name, Daniel Jeosua, but since he did not pay his membership fees, his name was stricken from it. Accordingly, the total sum that constituted the society’s initial capital was written at the bottom of the preamble to the statutes as “a total of two thousand three hundred and fifty Pieces of Eight.”61
Of particular interest among the signatories is Dr. Mose Cordovero, one of the most prominent figures in the community,62 whose name appears at the top of the list of the first forty-seven members. Like two other members on the list, he paid the membership fees but renounced his place in favor of his son Jacob, probably due to his advanced age. This seems to be an explicit indication that appearing on the list of the founding members of the society was in itself a mark of social status, even though the membership was not the father’s but the son’s. Similarly, another family member paid membership fees for twelve others on the list, and apparently, D.I. Bueno paid for the memberships of four others. What appears as careful bookkeeping could also be construed as a way to get the names of two family members on the list for the “price” of one member, while boasting the benevolence of the actual donor.
The first three deputies elected by the confraternity for a term of one year were David Bueno, Jacob Franco Albuquerque, and Isac Ergas.63 During the first years of the Livorno Jewish community, the appointed massari were always members of the same twelve founding families. This situation was loudly contested with the Duke in 1628, when the community comprised about one hundred families of wealthy merchants and ship owners, all claiming their right to take part in the governing of the community.64 The list of founding members and first officials of the dowry confraternity thus clearly reflects the state of affairs in the community and the elitist nature of this confraternity as well as the division of power among members.
5 Financial Background
Frattarelli Fisher has examined the relation between economic wealth and living conditions in a detailed study of Livorno’s proprietors, and considered the kinds of houses they owned and rented, and their location, which is especially interesting given that Livorno never enclosed its Jews in a ghetto.65 She found that while the Jews, like other foreign nationals residing in the town, tended to concentrate along one main street from 1603 onward, their choice of living quarters depended on economic possibilities and domestic necessities rather than on national origins.66 Although there was an effort on the part of Tuscan Dukes to concentrate the Jews in one quarter, the privileged families were allowed to live on Via Ferdinanda, the main street in Livorno to this day, though the name was since changed to Via Grande.67 In 1645, the Jewish community numbered about 1,250 people living in 170 houses, with a low average of one person per room.68 The financial situation of the merchants can also be appraised from the list of donations demanded of the community as a wedding “gift” upon the marriage of Ferdinand, the son and heir of Cosimo III, with Violante, Princess of Bavaria, in 1688.69
The main economic activity of the Jews in Livorno comprised loan banks,70 liberal professions, industry (such as soap production, sugar refinery, leather, silk, feathers and coral work), land and maritime commerce, including financing, currency exchange, and insurances.71 Alongside great risks, sea loans could produce between twelve and twenty-five percent profit.72 Other long-term economic ventures in which Livorno Jews were particularly active were government tenders for commodities such as wood and coal, paper (probably related to the Jews’ printing activity), and tobacco.73 The monopoly for the manufacture and sale of tobacco in the entire Duchy was received in 1645 by Jacob and David de Tunis and Abram Vais della Pegna who were among the founding members of the Hevra, as well as two Italian Jews, David Vigevano and David Falcone.74 Their initial investment of an annual payment of ten thousand scudi for ten years produced a business that, in 1672, was worth 34,000 scudi per annum. In effect, they created a market for the new product, imported from Brazil through Portugal. The importance of this business grew to the extent that the Jewish merchants were able to provide work for the villagers surrounding the city, and some of them settled in various agricultural centers, or could afford to buy houses in Livorno.75 In 1642, taxation imposed on some eighty Livorno merchants reveals that the Jewish merchants’ share provided the Duke with 4,622 scudi, a third of all the taxes imposed on foreign merchants, including the English, who were taxed to the tune of 1,400 scudi.76
The life span of various businesses run by Livorno merchants of all nations was relatively short, and few lasted longer than a century. Bankruptcy was a regular occurrence, and could affect both old and new houses of commerce. Merchants were compelled to work in precarious conditions, often without being able to ascertain the solvency of third parties, and decisions regarding buying and selling merchandise were hazardous, not to mention the innumerable sea incidents, especially nefarious, due to the habit of under-insuring cargo.77 Livorno capitalism was based on family capital, and the common strategy was to take part in several ventures concurrently.78
6 The Initial Capital
The dowry confraternity functioned as an actual commercial company,79 as article 10 of the 1644–5 statutes visibly demonstrates.80 The capital of the confraternity in its first years consisted of a joining fee of fifty scudi per member, initially amounting to 2,350 scudi, private donations and legacies, fines imposed on members for various reasons, and dowries returned to the fund, if indeed such cases occurred; all these sums were accrued and considered kodesh, as mentioned earlier, and could not be used for private purposes. The statutes posit that the initial capital could only grow and should never be allowed to decrease. The dowries were distributed solely out of the revenues, and the society’s expenses were covered by fines imposed on members who did not attend meetings (article 12). Deputies were personally responsible for the monies, and any mishap would not only lead to their loss of office, but funds lost would also have to be reimbursed from their own pocket, with an additional ten percent fine, which would then be added to the capital, as were all other fines (article 10).
In addition, a dowry could only be issued to a daughter or relative of a member after six to ten years of membership. This meant that the deputies could use the capital for a long period of time, perhaps for long-term investments. Probably for the same reason, it was decided that twelve years must pass before any changes could be made to the founding statutes (article 35), allowing the deputies ample freedom of operation. The regulators further stated in the decision of 27 March 1644, that no institution similar to the dowry confraternity could be established in Livorno, under pain of herem (ban), as well as a fine of five hundred Pieces of Eight, which would be distributed equally between charity for the community and for the Land of Israel, and the Duke’s treasury. Officially, the reason for this precaution was to allow the confraternity to do its work in an orderly manner, though clearly the regulators wanted to ascertain that this confraternity would not have any competition, thereby strengthening the authority of the confraternity deputies, sanctioning their financial operations, and securing the confraternity’s future validity.
7 The Investments
The founding members were well-versed in legal matters and financial procedures, as is clearly attested in the statutes setting up the Hevra, for all its religious and charitable aspects. The regulators insisted that the initial capital would be physically in their hands, in cash, and ready to use, rather than accept promises of future contributions. Accordingly, by signing, a candidate had fourteen days within which to pay in order to formally become a member. To ensure that the monies were dealt with appropriately, a number of mutual safeguards were put in place: all the money and small pawned possessions would be kept in a box that was placed in the synagogue and could only be opened with three keys, each of a different design, one for each deputy, and only when all three were present (article 10); should pawned goods be too big to fit in the box, the deputies would decide on a safe place to keep them;81 in addition, investments would be decided upon based on agreement of all three deputies. Article 31 states that in the event that most or all of the confraternity’s members leave Livorno, a common decision will be reached in advance regarding the necessary measures to be taken, provided the capital remained together—perhaps outside of Livorno—and the profits will continue to be used for the provision of dowries. As immigrants and descendants of conversos, the regulators were well aware that changes in political and economic circumstances might lead to further emigration. Yet the Hevra’s economic strength depended on keeping the capital intact, hopefully continuously increasing, over a long period, hence the inclusion of this article.
Like other financial companies, the Hevra operated in various trade sectors in Livorno, and its importance grew apace with the continually increasing number of leading figures of the Nação who joined it. Most of the trade handled by the Jewish merchants of Livorno was with the Levant and North Africa, areas in which they reached outstanding commercial success.82
Article 10 of the statutes details the kind of investments and maximum values allowed for each, as well as the period of the loans: if any of the Hevra’s money was available, up to one thousand Pieces of Eight could be lent without pawns for two weeks; more money could be lent with pawns for up to a year, on condition that all three deputies were in agreement.83 The article also instructs the deputies to further invest the monies of the Hevra only when the revenues reach four thousand scudi or more. Pawns of up to two thousand scudi could be made against merchandise held by the Duke’s customs office. In addition, article 11 of the statutes stipulates that should the capital diminish for any reason, a quarter of “the advances”84 would be added to the capital every year until the account was once again balanced. The inclusion of this instruction in the founding statutes may point to the fact that such an occurrence could be expected, given the nature of the Hevra’s investments.
Specifically, the Hevra invested in currency exchanges, land and marine commerce, provided interest loans for various commercial transactions, issued mortgages for real estate,85 and insurance policies for a wide maritime activity. A ship carrying five hundred pieces of gold could be sent to Barbary or the Levant, but not to Ponente, that is Iberia, indicating that the Hevra was not eager to take great risks that could put a ship and its crew under the Inquisition’s scrutiny. Similarly, sending five hundred pieces of gold to or from Livorno would entail the personal insurance of all the members. The Hevra dealt in cambio maritimo (maritime exchange),86 the kind of contract especially used in port cities: an investor would give the owner, who could also be the captain of a cargo ship, a sum of money in the local rate, which the owner/captain would return with interest at the port of arrival and in the currency of the port of arrival. The collateral was the ship and its cargo; should the ship and cargo sink or be lost for any reason, the owner/captain of the ship would owe nothing to the original investor.87 Manifestly, the risks were extraordinarily great,88 as were the potential profits.89
As also stated in article 10, the Hevra’s bills of exchange could be traded in the fairs90 of Florence, Besançon,91 or Verona. Bills traded at fairs, or Lettres de foire, were credit instruments that have no exact modern analogues, and were in use since the Middle Ages.92 Such a letter was a written confirmation on the part of a merchant in one location, instructing another person in a different location (often a member of the merchant’s family, or his agent), to pay a specific sum of money on his behalf to a third person, at a future time and place. Classic bills of exchange, dating from the thirteenth century, had several advantages, since they allowed for transfer of money safely and in the needed currency, combined with a loan.93 By the sixteenth century, these bills had developed into tools that were more sophisticated and allowed “highly complex transactions that were independent of the physical exchange of goods”; bills of exchange enabled the extension of short-term credit, and were also used for speculations on the exchange rates of currency which varied from one place to another, and could be remitted, thereby producing a chain of transactions.94
Since there was a limited possibility to enforce financial contracts, a clearing mechanism of debts became necessary. Such a mechanism, developed from medieval times and perfected in the late-sixteenth and seventeenth-century financial fairs, settled bills from all over Europe. Using a rescontre procedure, merchants first cancelled reciprocal debts, and then used clearing cycles and clearing chains, which often included many parties. Eventually, when a merchant could not find a willing partner and no further chains could be formed, the bills would either be cashed in, or new bills would be drawn to extend them.95 Bills of exchange themselves thus became the traded merchandise, heralding modern financial tools used by centralized banks. Importantly, trade in bills of exchange allowed financial operations in different currencies in a variety of places, thereby concealing the interest in the rate of exchange, and circumventing concerns of usury, reminding one of earlier arguments regarding the legitimacy of cambio maritimo.96
Halakha regards charging interest on loans with Jews usurious, yet not on loans between Jews and Gentiles.97 Yehiel Nissim da Pisa (1507–1574), a banker himself and from a family of famous bankers,98 possessed extensive knowledge of both Hebrew law and banking. In 1559, he published a treatise on usury entitled Hayye Olam (The Eternal Life), in which he criticized the Italian Jewish bankers who did not adhere to the principles laid down by Rabbenu Tam (1100–1171), among other Tosafists, and charged interest from Jews too.99 Chapter 15 of this work specifically concerns bills of exchange.100 Da Pisa defined various kinds of bills of exchange, and dealt with the question of whether they are permitted for use.
Da Pisa believed that “bills of exchange, which are called in Italian cambio […] are not current among the Jews of our time,”101 yet he exhibits a banker’s foresight regarding Northern Italy,102 since by the time under discussion here, these were instruments the Jews of Livorno not only knew well, but also used.103 Da Pisa’s text seems to be halfway between a rabbinical responsum and a banker’s manual, and is certainly not an exhaustive depiction of the rabbinical attitude to usury, particularly bills of exchange. Yet the writer, as well as the time and place of writing, make the text invaluable when reflecting on his co-religionists’ activities a century later in nearby Livorno, who seem to be untroubled by halakhic doubts regarding their financial activities. The reason Livorno’s Jews used bills quite freely is probably based on the opinion of two prominent Venetian rabbis, Leon Modena (1571–1648) and Simha Luzzatto (1582–1663), whose respective responsa tore down already frayed barriers erected by previous rabbinical stands regarding credit instruments.104 Luzzatto’s ruling allowed the Jewish merchants to use the bills their Christian counterparts were already using, updating their relevance on the market place. Rabbi Luzzatto was probably under increasing pressure from Jewish merchants, who had to compete with Christian merchants to survive financially, but he was motivated, evidently, by his wish that his flock remain faithful in a changing reality.105
Usury was a serious and well-known concern for the Church and one of the principal accusations it held against the Jews for centuries, legitimizing their continuous expulsions. The Jews were not the sole target of the Church, and the development of “public and private financing” in Italy, “was strongly influenced by ecclesiastical prohibition of usury.”106 In 1571, Pope Pius V issued the bull In eam pro nostro, that forbade the use of exchange bills. Nonetheless, confronted with the continuously increasing volume of commerce, the Church introduced exceptions and flexible interpretations beginning in 1625, although canonical legitimacy was only declared in 1745, when Benedict XIV admitted modest interests on private loans. Eventually, the market place dictated—to Christians as well as to Jews107 —the acceptance of various mercantile operations108 that became necessary following the massive increase in trade volumes experienced from the thirteenth century onward.109
Financial fairs attracted investors who had ready cash, and hoped to make large profits, yet only professional merchant bankers and their agents could carry out the transaction.110 Tribunals held at fairs handled problematic bills, and provided a significant measure of regulation. To succeed in financial operations at the fairs, a banker had to be both well acquainted with the exchange rates of the main markets, and have access to valuable information that allowed him to estimate correctly the future value of various currencies, and pocket the difference.
Besançon, one of the fairs where the Hevra proposed to conduct its business, was dominated by the Genoese and had a sizeable turnover. At these fairs, the Genoese collected liquid capital from Italian investors from Milan, Florence, or Venice, mainly in order to provide short-term credit to the Spanish Crown. In essence, they converted silver originating in the Americas into gold, the currency necessary for the Spanish King’s military operations in the Low Countries, and made the gold available on the King’s behalf at Antwerp by means of bills of exchange payable there.111 Livorno was also involved in Spanish silver shipments and its bankers were therefore as affected by failures to abide by the agreements on the part of the Spanish Crown as were the bankers of Genoa, though the contracts were ultimately safeguarded when the Spanish were made to transform their bankruptcies into debt rescheduling.112 The irony (that could also be termed poetic justice), is that Livorno’s Jewish Sephardic merchants were in effect participating in the financing of the Spanish wars in Northern Europe,113 thanks to their expertise and connections in Spain, which allowed them to maintain agents there.114 The Sephardic bankers thereby proved they did not shy away from major, intricate transactions. Quite the contrary, they were fully equipped not only to compete in the marketplace, but also to cooperate with fellow merchants of every origin and creed, in line with the latest requirements of financial operations involving clearing mechanisms of bills of exchange. These operations would have doubtlessly been frowned upon by da Pisa a hundred years earlier, but by the time the statutes of the Hevra were drawn up, the Livorno massari could safely rely on the rulings of the Venetian Rabbis Leone da Modena and Simha Luzatto, mentioned earlier. These operations hinged on merchants’ reputations, on a wide network of relations, and on collective liability, involving entire communities.115 The Jewish community of Livorno thus provided the backing for its leaders’ financial activities and enjoyed the fruits of their international endeavors.
Further research is necessary to complement the study of the statutes in order to provide a broader as well as more detailed picture, especially regarding the finances of the Livorno dowry society.116 Nonetheless, it seems that the examination of the founding statutes attempted here already lends itself to a few comments.
While the commendable aim of providing dowries to poor maidens was certainly achieved,117 the confraternity’s financial targets were no less important. The society provided a safety net for its members, bearing certain similarities to what would perhaps be known today as a trust fund, whose assets were managed for the mutual benefit of its members, especially the generations to come. Such a fund was crucial for the safeguarding of its members’ finances, in view of the dangers inherent to the period’s transactions, although bankruptcies in the mid-1600s were not synonymous with going completely out of business.118 It is interesting to recall that older financial tools, namely women’s dowries, were used for several purposes, and provided financial protection not just for the bride but also for the entire family’s business. Dowries indeed gave daughters a share of their father’s wealth, and they were used as the initial capital for the groom’s business. In addition, they represented a legally sanctioned protection in cases of bankruptcy, as demonstrated by Trivellato, when married women could claim their dowries as debt reimbursement, thereby saving their families from destitution. The dowry confraternity, for its part, assured that members’ daughters received assistance to marry, even if their fathers had been unlucky in their affairs. Three hundred scudi may not have been a fortune, but it secured a dwelling and a basis for the newlyweds’ common life.119
Doubtless, the assistance offered by the wealthy among the community to the poor and needy was of tremendous help. Indeed, the dowry society provided support to girls who may not have been able to conduct a normative and socially acceptable life without it, and as stated in the Shulhan Arukh, there is “no charity greater than this.”120 It is also doubtful that such help would have been possible without the capital these rich people could afford to set aside for the future of their own children as well as for those less fortunate children of the community, toward whom they obviously felt morally obliged, and for whose livelihood they assumed responsibility. Bearing this in mind, one cannot ignore the role of the dowry confraternity in assuring the continuation and safeguarding of the status of its rich members, as well as at least a part of their wealth. The monies invested in the confraternity served not only to provide a kind of social security for poor unmarried girls, but more so was an investment fund. The members of the confraternity were fluent in the latest financial instruments: organically interwoven in the international mercantile activity of the time, they actively cooperated in the advancement of secular financial practices in the modern age. Membership in the society was hereditary, further upholding the social hierarchy for future generations: if a member had no living children, his grandchildren or even nephews could take his place (article 27).121
The oligarchs of the community looked after each other’s interests and ensured the continuation of their inner circle. Since only members of the oligarchy would be full beneficiaries of the monies invested in the confraternity, the system assured that even in case of financial adversity they would be able at least to survive financially and perhaps also to resurrect their business. It was of crucial importance that they be able to continue their financial activities, not only to them and to their own family members, but for sake of the whole community, whose members were sustained by this activity. If the Livorno merchants belonged, as Filippini has characterized them, to two spheres—the ethnic-religious and the financial122 —then the dowry confraternity bridged both. Undoubtedly, the most interesting aspect of this confraternity’s founding statutes is that they embody and mirror at the same time various social, religious, and financial features of the life of the Livorno Sephardic community in the early modern period.
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