In 19th century fiction, there are a lot of references to moneylenders as "Jews". For example, in "Framley Parsonage", by Anthony Trollope, Lord Lufton says "the pocket-books of the Jews are stuffed full of his dishonoured papers".

What is the purpose of these references? Would 19th century readers have assumed that the moneylenders were all Jewish, or would they have taken this for a careless reference to moneylenders in general?

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    I think this is more to do with history than literature Mar 11, 2017 at 14:58
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    @BeastlyGerbil I disagree. How audiences would interpret literature is an important question for this site. The one critique you could make is that maybe this question is a little too broad; in that case it's easy to edit this question to make it about Framley Parsonage instead of 19th century literature.
    – user111
    Mar 11, 2017 at 17:14
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    @Hamlet I wasn't saying it was off-topic, just that I think it needs to be restricted a bit so that it isn't about people in general as it is right now, but more about the specific literature at the time and how that was recieved Mar 11, 2017 at 17:17
  • Scott's Ivanhoe is an excellent example, which presents a fairly sympathetic portrait of the plight of Jews in medieval England.
    – DukeZhou
    Mar 12, 2017 at 22:06

3 Answers 3


At the time, there were many Jewish bankers/moneylenders, so moneylenders were probably often portrayed as Jews.

For a very long time, the Jews have been associated with banking and money. There are a few reasons, such as that there were a lot of Jewish bankers after the 11th century. In The Encyclopedia Judaica, in their article on Banking and Bankers, in the section on Europe, they say:

After the First Crusade, (1096) the Jewish merchant, in his necessarily long journeys, no longer enjoyed even minimal physical security. In Western and Central Europe, especially in Spain, the crystallization of the essentially Christian nature of the rising city communes combined with this insecurity to drive out the Jews from commerce and prohibit them from engaging in crafts. In France, England (up to 1290), Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and northern and central Italy, Jews had to turn to loan-baking on a larger or smaller scale to make a living. Emphasis mine.

So already in the 11th century, the Jews were turning to money lending. It continued...

By the 13th century the notion that the Wucherer ("usurer") was a Jew was already current, for example, in the writings of Berthold of Regensburg, Walther von dee Vogelweide, and Ulrich von Lichtenstein. The word judaizare became identical with "taking interest".


Moneychanging and coinage privileges were often combined with moneylending, and Jews were frequently the sole agents arranging loans...


The article goes on to describe more about the centuries afterwards, but let it suffice to say that there were many Jewish bankers. Let's skip to the section on 19th and 20th centuries.

The article describes many well-known Jewish bankers, such as the Rothschilds, the Mendelssohns, and the Bleichröeders. These families all made large loans at times, and were fairly famous.

All of those families have Wikipedia articles, as well as articles in the Encyclopedia. I'll quote from the beginning of the Wikipedia articles:

During the 19th century, the Rothschild family possessed the largest private fortune in the world, as well as the largest private fortune in modern world history. The family's wealth was divided among various descendants and today their interests cover a diverse range of fields, including financial services, real estate, mining, energy, mixed farming, winemaking and nonprofits.

In 1795 the eldest son Joseph Mendelssohn established the bank Mendelssohn & Co. in Berlin, and his brother Abraham joined the company in 1804. Many members of the family worked for the bank until it was forced to shut down in 1938.

Bleichröder was born in Berlin. He was the eldest son of Samuel Bleichröder, who founded the banking firm of S. Bleichröder in 1803 in Berlin. Gerson first joined the family business in 1839. In 1855 upon the death of his father, Gerson became the head of the banking firm. The bank maintained close contacts with the Rothschild family; the banking house of Bleichröder acted as a branch office in Berlin of the Rothschilds' bank.

In an article in Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, reprinted online at myjewishlearning.com, they say:

Ultimately, however, the potential of great profits and the widespread demand for moneylending made it universal among Jews. Mordecai B. Hillel of Germany (b. 1298) wrote that there is no profit in any form of commerce like that to be made in lending money. Ibn Adret in Spain observed that it has become permitted for everyone to charge interest on loans to Gentiles, “and now all have made themselves ‘sages’ in this respect, adding that he heard in the name of Rashi, that this is because taxes have constantly been increased and there is no longer any limit to “because of livelihood” (i.e. in order to meet their tax burden, Jews had no alternative.)

As we see above, after they started the moneylending, they continued.

We cannot ignore the influence of The Merchant of Venice, by . In it, a Jew named Shylock is a moneylender who wants to 'take a pound of flesh' as payment. (There were actually no Jews in England at the time of the writing of this play, as they were expelled in 1290 and didn't return until 1657, and The Merchant of Venice was apparently written between 1596 and 1599.) As the play has been regarded as the play in which Shakespeare 'found himself the most' (source: Encyclopedia Judaica's article on Shakespeare), it was fairly well read. So a lot of people had this idea that Jews were moneylenders while there weren't even any Jews there, and people held that in mind for a while, and then it gained more credibility when the Rothschilds and the other bankers came on the scene.

  • (I'm planning on doing more research on this later, but I've been working for an hour and can't think any more :/)
    – Mithical
    Mar 11, 2017 at 20:04
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    You've clearly put a lot of research into this answer, but in my opinion it's incomplete. You can't talk about the stereotype of moneylenders being Jews without also talking about anti-semitism.
    – user111
    Mar 11, 2017 at 20:31
  • @Hamlet - yes, I'm going to add something on that when I can find some more sources.
    – Mithical
    Mar 11, 2017 at 20:52
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    If you're in need of a couple more examples, it might also be worthwhile to explore that Jews were often portrayed not just as moneylenders, but also as peddlers of strangely specific/possibly cursed artifacts. The Diamond Lens is a great example of this. But that's sort of an author's-choice thing. (Jews were sort of a plausible, if tacky, out. "Where would this person have gotten [X]?" "Probably a Jew. That's plausible, sure, let's go with that.")
    – user80
    Mar 11, 2017 at 22:54
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    It's interesting to look at why there were so many Jewish moneylenders - my understanding is that usury laws were one of the primary reasons Mar 12, 2017 at 1:53

Sorry to be brief, I'm writing this on a phone (more to follow later). Short answer: for a long time, usury rules generally forbade Catholics from lending money at interest to other Catholics. Similarly, Jews generally couldn't charge interest to Jews, but they could lend money to Christians at interest. (Both were basing the prohibition on a number of Biblical passages).

The prohibition lead to Jews becoming bankers for the primary reason that they were allowed to lend money at interest, and that's where the stereotype came from. See this for more information on usury rules.

Another major reason, of course, was economic restrictions placed on them due to widespread racism. For example, for many years they weren't even permitted to join guilds, which would effectively ban them from certain industries. See also this question for more details on that.

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    This answer is better than the current highest voted answer, as it does a better job explaining the historical context behind the stereotype. However, it's still incomplete, because you can't talk accurately about this stereotype without also talking about antisemitism.
    – user111
    Mar 12, 2017 at 1:41
  • @Hamlet I agree, that would make the answer much more complete - I'm having trouble deciding how to address that in a way that wouldn't be too broad for the format though, truthfully - I may have to do a little more research on the point. Mar 12, 2017 at 6:21
  • Why the downvote? Apr 1, 2017 at 14:32
  • I'm assuming that the downvotes are due to the reasons explained in my comment. It's unfair that this answer is ranked lower than the one above it, because it's a better answer. But in historical terms, both of these answers are very bad for the reasons I explained in my comment.
    – user111
    Apr 1, 2017 at 17:38
  • @Hamlet I'm not sure that that makes it a bad answer per se, but admittedly incomplete. Apr 1, 2017 at 18:26

I love Anthony Trollope for his characters but, sadly, he often characterizes Jews in late 19 century London as prosperous but dangerous moneylenders to the elite ("The Eustace Diamonds" and "The Duke's Children"). Some of his least sympathetic characters, who are probably Jewish, although it is not totally clear to the reader, are psychopaths: Ferdinand Lopez ("The Prime Minister") and Mr. Bonteen (The Pallister Series). One of his most complex and interesting, although reprehensible and abusive, characters is almost certainly Jewish, Mr. Melmotte in "The Way We Live Now," who rises from neglected orphanhood to great wealth and influence while who also abusing his wife and daughter. But, arguably, one of Trollope's most intelligent and noble and most fleshed-out characters is rumored by some of her peers to be Jewish, and who is definitely the widow to a Jewish businessman (Madame Goesler in the Palliser Series). In his shorter fiction Trollope shows that has sympathy for the historically persecuted Jews while still negatively describing their features and personality traits ("Lotta Scmidt and Other Stories"). Sadly, Trollope, like many authors of his time as well as those who came well before and after, despite being a remarkably empathetic observers of human psychology, was a purveyor of antisemitism. So many authors and artist were, from well before the 1900 century, not the least of which was Shakespeare. Bigotry against Jews was baked in to the European and American culture from the middle ages and before. It's a fact that sullies great authors and poets from times past. Bigotry is apparently a human flaw. See the American authors, many of whom were also anti-Semitic, that partook in anti-African American stereotypes that were prevalent from the 1900 century up until the very recent '60s and '70s, maybe even the '80s, in American culture.

On a happier note, one author who is a standout in a non-bigoted sense is the late 1900 century American author William Dean Howells. Although not taking on or propagating antisemitism, he was clearly against anti-black racism and the anti-labor sentiments of his time. His father ran an abolitionist paper before the Civil War and Howells himself was very explicitly a socialist. He bravely, and uniquely, stood up for men who were put on trial for an anarchist bombing, the Hey Market Affair, which they were clearly innocent of by having alibis showing they weren't even present. Even his best friend, Mark Twain, wouldn't stand up for the men when they were on trial for their lives, basically saying, and I'm paraphrasing, they're radicals who deserve to put to death their non patriotic views, so who cares about saving them. (They were put to death.) At the same time, Howells shines a realistic spotlight on his characters who make clearly racist comments, like the adolescent the daughter in "A Hazard of New Fortunes" who observes that New York is getting "Mickey" (as in too many Irish immigrants) in the late 1800s novel. In the same story, an old Southern gentleman writes a book in defense of slavery after the Civil War that one of Howell's most optimistic and likable characters (Fulkerson) publishes in his new literary magazine. Fulkerson is also sympathetic to the side of greedy capitalists against the striking streetcar workers demanding livable wages. Unlike Trollope, Howells shows his sympathetic characters while not making observations as a narrator that apparently agree with the bigotry of his time.

Authors and artists hold a mirror to the attitudes of their times. Some partake in the prejudices, some observe and condemn by observing. As a reader, I love Trollope for being a marvelous story teller and I try to understand, though deplore, his apparent bigotry. But I love Howells more for being an author who was brave and prescient enough to rise above the prejudices of his time to observe characters just as minutely without agreeing with his society's horrible stereotypes on race and class.


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