The Business of Emancipation

The German-Jewish struggle for legal equality and economic prosperity

Early modern era

Beginning with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106), Jews were legally reduced to Kammerknechte, servants of the royal chamber, and therefore property of the king (servi camerae regis). While Jews were not tied to the land like serfs, they were not free to live where they wanted and were often forced to pay high taxes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jews were subjected to different legal restrictions than their Christian neighbors. With each new ruler, the laws could become more tolerant or more restrictive. Expulsions from German cities, together with violent pogroms, often destroyed the economies of Jewish communities. These constraints meant that most Jews enjoyed a marginal existence as itinerant peddlers, merchants, horse and cattle traders, pawnbrokers, and suppliers to local rulers.

 

By the late 18th century, some Jews began benefiting from Germany’s economic transformation. The growth of manufacturing made all kinds of goods accessible to more people at a lower cost, increasing living standards and spurring trade. These changes also threatened some established professions, particularly those of craftsmen and farmers. The social dislocation created by Germany’s rapid industrialization generated a great deal of criticism on the left as well as the right, some of which fell upon Jews. Because they were often easily identified, Jewish merchants and bankers were often associated directly with capitalism. Vilified as “unproductive” members of society for selling the fruits of hard labor performed created by others, Jewish entrepreneurs were not only forced to trade under adverse conditions, but also had to defend their reputations and their work.

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

  Glückel of Hameln

Family Stories

Glückel

Glückel of Hameln or Glikl bas Yehudah Leib (1646-1724) was a merchant from Hamburg whose memoirs are among the most important sources about the daily life of Jews in early modern Germany. Glückel’s commercial success is all the more striking because she was a woman working in a man’s world. Jewish as well as Christian customs gendered the division of labor, identifying the home as a female space and business as a male space. However, Jewish tradition celebrated strong women, especially when it came to economic activity. Like her mother before her, Glückel actively participated in her husband’s business. She oversaw Hayyim’s trade in pearls and  gold, settled customer accounts, and managed the firm while he was away on business as far as Moscow and London. After Hayyim’s death in 1689, she took over, managing to pay off his considerable debts within one year.  

For more information about Glückel of Hameln, see the Shared History Project here.

Introduction

Late 18th-19th Century

Riot in the Judengasse, Frankfurt in 1614; circa 1642. Leo Baeck Institute, F 1402.

Vincent Fettmilch moved to Frankfurt in 1602 and initiated the Fettmilch uprisings (1612-1616), which led to the storming of the Judengasse, (Jew’s Lane; Jewish Ghetto) on August 22, 1614.

The expulsion of the Jews from Frankfurt in 1614 after the Fettmilch riot: artwork 1614. Leo Baeck Institute, F 1403.

The Jews of Frankfurt were expelled for two years, until 1616, when the emperor intervened, retaking the city, and issuing an imperial ban on Fettmilch and his co-conspirators. Imperial soldiers guided the Jews back into Frankfurt, and Fettmilch was put to death in the Horse Market on February 28th, 1616.

 

To see more images from Fettmilch riots in Frankfurt inn the LBI’s collections, click here.

Poor Jewish Peddler or Beggar. Leo Baeck Institute, 78.61.

This image depicts a man standing in a marketplace, holding out a small collection box with an overcoat draped over his other arm. His coat is torn and ragged. People mill about in the background. The print is captioned "Jude."

 

To see more depictions of peddlers in LBI's Collections, click here.

Wolf Ehrenfried, Freiherr von Reitzenstein, Der vollkommene Pferdekenner (The Complete Horse Connoisseur), Uffenheim in Bavaria, 1764.

Der vollkommene Pferdekenner is a lavishly illustrated 18th-century equestrian manual for everything there is to know about horses. It was published by Baron Wolf Ehrenfried von Reitzenstein for the Margraviate of Brandenburg-Ansbach. It is a highly-sought-after collector’s item because of twenty-nine engravings of horse breeds, dressage movements, and horse-tack.

 

For more information about Der vollkommene Pferdekenner, see the Shared History Project here.