Jewish Wives and Property in Late Medieval Perugia

Saturday, January 9, 2010: 9:40 AM
Elizabeth Ballroom A (Hyatt)
Karen Anne Frank , University of California, Santa Barbara
This paper explores the expanding economic autonomy of Jewish wives in fifteenth century Perugia. Traditionally, medieval rabbis afforded no control to women over their own properties: Husbands administered all of their wives’ inherited and/or dotal assets, and constituted the sole heirs to their late wives’ estates. Because few Jewish women appear in Perugian notarial records prior to the end of the fourteenth century—though Jewish men do with some frequency—it would appear that in regards to Jewish women’s limited financial autonomy, the Jewish community adhered to the rulings of medieval rabbis. However, towards the end of the fourteenth century, notaries began to include in their registers the records of economic transactions involving Jewish wives, and continued to do so into the fifteenth century.  These transactions reveal that some Jewish wives began to manage or own outright various properties, including loan banks. One way to account for this increased financial autonomy is to examine the consequences of the declining fortune of the Jews in Perugia in the fifteenth century.  As Jewish families sought better conditions elsewhere, the population in Perugia began to decline; this in turn meant that fewer adult males, who were the traditional custodians of the community’s wealth, remained. Yet the families of the community still needed to raise the funds for the yearly communal tax and the newly introduced forced loans to the civic government. This meant that Jewish businesses needed to remain solvent, and therefore required competent managers. In the void left by departing Jewish men, some Jewish wives became partners in property management with their husbands, and sometimes with other men. Thus due to hardships the community faced and the subsequent lack of traditional male financial administrators, some Jewish wives in fifteenth-century Perugia gained far more economic autonomy than medieval rabbis would have deemed appropriate.
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