Despite its bad rap for being a cesspool of disease, a fortress of ignorance and a vortex of darkness, the medieval period was a pretty liberated chapter in the textbook of Jewish women’s history. And, for all its atrocities against Jewry, its erratic decrees, vicious scapegoating and constant unpredictability, medieval Europe witnessed a fairly robust Jewish existence, with communities flourishing both financially and spiritually – only to be torn down again by the erraticism of the period, therefore all-the-more impressive. So, amidst this surprising mix of stout Jewish life and fairly liberated women, it is only natural that history veils a number of influential females who wielded power, some with clever subtlety, and some with brash confidence, in an era which many of us have branded as civilization’s most backward.
Speaking of stereotypes, we’ll have to engage in a few for the sake of this tale. Jews were moneylenders in medieval Europe, and they were indispensable to the finances of the various fractured kingdoms and provinces that peppered Christendom. Their international connections and “non-brother” status allowed the Church to overlook the prohibition: “Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother.” And, within this demonized profession, a number of Jewish women rose to prominence, influencing nobility, clergy and politics.
More often than not, these stunning successes resulted in unhappy endings. Licoricia of Winchester was one such woman. Living in England during the first half of the 13th century, documents indicate that she was the wealthiest Jew in Winchester during this period. Both her first and second husbands died in short succession, leaving her to her own devices. After the death of her second husband, all of his assets were seized by the crown for evaluation, and Licoricia was placed in custody to ensure she did not leave the country with hidden valuables. She was ultimately required to pay a vast sum to Henry III in “death duties.” (These funds went towards Henry III’s rebuilding of Westminster Abbey).
Landing quickly on her feet, Licoricia continued her money lending efforts, dealing directly with the King and his court on numerous occasions. She had a large network of bankers with whom she interacted, and was called upon by numerous important figures to plump up their purses when they felt skimpy. Of course, upon her death, which was actually a case of murder, much of her wealth was once more seized by the crown, proving yet again how tenuous political and economic power was for medieval Jewry.
Other women in this profession similarly came to realize the feeble grip they had on political power. Pulcelina of Blois was a wealthy woman in northern France during the mid-12th century, who had gained the favor of Count Theobald V. It is possible she used her political clout too confidently, because she garnered some pretty fierce opposition. The Count’s wife (who happened to be the daughter of Louis VI and Eleanor of Aquitaine) and a local nobleman resented Pulcelina’s influence and, when whisperings of a blood libel began, plotted to bring her down.
The Count was furious at the report of a murdered Christian child and had over 30 Jewish townspeople imprisoned. Pulcelina, relying on her sway with the Count, tried to speak with him, but as R’ Ephraim ben Yaakov of Bonn, 12th century Talmudist and recorder of the Second Crusade describes in his account: [The Count’s wife] swayed him, for she also hated Dame Pulcelina. All the Jews had been put into iron chains except Pulcelina, but the servants of the ruler who watched her would not allow her to speak with him at all, for fear she might get him to change his mind (Jacob Rader Marcus The Jew in the Medieval World: a Source Book: 315-1791 (Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati 1999) pg. 143).
The story ends badly, with the burning of the Jewish prisoners, and in some accounts, Pulcelina, although exonerated, throws herself into the fire with her fellow brothers and sisters.
As is more often the case, power did more harm than good, and as one medieval recorder implies, had Pulcelina not been so successful in her business ventures, she would not have reaped the hatred of the Countess and the local noble who, in fairytale-like fashion, rubbed their palms together in glee at her fall from favor. In fact, a medieval document describing some of these events notes that she was “an arrogant woman towards the townspeople…she dealt heavily with all who came to her” (Susan Einbinder “Pucellina of Blois: Romantic Myths and Narrative Conventions” Jewish History Journal vol. 12 no. 1.  pg. 32).
These are just two women of many who engaged in the business of lending. One historian makes the claim that in 13th century France, over half of the Jewish moneylenders were women, there are dozens of recorded medieval Jewish women who became prominent in the business, so it is not surprising that a number of them scaled the power ladder. However, in most cases, women conducted their lending from home, and were usually involved in modest accounts with neighbors and locals rather than counts and nobles.
The Community Leader
While many women may have made it in the financial sector, not very many had a hand in shaping Jewish structures or policies. Therefore, it is quite surprising to find a handful of those who succeeded in penetrating the inner circles of male-dominated politics.
Esther de Caylar of Arles, an early 15th century French Jewess was one such woman. Because she was considered the matriarch of the prominent Nathan family, she was invited to join the local council in its construction of a free school for the Jewish community. In this role, she participated in choosing the schoolmaster and other relevant issues. Although little else is known about her, her granddaughter became a wealthy businesswoman and philanthropist who left large sums of money to maintain the Jewish cemetery, provide candles for the shul, marry off orphaned brides and beautify Sifrei Torah with crowns.
Similarly, a number of other French Jewesses from influential families were invited to sit on Jewish councils, for example, Rosa and Baceva, who were both widowed and living in the city of Manosque during the early 14th century.
Kandlein of Regensburg, Germany, was a 14th century widow, a reality which put a woman in the unusual position of having neither a father nor husband to conduct her affairs. Sometimes this status afforded widows significant freedoms, yet it brought with it the challenge of survival, being that a two-parent income was usually necessary among medieval Jewry. After her husband’s death, Kandlein became one of the appointed leaders of the Regensburg Jewish community where she was responsible for setting tax rates for Jewish families, and determining which families could move to the city. Interestingly, in documents that recorded community leaders, her name was always listed first, indicating her level of authority. Just like Pulcelina, Kandlein was murdered, although we do not have any details of either crime. It is likely that these women had a significant number of enemies, although there is no evidence to support this assumption.
Chera of Winchester, a 13th century English Jewess was appointed as the tax collector for the Jewish community in the year 1241, and although this may not have been a particularly fun job, it probably came with some perks.
A number of Jewesses gained prominence because of their skill set, as is the case with some female doctors. One such woman even treated the Queen of Spain, however, this was something of a risky enterprise – a service gone wrong could cause serious repercussions for the provider. Another female surgeon performed a procedure on a Christian nobleman, an act she perhaps later regretted after being summoned before a court for some concerns about her behavior during the incident.
So yes, power and influence do not come without consequence. More often than not, the story of Jewish authority had an unhappy ending, with the hero or heroine garnering a slew of political enemies just as potent as the political allies. And, as always, the Jew’s status as “the other” was likely to rear its head, upsetting what may have seemed a promising relationship with Christian authorities.
In case you’re not particularly impressed with this tale of power, let me just say that medieval Europe, for all my initial attempts to pump it up, was a pretty repressive place, and power rested in the hands of an infinitesimal pool of candidates. For Jewish women to dip their toes into these waters was pretty amazing. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Jewish people were doing the impossible. That is, after all, our trademark.