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Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274):

Letter to Margaret of Constantinople, Countess of Flanders on Christian Treatment of Jews (1270-1272)

To the renowned lady, etc., brother Thomas Aquinas of the order of brothers preachers, greeting etc.

I received the letters of your excellency, from which I understood fully both the pious concern that you hold for the governing of your subjects and the devoted love that you hold for the brothers of our order, giving thanks to God who has inspired the seeds of virtues so great in your heart. Nonetheless because in these same letters you requested of me that I respond to you concerning certain articles, it certainly was difficult for me, not only on account of my responsibilities that require the duty of lecturing, but also because I believed that concerning these things you would require the advice of others more expert in such matters. But because I considered it improper that I might be found a negligent assistant to your concern or I might appear ungrateful for (your) love, I have taken care to respond to you, without prejudice to better judgment, concerning the articles proposed.

Therefore, your excellency first inquired if you are allowed at any time and for what purpose to carry out exaction [of taxes] against Jews.

To this question proposed it can thus be responded absolutely that, although, as the laws say, Jews were deservedly sentenced to everlasting servitude for their crime, and thus lords of the lands may confiscate their property as if theirs, nonetheless with this control observed that the resources necessary for life are by no means denied to them; nonetheless because it is necessary that we ‘walk honorably even toward those who are outside’ [1Thess.4:12] ‘lest the name of the Lord be blasphemed’ [1Tim.6:1] and the Apostle warns the faithful by his example that ‘they should be without offense to the Jews and Gentiles and the Church of God’ [1Cor.10:32]; it seems that this should be observed as the laws determine, that forced servitude they were not accustomed to do at a previous time should not be exacted from them, because those things that are unusual generally distress minds more.

According to the principle of this sort of control, therefore, you may carry out exaction against Jews according to the custom of your predecessors, if nothing stands in the way. For it seems, insofar as I could infer from those things about which you subsequently inquire, that your uncertainty hinges more on this, that the Jews of your land appear to have nothing except what they acquire through usurious depravity; from this consequently you ask whether it is not allowed to exact anything from them, for (the one) to whom things that have been extorted thus should be returned.

Therefore concerning this it appears that one should respond that, since the Jews cannot lawfully retain those things that they extorted from others through usury, it also follows that if you receive these things from them, you cannot lawfully retain (them), unless perhaps they were such things that thus far they had extorted from you or from your ancestors. But if they have things that they extorted from others, you should return these things exacted from those to whom the (Jews) themselves are obligated to return them; from this, if certain people are discovered from whom they extorted interest, it should be returned to them. Otherwise they (i.e. the funds) should be disbursed for pious uses according to the advice of the diocese of the bishop and other upright people, or even for the common utility of the land, if necessity threatens or usefulness demands: nor would it be disallowed if you were to exact such things from the Jews as a new practice, with the custom of your predecessors preserved, (and) with this intention, that it be disbursed for pious uses.

Secondly, moreover, you asked if a Jew has sinned, whether he should be punished with a financial penalty, since he has nothing beyond interest/usury.

To this question it appears that one should respond according to the aforesaid, because it is useful that he be punished with a financial penalty so that he does not gain advantage from his iniquity; further it seems to me that a Jew or any other usurer should be punished with a greater financial penalty than someone else in a similar case, in as much as the money that is taken is known to belong less to him. Another penalty can also be added to the financial penalty, so that it not appear that this is sufficient as a punishment, that he ceases to possess money owed to others; nonetheless money confiscated from usurers in the name of punishment cannot be kept, but it must be disbursed for the aforesaid uses, if they have nothing other than interest/usury.

But if it is said that from this the rulers of the lands are harmed, they should ascribe this loss to themselves since it results from their own negligence; for it would be better that they compel the Jews to work to acquire their own sustenance, as they do in parts of Italy, than that, living at leisure they may be enriched by usury alone and thus their lords may be defrauded of their revenues. Thus rulers may be defrauded of their revenues also by their crime if they allow their subjects to gain by robbery or theft alone: for they would be bound to restore whatever they might exact from them.
Third it was inquired if one grants money or other gift gratuitously, whether it is lawful to receive (it). To this it appears that one should respond that it is lawful to receive; and it is useful that the money thus accepted be rendered to those to whom it is owed or be disbursed differently, as was said above, if they have nothing other than interest/usury.

Fourth you ask, if you received more from a Jew than Christians claim, what should be done with the remainder.

The response to this is clear from the aforesaid. For because Christians do not claim from a Jew what is excessive, it can happen in two ways: in one way that by chance the Jew possessed something beyond usurious gain, and in such case you may retain (it), nonetheless with the abovesaid moderation observed; and it appears the same should be said if those from whom they extorted interest subsequently donated [a gift] to them out of good will, if they show themselves ready to restore the interest. It can happen in another way that those from whom they received have been withdrawn from your midst, either through death or dwelling in other lands, then they should return (it); but since the people to whom they are obligated to return it are not apparent, one should proceed according to the above said way.

What is said regarding Jews, should be understood in the same way regarding those from Cahors or any others persisting in usurious depravity.

Fifth you ask about your bailiffs and officials, if you are allowed to sell offices to them or to receive in return from them payment until they receive so much for themselves in the appointed offices.

It appears that one should respond to this that the question seems to contain two difficulties, the first of which is about the selling of offices. Regarding this it seems to me that we should consider what the Apostle says, that ‘many things allowed are not useful’ [1Cor.6:12]; however since you entrust to your bailiffs and officials nothing except the power of a secular office, I do not see why you should not be permitted to sell offices of this sort, as long as it can be presumed of those to whom such things are sold that they are useful for performing duties of this sort, and the office should not be sold at such a great price that they cannot regain (it) without oppression to your subjects.

Nonetheless such selling does not appear to be useful at all. First because it certainly happens frequently that those who might be more suitable for performing duties of this sort are poor, so that they cannot buy the office; and even if they are rich, those who are better do not solicit offices of this sort nor are they greedy for the profit to be gained from the office. Therefore it follows that for the most part those who take offices in your land are worse, ambitious, and lovers of money; and it is likely that they will oppress the subjects themselves and thus not manage your goods faithfully. From this it appears more useful that you choose for the offices good and suitable men whom, even if they are unwilling, you constrain to take up these things, if it will be necessary; because through their goodness and industry more will come to you and your subjects than you could acquire from the aforesaid selling of offices. And his kinsman gave this advice to Moses, ‘Provide, he says, from all the people men who are wise and fear God, in whom there is truth and who hate avarice; and appoint from them rulers of thousands, and hundreds, and fifties, and tens, who will judge the people at all times’ [Exod.18:21-22].

But the second doubt regarding this article can be about loans. About this it appears we should say that if in this agreement they give an advance so that they receive the office, without doubt the agreement is usurious because they receive the power of the office for an advance; therefore when these things have been given there is an opportunity for sinning in this, and they themselves also are bound to resign an office acquired in this way. Yet if you will give the office freely and subsequently you will receive a loan from them that they might collect from their office, this can occur without any sin.

Sixth, you asked if you are allowed to exact taxes or raise funds from your Christian subjects.

In this you should consider that rulers of lands are established by God certainly not to seek their own profit, but so they might attend to the common usefulness of the people. For in censure of certain rulers it is stated in Ezekiel ‘Her princes in her midst are like wolves snatching prey to shed blood and to destroy souls, and chasing avaricious profit’ [Ezech.22:27]. And elsewhere it is said by the same Prophet ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel that fed themselves. Should the flocks not be fed by the shepherds? You consumed the milk and you were clothed by the wool, you killed that which was fat; but you did not feed my flock’ [Ezech.34:2-3]. And for that reason revenues were established for the rulers of the lands so that, living off these, they might refrain from the plundering of subjects; from which in the same Prophet with the Lord commanding it said that ‘the prince will have possession in Israel and no more will princes plunder my people’ [Ezech.45:8].

However sometimes it happens that rulers do not have sufficient revenues for the guardianship of the land and the other things that must reasonably be paid for by rulers; and on such an occasion it is just that subjects contribute, from which their common usefulness can be obtained. And thus it is that in some lands from ancient custom the lords impose on their subjects taxes that, if they are not excessive, can be exacted without sin. According to the Apostle, no one serves as a soldier at his own expense [1Cor.9:7]; thence a ruler who serves for the common utility must also live from the common (goods) and attend to the business of the community, either through allotted revenues or, if things of that kind are lacking or will not be sufficient, through that which is collected from individuals. And the reason seems similar if any misfortune arises anew in which it is necessary to spend much for common utility or to conserve the honorable position of the ruler, for which his own revenues or customary exactions do not suffice: suppose if enemies attack the land or another similar emergency arises; then rulers of the lands may lawfully exact anything, even beyond the usual exactions, for the common good. But if they wish to exact beyond that which has been established by them for desire of possessing alone or on account of excessive and inordinate expenses, this is not allowed to them at all. Thus John the Baptist said to the soldiers coming to him ‘Strike no one, nor carry out calumny, and be content with your pay’ [Luke 3:14]: for the revenues of the rulers are like stipends, with which they should be content so that they do not exact more unless according to the abovesaid reason, for the sake of the common good.

Seventh you asked, if your officials without the order of law will have extorted from the subjects something that comes into your hands, or by chance it does not, what you should do about this.

Regarding this the answer is clear because if it comes into your hands, you should return (it), either to specific people if you can, or disburse it for pious uses or for the common good, if you will not be able to locate the particular people. But if it does not come into your hands, you must compel your officials to a similar restitution even if you will not have any specific people from whom they exacted, they should not derive profit from their injustice; indeed rather they should be punished more seriously by you for this, so that others refrain from similar things in the future because, as Solomon says, ‘the fool will be wiser when the wicked one has been scourged’ [Prov.19:25].

Finally you ask if it is good that throughout your province the Jews should be forced to bear a mark distinct from Christians. The answer to this is clear because according to the statute of the general Council (1), Jews of either sex in every province of Christians and in all times in any attire must be distinguished from other people. This is even mandated by them in their law, so that namely they should make fringes for themselves for the corners of cloaks, by which they may be distinguished by others.

These are the things, renowned and religious Lady, that appear in your questions at present, requiring an answer, concerning which I do not force my judgment upon you; indeed I should urge more that the judgment of those more expert should be observed. May your Lordship have power for very long ages.(2)


Historical context:

The ruling lady who asked Thomas Aquinas the seven questions about the legal treatment of Jews and the raising and use of public funds in her realm and to whom he addresses his answers has been a source of debate. She was identified in a number of manuscripts and by the first editor of a critical edition, H.F. Dondaine, as a duchess of Brabant, either Adelaide of Burgundy, widow of Henry III and regent from 1261-67, or her daughter-in-law, Marguerite of France, regent for her husband John, duke of Brabant, when he went on crusade in 1270. But in 1983, Leonard Boyle argued that it could not be either duchess of Brabant for a number of reasons: that to wish the lady long rule, as he does at the end, would not be appropriate to a regent; that the lady is clearly addressed as a ruler in her own right, not a regent. He argues strongly that the only likely addressee in Thomas’s time is Margaret of Flanders, noting her connections with the Dominicans, the fact that Thomas attended a chapter had Valenciennes which Margaret hosted, the evidence of 15 manuscripts, mostly from c.1300, a note by Ptolemy of Lucca, who knew Thomas well, that identifies the incipit of the letter as addressed “ad comitissam Flandrie,” and answers to similar questions by a Franciscan addressed “ad comitissam Flandriae.” [Leonard E. Boyle, “Thomas Aquinas and the Duchess of Brabant,” PMR 8 (1983), 25-35.

Scholarly notes: 

1 Fourth Lateran Council, chapter 68.
2 This translation was provided by Ashleigh Imus.

Printed source: 

Aquinas, Selected Political Writings, ed. A.P. D’Entreves (Oxford: Blackwell, 1959), 84-94.



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