In 1647, the French author Étienne Cleirac asserted in his book Les us, et coustumes de la mer that the credit instruments known as bills of exchange had been invented by Jews. In The Promise and Peril of Credit: What a Forgotten Legend about Jews and Finance Tells Us about the Making of European Commercial Society (Princeton University Press, 2019), Francesca Trivellato draws upon the economic, cultural, intellectual, and business history of the period to trace the origin of this myth and what its usage in early modern Europe reveals about contemporary views of both commerce and Judaism. Trivellato begins by explaining the development of bills of exchange in the Middle Ages as a means of transferring funds across long distances, ones which helped the expansion of international trade. Though used by both Christians and Jews, concerns about crypto-Judaism among converted Christians in the town of Bordeaux where Cleirac lived may have been key to his belief in their association with the bills. From Cheirac’s book the myth then spread throughout much of western and central Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, where it was used both to support anti-Semitic views and as examples by philo-Semitic writers such as Montesquieu of the superior commercial ability of Jews.
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