Francesca Trivellato joins us to discuss her book The Promise and Peril of Credit, and the longstanding legend that Jews invented bills of exchange. Listen in to our wide-ranging conversation about the history of Jews and finance in early modern Europe and its ramifications for today. The Promise and Peril of Credit offers a fascinating account of the history of bills of exchange in early modern Europe, which were a mechanism for merchants to exchange goods, services, and money over long distances, and specifically the myth that Jews invented them.
And this might seem like a fascinating but niche topic, but it really isn’t: It provides a way to talk about economic history and what it teaches us in the biggest terms, about the relationship between the nuts and bolts of the economy and the myths that surround these often opaque processes, and about the staying power of such myths that resonate from the seventeenth century to the 2008 financial crisis.
And then, of course, there’s the question of what all this means when we throw the Jews into the equation: The fact that Jews were associated with financial instruments like bills of exchange is part of a much longer history about the place of Jews in European culture, antisemitism and anti-Judaism, and the role of myths in society.
Francesca Trivellato is a historian of early modern Italy and continental Europe, focusing of the organization and culture of the marketplace in the pre-industrial world. She is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and her books include The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, which appeared in 2009, and her 2019 book which we are discussing today, The Promise and Peril of Credit, which was awarded the 2020 Jacques Barzun Book Prize in Cultural History by the American Philosophical Society.