AARON OF LINCOLN:
By: Joseph Jacobs
English financier; born at Lincoln, England, about 1125; died 1186. He is first mentioned in the English pipe-roll of 1166 as creditor of King Henry II. for sums amounting to £616 12s. 8d. (about $3,083, the equivalent of $100,000 of the present day) in nine of the English counties (Jacobs, "Jews of Angevin England," p. 43). He conducted his business through agents (M. D. Davis, "Sheṭaroth," pp. 287, 288, No. 148; Jacobs, l.c., p. 277), and sometimes in conjunction with Isaac, fil Joce; by these methods building up what was practically a great banking association that spread throughout England. He made a specialty of lending money for the purpose of building abbeys and monasteries. Among those built were the Abbey of St. Albans ("Gesta St. Albani," ed. Riley, p. 193), Lincoln Minster (Giraldus Cambrensis, "Opera," ed. Dymock, vii. 36), Peterborough Cathedral ("Benedict Abbas," ed. Stubbs, i. 106), and no less than nine Cistercian abbeys ("Memorials of Fountains Abbey," ii. 18). They were all founded between 1140 and 1152, and at Aaron's death remained indebted to him in no less a sum than 6,400 marks (£4,800 or $24,000, probably equal to $750,000 at the present day). Some of these debts may, however, have been incurred by the abbeys in order to acquire lands pledged to Aaron. Thus the abbot of Meaux took over from Aaron lands pledged to the latter in the sum of 1,800 marks (£1,200 or $6,000, equal to $180,000 at the present day); Aaron at the same time promising to commute the debt for a new one of only 1,260 marks, which was paid off by the abbey. After Aaron's death the original deed for 1,800 marks was brought to light, and the king's treasury demanded from the abbey the missing 540 marks ("Chron. de Melsa," i. 173 et seq.). This incident indicates how, on the one hand, Aaron's activity enabled the abbeys to get possession of the lands belonging to the smaller barons, and, on the other, how his death brought the abbeys into the king's power.
Aaron not only advanced money on land, but also on corn (Jacobs, l.c., p. 66), armor (Giraldus Cambrensis, "De Instructione Principum," ed. Brewer, p. 45), and houses ("Rotulus Cartarum," i. 55b; Jacobs, l.c., p. 60), and in this way acquired an interest in properties scattered through the eastern and southern counties of England. When he died, in 1186, Henry II. seized his property as the escheat of a Jewish usurer (see Usury), and the English crown thus became universal heir to his estate. The actual cash treasure accumulated by Aaron was sent over to France to assist Henry in his war with Philip Augustus, but the vessel containing it went down on the voyage between Shoreham and Dieppe ("Benedict Abbas," ed. Stubbs, ii. 5). However, the indebtedness of the smaller barons and knights still remained, and fell into the hands of the king to the amount of £15,000 ($75,000, probably equal to $2,500,000 at the present day), owed by some four hundred and thirty persons distributedover the English counties in the following proportions (Jacobs, l.c., pp. 142, 143):
|London and Middlesex||40|
|Warwick and Worcester||21|
So large was the amount that a separate division of the exchequer was constituted, entitled "Aaron's Exchequer" (Madox, "History of the Exchequer," folio ed., p. 745), and was continued till at least 1201, that is, fifteen years later, for on the piperoll of that year most of the debts to Aaron (about £7,500) are recorded as still outstanding to the king, showing that only half the debts had been paid over by that time, though, on the death of Aaron, the payment of interest ceased automatically, since the king, as a Christian, could not accept usury.
The house of Aaron of Lincoln still stands, and is probably the oldest private stone dwelling in England the date of which can be fixed with precision (before 1186). It is on the right-hand side of the Steep Hill of Lincoln, on the way up toward the cathedral, and is figured in Jacobs, l.c., opposite p. 91, and in "Tr. Jew. Hist. Soc. Eng.," iii., opposite p. 181 (where accurate details are given). Originally the house had no windows on the ground floor—an omission probably intended to increase the facilities for protection or defense.
Aaron's significance is due to the fact that his career illustrates the manner in which the medieval Jewish communities could be organized into a banking association reaching throughout an entire country; while the ultimate fate of the wealth thus acquired shows that, in the last resort, the state was the arch-usurer and obtained the chief benefit from Jewish usury.
- Jacobs in Tr. Jew. Hist. Soc. Eng. iii. 157-179;
- idem, Jews of Angevin England, passim.