‘Throw the Jew down the Well’

By skepticlawyer

You know, sometimes that awful joke in Borat was true. Which means, ahem, that it isn’t funny any more.

The remains of 17 bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well in England could have been victims of persecution, new evidence has suggested.

The most likely explanation is that those down the well were Jewish and were probably murdered or forced to commit suicide, according to scientists who used a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation.

The skeletons date back to the 12th or 13th Centuries at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution throughout Europe.

A little detail included at the end of the piece is most telling, and sums up in a nutshell why natural law is utterly pernicious nonsense, and why I won’t have a bar of it (even in its cute and cuddly manifestations, like the European Convention on Human Rights):

Sophie Cabot, an archaeologist and expert on Norwich’s Jewish history, said the Jewish people had been invited to England by the King to lend money because at the time, the Christian interpretation of the bible did not allow Christians to lend money and charge interest. It was regarded as a sin.

So cash finance for big projects came from the Jewish community and some became very wealthy – which in turn, caused friction.

“There is a resentment of the fact that Jews are making money… and they are doing it in a way that doesn’t involve physical labour, things that are necessarily recognised as work… like people feel about bankers now,” said Ms Cabot.

Natural law didn’t just hold that women were unfit to manage their own lives and that gays ought to be exterminated. It also held that things had intrinsic value, not a value agreed upon by the parties to a contract. Lending at interest was therefore valueless, because it involved making ‘something from nothing’, a concept developed by both Aristotle and the Church Fathers. It held back development in medieval Europe to a grievous extent… and lead to many, many dead Jews. Later, it returned like a bad penny in the form of the labour theory of value, which hoodwinked everyone from Locke to Smith to Marx. Only the two Davids, Ricardo and Hume, were not taken in by it, and we moderns are greatly in their debt. A strong case can be made that it was even more destructive than natural law’s misogyny, homophobia and anti-semitism, particularly when it joined hands with the latter during Hitler’s ascendency.

One of the main reasons I’ve always admired the Romans more than the Greeks is because they never fell for notions of intrinsic value; it is unfortunate for humanity that the works of Aristotle were rediscovered before those of the Roman jurists. I’ll leave you with Servius Sulpicius Rufus, writing in the first century BC:

All buying and selling has its origin in exchange or barter; there was once a time when money did not exist and terms like ‘merchandise’ or ‘price’ were unknown. Rather, each person bartered what was useless to him for that which was useful, according to the exigencies of his current needs; it often happens that what one man has in plenty another lacks. However, since it did not always and easily happen that when you had something that I wanted, I, for my part, had something that you were willing to accept, a material was selected which, being given a stable value by the state, avoided the problems of barter by providing a consistent medium of exchange. This material, struck in due form by the mint, demonstrates its utility and title not by its substance but by its quantity, so that no longer are the things exchanged both examples of wares, but rather one of them is termed the ‘price’ [Praetorian Edict: D.18.1.1pr].

That could be out of Hume or Ricardo. It’s also something to bear in mind before engaging in a bit of friendly banker-bashing.


  1. Ross
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Sasha only got away with Borat only because he was Jewish.Jews do not have the monopoly on persecution.Stalin killed over 20 million in Russia and the USA backed Pol Pot on Cambodia who murdered one million and another 2 million died of disease and starvation.

  2. Posted June 25, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I’ll happily bash the bankers who abuse the powers granted them by states, if they move from providing a service, to predatory behaviour.

    There’s a different between willing to pay when properly informed, and being either conned through misinformation or having a gun to your head.

    It’s perfectly legitimate for the finance industry to exist, and be given special privileges by states where it provides a useful service to the economy as a whole – when it provides efficiency gains to the rest of society.

    When I was a kid, the financial services sector had about 10% of total corporate profits. That’s in the reasonable ballpark, and one can imagine that the 10% cost might lead to at least 11% efficiency gains overall, in which case, it was a WIN.

    Just before the recent financial crisis, that 10% had risen, at least in the US, and according “The Economist” a couple of years ago, to nearly 40%. It is /hard/ to imagine the efficiency gains to society as a whole being greater than that – especially if you look at the private-gain of senior financiers (undeserving of the more genteel label of “bankers”) versus the costs imposed on society as a whole calculated not just from government bailouts, the unemployment costs, the forgoing of income by individuals and the misery.

    The finance industry is now a little like a hypothetical doctor centuries ago, who’ll do some basic stuff that will save the life of your child providing that the child becomes the doctor’s slave – and all the other doctors have the same attitude, and the state only allowed registered doctors to dispense even basic drugs or apply band-aids.

    There’s a happy medium there, and apart from charges, the knowledge that losses can be socialized easily attracts funds from investors into the finance industry that might better be used elsewhere. Perhaps the financiers shouldn’t be bankers – which is why there are some pushing for the finance and banking industries to have something akin to structural separation for telcos.

    Of course, the real villains are the politicians who don’t even try to make the finance industry pay for their privileges, don’t impose commensurate responsibles, and worse, give people like LE’s poor friend the false notion that residential property is guaranteed real wealth, and promote bubbles to keep people convinced of the illusion.

    In this, the politicians are like cops turning a blind eye to mafia protection rackets, indeed arguing to shopkeepers that the local mob protection racket is a good thing.

    I’ll use a Roman’s authority to keep SL happy – the quite wealthy Cicero. I can’t remember whether it was in De Finibus, or Disp. Tusc, but within a couple of pages Cicero writes of the bonds and duties between all sapients, and states that ripping-off one’s fellows is a betrayal of those central relationships, no better than a soldier deserting his post when his unit is under attack. (From a Roman, what could be worse?)

  3. AJ
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Jewish people had been invited to England by the King to lend money

    I think there is also probably a lesson in here about current sovereign debt and lending money to those who do not have to pay it back.

  4. kvd
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I must be getting old, but the heading of this post, and the picture attached to the referenced article are very confronting, unsettling, and not something I can engage with further. Call me coward, but I’m very thankful to be far away from those times and places.

  5. Posted June 26, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    AJ and kvd — you’re both right. And Dave, the melancholy fact is that the glory that was Greece has given us almost nothing we can use (Cicero also conflated legal with economic status in De Off.). We’d have been better off listening to a bunch of Roman jurists who cared only about outcomes to a degree that would make Bentham blanche.

    Motives, in other words, only matter in court, when we’re trying to parse the difference between murder and manslaughter (and sometimes not even then). Believe me, as a lawyer, I don’t want to accept this (lawyers build their world on the drawing of fine distinctions), but that doesn’t stop it being true a great deal of the time.

    And here’s the link:


  6. Posted June 26, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    [email protected] In a word: bailouts. The systematic injection of moral hazard into the world (and particularly American) financial system keeps inflating the profit balloon. The IMF started it, with its “welfare for Wall St”, but others have moved on to bigger and better.

    Though not more disgraceful: taxing third world peasants to pay off loans of Wall St bankers which were largely pissed up against the wall is worse that TARP, whose net direct fiscal cost to the, much richer, American taxpayer was less than zero–i.e. made a profit.

    As for housing, yes brother. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are much bigger disasters, even just in direct fiscal cost. Land rationing created alleged one-way bets in housing prices. Here, in the land of Oz, we might finally be catching up to the deflating of housing bubbles that hit elsewhere. (Though not Germany, which avoided the housing bubble mess for reasons which are well explained here.)

  7. Posted June 26, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The suggestion you cannot mention one lot of persecution unless you mention all the others as well is tedious obfustication. Anti-Semitism has a particular and intense history, which the well story is a part of.

    The US actually spent huge sums trying to stop Pol Pot coming to power, so writing that the “US backed Pol Pot” is highly disingenuous. The US opposed the later Vietnamese invasion, not the same thing,

  8. Posted June 26, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    LE: the first pogrom of an identifiable modern sort of which we are aware occurred in Alexandria in 414 AD. It is covered with fair accuracy in the film _Agora_, where it is made clear that the city’s remaining pagans struggled to tell the difference between the two groups.

    Ross: LE has said everything far more sensibly than I would have done (my response, I’m afraid, would have involved a crack about playing ‘the Oppression Olympics’). FWIW, I don’t think the Holocaust was a unique event, and I think claims to its uniqueness by Jews and others are very foolish. It is easy to find historical instances where the proportion of the target population killed was higher (Cambodia is one such) or where the killings involved no psychological distancing mechanisms, making them terrifyingly bloody (Rwanda). Indeed, I think Rwanda wins whatever perverted prize there is on offer for the worst genocide in human history.

    The point with anti-semitism, as LE says, is its persistence. It never goes away. Having been embroiled in a public row over anti-semitism, it was this characteristic that stood out most sharply to me.

    Does that mean that only Jews should tell Jewish jokes? No, it doesn’t, and as with any other minority or one-time oppressed group, I think the attempt to police how one is portrayed naturally leads to resentment, in part because it inevitably comes into conflict with freedom of speech (a more important value than ensuring a group of people get to feel good about themselves) and represents a rather infantile desire to control the external world (not being able to control other people leads to a good percentage of childish temper tantrums, as parents can testify).

    And on that point, I don’t find _Borat_ funny either, and have only ever been able to watch it in 10 minute snippets. Any more than that, and I find myself wanting to peel up the floor tiles and crawl underneath.

  9. Posted June 26, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    In wholehearted agreement with [email protected]

    I suspect the lamentable persistence of anti-semitism has something to do with the lamentable persistence of abrahamic religion in general and christianity in particular (or should that be Pauleanity?).

    As to Jewish jokes, the best I’ve heard is one I’ve had to defend in advance as being first told to me by a female jewish lawyer, premised on a statistical fact not limited to semites:

    Q: Why do Jewish men die on average before their wives? A: Because they want to.

    (Further defence, my ex’s biological mother was raised ultra-orthodox in england, and was a guest under my roof for a few months … so I have /deep/ visceral understanding of jewish mother-in-law jokes)

  10. Posted June 26, 2011 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Dave, I’ve encountered enough atheist anti-Semites (something that brings me almost to the point of despair) to indicate that anti-semitism is like a bloody virus with some people.

  11. Posted June 27, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: agreed that anti(metaethnic) is exasperating as in never warranted in my experience – good and bad in all.

    If unrelated to religion, is persistent anti(metaethic) possibly a reflection back of the perjorative use of exceptionalist terms such as “goyim” or “gaijin”? Does anyone know of the other groups in time that have had such terms (must be at least some) and did this invoke the “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” law, but in sociology not physics? As I understand it, the early use of “goy” was NOT exceptionalist, and simply meant “a people”, but moved to been exceptionalist and sometimes perjorative. Was “barbaroi” in this class and did it provoke anti-greek sentiment?

    Again, bring on the day when we are all mongrel crossbreeds and there are no ethnic distinctions possible.

    Is there a natural experiment? Perhaps it’s the Parsi – a diaspora of persian zoroastrians fleeing their spiritual home after domination by an antagonistic imperial power, a monotheistic (but not abrahamic) group against proselytizing and expanding sky-fairy market share and thus tending to in-group breeding (this backed by chromosomal studies), traditionally a literate subculture good at maths and over-represented in the finance industry… Sounds /very/ much like jews, doesn’t it? Yet I’m unaware of any significant persistent extreme prejudice against the Parsees. Is the difference in treatment of Parsees and Jews a function of the difference attitudes of Parsees and Jews, or a function of greater tolerance of their host cultures, Indian v European? Hindu v Christian/Moslem?

    I can’t judge, as though I have a number of zoroastrian friends, they are from Iran, and I don’t think I’ve ever even met a Parsi.

  12. Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    And Dave, the melancholy fact is that the glory that was Greece has given us almost nothing we can use

    Art, literature, architecture, history and the notion that the universe can be expressed mathematically. OK, so the first bits are aesthetic/cultural so it is stretching the word ‘use’ a bit …

  13. Posted June 28, 2011 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    And now a pause for the world’s most famous Parsi.

  14. Posted June 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Damn, someone beat me to Freddie Mercury…

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