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144. Seal of Jordan the Jew


Dimensions: 26 mm. Impression.

Location: Braunschweig City Archives, A I 1, No. 1257.

Bibliography: Holtze, 1884.

These three seals will be treated together because they belong to a father, Akiva, and his two sons. All three are attached to the same document and are shown at the beginning of No. 142.

The letters on the seal of Akiva (spelled Ackiva in the German document), the seal in the center of the group, are very difficult to make out. We can only establish this name from the contents of the document to which it is attached. There seem to be two or more letters unaccounted for at the end of the proper name, possibly de or die, that is, Akiva “the” Jew. In the center is a six-pointed star, the Shield of David, as it was later called, likewise crudely done.

Agreement to drop charges from Braunschweig, September 2s, 1510, sealed by Akiva and his sons Abraham and Jordan (reduced in size). Braunschweig City Archives, A I 1, No. 1257.

The letters of the name of Abraham (the seal at the right), like those on No. 142, are so ill-formed that it is almost a toss-up to decide which belongs to Akiva and which to Abraham. In the center of this seal appears what seems to be a scorpion. The use of a sign of the zodiac informs us that the seal is post-medieval, though close enough in general style to be considered a transitional type.

The letters of the name of Jordan (the seal at the left), though poorly inscribed, are more easily read than the preceding two. A leaf seems to be placed between the words SIGILLVM and IORDAN. The device in the center appears to be an anchor with a floral decoration tied to the upper part. This emblem appears on Jewish seals from the Baroque period and later, and probably stands for prosperity in commerce. It does not appear on Jewish seals that this writer has seen from the medieval period, though, curiously, the anchor was commonly used on coins in antiquity and was employed on coins of the Hasmoneans.

The three seals are appended to a document dated September 25, 1510, illustrated here. They show clearly how the seal-making art declined as the Gothic period faded and the influence of the Renaissance began to be felt. A major factor, of course, was the lessened value of the seal in the juridical sense and hence its diminishing importance. (It may be noted that the names Akiva and Jordan appear on no seals from the medieval period known to the writer. Names, like artistic styles, have their vogues). This document is actually one of three involving the Akiva family and gives a good insight into the degradation into which German Jewry had slipped by the early sixteenth century. Ó. Israel, director of the Braunschweig City Archives, kindly sent summary descriptions in English and modern German of the three.

The first of these documents is dated March 23, 1506 (A I 1; No. 1229). Akiva, his sons Marx and Abraham, and his brother-in-law Benedictus (probably Baruch), all Jews of Braunschweig, were accused of breaking the law against usury and jailed. These Jews swore to forget their imprisonment and promised to pay 5,000 Rhine gulden to the City Council in two installments; and further agreed that if they should be proved to possess more than 8,500 Rhine gulden, they would be arrested again. The signatures of seven Jews nominated by the council were affixed as guarantors of performance; no Jewish seals were involved.

The second Braunschweig document, which is the one illustrated here, dated four years later, again involves Akiva, this time with his sons Abraham and Jordan. The three Jews agree to stop feuding with the Margrave of Brandenburg and with the Braunschweig City Council, which had imprisoned them because of a charge of desecrating the Holy Sacraments. The Jews proved their innocence of the charge and were released, sealing with their seals as evidence of their good faith in dropping the matter.

The third Braunschweig document has no exact date. It comes from the Record Book of the Councillors of Braunschweig, listed as B 1 2 and noted as late April, 1511. The City Council confirms the residence permit (Schutzbrief in the document means “letter of protection”) of Akiva, his sons, and their children as still valid for eight years on the continued payment of sixty Rhine gulden per annum, and agrees to protect them and to allow them to occupy two houses on the Jewish Street.

We have here a miniature view of the network of problems involving the small Jewish population left in Germany after the frightful series of persecutions that started with the Crusades, continued through the Black Death, and terminated with the expulsion of almost all the Jewish remnant after the victory of the guilds over the patrician class in the leading cities. Some towns such as Braunschweig tolerated a small group of Jews because there was not enough trade to attract the Lombards or Cahorsins. The Jews, because of the insecurity and great risk of their situation, had to charge high interest rates, bringing down the wrath of the community upon them. The aristocracy borrowing from the Jews, in this case, the Margrave of Brandenburg, saw in this conflict a chance to escape payment of their debts, while religious fanatics, in a situation aggravated by the tensions following the Hussite Wars and the internal dissensions about to break out in the Reformation, found it opportune to charge the Jews with desecrating the Holy Sacraments. In the early sixteenth century, however, when times were reasonably normal, even the Jews had some elemental rights, and we see Akiva and his family exonerated of the charges presented against them. There was a peculiar dependency involved; no matter how much the Jews were hated, they were also needed in these smaller German towns. The City Council of Braunschweig, therefore, though not granting Jews citizenship, did allow them to live in the city in safety for a prescribed number of years in return for an annual payment of a significant sum of money.

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