Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.03.18 Lauer, Colonial Justice and the Jews of Venetian Crete

The Medieval Review

21.03.18 Lauer, Colonial Justice and the Jews of Venetian Crete


Colonial Justice and the Jews of Venetian Crete is an excellent piece of interdisciplinary scholarship examining the interplay between the Jewish community of Candia, the main port city and capital of Venetian Crete, and the Venetian colonial state. Lauer makes two arguments with regard to this relationship. First, she shows that Candiote Jews engaged with the Venetian colonial justice system deliberately, in ways that advanced their own individual and communal interests, highlighted the diversity of their understandings of community and of Judaism, and revealed substantive relationships with their Latin and Greek Christian neighbors. Second, she argues that interactions with the Venetian colonial justice system empowered Candiote Jews in a way that marked them as unique among medieval Jewish communities. Her evidence in support of these arguments is convincing and elegantly presented.

Lauer's study turns on an integrated analysis of two fascinating bodies of sources. One is the Taqqanot Qandiya, a collection of locally binding rules produced by and for the Jewish community of Candia. This collection was created in 1228, revised in 1363, and now survives in a single manuscript copied in the sixteenth century. The other key archive is the body of records generated by the ducal court of Candia, the official representative of Venetian justice on the island. Lauer combines these court records with other materials from Crete preserved in the state archive of Venice, especially the town crier rolls of Candia and the registers of Venetian notaries active in Crete. Venice took control of the island in 1211, but Lauer has chosen to focus on the years from 1348 to 1453, the period of greatest stability and prosperity for the colony. As Lauer ably shows, reading the Taqqanot Qandiya together with official Venetian sources offers exceptional insight into the activities of Candiote Jews in a variety of situations, some of them quite surprising.

The book consists of six chapters as well as an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter outlines the history of Candia and its Jewish community (the kahal or kehillah). Jews had been resident on the island since the first century CE, most of them Romaniote (Byzantine Jews) and native speakers of Greek. Many worked as artisans or manual laborers, though there were also merchants, moneylenders, physicians, and members of religiously oriented professions such as scribes and producers of kosher food. The community was led by a group of elite laymen headed by a condestabulo who acted as an intermediary with the Venetian colonial state. Most Candiote Jews resided in the Jewish Quarter, located in the northwest corner of the city, but there were also Jewish communities in other parts of Crete. The Jews of Castronovo seem to have had a particularly difficult relationship with those of Candia. Beyond Crete, Candiote Jews maintained close ties with the Jews of Negroponte, another Venetian colony; with the Ashkenazi yeshiva in Padua; and with certain Sephardic rabbis in Barcelona.

The second chapter deals with quotidian Jewish-Christian relations. Jews and Christians in Candia did business together, created business partnerships, and acted as agents and guarantors for one another. Jews regularly patronized Venetian notaries. Such activities frequently took Jews out of the Jewish Quarter and brought Christians in. Jewish families owned property outside of the Jewish Quarter, and some wealthy Christian families, including members of the Venetian nobility, lived inside it. Although tensions did arise and residential segregation grew stricter over time, the permeability of spatial and communal boundaries was considered normal during the period studied by Lauer.

The third chapter focuses on interactions between Candiote Jews and the Venetian colonial state, especially its justice system. Venetian doctors were unwilling to move from the metropole to Crete; the ducal court therefore employed Jewish doctors as wound evaluators and expert witnesses. Moreover, although Jews (and Cretan Greeks) could not be citizens of Venice, they were considered fideles and subjects with economic, diplomatic, and legal privileges as well as a right to the state's protection. Among other things, this meant that Jews could bring lawsuits before Venetian colonial courts and appeal their decisions to the courts of the metropole. The fact that they did so appealed to the Venetian ruling elite's ideal of equal justice. It also provided an avenue for the state to defuse anti-Jewish rhetoric; an instance of lamb crucifixion libel in Crete, for example, resulted in a protracted court case rather than a riot, as tended to happen elsewhere.

The fourth chapter examines why Candiote Jews chose to litigate in Venetian courts. Although rabbinic texts required Jews to pursue their disputes with fellow Jews in the Jewish communal court (beit din), Mediterranean Jews, among whom the Candiotes were no exception, regularly brought their disputes with one another to secular courts. Intra-Jewish disputes over business, property, and inheritance were especially likely to be taken to a Venetian court. Among the reasons that Lauer suggests were the perceived speed and neutrality of Venetian courts, the range of enforcement mechanisms at their disposal, the flexibility of Venetian judges' decision-making processes, and the possibility of shaming an opponent by creating a public spectacle.

The fifth chapter narrows its focus to a set of marital disputes brought to the ducal court by Jewish women. Although Jewish marriages and divorces could only be conducted through the communal court, the ducal court could hear disputes over marriage and betrothal contracts, dowries, living stipends, and legal separations. Venetian judges were required to decide such cases according to Jewish law and custom, with which they were not very familiar. Jewish litigants therefore used this situation to present their own interpretations of Jewish law and custom. They also framed their arguments in terms familiar from Christian law. In other words, Lauer argues, marriage was actually part of the common discourse between Jews and Christians on Crete. She also shows how both male and female Jewish litigants used shared notions of gender and honor to seek to move the Latin Christian judges of their cases.

The sixth chapter shifts its focus to cases in which Jewish elites made use of ducal courts to resolve disputes internal to the Jewish community. The two circumstances under which this happened most often were disputes about taxation and leadership roles. In some cases, this meant a leader litigating against certain individuals for the benefit of the rest of the community, as in the case of a Jewish resident of Candia who refused to pay his share of the communal tax because he considered himself part of Negroponte's community. In other cases, this meant Jewish elites pursuing their own interests at the expense of communal independence, such as a candidate for the office of cantor who claimed that Jewish leaders had violated Jewish customs in making the appointment. In connection with the latter case, a role for the Venetian colonial state in the process of appointing a cantor was included in the Taqqanot Qandiya, an extremely unusual concession of authority over internal matters and an indication of the bond that existed between Jewish leaders and the ducal courts.

This book was a pleasure to read. Lauer writes well and has a good eye for telling anecdotes, which she uses to anchor each chapter. Her discussion of marital disputes is a particularly good example of how her attention to archival details and ability to situate them within multiple cultural contexts can produce major new insights. As a scholar of eastern Mediterranean colonialism rather than Jewish life, I was impressed by her careful unpacking of the complexities of the Venetian justice system, her attention to Jewish-Greek relations as well as Jewish-Latin ones, and her accessible explanation of Jewish communal structures. She is thorough in comparing and connecting the Jews of Candia with other medieval Jewish communities, though I would have liked to see more comparison between the Venetians and other eastern Mediterranean colonial regimes. How did Jews fare in areas under Genoese rule, or in the Latin Empire of Constantinople? What did it mean for Jews to move between communities governed by different colonizers? What continuities and changes did Candiote Jews experience with the transition to Ottoman rule in 1669? Lauer raises the final question in her conclusion, and I agree with her that these are matters for future research. It is a tribute to the excellence of Lauer's work that it leaves the reader wanting more.