From Rumor to Contract: The Complaint of the Hamburg Parliament concerning Portuguese Jews of December 9, 1603

Christian Küker

Source Description

On December 9, 1603, the Hamburg Parliament lodged a complaint with the Executive Council, that among the Portuguese in the Hansa city Jews were also to be found. The burgesses, to be sure, acknowledged in their complaint the economic utility of the Portuguese merchants for the city, but nonetheless demanded the expulsion of all Portuguese who gave out that they were Christians but who secretly practiced the Jewish religion. In its rejection of Jews in the Hansa city, the Parliament was supported by the orthodox Lutheran clergy. The Executive Council, on the contrary, pursued the goal of strengthening the lucrative trade with the Iberian Peninsula. To this end, the Council wanted to profit from Portuguese contacts--independent of whether they were Catholic or Jewish. The situation of the Portuguese Jews changed several times during the 17th century and in this regard was dependent on which side was able to get its way in the current dispute. The complaint from the year 1603 is the first official mention of a Jewish presence in the minutes of the Hamburg authorities. It is preserved in the minutes of the caucus between the Parliament and the Executive Council, which today is held in the Hamburg State Archive.
  • Christian Küker

Rumors concerning the Portuguese

Toward the end of the 16th century the first rumors surfaced according to which, among the 100 or so Portuguese in Hamburg, there were also Jews. Although these rumors concerned persons who had already died, the Parliament’s complaint expressed the assumption that the number of Jews among the Portuguese was greater than previously thought. As early as 1583, the petition of Isaak von Salzuffen to be allowed to settle, along with a few other Jewish families, had been rejected; twenty years later the Parliament was apparently not willing to tolerate Jews in the city. To the orthodox Lutheran clergy of Hamburg, the Portuguese as Catholics were in any case undesirable. The Lutherans in general exercised great influence on the Parliament and population of Hamburg and strove for unity of faith inside the city. This was disturbed by the presence of dissenters.

Although all religious minorities had to assert themselves against the resistance of the Lutherans, in order to secure their continuing presence in the Hansa city, there were gradations in their treatment by the Hamburg authorities: Catholics were tolerated only because of the political protection afforded the imperial free city by the Catholic Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Calvinists, on the other hand, had extensive privileges because of the protection afforded by the United Netherlands and England, as well as because of their economic importance to the city.

Only a few descendants of the forcibly converted Sephardim came to Hamburg with the intention of living there as Jews. Rather, the ongoing discrimination against so-called New Christians and their persecution by the Inquisition were the main grounds for their migration. The authorities in Hamburg—this the sources make clear—ware informed about the precarious situation of the New Christians in the Iberian Peninsula. The majority of the Portuguese Jews living in the Hansa city turned away from Catholicism only after the first structures of Jewish life had been created. Nevertheless, in Hamburg the equation of the concepts of Portuguese and Portuguese Jews was established linguistic usage.

As described in the Parliament’s complaint, rumors concerning the Iberians multiplied so greatly within a short space of time that, in the year 1603, they were ubiquitous. Thus, the burgesses demanded that the Executive Council expel all Portuguese Jews from the city. The Council repeatedly evaded a discussion of the demand in the following years. In 1605, the Parliament finally demanded only a special levy on Portuguese Jews. On this basis, the first negotiations between the Council and the Parliament were held, in order to determine the amount of the levy.

Tough Negotiations: Demands and Counter-Demands

The Council and the Parliament pursued differing strategies pertaining to the settlement of foreign merchants. The Council, markedly business-oriented, hoped for indirect benefits by mans of the city’s rise to a flourishing center of trade. For this reason, the Council members wanted to avoid as far as possible putting obstacles in the way of long-distance trade and traders. By contrast, the burgesses by means of increased taxation wanted to profit directly from the presence of foreign merchants, who ought to “contribute something substantial,“ as the source puts it. In Parliament’s view, the obligation to pay higher taxes would lessen the economic competition these foreigners posed for the local guilds. Hence, in the first negotiations of 1606, the burgesses demanded that, next to an annual special payment made to the city, a tax on Portuguese trade as a whole also be levied.

Against this demand, the Portuguese protested, striving for an advantageous arrangement, similar to the settlement contract of the Netherlands’ Calvinists. They gave notice that in case of such a tax, they would all leave. This threat gained some weight because they had negotiated successfully with several of Hamburg’s competitors, such as Altona, Emden, and Stade, concerning legal as well as economic preconditions for their settlement. The threatened negative consequences for Hamburg merchants on the Iberian Peninsula manifested themselves in relation to their privileges in Portugal which were just established legally in 1607, although the danger was somewhat improbable. The Council attempted to mediate in the negotiations between the Parliament and the Portuguese. In 1610, the burgesses advocated, under certain conditions, a legally agreed to toleration of Jews in the city: the agreement should apply only for the Portuguese Jews present in the city at that point in time and could be one-sidedly, unilaterally abrogated—that is, only by the Hamburg authorities. Beyond this, the burgesses demand that the Council provide expert opinion on the question of whether it was fundamentally possible for Jews to live in a Lutheran city, like Hamburg. In an attempt at compromise, the Council sent an inquiry to prominent theological faculties in the Holy Roman Empire, thereby by-passing Hamburg’s ecclesiastic authorities, because of their anti-Jewish stance, an act which the clerics took as an affront.

The Theological Assessment – Christian-Jewish Cohabitation on Trial

The selection of theological faculties from which the Council requested expert opinion was above any criticism. In all three institutions – the universities of Jena and Frankfurt / Oder, as well as the Giessen Academy – worked the leading great figures of Lutheran orthodoxy. Because of its known rejectionist stance, the Council asked Hamburg’s clergy for its assessment only after the first external opinion arrived. As expected, its answer was negative: in the view of Hamburg’s Lutherans the presence of Jews, whom they portrayed as blasphemers, posed a danger to the city. They argued that the moral-religious integrity and spiritual salvation of the people of Hamburg would be jeopardized, that the city would, as a result, have to fear divine retribution.

However, all three of the external opinions judged differently, that it would be, in principle, possible for Portuguese Jews to be tolerated in Hamburg. The Council agreed with regard to the fundamental question. On the basis of the expert opinion of the theological faculties, the Council was able to override the view of the Hamburg clergy and refute the objections of the Parliament. Nevertheless, it remained to further clarify the general economic conditions. Due to the position of the Lutherans, this had created the basis for an anti-Jewish attitude in the city. The preachers represented their views not only on the plane of official politics, but also from the pulpit and thereby exercised a considerable influence on the city population.

The Contract of Settlement of 1612

On February 19, 1612, the Parliament, the Council, as well as the Portuguese Jews agreed upon a Contract of Settlement. This was the first legally binding authorization of a Jewish presence in the city – not ten years after this was first recorded in an official document. At this point in time, there were already living in Hamburg well over 100 Portuguese Jews. One facet of the contract is characterized by economic privileges, the other, however, by religious limitations. The annual special tax settled at a sum in the amount of 1000 Marks, certainly higher than had been offered by the Portuguese, but was, compared to other locales in the Holy Roman Empire, still low. Otherwise, there were only a few economic limits. On the other hand, Portuguese Jews were granted no autonomous jurisdiction in religious matters, and the practice of Judaism in Hamburg was totally prohibited. Forbidden was not only divine services, but also circumcision and ritual funerals. For the establishment of a few prayer rooms in the private homes of Portuguese Jewish families, as well as various ceremonies carried out in secret, the prohibitions were not, in fact, enforced. Furthermore, Portuguese Jews were able to practice their religion legally in neighboring Altona. Several further demands by the Parliament or by the clergy, such as the appointment of Christian teachers for the Portuguese or attendance at Lutheran divine service, were not accepted. The Parliament, however, was able to put through its demand, making possible that the Contract of Settlement could be abolished in any given year. In return the Hamburg authorities obligated themselves to protect the Portuguese from harassment and violent clashes.

Résumé and a Look Forward

Although the Contract of Settlement temporarily clarified the situation of Portuguese Jews in Hamburg, their situation remained tense. There were repeated conflicts with the burgesses and the Lutherans. During the negotiations for renewal of the agreements in the years 1617, 1623, and 1650, alterations with regard to the rights and duties of the Portuguese were each time intensively discussed. The present source represents a significant step forward on the way to consolidation of Jewish life in Hamburg. It brought the open secret of a Jewish presence in Hamburg into the realm of official policy. By this means it was for the first time possible to discuss toleration of Jews in orthodox Lutheran Hamburg, and to at least temporarily make it legally binding. These debates would characterize the Hansa city throughout the 17th century.

Select Bibliography

Günter Böhm, Die Sephardim in Hamburg, in: Arno Herzig (eds.), Die Juden in Hamburg 1590-1990. Wissenschaftliche Beiträge der Universität Hamburg zur Ausstellung „Vierhundert Jahre Juden in Hamburg“, Hamburg 1991, pp. 21-40.
Jutta Braden, Hamburger Judenpolitik im Zeitalter lutherischer Orthodoxie 1590–1710 Hamburger Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Juden 23, Hamburg 2001.
Jorun Poettering, Handel, Nation und Religion. Kaufleute zwischen Hamburg und Portugal im 17.Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2013.
Michael Studemund-Halévy, Biographisches Lexikon der Hamburger Sefarden. Die Grabinschriften des Portugiesenfriedhofs an der Königstraße in Hamburg-Altona, Hamburger Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Juden 22, Hamburg 2000.
Hiltrud Wallenborn, Bekehrungseifer, Judenangst und Handelsinteresse. Amsterdam, Hamburg und London als Ziele sefardischer Migration im 17. Jahrhundert, Hildesheim 2003.

Selected English Titles

Mordechai Breuer, The Early Modern Period, in: Michael A. Meyer and Michael Brenner (eds.), German-Jewish History in Modern Times. Vol. 1., New York 1996.
Schmuel Ettinger, Migration and Economic Activity in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, in: H. H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People. Chapter 43, Cambridge, MA. 1976.
Joachim Whaley, Religious Toleration and Social Change in Hamburg 1529-1819, Cambridge 1985.
Gotthard Deutsch (et al.), “Hamburg” in Jewish Encyclopedia 1906, online:
Dean P. Bell, Jews, Ethnicity and Identity in Early Modern Hamburg, in: TRANSIT, 3/2007, online:

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About the Author

Christian Küker, B.A., is currently studying for his masters degree in Global History at the University of Heidelberg.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Christian Küker, From Rumor to Contract: The Complaint of the Hamburg Parliament concerning Portuguese Jews of December 9, 1603 (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 15, 2019. <> [December 07, 2023].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.