In the "classic" period of Ashkenazic Jewry—before the massive shocks of industrialization, Enlightenment, nationalism, and world wars—Ashkenazim fulfilled the role of a middleman minority. In western Europe, they were variously bankers, peddlers, artisans, and the like. In eastern Europe, they fulfilled all these roles as well, but they were also utilized by the nobility as agents in the development and extraction of capital from new agricultural territories. Thus, Jews had a large percentage of state liquor monopolies in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire, and they often managed the estates of absentee nobility. Jews also served as cultural intermediaries, bringing news of the world especially to isolated peasants.
During the "classic" period, the Jewish communities were marked by a high degree of self-definition and communal autonomy. Their right to settle in a given location and to engage in business was granted by various local authorities, whether bishop, noble, or king. They were sometimes protected by these authorities and sometimes harassed or expelled at the instigation of coterritorial commercial classes or religiously inspired mobs. The rights of particular Jewish families to settle or go into business in a certain spot were frequently controlled by the community itself, which was able to deploy sanctions of Jewish law such as the khazoke (proprietary rights to a given "concession") and the herem hayishuv (ban on free settlement).
The loss of the middleman-minority sociocultural "slot," the increased threats to Jewish well-being over the course of perhaps three centuries, and the erosion of Ashkenazic Jewish cultural distinctiveness are closely and causally linked. The authority of the traditional texts and the rabbinic elite were undermined by the progressivist philosophy of the Enlightenment. The corporatist status of the premodern Jewish communities was rendered obsolete by the evolution of the inclusive Western nation-state. The masses of Jews in eastern Europe lost the artisanal and petty-commercial bases of their livelihoods, and they found little alternative opportunity in the new industrialism. Today, those descendants of the Ashkenazim who value their distinctive cultural heritage are struggling to find new ways to integrate past and present.