Jacques Le Goff (1986) La Bourse et la vie. Economie et religion au Moyen Age, Paris, Hachette, 150p.*
After the council of Lateran IV (1215) confessions became private and regular instead of rare and collective. The individual became responsible of his own sins instead of assuming his share of the sins of the whole society. Pawnbrokers are thus suddenly singled out by the church as symbol of cupidity at a time when the central quality put forward by the Church was poverty.
Condemned by the Church
In the eyes of the 12th- and 13th-century theologians, usury favoured idleness, went against productive labour and favoured dearth and famines. For the medieval Church, following in that both parts of the Bible, usury was more than a crime: it was an act going against nature like homosexuality and a mortal sin like simony (33). Usury sold what did not exist (unlike a tree it bears no fruits, so a sum lent should be recovered in full but without interest since no ‘harvest was lost’) and thus was considered as a form of theft. It was going against the principle of fairness the church tried to imposed on the economy (fair price, fair wages) (34). The pawnbroker was seen as a person selling time, but time only belonged to God, so not only was it a sort of theft, but the victim of this theft was God himself (53).
Usury was singled out and banned while other practices quite similar were allowed because a sum lended (unlike say a land rented) did not get worn off by its usage (the principle of inflation was unknown). It is although important to remark that in the mean time the church allowed investments in commande and other systems invented to support trade (35). Moneylenders, unlike merchants, did not work, they exempted themselves from the form of redemption that the central Middle Ages were starting to find in labour (55). The pawnbroker did not fit in any of the three divisions of the medieval society (the workers, the fighters and the men of God), as such he belonged to a fourth one, the Devil’s (72).
Moneylenders in society
The growth of the medieval economy after the year 1000, increased the monetarization of the daily life. The role of the pawnbroker became much more significant in society. Interestingly, at the same time occurred the rise of medieval anti-Semitism (45). The condemnation of the Church only regarded the members of the local Christian society, Jews, Italian and Provencal bankers were allowed to practice usury (45). For the domestic pawnbrokers, usury was regarded as a dangerously fast way to access to wealth and power, endangering in the process the traditional hierarchy (48). Moneylenders were often described as ashamed of their profession and trying to present themselves as merchants; and indeed the difference between the two cannot be completely drawn before 1350 and often much later. Some of the mightiest trading families of Italy were heavily involved in moneylending (71).
A way to salvation
The only way for the money lender to save himself was to give up all his goods to those he had stolen from (56). Actually, usury was often regarded as a necessary harm — specially when the princes or the Church was involved — and thus forgivable at least by the law of man (62). In fact, up to a certain level of interest (very high by modern standards, maybe 33%). What was actually condemned was the pursuit of unfair profit and unreasonable interest rates (92). Theologians (some of them at least) developed five excuses for the reasonable lender to get a form of rewards from his creditors:
- The risk he took of not to recover his money.
- The immobilisation of his capital.
- Moneylending requires a certain amount of work (gathering and transporting the sum).
- Indemnities to be paid by late creditors.
- Incertitude over the solvability of his clients (95).
Progressively a new way appeared for the pawnbroker to save his soul: contrition, prayers and alms would allow him to escape the punishment of Hell, and after a certain amount of time spent in the newly invented Purgatory to access to Heaven (96). With this new hope of salvation, the church lifted the religious obstacle to the development of the central Middle Ages economy. Pawnbrokers in Heaven made the growth of the European capitalism possible (119).
* The edition used here is 2004 Hachette Littérature, Pluriel Histoire one, a translation exists in English: our Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages, translated by Patricia Ranum. (New York : Zone Books, 1988). Buy it here.