Gold & Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages

By Jean Favier; Caroline Higgitt | Go to book overview

ELEVEN
Credit in the Marketplace

Lend to one another without expecting anything in return." When, in his Gospel ( Luke 6:35), St. Luke recorded the very general remark made by Christ—"Love ye your enemies, and do good"—he never imagined that he might be laying down a scriptural, and therefore indisputable, basis for one of the most serious obstacles ever imposed on economic development. In reality, neither the theologians who wrote about the evils of interest nor members of the Church councils who more than once condemned it—particularly firmly in 1215 in one of the canons of the fourth Lateran Council—were taken in by a text clearly not referring to the remuneration of investment. The Old Testament has even less to say about economics, reminding us only that one should not behave with a compatriot (Exod. 22:25) or a relative (Lev. 25:36-37) as would a usurer with a client. Indeed, the Scriptures were explicit: "Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury" (Deut. 23:20). The Psalms praise God's generosity and the prophet Ezekiel condemns usurers, but none of this seemed to imply that economic relations should be paralyzed. But the principle of any scholastic debate was to take as its premise the "authorities," and there was no authority to rival such an apparently explicit line from the Gospels.


Theory and Practice

The forbidding of usury—as lending at interest was called, regardless of the rate—was thus based on firm authority. As economic life increasingly demanded a greater precision in decisions made about commercial procedures, attitudes toward usury became more clearly defined, derived from

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