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

By Jean Favier; Caroline Higgitt | Go to book overview

EIGHTEEN
Fortune and Conscience

An orderly world is necessary in business. Safe deals and a good yield on investments depended on present certitudes, while future uncertainty could be mastered through the businessman's skill. The mercantile mentality shunned both adventurism, seen as foolhardiness, and anything resembling an asceticism that seemed to smack of impracticality. The moral code of business was that of the happy medium.


Profit and Salvation

Profit is a means, but it is first and foremost an end, and in no way shameful. The remarks in the Gospel of St. Matthew (19:23-24) on the difficulties awaiting the rich man seeking to enter heaven did not in any way upset the self-confidence of the business world. Though the profits from usury were certainly rather hard to justify, those from commercial and banking activities had more to do with God's words in Genesis ( 3: 19): man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow ("in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"). The merchant and banker had no doubt that they had perspired sufficiently, and the Bible did not say anything about how much bread. Ecclesiastes ( 1: 3) appears to encourage us to resignation: "What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?" This was not taken as a condemnation of paid effort but rather as a reminder of what man is in the face of God's power. By the same token, the parable ( Matt. 6: 26) of "the fowls of the air" that "sow not neither do they reap" would have to be taken as condemnation of agriculture. It had long been customary to take from the Holy Scriptures what one wanted to hear.

Usury was the object of the fiercest condemnation, no exceptions or

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