“Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. In Politics, Aristotle described usury as ‘the birth of money from money’, and claimed it was unnatural because money was sterile and should not ‘breed’”
In de Vitry’s world, the moneylender deserved to be defiled by demons, because he’d committed the sin of usury – charging interest on a loan. De Vitry didn’t care whether the rate was high or low, because the Church’s position was that extracting a single cent of interest was evil. The roots of this revulsion run deep, and across cultures. Vedic law in Ancient India condemned usury, and rulers routinely capped interest rates from Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece. In Politics, Aristotle described usury as ‘the birth of money from money’, and claimed it was unnatural because money was sterile and should not ‘breed’.
Judeo-Christian religions cemented the usury taboo. The Old Testament reads: ‘Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest,’ and the Book of Luke advises: ‘[L]ove ye your enemies: do good, and lend, hoping for nothing thereby.’ In the 4th century CE, Christian councils denounced the practice, and by 800, the emperor Charlemagne made the prohibition into law. Accounts of merchants and bankers in the Middle Ages frequently include expressions of anguish over their profits. In his Divine Comedy of the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the usurers in the seventh circle of Hell; in the case of Reginaldo Scrovegni, one Paduan banker singled out by Dante, his son ended up commissioning a chapel painted with frescoes by Giotto to expiate the family’s sin. Over the ensuing centuries, the philanthropy and patronage of other Italian Renaissance families such as the Medicis was partly inspired by guilt about how they’d profited from charging interest.
The stigma against moneylending continued well into the 1500s. To understand it, think about your reaction to the idea of a bank making a loan to a business at a 5 per cent interest rate. No problem, right? Now compare that to how you’d feel if your mother lent you money on the same terms. In Biblical times, the typical loan was more like the second case – it wasn’t an arms-length transaction, but a charitable loan from a wealthy man to a neighbour who’d experienced misfortune or had nowhere else to turn. Throughout early Medieval Europe, the local church or a wealthy family was often the only source of capital, especially outside the major commercial centres. Many peasants bought their land by getting mortgages from a monastery. In a world without credit markets and insurance, then, charging interest felt like extorting a friend or family member.
posted by F. Sheikh