Mediaeval Economic Teaching on Usury

Written by Anonymous

This is part of an essay on usury from 1920:

An Essay on Mediaeval Economic Teaching, by George O’Brien, 1920

Chapter 3, Section 2

The Sale and Use of Money

Section 1. Usury in Greece and Rome

The prohibition of usury has always occupied such a large place in histories of the Middle Ages, and particularly in discussions relating to the attitude of the Church towards economic questions, that it is important that its precise foundation and extent should be carefully studied. The usury prohibition has been the centre of so many bitter controversies, that it has almost become part of the stock-in-trade of the theological mob orators. The attitude of the Church towards usury only takes a slightly less prominent place than its attitude towards Galileo in the utterances of those who are anxious to convict it of error. We have referred to this current controversy, not in order that we might take a part in it, but that, on the contrary, we might avoid it. It is no part of our purpose in our treatment of this subject to discuss whether the usury prohibition was or was not suitable to the conditions of the Middle Ages; whether it did or did not impede industrial enterprise and commercial expansion; or whether it was or was not universally disregarded and evaded in real life. These are inquiries which, though full of interest, would not be in place in a discussion of theory. All we are concerned to do in the following pages is to indicate the grounds on which the prohibition of usury rested, the precise extent of its application, and the conceptions of economic theory which it indicated and involved.

We must remark in the first place that the prohibition of usury was in no sense peculiar to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, but, on the contrary, was to be found in many other religious and legal systems–for instance, in the writings of the Greek and Roman philosophers, amongst the Jews, and the followers of Mohammed. We shall give a very brief account of the other prohibitions of usury before coming to deal with the scholastic teaching on the subject.

We can find no trace of any legal prohibition of usury in ancient Greece. Although Solon’s laws contained many provisions for the relief of poor debtors, they did not forbid the taking of interest, nor did they limit the rate of interest that might be taken. In Rome the Twelve Tables fixed a maximum rate of interest, which was probably ten or twelve per cent, per annum, but which cannot be determined with certainty owing to the doubtful signification of the expression ‘unciarum foenus.’ The legal rate of interest was gradually reduced until the year 347 B.C., when five per cent, was fixed as a maximum. In 342 B.C. interest was forbidden altogether by the Genucian Law; but this law, though never repealed, was in practice quite inoperative owing to the facility with which it could be evaded; and consequently the oppression of borrowers was prevented by the enactment, or perhaps it would be more correct to say the general recognition, of a maximum rate of interest of twelve per cent. per annum. This maximum rate–the Centesima–remained in operation until the time of Justinian. Justinian, who was under the influence of Christian teaching, and who might therefore be expected to have regarded usury with unfavourable eyes, fixed the following maximum rates of interest–maritime loans twelve per cent.; loans to ordinary persons, not in business, six per cent.; loans to high personages (illustres) and agriculturists, four per cent.

While the taking of interest was thus approved or tolerated by Greek and Roman law, it was at the same time reprobated by the philosophers of both countries. Plato objects to usury because it tends to set one class, the poor or the borrowers, against another, the rich or the lenders; and goes so far as to make it wrong for the borrower to repay either the principal or interest of his debt. He further considers that the profession of the usurer is to be despised, as it is an illiberal and debasing way of making money. While Plato therefore disapproves in no ambiguous words of usury, he does not develop the philosophical bases of his objection, but is content to condemn it rather for its probable ill effects than on account of its inherent injustice.

Aristotle condemns usury because it is the most extreme and dangerous form of chrematistic acquisition, or the art of making money for its own sake. As we have seen above, in discussing the legitimacy of commerce, buying cheap and selling dear was one form of chrematistic acquisition, which could only be justified by the presence of certain motives; and usury, according to the philosopher, was a still more striking example of the same kind of acquisition, because it consisted in making money from money, which was thus employed for a function different from that for which it had been originally invented. ‘Usury is most reasonably detested, as the increase of our fortune arises from the money itself, and not by employing it for the purpose for which it was intended. For it was devised for the sake of exchange, but usury multiplies it. And hence usury has received the name of [Greek: tokos], or produce; for whatever is produced is itself like its parents; and usury is merely money born of money; so that of all means of money-making it is the most contrary to nature.’ We need not pause here to discuss the precise significance of Aristotle’s conceptions on this subject, as they are to us not so much of importance in themselves, as because they suggested a basis for the treatment of usury to Aquinas and his followers.

In Rome, as in Greece, the philosophers and moralists were unanimous in their condemnation of the practice of usury. Cicero condemns usury as being hateful to mankind, and makes Cato say that it is on the same level of moral obliquity as murder; and Seneca makes a point that became of some importance in the Middle Ages, namely, that usury is wrongful because it involves the selling of time. Plutarch develops the argument that money is sterile, and condemns the practices of contemporary money-lenders as unjust. The teaching of the philosophers as to the unlawfulness of usury was reflected in the popular feeling of the time.

Section 2. Usury in the Old Testament

The question of usury therefore attracted considerable attention in the teaching and practice of pagan antiquity. It occupied an equally important place in the Old Testament. In Exodus we find the first prohibition of usury: ‘If thou lend money to any of my people being poor, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor, neither shall ye lay upon him usury.’ In Leviticus we read: ‘And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his hand fail with thee; then, thou must uphold him; as a stranger and a sojourner shall he live with thee. Take thou no money of him or increase, but fear thy God that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor give him victuals for increase.’ Deuteronomy lays down a wider prohibition: ‘Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of anything that is lent upon usury; unto a foreigner thou mayest lend upon usury, but unto thy brother thou mayest not lend upon usury.’ It will be noticed that the first and second of these texts do not forbid usury except in the case of loans to the poor, and, if we had them alone to consider, we could conclude that loans to the rich or to business men were allowed. The last text, however, extends the prohibition to all loans to one’s brother–an expression which was of importance in Christian times, as Christian writers maintained the universal brotherhood of man.

It is unnecessary for us to discuss the underlying considerations which prompted these ordinances. Dr. Cleary, who has studied the matter with great care, concludes that: ‘The legislator was urged mostly by economic considerations…. The permission to extract usury from strangers–a permission which later writers, such as Maimonides, regarded as a command–clearly favours the view that the legislator was guided by economic principles. It is more difficult to say whether he based his legislation on the principle that usury is intrinsically unjust–that is to say, unjust even when taken in moderation. There is really nothing in the texts quoted to enable us to decide. The universality of the prohibition when there is question solely of Jews goes to show that usury as such was regarded as unjust; whilst its permission as between Jew and Gentile favours the contradictory hypothesis.’ Modern Jewish thought is inclined to hold the view that these prohibitions were based upon the assumption that usury was intrinsically unjust, but that the taking of usury from the Gentiles was justified on the principle of compensation; in other words, that Jews might exact usury from those who might exact it from them. It is at least certain that usury was regarded by the writers of the Old Testament as amongst the most terrible of sins.

The general attitude of the Jews towards usury cannot be better explained than by quoting Dr. Cleary’s final conclusion on the subject: ‘It appears therefore that in the Old Testament usury was universally prohibited between Israelite and Israelite, whilst it was permitted between Israelite and Gentile. Furthermore, it seems impossible to decide what was the nature of the obligations imposed–whether the prohibition supposed and ratified an already existing universal obligation, in charity or justice, or merely imposed a new obligation in obedience, binding the consciences of men for economic or political reasons. So, too, it seems impossible to decide absolutely whether the decrees were intended to possess eternal validity; the probabilities, however, seem to favour very strongly the view that they were intended as mere economic regulations suited to the circumstances of the time. This does not, of course, decide the other question, whether, apart from such positive regulations, there already existed an obligation arising from the natural law; nor would the passing of the positive law into desuetude affect the existence of the other obligation.’

Section 3. Usury in the First Twelve Centuries of Christianity

The only passage in the Gospels which bears directly on the question of usury is a verse of St. Luke, the correct reading of which is a matter of considerable difference of opinion. … We need not here engage on the details of the controversy thus aroused; it is sufficient to say that it is the almost unanimous opinion of modern authorities that the verse recommends the renunciation of the principal as well as the interest; and that, if this interpretation is correct, the recommendation is not a precept, but a counsel. Aquinas thought that the verse was a counsel as to the repayment of the principal, but a precept as to the payment of interest, and this opinion is probably correct. With the exception of this verse, there is not a single passage in the Gospels which prohibits the taking of usury.

We must now give some account of the teaching on usury which was laid down by the Fathers and early councils of the Church; but at the same time we shall not attempt to treat this in an exhaustive way, because, although the early Christian teaching is of interest in itself, it exercised little or no influence upon the great philosophical treatment of the same subject by Aquinas and his followers, which is the principal subject to be discussed in these pages. …

[D]uring the first three centuries of Christianity, there does not seem to have been, as far as we can now ascertain, any definite and general doctrine laid down on the subject of usury. In the year 305 or 306 a very important step forward was taken, when the Council of Elvira passed a decree against usury. This decree, as given by Ivo and Gratian, seems only to have applied to usury on the part of the clergy, but as given by Mansi it affected the clergy and laity alike. ‘Should any cleric be found to have taken usury,’ the latter version runs, ‘let him be degraded and excommunicated. Moreover, if any layman shall be proved a usurer, and shall have promised, when corrected, to abstain from the practice, let him be pardoned. If, on the contrary, he perseveres in his evil-doing, he is to be excommunicated.’ …

The middle of the fourth century marked the opening of a new period–‘a period when oratorical denunciations are profuse, and when consequently philosophical speculation, though fairly active, is of too imaginative a character to be sufficiently definite.’ St. Basil’s Homilies on the Fourteenth Psalm contain a violent denunciation of usury, the reasoning of which was repeated by St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ambrose. These three Fathers draw a terrible picture of the state of the poor debtor, who, harassed by his creditors, falls deeper and deeper into despair, until he finally commits suicide, or has to sell his children into slavery. Usury was therefore condemned by these Fathers as a sin against charity; the passage from St. Luke was looked on merely as a counsel in so far as it related to the repayment of the principal, but as a precept so far as it related to usury…

The practical teaching with regard to the taking of usury made an important advance in the eighth and ninth centuries, although the philosophical analysis of the subject did not develop any more fully. A capitulary canon made in 789 decreed ‘that each and all are forbidden to give anything on usury’; and a capitulary of 813 states that ‘not only should the Christian clergy not demand usury, laymen should not.’ In 825 it was decreed that the counts were to assist the bishops in their suppression of usury; and in 850 the Synod of Ticinum bound usurers to restitution. The underlying principles of these enactments is as obscure as their meaning is plain and definite. There is not a single trace of the keen analysis with which Aquinas was later to illuminate and adorn the subject.

Sec. 4. The Mediaeval Prohibition of Usury

The tenth and eleventh centuries saw no advance in the teaching on usury. The twelfth century, however, ushered in a new era. ‘Before that century controversy had been mostly confined to theologians, and treated theologically, with reference to God and the Bible, and only rarely with regard to economic considerations. After the twelfth century the discussion was conducted on a gradually broadening economic basis–appeals to the Fathers, canonists, philosophers, the jus divinum, the jus naturale, the jus humanum, became the order of the day.’ Before we proceed to discuss the new philosophical or scholastic treatment of usury which was inaugurated for all practical purposes by Aquinas, we must briefly refer to the ecclesiastical legislation on the subject.

In 1139 the second Lateran Council issued a very strong declaration against usurers. … It might be argued that this decree was aimed against immoderate or habitual usury, and not against usury in general, but all doubt as regards the attitude of the Church was set at rest by a decree of the Lateran Council of 1179. This decree runs: ‘Since almost in every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many people give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were lawful, regarding not its prohibition in both Testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sins, be admitted to Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms.’ Meanwhile, Alexander III., having given much attention to the subject of usury, had come to the conclusion that it was a sin against justice. This recognition of the essential injustice of usury marked a turning-point in the history of the treatment of the subject; and Alexander III. seems entitled to be designated the ‘pioneer of its scientific study.’ Innocent III. followed Alexander in the opinion that usury was unjust in itself, and from his time forward there was but little further disagreement upon the matter amongst the theologians.

In 1274 Gregory X., in the Council of Lyons, ordained that no community, corporation, or individual should permit foreign usurers to hire houses, but that they should expel them from their territory; and the disobedient, if prelates, were to have their lands put under interdict, and, if laymen, to be visited by their ordinary with ecclesiastical censures. By a further canon he ordained that the wills of usurers who did not make restitution should be invalid. This brought usury definitely within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. In 1311 the Council of Vienne declared all secular legislation in favour of usury null and void, and branded as heresy the belief that usury was not sinful. The precise extent and interpretation of this decree have given rise to a considerable amount of discussion, which need not detain us here, because by that time the whole question of usury had come under the treatment of the great scholastic writers, whose teaching is more particularly the subject matter of the present essay.

Even as late as the first half of the thirteenth century there was no serious discussion of usury by the theologians. … It was Aquinas who really put the teaching on usury upon the new foundation, which was destined to support it for so many hundred years, and which even at the present day appeals to many sympathetic and impartial inquirers. … We shall quote the article of Aquinas at some length, because it was universally accepted by all the theologians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with whose opinions we are concerned in this essay. To quote later writings is simply to repeat in different words the conclusions at which Aquinas arrived.

In answer to the question ‘whether it is a sin to take usury for money lent,’ Aquinas replies: ‘To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality, which is contrary to justice.

‘In order to make this evident, we must observe that there are certain things the use of which consists in their consumption; thus we consume wine when we use it for drink, and we consume wheat when we use it for food. Wherefore in such-like things the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing is granted the thing itself; and for this reason to lend things of this kind is to transfer the ownership. Accordingly, if a man wanted to sell wine separately from the use of the wine, he would be selling the same thing twice, or he would be selling what does not exist, wherefore he would evidently commit a sin of injustice. In like manner he commits an injustice who lends wine or wheat, and asks for double payment, viz. one, the return of the thing in equal measure, the other, the price of the use, which is called usury.

‘On the other hand, there are other things the use of which does not consist in their consumption; thus to use a house is to dwell in it, not to destroy it. Wherefore in such things both may be granted; for instance, one man may hand over to another the ownership of his house, while reserving to himself the use of it for a time, or, vice versa, he may grant the use of a house while retaining the ownership. For this reason a man may lawfully make a charge for the use of his house, and, besides this, revendicate the house from the person to whom he has granted its use, as happens in renting and letting a house.

‘But money, according to the philosopher, was invented chiefly for the purpose of exchange; and consequently the proper and principal use of money is its consumption or alienation, whereby it is sunk in exchange. Hence it is by its very nature unlawful to take payment for the use of money lent, which payment is known as usury; and, just as a man is bound to restore other ill-gotten goods, so he is bound to restore the money which he has taken in usury.’

The essential thing to notice in this explanation is that the contract of mutuum is shown to be a sale. The distinction between things which are consumed in use (res fungibiles), and which are not consumed in use (res non fungibiles) was familiar to the civil lawyers; but what they had never perceived was precisely what Aquinas perceived, namely, that the loan of a fungible thing was in fact not a loan at all, but a sale, for the simple reason that the ownership in the thing passed. Once the transaction had been shown to be a sale, the principle of justice to be applied to it became obvious. As we have seen above, in treating of sales, the essential basis of justice in exchange was the observance of aequalitas between buyer and seller–in other words, the fixing of a just price. The contract of mutuum, however, was nothing else than a sale of fungibles, and therefore the just price in such a contract was the return of fungibles of the same value as those lent. If the particular fungible sold happened to be money, the estimation of the just price was a simple matter–it was the return of an amount of money of equal value. As money happened to be the universal measure of value, this simply meant the return of the same amount of money. …

The difficulty which moderns find in understanding this teaching, is that it is said to be based on the sterility of money. … A cow will produce calves, or a tree will produce fruit without the application of any exertion by its owner; but, whatever profit is derived from money, is derived from the use to which it is put by the person who owns it. This is all that the scholastics meant by the sterility of money. They never thought of denying that money, when properly used, was capable of bringing its employer a profit; but they emphatically asserted that the profit was due to the labour, and not to the money. …

[I]f the borrower did not derive any profit from the loan, the sum lent had in fact been sterile, and obviously the just price of the loan was the return of the amount lent; if, on the contrary, the borrower had made a profit from it, it was the reward of his labour, and not the fruit of the loan itself. To repay more than the sum lent would therefore be to make a payment to one person for the labour of another. The exaction of usury was therefore the exploitation of another man’s exertion.

It is interesting to notice how closely the rules applying in the case of sales were applied to usury. The raising of the price of a loan on account of some special benefit derived from it by the borrower is precisely analogous to raising the sale price of an object because it is of some special individual utility to the buyer. On the other hand, as we shall see further down, any special damage suffered by the lender was a sufficient reason for exacting something over and above the amount lent; this was precisely the rule that applied in the case of sales, when the seller suffered any special damage from parting with the object sold. Thus the analogy between sales and loans was complete at every point. In both, equality of sacrifice was the test of justice.

Nor could it be suggested that the delay in the repayment of the loan was a reason for increasing the amount to be repaid, because this really amounted to a sale of time, which, of its nature, could not be owned.

The scholastic teaching, then, on the subject was quite plain and unambiguous. Usury, or the payment of a price for the use of a sum lent in addition to the repayment of the sum itself, was in all cases prohibited. The fact that the payment demanded was moderate was irrelevant; there could be no question of the reasonableness of the amount of an essentially unjust payment. Nor was the payment of usury rendered just because the loan was for a productive purpose–in other words, a commercial loan. Certain writers have maintained that in this case usury was tolerated; but they can easily be refuted. As we have seen above, mutuum was essentially a sale, and, therefore, no additional price could be charged because of some special individual advantage enjoyed by the buyer (or borrower). It was quite impossible to distinguish, according to the scholastic teaching, between taking an additional payment because the lender made a profit by using the loan wisely, and taking it because the borrower was in great distress, and therefore derived a greater advantage from the loan than a person in easier circumstances. The erroneous notion that loans for productive purposes were entitled to any special treatment was finally dispelled in 1745 by an encyclical of Benedict XIV.

Section 5. Extrinsic Titles

Usury, therefore, was prohibited in all cases. Many people at the present day think that the prohibition of usury was the same thing as the prohibition of interest. There could not be a greater mistake. While usury was in all circumstances condemned, interest was in every case allowed. The justification of interest rested on precisely the same ground as the prohibition of usury, namely, the observance of the equality of commutative justice. It was unjust that a greater price should be paid for the loan of a sum of money than the amount lent; but it was no less unjust that the lender should find himself in a worse position because of his having made the loan. In other words, the consideration for the loan could not be increased because of any special benefit which it conferred on the borrower, but it could be increased on account of any special damage suffered by the lender–precisely the same rule as we have seen applied in the case of sales. The borrower must, in addition to the repayment of the loan, indemnify the lender for any damage he had suffered. The measure of the damage was the difference between the lender’s condition before the loan was made and after it had been repaid–in other words, he was entitled to compensation for the difference in his condition occasioned by the transaction–id quod interest. …

Of course the burden of proving that an opportunity for profitable investment had been really lost was on the lender, but this onus was sufficiently discharged if the probability of such a loss were established. In the fifteenth century, with the expansion of commerce, it came to be generally recognised that such a probability could be presumed in the case of the merchant or trader. … ‘Any merchant, or indeed any person in a trading centre where there were opportunities of business investment (outside money-lending itself) could, with a perfectly clear conscience, and without any fear of molestation, contract to receive periodical interest from the person to whom he lent money; provided only that he first lent it to him gratuitously, for a period that might be made very short, so that technically the payment would not be reward for the use, but compensation for the non-return of the money.’ At a later period than that of which we are treating in the present essay the short gratuitous period could be dispensed with, but until the end of the fifteenth century it seems to have been considered essential. …

There was another title on account of which more than the amount of the loan could be recovered, namely, [risk of default] periculum sortis. … It could not be lost sight of … that in fact there might be a risk of the loan not being repaid through the insolvency of the borrower, or some other cause, and the question arose whether the lender could justly claim any compensation for the undertaking of this risk. ‘Regarded as an extrinsic title, risk of losing the principal is connected with the contract of mutuum, and entitles the lender to some compensation for running the risk of losing his capital in order to oblige a possibly insolvent debtor. The greater the danger of insolvency, the greater naturally would be the charge. …

Sec. 6. Other Cases in which more than the Loan could be repaid

It was probably the example of these State loans, or montes profani, that suggested to the Franciscans the possibility of creating an organisation to provide credit facilities for poor borrowers, which was in many ways analogous to the modern co-operative credit banks. Prior to the middle of the fifteenth century, when this experiment was initiated, there had been various attempts by the State to provide credit facilities for the poor, but these need not detain us here, as they did not come to anything. The first of the montes pietatis was founded at Orvieto by the Franciscans in 1462, and after that year they spread rapidly. The montes, although their aim was exclusively philanthropic, found themselves obliged to make a small charge to defray their working expenses, and, although one would think that this could be amply justified by the title of damnum emergens, it provoked a violent attack by the Dominicans. The principal antagonist of themontes pietatis was Thomas da Vio, who wrote a special treatise on the subject, in which he made the point that the montes charged interest from the very beginning of the loan, which was a contradiction of all the previous teaching on interest.

The general feeling of the Church, however, was in favour of themontes. It was felt that, if the poor must borrow, it was better that they should borrow at a low rate of interest from philanthropic institutions than at an extortionate rate from usurers; severalmontes were established under the direct protection of the Popes; and finally, in 1515, the Lateran Council gave an authoritative judgment in favour of themontes. This decree contains an excellent definition of usury as it had come to be accepted at that date: ‘Usury is when gain is sought to be acquired from the use of a thing, not fruitful in itself, without labour, expense, or risk on the part of the lender.’ …


About the author



Leave a Comment