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Beggar Thy Neighbor

A History of Usury and Debt

By Charles R. Geisst

Publication Year: 2013

The practice of charging interest on loans has been controversial since it was first mentioned in early recorded history. Lending is a powerful economic tool, vital to the development of society but it can also lead to disaster if left unregulated. Prohibitions against excessive interest, or usury, have been found in almost all societies since antiquity. Whether loans were made in kind or in cash, creditors often were accused of beggar-thy-neighbor exploitation when their lending terms put borrowers at risk of ruin. While the concept of usury reflects transcendent notions of fairness, its definition has varied over time and place: Roman law distinguished between simple and compound interest, the medieval church banned interest altogether, and even Adam Smith favored a ceiling on interest. But in spite of these limits, the advantages and temptations of lending prompted financial innovations from margin investing and adjustable-rate mortgages to credit cards and microlending.

In Beggar Thy Neighbor, financial historian Charles R. Geisst tracks the changing perceptions of usury and debt from the time of Cicero to the most recent financial crises. This comprehensive economic history looks at humanity's attempts to curb the abuse of debt while reaping the benefits of credit. Beggar Thy Neighbor examines the major debt revolutions of the past, demonstrating that extensive leverage and debt were behind most financial market crashes from the Renaissance to the present day. Geisst argues that usury prohibitions, as part of the natural law tradition in Western and Islamic societies, continue to play a key role in banking regulation despite modern advances in finance. From the Roman Empire to the recent Dodd-Frank financial reforms, usury ceilings still occupy a central place in notions of free markets and economic justice.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-12

Seven years before the assassination of Julius Caesar, an acrimonious dispute broke out between Marcus Tullius Cicero, at the time the provincial governor of Cilicia, and Marcus Junius Brutus, a young provincial Roman administrator. Th e elder statesman chided the younger man for using his...

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Chapter 1: Saints and Sinners

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pp. 13-57

Collecting interest traditionally was considered the world’s second oldest profession until the Industrial Revolution. It was lumped together with other socially unacceptable practices as inimical to the common good and a perversion of the idea that man should help his fellow man. Along with...

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Chapter 2: Embracing Shylock

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pp. 58-96

Official attitudes toward usury changed remarkably little in the late Middle Ages and the early years of the Renaissance. It still was considered an execrable sin against humanity although in reality it was being practiced by all and sundry in the commercial revolution in Italy and the rest of...

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Chapter 3: Protestants, War, and Capitalism

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pp. 97-136

Following the Reformation, faith- based prohibitions against usury and interest began to crumble in the wake of increased commerce and exploration, although they maintained their emotional and moral appeal for centuries to come. But practicality slowly began to win the usury debate and...

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Chapter 4: The Great Experiment

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pp. 137-179

As society grew larger and entered the industrial age, the demand for loans and property increased. Usury prohibitions were under pressure in Britain and the United States because they were seen by many as standing in the way of progress. As experience in the eighteenth century proved...

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Chapter 5: The New Debt Revolution

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pp. 180-229

The new attitude toward debt emerging from the nineteenth century was best found in a book by Thorstein Veblen that was published in 1899. In his Theory of the Leisure Class, he described the new class of consumers who had grown rich over the previous decades. “Conspicuous consumption of...

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Chapter 6: Something Old, Something New

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pp. 230-271

In 1970, a new edition of the King James Bible appeared, the first since the original English translation appeared in 1611. Th e New English Bible was a collaboration by noted biblical scholars and incorporated the most advanced knowledge available. It also modernized the text by using contemporary language. But its treatment of one Old Testament passage concerning...

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Chapter 7: Islam, Interest, and Microlending

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pp. 272-298

Developments in finance were centered mostly in New York and London after World War II. New financial theories, products, and practices developed at a torrid pace, beginning in the 1950s, and by the 2000s most of the developed world had adopted them in one form or other. But in the developing world, and in the Islamic world in particular, not much had...

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Chapter 8: The Consumer Debt Revolution

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pp. 299-334

The erosion of state usury laws in the United States reflected the new attitude that had been developing toward debt since the 1970s. Debt was no longer feared. The term had been replaced in consumer culture by the term credit; how much credit lenders extended to borrowers was a reflection...

Appendix Early Interest Rate Tables and Calculations

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pp. 335-342


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pp. 343-360


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pp. 361-376


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pp. 377-388


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p. 396-396

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207507
E-ISBN-10: 0812207505
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244625
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244621

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2013