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  • Discovering the Moral Value of Money:Usurious Money and Medieval Academic Discourse in Parisian Quodlibets
  • Ian P. Wei

Introducing "Nummulatria," meaning worship of money, Alan of Lille, a leading master of theology who taught in Paris in the second half of the twelfth century, had the figure of Nature condemn her as a "daughter of Idolatry," better known as "Avarice": "This is Avarice through whom money is deified in men's minds and a right to divine veneration is openly granted to cash." Nature continued to complain, "Now not Caesar but cash is everything," and even Christ was supplanted by money as Nature lamented that "Cash conquers, cash rules, cash gives orders to all," money thus replacing Christ in the venerable phrase "Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat."1 In the early thirteenth century, Thomas of Chobham, another Parisian master of theology, quoted from the New Testament and Gratian's Decretum to establish the sinfulness of usury: "And the Lord said in the Gospel, 'Lend without expecting repayment.' And canon law says, 'There is usury wherever one demands more than one gives,' no matter what is involved and even if one does not receive anything, if one simply hopes to receive."2 From the eleventh century onward, the population of Western Europe grew, towns increased in size and number, trade took off, a money economy became well established, and the extension of credit became increasingly important. These immense changes represented a profound challenge to the spiritual values of the church, and Alan of Lille and Thomas of Chobham offer typical examples of two ways in which educated churchmen responded. First, money was characterized as sinful, filthy, and disgusting in many treatises, sermons, satirical works, church sculptures, and marginal drawings in prayer books: coins were defecated by apes; coins, money bags, and money chests were key markers in representations of Avarice and of rich men being tortured in the afterlife; [End Page 5] and Avarice increasingly took over from Pride as the vice that bred all other vices.3 Second, usury was repeatedly condemned in conciliar decrees, academic works, pastoral guides, and sermons.

Much valuable work has been done on the ways in which learned churchmen denigrated money and attacked the usurious practices of Christians, but little attention has been paid to a series of questions about usurious property, and especially usurious money, put to masters of theology in quodlibetal disputations at the University of Paris in the second half of the thirteenth century and the early fourteenth century.4 The questions raised suggest that there was a link between hostility to money and dread of usury. Apparently usury threatened to engulf society in sin, leading many who were not usurers to damnation, because money circulated easily and quickly. The questions reveal how the use of usurious goods and above all usurious money created moral problems for a whole range of people. Members of usurers' families were bound to be in an awkward position because they could hardly avoid living off money or property that had been acquired through usury. People who were employed by usurers, including scholars who were paid to teach the sons of usurers, faced similar difficulties. Others whose spiritual welfare might be endangered by taking money or property from usurers included the recipients of charitable gifts or alms. Ecclesiastical and secular rulers might also be in trouble when usurers paid their taxes with usurious money or goods. As usurious money and property passed from the usurers' hands, sin could spread as other people began to live off ill-gotten gains. Matters were especially serious because usurers were supposed to make restitution of usurious gains to those from whom they had taken them, and other recipients were in a spiritually dangerous position if that obligation was transferred to them and they failed to meet it. A maxim of canon law declared that "res transit cum onere suo," or "a thing passes with its burden," and it was essential to know when this rule applied if obligations upon which salvation depended were to be met.5 Close analysis of the masters' responses to these quodlibetal questions indicates, however, that the masters envisaged ways in which it was possible to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2161-8046
Print ISSN
0361-946x
Pages
pp. 5-46
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-28
Open Access
No
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