Raving at Usurers: Anti-Finance and the Ethics of Uncertainty in England, 1690–1750 by Dwight Codr (review)
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Raving at Usurers: Anti-Finance and the Ethics of Uncertainty in England, 1690–1750 by Dwight Codr
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
xiv+242pp. US$39.50. ISBN 978-0813937809.

From the first part of Dwight Codr’s title, Raving at Usurers, readers might expect a work devoted to the anti-usury discourse that, for centuries, had excoriated the charging of interest on a loan as a fundamental violation of both divine and natural law. The dates that provide the historical parameters of the project indicate, however, that Codr will challenge a commonplace of economic historiography: the obsolescence of the anti-usury discourse by the end of the seventeenth century. Indeed, if the invocation of The Death of Usury would have seemed mere wishful thinking in 1594, when a pamphlet bearing this title was published, a full century later usury would seem finally to have taken its place in the Bills of Mortality, its demise coinciding with the period of economic upheaval and innovation known as the financial revolution. Codr does not dispute that, practically speaking, the anti-usury discourse had largely run out of steam by the late seventeenth century. His focus is not on the criticism of usury as a specific, predatory lending practice that could be subjected to legal as well as moral and ethical prohibitions. Instead, he draws attention to a less well-known argument in the anti-usury quiver: the point that, “[u]nlike ventures involving actual risk of loss,” usury seemed to promise the lender “financial security that neither depended upon nor derived from God’s protection or authority,” and thus offered “a degree of security independent of providential decree and influence” (63). This valorization of risk is the foundation of what Codr calls the ethics of uncertainty, in which the embrace of economic risk (or hazard) serves as an expression of “faith in the workings of providence and a testament to one’s willingness to accept whatever fate one was dealt in the course of time” (64).

Thus usury, in Codr’s elastic deployment of the term, is no longer limited to specific lending practices; instead, it becomes “an early modern approximation for finance” (4). But the word “finance” itself must also undergo a corresponding revision. For Codr’s purposes, finance will “refer not simply to the practical and theoretical developments in the movement, use, value, and organization of money” (4), but, more generally, to “habits of thought” (4), primary among them the beliefs that it is possible to sever “economic life from its rootedness in a broader spiritual and ethical framework” (95), and that economic theories and practices should strive, above all else, to eliminate risk and uncertainty from human endeavour. This brings us to the “deliberately contrarian term” “anti-finance,” which Codr defines as “a way of reading that seeks to bring into view a self-abnegating, often self-sacrificial ethic” (3, 6). [End Page 511] In opposition to finance, then, anti-finance stresses the inseparability of the economic from the spiritual and ethical realms, and values risk, hazard, uncertainty, and exposure to loss above security. In a final twist, Codr insists on “the important continuities between anti-finance and, as paradoxical as it may sound, the financial revolution” itself, which he posits, in a carefully qualified statement, “may have represented, at least for some, an extension, rather than a denial, of [the] early modern commercial ethics” expressed in the anti-usury discourse (86).

Codr’s ambitious and thought-provoking study is animated by two principles whose importance cannot be overstated: that our understanding of the financial revolution and its aftermath must take seriously the continuing relevance of a critique of usury that has been too easily “medievaliz[ed]” (59), and that we must expand our understanding of what constitutes economic discourse in the early modern period to include “texts not immediately recognizable as belonging to the category of economic literature” (4), particularly spiritual texts. These principles produce strong, illuminating readings in the first half of this study, which develops a history of the ethics of uncertainty grounded in the anti-usury discourse. Codr devotes chapter 1 to what he calls “the Jones Affair...