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  • Bidding Prayers:The Economic Vocabulary of Late Medieval European Christianity and the Experience of the Liturgy on the Eve of the Reformations1
  • Tyler Lange

Mutuum date, nihil inde sperantes.

Luc. 6:35

O sacramentum pietatis! o signum unitatis! o vinculum caritatis! Qui vult vivere, habet ubi vivat, habet unde vivat. Accedat, credat, incorporetur, ut vivificetur.

Augustine, Tractatus in Johannem, 26.13 (ad Jo. 6:50-52)

Culpae quantitas non mensuratur ex nocumento quod quis facit, sed ex voluntate qua quis facit, contra caritatem agens. Et ideo, quamvis poena excommunicationis excedat nocumentum, non tamen excedit quantitatem culpae.

Thomas Aquinas and Rainaldo da Piperno, Supplementum ad Summam theologiae, Q.21, a.3

Je deffens pareillement que nulle personne de quelque estat quil soit ne viengne a la table nostre seigneur Jesu crist ayant aulcune rancune ou haygne contre son prochain: ou se sentent estre en quelque aultre peche mortel secret ou notoyre Car en telle sorte prendre le corps de Jesu crist est recepvoir sa dampnation.

Priest's Manual, Saint-Eustache, Paris BNF Latin 1216, 1530s)

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'Economy of salvation', 'treasury of merit', 'marketplace for merit', 'price of salvation', 'business of salvation', 'office of souls', 'management of poverty', 'accounting for the afterlife', 'moral economy or economies', 'passports to paradise', 'quantifiable religiosity'…2: theologians and historians since at [End Page 20] least Tertullianhave used 'economic' language to speak of God, salvation, and religious life. Recent contributions are no exception, whether the specific subjects are: Franciscan theologians as experts in valuation and shapers of the late medieval economic vocabulary, managing the finances of Franciscan convents; the operation of the Apostolic Penitentiary, confession and scandal, testamentary bequests funding masses, devotional indulgences, and popular piety; or governmental regulation of bread prices. Yet what do recent historians mean by using such language? For the most part, these accounts abandon former narratives of economic history in which lending, which existed in a separate, economic realm divorced from religious life, was Christianized at some point in the Middle Ages, hobbling it with the prohibition of usury from which the economy had to be liberated, most successfully in the Protestant territories of northern Europe. They do not, for the most part, revive old, anti-Catholic narratives of a commercialized, corrupt medieval Church. Instead, they, and in particular the studies of Giacomo Todeschini, Jacques Chiffoleau, and Chiffoleau's students on the 'economic vocabulary' and management practices of the Franciscan friars, offer a vision of economic life fully embedded in religious life. In fact, they show that there was no separate economic life to be disembedded from religious life because a religious language of economic ethics shaped economic life through the sermons and management practices of the friars. Franciscans became experts at valuation and valorized the circulation of economic goods, rather than hoarding or thesaurization, because the Franciscans had to manage daily life without legal property rights in accordance with St. Francis's [End Page 21] ideal of poverty, and because their subsistence—and salvation—depended on proper estimation of the necessities of life.

The intellectual and practical consequences of Franciscan poverty clarify the context of the excommunications for debt that I examined in Excommunication for Debt in Late Medieval France, and affirm the possible implications of the practice's apparent decline from the late fifteenth century. In short, it appears that excommunication for debt manifests popular adoption of the Mendicants' encouragement of economic circulation through caritative lending: excommunication for debt treated debt not as a crime per se, but as a crime when payment was delayed or deferred against the creditor's will. Our mistake is to imagine the creditor as an oppressor: because he or she had likely extended an interest-free sales credit, the defaulting debtor was potentially behaving in an immoral manner by breaking a promise and by impeding the circulation of goods, within this economic ethics. (The situation was different for usurious loans from Christian or Jewish moneylenders.) While Franciscans were most obviously arbiters of proper economic behavior as preachers and confessors, users of late medieval church courts were also arbiters of proper economic behavior each time they sought ecclesiastical sanction against a usurer or, more commonly, a defaulting debtor. Because the practice...