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Homo Mercator vix aut numquam potest Deo placere In the medieval life-world, commerce was morally questionable . As this Latin aphorism by Gratian reads: “Seldom or never can a man who is a merchant be pleasing to God.” Mercury (Gr.: Hermes), the deity whose name supplies the root for the vocabulary of commerce—merchant, market, merchandise, and mercer—was also known as the patron of theft. Even in our era, the problematic association between larceny and commerce persists in the words “mercenary” and “mercurial.” In Hugo of St. Victor’s discussion of the “servile” or less worthy arts, commerce is spoken of as a “peculiar kind of rhetoric” (Hugo, 1961: 76). For success in selling depends on a skilled tongue and mental acuity that anticipates objections and soothes concerns. To employ a distinction coined by sociologist Erving Goffman, business acumen rests less on concrete skill than on eloquence. It is concerned more with tactical expressive maneuvering and the fostering of appearances, than it is with truth. It is not surprising, then, that in Dante’s Divine Comedy the merchant is represented by Geryon, “that loathsome counterfeit of fraud,” who has the outward features of kindliness, mildness, and honesty, but is fashioned with a serpent ’s body, the tail of a scorpion, and the rapacious claws of a four-footed beast. Geryon perches on the cliff wall, high above the bottomless abyss of hell (Alighieri,1958: “Inferno,” canto 17, 28–30). It is true that mercy, another of Mercury’s children, the quality of the wise judge, has a positive moral resonance. Without mercy, justice is merely an excuse for vengeance and cruelty . But it is also the case that mercy without justice is the 43 C H A P T E R 5 Medieval Morality and Business mother of dissolution. For mercy is gratuitous gain; gain unearned and thus, strictly speaking, undeserved. If mercy is not tempered then trust, the precondition of social order, is undermined. Commerce is consistently maligned in medieval moral theology .1 The Church never objects to truly earned gain, wealth used for public benefit, or fortune that does not upset the presumed “divinely ordained” hierarchy of estates. Her concern is always with “avarice,” the second in order of deadliness of the seven mortal sins: gain that is excessive and not fairly labored for. Of the different species of avarice, that which monopolizes the attention of moralists is usury, an act which, to use the contemporary medieval phrase, first steals and then sells back what belongs to God alone: time. In his Decretum, the first and one of the most influential compendia of Church laws (1159), Gratian in an uncanny anticipation of Karl Marx distinguishes between the “worker,” who buys either to use or to refashion a thing for sale (and who for these reasons is without blemish) and the “merchant,” who buys only to exchange for a higher price later. All merchants are evil, says Gratian, and “cast forth from God’s temple” (Tawney, 1948: 34–35). But the most insidious are usurers, for they profit even as they sleep. Indeed, far from working for their money, money works for them. From this distinction Church lawyers would derive others that are met with increasing frequency from the twelfth century on, and that culminate in the decrees of the Council of Vienne (1311): There is out and out usurious “theft” versus honest “rent” charged for the use of one’s property; there is “notorious ” usury (which is confirmed by several witnesses) and “occult,” secret, usury. Finally, there is the distinction between “certain” usury, where the victim is known by name, and “uncertain” usury, where the victim remains anonymous. The bottom line: He who charges unfair interest or extorts excessive charges for goods with full awareness of what he is doing, is an outlaw. As such, he is subject to interdiction, refused absolution, denied a Church burial, and condemned to eternal damnation. This, unless he makes formal restitution for civil 44 Confession and Bookkeeping damages either to the wronged party or to the Church in their behalf (Noonan Jr., 1957: 15; Denzinger, 1957: 149, sec. 365; Nelson, 1947). The scholastic proscriptions against usury had three sources: Deuternomic injunctions against charging interest on loans to fellow Jews (Deut., 15.7–10; Lev., 25.35–37), the subsequent theological glosses on these, and the ancient Roman legal restrictions on interest-taking, updated in Charlemagne’s legal code. Some authorities maintain that both the Hebraic and the Roman prohibitions originated from...


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