The very idea of engagement in economic activity for its own ends, completely divorced from moral ends, simply did not exist in medieval society. The idea that individuals might have an inborn appetite for personal economic gain, and might therefore be thought of as rational players in a system of economics founded upon individual economic choices, would have been thought of as irrational, let alone immoral, if it could have been countenanced at all. To found a social philosophy upon individual economic motives would have been considered as base and brutish as as we might think a system of human organisation based upon sexual instincts,only more so.
The non-productive ways in which an individual might seek to acquire or increase his holding of wealth, whether by buying and selling or lending and borrowing, were lumped together by the Church as avarice, or greed,one of the seven deadly sins. This was especially so amongst the merchants, grocers and victualers who conspired to create local monopolies and cartels, or money-lenders who ground the poor. For this reason, in what was essentially a pre-money society, with currency a small, but stable adjunct to to an agrarian economy, any price rises would be looked upon with huge suspicion. Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale contains a sermon against avarice, and traders caught using false scales or adulterating food were excommunicated, pilloried, put in the stocks or banished from towns.
Indeed, when wrong-doing was suspected, it was a sacramental act to stand the culprit in the pillory. A taverner might be forced to drink huge quantities of his own adulterated wine. A baker selling adulterated or short-weight bread, might have a token loaf hung around his neck, and then be dragged down the street. Whilst all this was going on, the parish priest might deliver a sermon on the sixth commandment, choosing as his text the words of the Book of Proverbs, "Give me neither riches nor poverty, but enough for my sustenance".
There was an abhorrence of avarice because the social ethics consisted in realising one’s being and achieving one’s perfection within the parameters of that part of the social organism to which one belonged. Economic activity was justified only to the extent that it was necessary for sustenance and to ensure the dignity of an existence which conformed to one’s own estate, without the base instinct of self-interest or material gain coming first.
In Middle Ages, it was the ascetic temper which predominated in Christian sentiments, contributing to the concept of society as a spiritual organism, not an economic machine. Material appetites and the desire for economic gain were rooted in the doctrine of original sin and were, as a consequence, sinful. Necessary economic activity, like the sexual instinct, was one subordinate part of a complex whole and, like all other activities in the ascetic life of man lived as rite, had to be kept to its moral ends through a strict repression of its worldly tendency to grow and become all-consuming of lives and minds. To think otherwise would have been to give in to barbarism.
Lanfranc, for example, saw nothing in economic life but the struggle of wolves over carrion, and thought that men of business can hardly be saved, for they live by cheating and profiteering. It was monasticism, with its repudiation of the prizes and temptations of the secular world, which was par excellence the life of religion. By contrast, the doctrine of original sin, the depravity of man, never had a foothold within the theology of the synagogue. It never held sway over the mind and the religious imagination of the Jews. In consequence of this the body and the flesh were never regarded by them as contaminated, and the appetites and passions were not suspected of being rooted in evil.
The degree to which the ascetic temper of Christendom began to feel under threat from economic barbarism can be assessed in terms of the severity of the measures aimed at protecting society from the usurious activity associated with the Jews. The fear of contagion from the purely contingent and temporal activity engaged in by this minority led to a strategy of exposing and isolating the threat.
As early as 1179, the third Lateran Council banned usury and the legal status of Jews was madeinferior to that of Christians in a number of areas including the possession of property. By 1215, not only did the the Fourth Lateran Council, reiterate that Jews must not extract immoderate usury from Christians, but Jews were also to be distinguished as external to the body of believers by being compelled to dress differently from Christians, and wear a Jewish badge.
That the fear of the threat to the social organism never relaxed is demonstrated by the robustly defensive measures taken against usury in the Councils of Lyons (1274) and of Vienne (1312). At Lyons the strictures laid down by the third Lateran Council (1175) were not only reiterated, but strengthened by additional rules which made the money-lender an outlaw. The risks of infection were considered so great that anyone even so much as letting ahouse to a usurer would be excommunicated, foregoing their right to confession, absolution and Christian burial, and having their wills invalidated.
The further intensification of the defensive measures taken at the Council of Vienne is illustrative of the persistence of usury in Christian communities. A growing number of towns and regions sanctioned usury and compelled debtors to observe usurious contracts, in utter disregard for divine law. The threat of excommunication was used yet again against any rulers and magistrates knowingly maintaining such laws. The insidiousness of usury’s growing grip on the body of Christendom also led the Council to order the opening of all money-lenders’ accounts to ecclesiastical examination. Anyone who insisted that usury was not a sin would be dealt with by inquisitors as a heretic.
Even these stringencies were insufficient for Edward I of England who in 1290, at the height of the ecclesiastical measures against usury, took action to expel the Jews from his land. Many of them moved to France, only to face expulsion again in 1306 by King Philip IV, before settling in the future commercial centres of the Low Countries, especially Antwerp.
It is true that the loosening of the leash on the economic dogs of modern-day materialism has not resulted in an unalloyed benefit to society. That which was once the servant, rather the master of civilisation, is now running wild to devastating effect. Regimented lives led nihilistically to the rule of economic expediency, so easily interpreted in terms of quantity, have overwhelmed any lingering folk memory of a rule of life superior to individual desires and temporary exigencies, which was what the medieval theorists meant by “natural law.” It is hard to imagine the terror felt by medievals attempting to hold the economic wolves at bay, which only heightened their efforts to secure the integrity of the social organism as a whole. Their attempteddefence against the encroachment of barbarism had in it something of the heroic, and to ignore the nobility of the war against usury is no less absurd than to idealise its practical results. The strength of the ascetic conviction, that was so viscerally opposed to the subordination of religion to economic interests, was demonstrated by the need for a similar persistence amongst the forces which would eventually overturn priorities and descralise society.