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Musings on a Christmas present

December 25th, 2008 (12:00 pm)

One of my presents was The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, the book which ties in with the author's TV series. In his first chapter, on the origins of banking - 'Dreams of Avarice' - he mentions the prohibitions on lending money in Judaism (at least to fellow Jews) and in western Christendom, in the latter case dated to the prohibition of usury by the Third Lateran Council in 1179. He fails to explain why these restrictions were thought worthwhile or what prompted them, given that he's already traced the history of organised borrowing against assets and promissory notes back to Babylon in the seventeenth century BC. Thoughts?


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: December 25th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)
Radcliffe Camera

I don't know what the historian's answer would be, but the traditional Jewish answer is that Jews are supposed to think of themselves as one big family, and you wouldn't charge your close family interest on a loan. One of the source texts (Deuteronomy 25.35-38) refers to lending money to "your brother".

I always assumed the Christian prohibition was an expansion of the Jewish one, but I don't know if that's true or why it was done (it has always puzzled me the way certain Old Testament laws were adopted by Christianity and others abandoned).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 26th, 2008 12:17 am (UTC)

Ferguson cites Deuteronomy, but leaves the reader to assume the analogy behind it. I presume that Christianity and indeed Islam borrowed the same idea.

I don't know what the economic arguments would have been in Hebrew culture for adopting this prohibition; nor do I know whether there were any business interest groups lobbying the Papacy in 1179. Borrowing and lending continued through the medium of the bill of exchange, a device beloved of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century Medici.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: December 25th, 2008 02:26 pm (UTC)

Cynically I suspect he had some thoughts, decided they were too likely to drop him in the crap/needed more background research in the bible & torah and so put them to one side to consider how best to say something ... and then forgot to do so.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 26th, 2008 12:18 am (UTC)

I think that I'm reading chapters which have their bases in television scripts, which may be part of the problem...

Posted by: helflaed (helflaed)
Posted at: December 26th, 2008 04:10 am (UTC)

Dredging up my memories of the history of Jews in mediaeval England, I seem to recall that they were considered useful as money lenders when they were first brought over by the Normans shortly after the conquest, and that they were certainly doing so well before 1179. I'm not sure when the earliest documented example (by which I mean one where the documents concerned have a ctually survived) of lending money at interest was, and can't remember when the chirograph system started, but it was pretty early. Although I thnk that the chirograph system started after the persecution started to get bad in 1190 (in part as a means of contolling credit and ensuring that taxes were harder to avoid)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 26th, 2008 09:34 am (UTC)

Ferguson admits his account is oversimplified; I'm sure that in practice the prohibition on usury among Christians pre-dated the Third Lateran Council. My knowledge of mediaeval finance is not good!

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: December 31st, 2008 06:26 am (UTC)

One of my presents was The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson