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Usury, Interest and the Reformation

Author(s):Kerridge, Eric
Reviewer(s):Jones, Norman

Published by EH.NET (December 2003)

Eric Kerridge, Usury, Interest and the Reformation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002. xv + 191 pp. $79.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7546-0688-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Norman Jones, Department of History, Utah State University.

Eric Kerridge has been in the first rank of economic historians of early modern England since his The Agricultural Revolution appeared in 1967, followed shortly by his Agrarian Problems in the Sixteenth Century and After (1969), and several other books, including his important Trade and Banking in Early Modern England (1983). Given his expertise in financial instruments and the ways in which trade and agriculture were actually carried out, this book holds out the promise of a nuts-and-bolts approach to usury and interest. Surprisingly, that is not what it delivers. Its 76 pages of text present an overview of the intellectual history of the debate over usury in Germany and England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The book’s thesis is summarized in its ultimate paragraph: “Yet even the gravest matters of scholarship are as nothing compared to the transcendental importance of acquitting Christians of the charge of having countenanced usury and usurers” (p. 76).

The short text is accompanied by 38 documents, in their original languages as well as in translation, that provide proof texts for his argument. They are referenced in the body of the text, so that the reader can see at length the nature of the arguments under discussion. This feature usefully assembles bits of Aquinas, Bernardine of Siena, Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Wycliffe, Jewel, and a few others across a span of time from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.

Kerridge contends that no historian of usury has understood what it was in law and theology, so he carefully lays out the legal definition of usury, as opposed to legal interest charges as permitted in the extrinsic titles of the canon law. As he rightly insists, “interest,” which always involved risk, was legal, while “usury,” a corrupt contract for certain gain on the sum lent, was never legal. In particular, Kerridge berates R.H. Tawney for his misunderstanding of Luther’s thought on usury as represented in his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (a misunderstanding that is not in evidence in Tawney’s edition of Thomas Wilson’s A Discourse on Usury). Although Tawney bears the brunt of his critique, he dismisses all the main works on usury with a footnote. It seems that he believes that no one has understood this technical difference between usury and interest.

It is a charge that comes as something of a surprise, but it arises, apparently, from a very different agenda than that of other students of usury. Tawney and Max Weber, Benjamin Nelson and John Noonan, and I, were interested in the interplay between religious ideology and the emergence of a particular kind of capitalism in the early modern period. We were concerned with how theologies were interpreted, how they were transmuted into law, how the individual conscience and the legal contract conformed to or fudged the official line on usury. It was always illegal, but what it was, in the popular mind, evolved. Although Kerridge is well aware of this evolution, he is concerned to correct the errors of both scholars and contemporary publics.

Kerridge can say, rightly, that some Protestant theologians in Germany, Switzerland and England did not tolerate usury. But by concentrating on a few well-known theologians, he controls the outcome of his argument. Missing are the other voices in the debate. Anyone who has read Thomas Wilson’s Dialogue is aware that there were several conflicting interpretations of when and how the sin of usury occurred, and who was expected to regulate it. We are not informed, for instance, of the arguments of Johannes Eck, or Charles du Moulin, or Conrad Summenhart, or Louis Molina, or Navarrus over census, lucrum cessans, and the mons pietatis that opened Christian ways around more conservative arguments. In particular, his definition of the Reformation as a purely Protestant affair removes the discussion of usury from the larger European context and allows him to ignore the fruitful thinking of the Spanish Jesuits on the subject. In that sense, Max Weber’s Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism lives on in Kerridge’s conception of the problem.

This little book provides a concise and very scholarly introduction to the arguments about usury, its definition in canon law and English law, and how interest was defined as different. It is immensely learned, too, with half-page footnotes and all quotes in both the original languages and in translation. The reader, however, is dropped in at the deep end of definition, and he or she must read with care in order to keep the technical arguments straight. But does it advance our understanding of the possible links between Protestantism and evolving attitudes toward secured loans at interest? Not really. He does prove that some Protestant theologians insisted that usury remained a sin, and that many people confused usury and interest, but he is not interested in pushing his argument beyond this. To demonstrate that a theologian of the early sixteenth century and one of the late seventeenth agreed with one of the thirteenth ignores the very different economic realities in which their thinking took place.

In the end, one is left wishing that Kerridge had opened up the scope a bit more and used his great learning to engage the debate over evolving credit practices and their relation to ideas about money, credit, and sin in Early Modern England.

Norman Jones is the author of several books including God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (1989), and The English Reformation: Religion and Cultural Adaptation (2002).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval