What’s Wrong With The Economy? Check Out This New Exhibition About Money In The Middle Ages

To be a merchant in the Middle Ages, one needed to know how to write and count. Mastery of foreign languages was beneficial. But perhaps most important was an aptitude for theology. Although trade increased exponentially between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the Catholic Church remained ambivalent about mercantile principles such as profit, not to mention the temptations of luxury. To be successful, a merchant had to apply metaphysical hairsplitting to the practical affairs of business.

A spectacular new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum offers an introduction to Medieval entrepreneurship that is historically informative and also relevant to the present because many of the financial instruments underlying our economy originated in Medieval Europe. A richly-illustrated catalogue provides a scholarly basis for appreciating the artifacts on display, which range from coins and coffers to the illuminated manuscripts that J. Pierpont Morgan hoarded in the mansion that is the site of this exhibition.

To see the precarious position of Medieval merchants in Catholic Europe, take a look at their portraits, which traders started to commission in the manner of princes as they rose to positions of prominence. An early 16th century painting by Jan Gossart is especially striking. The merchant’s sumptuous clothing shows off his affluence, but, in contrast to portraits of royalty, he is not depicted in a state of idleness. The merchant is writing in a ledger, signifying that his profit derives from hard work. This is more than just advertisement of his literacy. Gossart shows that the merchant toils as all people have been compelled to do since their banishment from the Garden of Eden in punishment for Adam and Eve’s original sin.

Another important detail is the merchant’s coin scale, a motif seen in portrait paintings and manuscript illuminations throughout the exhibition. As in the present, scales were associated with equity in the past. Merchants had multiple reasons why they required these apparatus, ranging from the challenge of determining the value of unfamiliar currencies to the need to determine whether a gold coin had been trimmed by an unscrupulous moneychanger. Although weights and measures were in the merchant’s self-interest, their public display suggested that the merchant sought fairness for everyone and balanced society through trade. By tending to people’s “natural needs” – to borrow a phrase that Thomas Aquinas used to justify profit in certain circumstances – the merchant did good work for which he deserved compensation just as compensation was due to farmers and tradesmen.

There was a dark underside to these theological theatrics. The Christian virtue-signaling of Catholic merchants visibly distinguished them from the Jews and Muslims who might potentially stand in competition. Belonging to minority religions, Jews and Muslims were outcasts, forbidden from entering mercantile guilds and accused of usury when they tried to engage in profit-making practices akin to those of gentile businessmen. (The antisemitism could also be explicit. The exhibition includes an illumination showing a wealthy Jewish pawnbroker desecrating the host by stabbing the wafer with a dagger.)

Although the Church, guilds, and merchants were clearly motivated by the desire to oppress non-Christians and to flourish at their expense, many objects in the exhibition suggest that concerns about profit were genuinely felt, and that the worldly worth of trade was weighed against the cost of eternal damnation. Christian iconography appears on Medieval coins, certainly as a mark of state authority and a guarantee of value, but also perhaps as a timely reminder of Christian morals at each point of transaction. Christian iconography is also found on ledgers and strongboxes, objects that would not typically have been flaunted in public. The iconography – including imagery of saints – is more likely an appeal to faith than a propagandistic act of self-promotion.

It may seem strange that people agonizing over usury and the legitimacy of profit were responsible for some of the most significant innovations undergirding modern capitalism. Banks came of age during the Middle Ages, issuing credit and allowing merchants to travel the world with paper bills of exchange instead of loads of gold and silver. Equally significant, risk was redistributed through the invention of insurance.

Both bills of exchange and insurance were abstractions. They drew attention away from filthy lucre. They scrambled the terms of profit and usury. In other words, they were a natural extension of theological hairsplitting and the ingenuity with which Christian businessmen got away with doing what they condemned in Jews and Muslims.

Which is not to say that everyone was cynical. These inventions could be used in different ways by different people. As a stand-in for precious metals, bills of exchange encouraged crass speculation, but they could equally be enlisted to assuage natural needs over long distances, putting the emphasis on goods instead of cash. Insurance could encourage reckless profiteering but might equally be a mechanism for a community to share the burden of misfortune so that nobody suffered too much.

The rapid expansion of mercantile capitalism and the explosive power of the industrial revolution fueled some of these possibilities and extinguished others. The allure of exhibitions such as Medieval Money is that they recollect possibilities that were unrealized in the past yet could be pursued in the present.

Might insurance facilitate shared responsibility for collective risk? Could natural needs be balanced on the basis of trust in the absence of money? Or might money be recontextualized as a public utility instead of a personal possession, as the 14th century philosopher Nicholas Oresme suggested when he wrote that “money is essentially established and devised for the good of the community”?

One of the most striking qualities of Jan Gossart’s merchant is his facial expression. His eyes meet the viewer with both confidence and curiosity. He seems to know something that we have yet to figure out, and to wonder what we might make of it. Although that probably isn’t what was on his mind five hundred years ago, it’s the crucial question posed by this exhibition.

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