“Moneylending has been taboo for most of human history,” notes Alex Mayyasi. “So how did usury stop being a sin and become respectable finance?”
Today, a banker listening to a theologian seems like a curiosity, a category error. But for most of history, this kind of dialogue was the norm. Hundreds of years ago, when modern finance arose in Europe, moneylenders moderated their behaviour in response to debates among the clergy about how to apply the Bible’s teachings to an increasingly complex economy. Lending money has long been regarded as a moral matter. So just when and how did most bankers stop seeing their work in moral terms?
Judeo-Christian religions cemented the usury taboo. The Old Testament reads: ‘Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest,’ and the Book of Luke advises: ‘[L]ove ye your enemies: do good, and lend, hoping for nothing thereby.’ In the 4th century CE, Christian councils denounced the practice, and by 800, the emperor Charlemagne made the prohibition into law. Accounts of merchants and bankers in the Middle Ages frequently include expressions of anguish over their profits. In his Divine Comedy of the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the usurers in the seventh circle of Hell; in the case of Reginaldo Scrovegni, one Paduan banker singled out by Dante, his son ended up commissioning a chapel painted with frescoes by Giotto to expiate the family’s sin. Over the ensuing centuries, the philanthropy and patronage of other Italian Renaissance families such as the Medicis was partly inspired by guilt about how they’d profited from charging interest.