XXI.16 How commerce broke through barbarism in Europe

Aristotle’s phi­lo­so­phy having been brought to the West, it was very attrac­tive to the subtle minds who in times of igno­rance are the lea­ding lights. The scho­las­tics became infa­tua­ted with it, and took their doc­trine on len­ding at inte­rest from that phi­lo­so­pher1 : they confla­ted it with usury and condem­ned it. In that way com­merce, which was the pro­fes­sion only of the base­born, became in addi­tion the pro­fes­sion of the disho­nest : for every time we for­bid some­thing natu­rally per­mis­si­ble or neces­sary, all we do is turn those who pro­fess it into disho­nest men.

Commerce pas­sed to a nation then cove­red with infamy, and soon was no lon­ger dis­tin­gui­shed from the most hor­ren­dous usu­ries, mono­po­lies, the levying of sub­si­dies, and all disho­nest means of acqui­ring money.

The Jews, enri­ched by their exac­tions, were pilla­ged with the same tyranny by prin­ces, which gave the peo­ple conso­la­tion but not relief.2

What hap­pe­ned in England will give an idea of what was done in other coun­tries. King John had the Jews impri­so­ned to get their pro­perty, and there were few of them who did not have at least an eye put out3 : that is how the king conduc­ted his cham­ber of jus­tice. One of them, who had seven teeth pul­led, one every day, yiel­ded ten thou­sand sil­ver marks on the eighth. Henry III extrac­ted from Aaron, a York Jew, four­teen thou­sand sil­ver marks, plus ten thou­sand for the queen. In those times they did vio­lently what is done today in Poland with some res­traint. The kings, being una­ble to rum­mage in the purse of their sub­jects because of their pri­vi­le­ges, would put to the tor­ture Jews, who were not regar­ded as citi­zens.

Finally, a cus­tom was intro­du­ced which confis­ca­ted all the assets of Jews who would embra­ced Christianity. This pas­sing strange cus­tom is known to us only from the law that abro­ga­tes it.4 Utterly vain rea­sons have been given for it : it has been said that they wan­ted to test them, and to make sure nothing should remain of their ensla­ve­ment to the devil. But it is obvious that this confis­ca­tion was a sort of right of amor­ti­za­tion, for the prince or for the lords, of taxes they levied on the Jews,5 and of which they were depri­ved when the Jews embra­ced Christianity. In those times men were regar­ded as lands ; and I shall note in pas­sing how that nation was toyed with cen­tury after cen­tury. Their assets were confis­ca­ted when they wan­ted to be Christians, and soon after­wards they were bur­ned when they did not.

Nevertheless, com­merce arose from the bosom of harass­ment and des­pair. The Jews, pros­cri­bed in turn by every coun­try, found the means of saving their effects. In that way they made their retreats fore­ver fixed : for a prince who would like to be rid of them would not for that be in a mood to get rid of their money.

They inven­ted the let­ter of exchange6 ; and by this means com­merce was able to avoid vio­lence, and main­tain itself eve­ryw­here, the richest tra­der having only invi­si­ble assets that could be sent eve­ryw­here and left no trace anyw­here.

The theo­lo­gians were obli­ged to nar­row their prin­ci­ples, and the com­merce which had been vio­lently lin­ked to bad faith retur­ned, so to speak, into the bosom of pro­bity.

Thus we owe to the spe­cu­la­tions of the scho­las­tics all the mis­for­tu­nes that have accom­pa­nied the des­truc­tion of com­merce, and to the ava­rice of prin­ces the esta­blish­ment of some­thing that puts it more or less beyond their power.

Since that time, prin­ces have had to govern them­sel­ves more pru­dently than they them­sel­ves would have thought ; for it has tur­ned out that great autho­ri­ta­tive inter­ven­tions have pro­ven so clumsy that it is a reco­gni­zed expe­rience that only the beni­gnancy of the govern­ment can bring pros­pe­rity.

We have begun to get over Machiavellianism, and will conti­nue every day to do so. There must be more mode­ra­tion in the coun­cils. What used to be cal­led coups d’État would be today, inde­pen­dently of the hor­ror, merely impru­dent acts.

And it is for­tu­nate for men to be in a situa­tion where, while their pas­sions ins­pire them to be wicked, it is never­the­less in their inte­rest not to be.

See Aristote, Politics, book I, ch. ix–x.

See in [Pierre de Marca,] Marca Hispanica the constitutions of Aragon for the years 1228 and 1231, and in [Nicolas] Brussel the accord of 1206 between the king, the countess of Champagne, and Guy de Dampierre.

Slowe [i.e., John Stow], in his Survey of London, book III, p. 54.

An edict promulgated in Baville on 4 April 1392.

In France the Jews were serfs, subject to mainmorte, and the lords inherited from them. Mr. Brussel records an agreement in the year 1206 between the king and Thibaut, Count of Champagne, by which it was settled that the Jews of the one would not lend on the lands of the other.

We know that under Philip Augustus and Philip the Tall the Jews driven from France took refuge in Lombardy, and that they gave to foreign merchants and travelers secret letters which were paid on those to whom they had entrusted their assets in France.