Tolerance of Usury
By Brian Tierney
Paper given at Religious Tolerance – Religious Violence – Medieval Memories: A colloquium in memory of James Powell, held at the University of Syracuse, on September 28, 2012
Usury, the loaning on money to be repaid with interest, was considered a major wrong in medieval society, with the Catholic church condemning it as being contrary to both the Old and New Testament as well as Natural Law. It was widely believed to be akin to theft, as it would despoil the poor.
While it was condemned, Brian Tierney points out that by the 14th century the practice of loaning and borrowing money was tolerated. The later Middle Ages saw the emergence of a new commercial society, which needed liquid capital for investment. Local officials had to tolerate usury, and in a 14th century canon we can find complaints that usury was not only being allowed by religious officials, but even being faciliated by them.
Tierney examines how one medieval writer, Johannes Andreæ, asked if usury can be tolerated in any system of law? Johannes Andreæ, (c. 1270/1275 – 1348) was an Italian expert in canon law, and is considered to be one of the most successful canonists of the later Middle Ages.
Andreæ’ examination of usury considers natural law, canon law, and civil law. He finds that in natural law usury was intrinsingly evil so one cannot permit it. Meanwhile, in canon law usury was also illegal, as one cannot go against the teachings of the Old and New Testament, both of which specifically ban usury (at least to members of one’s own faith).The canonist also adds that usury cannot be permitted if only to tolerate some greater evil since he claims that there was no greater evil than usury.
This left civil or human law, and Johannes points out that in the Roman period usury was tolerated and allowed. He goes on to write that civil law does not have to prohibit usury because it did not injure society. Nor does civil law have to prohibit usury because it is prohibited by canon law. Although usury was sinful, this alone did not make it against civil law. Other sins were permitted, or at least tolerated in medieval society, such as divorce and sex outside of marriage.
Andreæ concludes that usury could be either be prohibited or not by civil officials. Tierney adds that this legal view of the division of civil and canon law would have broader implications for the ideas of church and state in the later Middle Ages and beyond.