Medieval Prosperity and the Absence of Usurious Lending Practices

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By Ellen Brown:

(excerpted from chapter 5 of the book, Web of Debt)

"Modern schoolbooks generally portray the Middle Ages as a time of poverty, backwardness, and economic slavery, from which the people were freed only by the Industrial Revolution; but reliable early historians painted a quite different picture. Thorold Rogers, a nineteenth century Oxford historian, wrote that in the Middle Ages, “a labourer could provide all the necessities for his family for a year by working 14 weeks.” Fourteen weeks is only a quarter of a year! The rest of the time, some men worked for themselves; some studied; some fished. Some helped to build the cathedrals that appeared all over Germany, France and England during the period, massive works of art that were built mainly with volunteer labor. Some used their leisure to visit these shrines. One hundred thousand pilgrims had the wealth and leisure to visit Canterbury and other shrines yearly. William Cobbett, author of the definitive History of the Reformation, wrote that Winchester Cathedral “was made when there were no poor rates; when every labouring man in England was clothed in good woollen cloth; and when all had plenty of meat and bread . . . .” Money was available for inventions and art, supporting the Michelangelos, Rembrandts, Shakespeares, and Newtons of the period.

The Renaissance is usually thought of as the flowering of the age; but the university system, representative government in a Parliament, the English common law system, and the foundations of a great literary and spiritual movement were all in place by the thirteenth century, and education was advanced and widespread. As one scholar of the era observes:

We are very prone to consider that it is only in our time that anything like popular education has come into existence. As a matter of fact, however, the education afforded to the people in the little towns of the Middle Ages, represents an ideal of educational uplift for the masses such as has never been even distantly approached in succeeding centuries. The Thirteenth Century developed the greatest set of technical schools that the world has ever known. . . . These medieval towns, . . . during the course of the building of their cathedrals, of their public buildings and various magnificent edifices of royalty and for the nobility, succeeded in accomplishing such artistic results that the world has ever since held them in admiration.

The common people had leisure, education, art, and economic security.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia:

- Economic historians like Rogers and Gibbins declare that during the best period of the Middle Ages – say, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, inclusive – there was no such grinding and hopeless poverty, no such chronic semi-starvation in any class, as exists to-day among large classes in the great cities . . . . In the Middle Ages there was no class resembling our proletariat, which has no security, no definite place, no certain claim upon any organization or institution in the socio-economic organism.

Richard Hoskins attributes this long period of prosperity to the absence of usurious lending practices. Rather than having to borrow the moneylenders’ gold, the people relied largely on interest-free tallies. Unlike gold, wooden tallies could not become scarce; and unlike paper money, they could not be counterfeited or multiplied by sleight of hand. They were simply a unit of measure, a tally of goods and services exchanged. The tally system avoided both the depressions resulting from a scarcity of gold and the inflations resulting from printing paper money out of all proportion to the goods and services available for sale. Since the tallies came into existence along with goods and services, supply and demand increased together, and prices remained stable. The tally system provided an organic form of money that expanded naturally as trade expanded and contracted naturally as taxes were paid. Bankers did not have to meet behind closed doors to set interest rates and manipulate markets to keep the money supply in balance. It balanced the way a checkbook balances, as a matter of simple math. The system of government-issued tallies kept the British economy stable and thriving until the mid-seventeenth century, when Oliver Cromwell needed money to fund a revolt against the Tudor monarchy . . . ." (