Medieval Economic History

The Influence of Christianity and the Church

Medieval Economic History

If the Roman component be taken for granted, Christianity and the Church may be considered next as perhaps the chief factors in determining medieval thought. It is necessary to keep these two ideas separate, for few will deny that Christianity as a religion is quite distinct from the various institutions or churches which profess it. Those principles of Christian doctrine which have any direct economic significance follow.

(1) Christianity taught a brotherhood which extended be­yond community or nation, embracing all classes and races.1 It was cosmopolitan in spirit.
(2) The Church, in accordance with the spirit of Christianity, taught the natural equality of rights among men. Men may be unequal, but only as brothers are. The ancients, as already seen, believed that men were different by nature: slavery, like castes, Levites, and "guardians," was natural, and corre­sponded to some inherent baseness.
(3) Accordingly, slavery was condemned, wholly or in part, the least radical teaching being that the slaves of the laity should be freed when Christianized.
(4) And closely connected with the doctrine of brotherhood and equal rights was the idea of a natural community of prop­erty. Originally, and according to the law of nature, men owned all goods in common.
(5) One of Christianity's teachings, which was notably at odds with the ideas of antiquity, was that concerning the dignity of labor. This it upheld, though not without some ec­clesiastical adulteration, and the ideal became a force working for a greater recognition of those who ate their bread in the sweat of their faces. The various Biblical maxims concerning the merit of industry were of no small weight to the men of this credulous time.

(6) Charity and almsgiving, too, were among the cardinal virtues. Not only the writings of the Old Testament, but the words and spirit of Christianity, taught the duty of giving aid to the poor. St. Louis advises his son thus: "Dear son, have a tender and pitiful heart for the poor, and for all those whom you believe to be in misery of heart or body, and according to your ability comfort and aid them with some alms." This quotation, however, suggests two limitations upon the charity of medieval churchmen: their alms were in theory to be given only to those recognized as being in real need, and then were to be in pro­portion to the donor's means — as an offset to inequalities in wealth. Charity was considered a duty, and represented both a recognition of social inequality and the trusteeship of the rich.

(7) Finally, Christianity was a force for purifying and per­petuating the family and family life.
Thus the Christian religion tended to introduce elements which were deficient in the philosophy of Roman jurisprudence. The personality of man was emphasized. With the increased recognition of human worth came the introduction of moral and humanitarian ideas which placed new limitations (duties) upon individualism, while increasing the rights of many individuals.

In fact, one cannot but be impressed with the idea that, on the whole, Christianity and Germanic customs worked hand in hand. Their fidelity, their relative freedom, their greater equality, their emphasis of the personal element, all made the Teutonic folks a ready medium for the leaven of the new reli­gion. Both of these factors in medieval thought tended to emphasize "duties" as related to "rights" — the responsi­bilities of power. It should ever be remembered that the serf had certain rights which represented the duties of his lord. This is an important aspect of medieval thought.

As already suggested, the foregoing principles of Christianity were considerably modified or given a special meaning in their practical application by the Church. To mention but an instance or two: the "natural law" of equality was admitted to be modified on grounds of expediency so as to permit inequality both in property and in status. The idea of brotherhood was reconciled with inequality in wealth by teaching that charity is a duty, and by preaching that the rich should regard them­selves as trustees for their brother men.

At the same time, it must be noted that charity was too commonly regarded as an end, as a pious thing, rather than as a means for benefiting society or the poor. So, too, with manual labor: it was regarded rather as a form of discipline for the attainment of salvation than as a means for producing wealth. Pride was not to be taken in the craft, and the main interest was not to be in the product.

As a rule, the general economic development was not favor­able to the complete advancement from slavery, and the Church made room for it on grounds of expediency. Serfdom can scarcely have disappeared in towns by the year 1000, while agricultural serfdom lingered on into the nineteenth century. Still there was the tendency toward freedom.

Prior to the thirteenth century the Church fathers concerned themselves but little about economic matters. For one thing a very simple independent domestic economy prevailed; and, on the other hand, purely religious ideas were in control. Conse­quently, one finds little but moral dissertation concerning the evils of luxury, and the like.

Among the most noteworthy eco­nomic ideas were those concerning the desirability of wealth, value, and the relative merits of different forms of industry. In these there is little new. Agriculture was praised; manufacture did not displease God; but trade could not be pleasing to the Deity. Material wealth was dangerous to spiritual welfare. though it was permissible to the laity if used for the good of their fellow men. As to value, the recognition of labor was preparing the way for a cost theory based on the labor element. The general notion appears to have been that value is absolute and independent of price. Accordingly, exchanges were looked upon as just or unjust in proportion to the equality of the absolute values; and usury was forbidden to churchmen on the ground that in the taking of interest a greater value would be exacted than that given, which would result in injustice to the borrower.

But as early as the eleventh century progress began. With the growth of monasteries, towns, handicraft, and commerce, and the increasing use of money, new phenomena were presented; while in the twelfth century the first Latin translation of Aris­totle's Politics found its way into western Europe. The latter fact marks an epoch in medieval thought.