Chapter 20

How Commerce broke through Europe's Barbarism

September 18, 2021

Aristotle’s philosophy was carried to the west. It pleased the subtile geniuses, who were the virtuosi of those times of ignorance.

The theologians condemned the Jewish notions of lending at interest absolutely and in all cases. Hence commerce, which was the profession only of mean persons, became that of knaves, because whenever a thing is forbidden, which nature permits or necessity requires, those who do it are looked upon as dishonest.

Commerce was transferred to Jews who were covered with infamy. It soon ranked with the most shameful usury with monopolies, the levying of subsidies, and all the dishonest means of acquiring wealth.

The Jews got rich by their exactions. They were pillaged by the tyranny of princes. This pleased the people, but did not ease them.

King John of England imprisoned the Jews to obtain their wealth. Many had at least one of their eyes plucked out. A certain Jew, who had a tooth pulled out every day for seven days successively, gave 10,000 marks of silver for the eighth.

Henry 3rd extorted from Aaron, a Jew at York:

  • 14,000 marks of silver
  • 10,000 for the queen

This also happened in other countries. In those times they did by violence, what is now normally done in Poland. The princes could not dive into the purses of their subjects because of their privileges, so they tortured the Jews who were not considered citizens.

In France, the Jews were slaves in mortmain, and the lords were their successors. Mr. Brussels mentions an agreement in 1206 between the king and the Thibaut Count of Champagne. It decreed that the Jews of the one should not lend in the lands of the other.

In the end, a ridiculous custom was introduced of confiscating the effects of those Jews who embraced Christianity. This custom is known only because an edict at Baville on April 4, 1392 suppressed such custom. It gave the most trifling reason that it was proper to try them instead, in order to be sure that they had entirely shaken off the devil. But this confiscation was a kind of the right of amortisation to repay the lords for the taxes which were lifted when the Jews embraced Christianity.

Back then, men were regarded as property like lands. The Jews have been sported with from one age to another.

  • At one time, their effects were confiscated when they were willing to become Christians.
  • At another, they were burnt if they refused to become Christians.

In the meantime, commerce arose from the bosom of vexation and despair. The Jews found a way to save their effects by rendering their retreat forever fixed. The princes might have been willing to get rid of their persons, but not their money.

The Jews invented letters of exchange.

Under Philip-Augustus and Philip the Long, the Jews who were chased from France took refuge in Lombardy. They gave to foreign merchants and travellers secret letters, drawn upon those to whom they had entrusted their effects in France, which were accepted. In this way, commerce could:

  • elude violence and
  • maintain its ground everywhere

The richest merchant could now convey imperceptibly wherever he pleased through invisible effects.

The theologians were obliged to limit their principles. They previously connected commerce with knavery. Now it re-entered the bosom of probity. Thus, the theologians destroyed commerce, while the avarice of princes led to cheques which put commerce out of their power.

From this time, princes were required to govern with far more prudence because great exertions of authority became impolitic. Experience taught that only the goodness and lenity of a government can make commerce flourish. We begin to be cured of Machiavelism, and recover from it every day. More moderation became necessary in the councils of princes. What before was a master-stroke in politics, would now be the greatest imprudence.

It is good when human interest prompts them to be humane and virtuous even if their passions prompt them to be wicked.

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