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The usury doctrine and urban public finances in late-medieval Flanders (1220 - 1550): rentes (annuities), excise taxes, and income transfers from the poor to the rich

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  • Munro, John H.

Abstract

The objectives of this study are three-fold. The first is to rebut Charles Kindleberger’s famous dictum that usury ‘belongs less to economic history than to the history of ideas’; and in particular to demonstrate that the resuscitation of the anti-usury campaign from the early 13th century led to a veritable financial revolution in late-medieval French and Flemish towns: one that became the ‘norm’ in modern European states from the 16th century (in England, from 1693): a shift in public borrowing from interest-bearing loans to the sale of annuities, usually called rentes or renten. That anti-usury campaign had two major features: (1) the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which provided harsh punishments – excommunication -- for both unrepentant usurers and princes who failed to suppress them; and (2) the establishment of the two mendicant preaching orders: the Franciscans (1210) and the Dominicans (1216), whose monks preached hellfire and eternal damnation against all presumed usurers – including, of course, anyone who received any interest on government loans. There is much evidence that from the 1220s, many financiers in many French and Flemish towns, fearing for their immortal souls, preferred to accept far lower returns on buying rentes than the interest they would have earned on loans. These rentes, based on 8th-century Carolingian census contracts, had two basic forms: (1) life-annuities, by which a citizen purchased from the government, with a lump sum of capital, an annual income stream lasting a lifetime, or the lifetime of his wife as well; (2) perpetual annuities, by which the annual income stream was indeed perpetual, or until such time as the government chose to redeem the rentes, at par. Initially, some theologians opposed sales of rentes as subterfuges to cloak evasion of the usury doctrine. But in 1250-1, Pope Innocent IV declared them to be non-usurious contracts, essentially because they were not loans. Subsequent popes in the 15th century confirmed his views and the non-usurious character of rentes, on two conditions: (1) that the buyer of the rente could never demand redemption or repayment, and (2) that the annual annuity payments (and any ultimate redemptions) be in accordance with actual rent contracts: i.e., that the funds be derived from the products of the land. Ecclesiastical authorities soon agreed that taxes on the consumption of the products of the land (and sea) met this test: i.e., taxes on beer and wine (which always accounted for the largest share), bread, textiles, fish, meat, dairy products, etc. The second objective is to measure the importance of 'rentes' in the civic finances of Flemish towns, in terms of both revenues and expenditures: from the annual town accounts Ghent (14th century only), and Aalst (1395-1550), where they had far greater importance. The related third objective is to measure the burden of the excise taxes for master building craftsmen in Aalst, in tables that measure the values of the excise tax revenues expressed in real terms: first, in the equivalent number of ‘baskets of consumables’ (which form of the base of the Consumer Price Index), and second their value in terms of the annual money-wage incomes of master masons (for 210 days). This provides an entirely new look at the late-medieval ‘standard of living’ controversy – with indications that this consumption-tax burden sometimes rose from about 13,200 to almost 30,000 days’ wage income, for a town of perhaps 3600 inhabitants (but obviously less dramatic on a per capita basis). That tax burden rose the most strongly when, by other indications, real wages (RWI = NWI/CPI) were also finally rising; and thus possibly these real wage gains were largely eliminated. That per capita tax burden would have been all the greater if, in the course of the 15th century, Aalst had experienced the same decline as did small towns of Brabant, to the east, on the order of 25%, and some other Flemish towns, in which the population decline varied from 9% to 28 %. In earlier publications I had challenged the widespread view that the era following the Black Death, with a radical change in the land:labour ratio, came to be a ‘Golden Age’ of the artisan and labourer. I contended instead that frequent inflations eroded or eliminated wage gains, and thus that periodic rises in real wages were due essentially to steep deflations combined with pronounced wage-stickiness. As I also calculated, English artisans in the 1340s had earned real wages that were about 50% of the Flemish; but by the 1480s, they had narrowed that gap (with much less inflation) to about 80%. That gap was probably even smaller, until the 1640s, when England’s Parliament finally imposed similar excise taxes on consumption.

Suggested Citation

  • Munro, John H., 2007. "The usury doctrine and urban public finances in late-medieval Flanders (1220 - 1550): rentes (annuities), excise taxes, and income transfers from the poor to the rich," MPRA Paper 11012, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised Jan 2008.
  • Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:11012
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Mendels, Franklin F., 1972. "Proto-industrialization: The First Phase of the Industrialization Process," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(01), pages 241-261, March.
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    4. Langholm,Odd, 1998. "The Legacy of Scholasticism in Economic Thought," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521621595, November.
    5. Allen, Robert C., 2001. "The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 38(4), pages 411-447, October.
    6. John H. Munro, 1999. "The Low Countries' Export Trade in Textiles with the Mediterranean Basin, 1200-1600: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Comparative Advantages in Overland and Maritime Trade Routes," Working Papers munro-99-01, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    7. D. C. Coleman, 1983. "Proto-Industrialization: A Concept Too Many," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, pages 435-448.
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    Cited by:

    1. Chilosi, David, 2014. "Risky Institutions: Political Regimes and the Cost of Public Borrowing in Early Modern Italy," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 74(03), pages 887-915, September.
    2. Mark Koyama, 2010. "The political economy of expulsion: the regulation of Jewish moneylending in medieval England," Constitutional Political Economy, Springer, pages 374-406.
    3. van Bavel, Bas, 2016. "The Invisible Hand?: How Market Economies have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199608133.
    4. Chilosi, David & Schulze, Max-Stephan & Volckart, Oliver, 2016. "Benefits of empire? Capital market integration north and south of the Alps, 1350-1800," Economic History Working Papers 65346, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    5. Mark Koyama, 2008. "Evading the 'Taint of Usury' Complex Contracts and Segmented Capital Markets," Economics Series Working Papers 412, University of Oxford, Department of Economics.
    6. John H. Munro, 2008. "Necessities and Luxuries in Early-Modern Textile Consumption: Real Values of Worsted Says and Fine Woollens in the Sixteenth-Century Low Countries," Working Papers tecipa-323, University of Toronto, Department of Economics.
    7. Rubin, Jared, 2010. "Bills of exchange, interest bans, and impersonal exchange in Islam and Christianity," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 47(2), pages 213-227, April.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    caste; employment; wage differentials; public sector; India;

    JEL classification:

    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • E43 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Interest Rates: Determination, Term Structure, and Effects
    • N93 - Economic History - - Regional and Urban History - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • E42 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Monetary Sytsems; Standards; Regimes; Government and the Monetary System
    • B11 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925 - - - Preclassical (Ancient, Medieval, Mercantilist, Physiocratic)
    • J45 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Public Sector Labor Markets
    • E25 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Aggregate Factor Income Distribution
    • J81 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Standards - - - Working Conditions
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General
    • E31 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles - - - Price Level; Inflation; Deflation
    • H31 - Public Economics - - Fiscal Policies and Behavior of Economic Agents - - - Household
    • H71 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations - - - State and Local Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue
    • E44 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Financial Markets and the Macroeconomy
    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials
    • J10 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - General
    • O52 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Europe

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