When Banks Rule

Jacob Fugger and Matthaus Schwartz. The filing cabinet shows the names of Fugger's branch offices: Rome, Lisbon, Budapest, etc.

What shall we call a world where kings come to bankers to finance wars?  Instead of a monarchy, shall we have a bankarchy? 

What shall we call a world where bankers send past due notices to the greatest ruler of Europe, as Jacob Fugger did to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor?  Instead of an empire, shall we have a bankire?

“Gold and silver,” said the Englishman, Thomas More, has become “the blood of the whole body social.” 

Mints abound as coinage doubles and redoubles.  The amount of precious metal in these coins is reduced, and the cost of a bushel of wheat triples, to the dismay of the poor man.  

Mysterious forces called letters of credit, bills of transfer, and stock exchanges impact the cost of a barrel of ale.  But only a few understand–and control–how it works.  Who can tell what has happened, what will happen?

In Antwerp, it is said, there is a quadrangle called the Bourse and above a doorway is engraved, “For the service of merchants of all nations and languages.”  To this clearinghouse comes the cargoes of thousands of ships and wagons.  Lace from Spain.  Glass from Venice.  Tin from England.  Spices from the east.  Here one can buy a painting or hire an assassin. 

For desire is the real force behind the bankers.  Our desire for luxuries, our lust for exotic goods and dainty foods.  As Erasmus says, “When did avarice reign more largely?”  No longer is a man content, as in times past, to praise God for enough to eat and a warm cloak.  No, he must have cloves.  He must have sugar.

But at what cost?   For it is said that the demand for sugar in Europe creates a demand for slaves in far-off countries.  So my innocent desire for a rosewater cookie enslaves a man on the other side of the world.  And increases the riches of the sugar Company until it is so powerful that it answers to no king, no government, and least of all, the people whose desires made it great. 

Many applaud the new merchant world that has arisen in the last few years.   The powerful international banking, the global trading, the variety of goods available to ordinary men, and the opportunities for profits will give us better lives, they say.  But I wonder.  Shall the day come when we have made these banks and trading companies so powerful that, not only do they enslave the man in a foreign land, but they own us as well?

Antwerp Bourse 16th century

Capito gratefully acknowledges The Reformation by Edith Simon and Time-Life Books as the inspiration for this post.
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Everything Comes Down to Purgatory

(celebrating the timeless peasant faces of Cornelis Dusart)

Last night was the peasants’ final night in the room beside the one that I share with Matthew Zell.  For the last time, from my bed, I listened to their conversation through the cracks in the wall. 

Fedor and Clovis fretted that they had no work now.  But Ergot, serf of St. Peter’s monastery, was assigned to a demolition project:  razing a cottage so that the Abbot might expand the gardens around his Freiburg house. 

“I was told,” said Ergot, “that this one makes nineteen houses destroyed by the Abbot.  Nineteen.  How many is that?”

“All your fingers,” Fedor said, “and this many more.”

“So many?  My whole village has not so many hearths.”

“That’s why,” Fedor said, “they have to keep us paying for Masses, charging us to die–so that they can expand their gardens, have their big houses, their concubines, their rump roasts and partridges.”

“Shhh,” said Clovis.  “I’ve no wish to walk around the Cathedral in chains for heresy.”

“That’s how they control us,” Fedor said.  “They make us afraid, and then they provide the remedy.”

Clovis frowned.  “Make us afraid?  What are you saying?  What man is not afraid of death?”

“Yeah, but who’s not more afraid after they hear Purgatory described in such a fearsome way as the priests do?  And what can save us from it?  Only them, with their sacraments and their rites.  I heard a man read in a book that there is no Purgatory.”

“No Purgatory!” Clovis said.  “What happens when we die?”

“Heaven or hell straightaway.”

Ergot squeaked.  “There’s not much hope for a poor man without Purgatory, since we can’t afford to have a thousand masses said for our souls like the nobles.  Death is like life.  The poor suffer and the rich go free.”

Just then, in his cot across from mine, Matthew began to snore, the sound overwhelming the murmurings coming through the wall.  So intrigued was I by the peasants’ dialogue, I arose and sneaked barefoot to the door of their room.  I stood in the shadows and yet could see and hear them. 

They were gathered around one candle, which lit their faces.  Fedor was leaned forward.  “No, you miss it.  No Purgatory means no Masses.”

Clovis looked suspicious.  “Who was this man?”

“Nobody.  Just a weaver reading a book he got from a traveling bookseller.” 

“But Purgatory is where you go when you die,” Ergot said. “Unless you’re a saint and shoot straight to heaven like an arrow.  But ordinary people go to Purgatory, where they burn burn burn until they pay for their sins or get released through merits.  Merits come from,” he ticked them off on his fingers:

  • visits to shrines,
  • alms,
  • prayers,
  • works of penance, and
  • purchases of indulgences. 
  • Or after you die, they can say Masses for you.” 

Ergot smiled, as if pleased at having so much knowledge. 

But Fedor reached inside his hosen and vigorously scratched his crotch.  “I think a lot about it.  If there’s no Purgatory, it changes everything.  Look at it.  If there’s no Purgatory,

  • then what good are Masses said for the dead, which you have to pay for? 
  • What good are visits to shrines, where you make an offering? 
  • What good are indulgences, which you buy?   

“No value at all.  None of it is worth a bottomless bucket if there is no Purgatory.  So why should clerics live like Lords, abusing our pious women in the confessional and drinking wine paid for with our sweat?”

Clovis turned his back to Fedor, pulled his ragged cloth coat over himself, and lay down.  Ergot looked confused for a moment and then did the same.

After a few moments, I went back to bed, but I lay there thinking that, whatever might be debated in the Universities, in the mental wanderings of these illiterate peasants, something powerful gathered and waited.  Some authentic, unnamable collective breath was drawn in and held.

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Georg Northfor is Dead

Georg Northfor is dead.  He was knifed in the street, a suspected victim of the dual of ideas between the Realists and the Nominalists.  It’s not certain that the Reals murdered him, but the passion of both sides is extreme, and Northfor, in the influential position of Dean of Theology, was a Nominalist.  The move toward Nominalism, coupled with the study of the ancient writers, has many seized with panic.

This morning, not sleeping well, I went to the University early, arriving before the students, who are required to meet every morning at five.  Lamplight leaked around a partly opened door behind which a voice was raised.

“If we do not curb this obsession with humanities, it will be the death of the Christian faith!”  I recognized Antonius Beck, the new Dean of Theology.

“What should we do?  Keep our university the last bastion of the Middle Ages in all of Germany?”  This was followed by the distinctive cough of Ulrich Zasius, legal professor. 

“I’m sick of that term!” Beck said.  “The Middle Ages!  As if all greatness lies either in Ancient Greece or in these modern times.  As if a thousand years of good scholarship should be flipped away like a booger!”

Again, Zasius coughed.  “I think we have struck a balance.  We have a faculty adept in scholastic reasoning, but we also have men of humanities, like Dr. Reisch and young Eck.”

Dr. Beck snorted.  “I don’t wish to denigrate Dr. Reisch, whose Pearl of Philosophy is a fine work, or our young protegé, Eck, but this indiscriminate obsession with ancient authors will indeed take us back.  Back to a pagan religion and an immoral culture!” 

“But surely,” Zasius said, “that’s not the goal of any advocate of humanities.  No one has written more against immorality than Erasmus, and yet he’s the greatest master of good letters.” 

“You delude yourself,” Beck said, “if you refuse to see that Greek philosophy is in violent opposition to our Christian traditions.  The revival of the Greek spirit will usher in the revival of their skepticism toward religion.  That’s why some of these pagan authors–Ovid, Terence–have been banned for centuries.”

“But surely Plato and Aristotle were forerunners of the Gospel, equal in some respects to the Church Fathers.” 

Ovid in the Nuremberg Chronicle--1493

“I’m not debating that,” Beck said, “but you’ll find that all these authors taken together present a pagan way of life alien to Christianity.  Ovid was a scandal in his own time!” 

“But the classics make man a sounder moralist, a better philosopher–”

“A pagan moralist,” Dr. Beck snapped.  “A pagan philosopher.  Consider Lucian, Lucretius, Cicero, Plutarch, Pliny–skeptics, agnostics, even atheists!  How are they going to build faith in our young students–who are tomorrow’s clergy?  I swear I can imagine a world in which most theologians are atheists!”

Sutter gasped and ranted on, like a wagon careening downhill.  “With my own ears I have heard priests in Rome babbling the consecration of the Host.  ‘Bread thou art and bread thou shall remain.’  Oh my skin crawls!  Alighieri should have created a special level of hell for such heretics!  And why is this blasphemy allowed?  Because the Italians are atheists,” Dr. Beck rapped on some object to emphasize each word, “atheists steeped in pagan culture!”

“Such a thing would never happen in Germany,” Zasius said.

“Read Seneca and Plutarch,” Beck demanded, “where man worships himself, where self-knowledge and self-discipline are held up for their own sakes and not as a way to God.  Or perhaps, like Lucian, we should teach our young scholars to scoff at everything, as they do in Italy!”

“Dr. Beck, you are a nominalist.  You follow the way of Scotus and Ockham.”

“Yes I do.  They were men who thought, not just parroted some pagan writer!” 

“But was it not Ockham who set us on this path to skepticism when he taught that there are no ideals but only individuals?”

“That’s a heresy!  William of Ockham was a Franciscan, who always spoke of God in the most orthodox manner.” 

“But he denied a thousand years of scholarship when he said that reason cannot find God.”

“Faith is presented to the mind of man by revelation–not through man’s inferior capacity to reason.”

“But some have said that if God created man–and man’s reason–then man should be able to find God through his reason.  Ockham denied this.  Is it not the shortest step from Ockham to say that faith is unreasonable?  You criticise the humanities as leading to skepticism, yet the same criticism could be brought against your own theology.  But we must table this.  The students are arriving.”

I shifted in the shadows.  I loved classical studies, but Dr. Beck painted a grim picture of the future.  Surely he overstated his case.  A future world where theologians are atheists?  How absurd.

The two professors came out of the room together, their robes brushing the young monk, Michael.  The eyes of both passed over him, as if he, a student, were only another fixture of the lecture room, like a desk, though allegedly, it was his soul over which they argued.


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