Page:Cambridge Modern History Volume 1.djvu/535

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buildings, these costly edifices were not available for promoting the further increase of wealth. Medieval capital was lent for purposes of unproductive consumption. Thus applied, the money failed to bring about an increase of wealth, but remained, as Aristotle would have said, "barren." This fact goes far to account for the long-continued prejudice against Jews and Lombards. Since no addition to the wealth of the community arose through their intervention, it seemed that any gain accruing to them in their operations must have been made at the expense of the borrowers and ought to be condemned as extortionate. Under these circumstances the traditional objection to interest of every kind was strongly maintained, and found expression in the writings of casuists and in the decisions of ecclesiastical Courts against usury.

The unsatisfactory character of the transactions of medieval bankers reacted on the prosperity of their business, and eventually brought about their ruin. It was a constant difficulty for their debtors to scrape together money which would reimburse the Jew or the Lombard for wealth that had been unremuneratively expended; and it was natural enough that the capitalists should suffer in turn from defaulting creditors. The Jews were under such serious disabilities that it was only by special favour that they could recover their debts, and several of the Florentine and other Italian bankers were ruined by breaches of royal faith, about the middle of the fourteenth century: but the failure of the Templars, who had also organised an immense banking business, was due to political rather than economic causes. At that time very few opportunities existed of so using capital that it should not only bring in a return to the owner, but also increase the wealth of the community.

There was, however, all through the Middle Ages one such opening for the profitable employment of capital; and of this the great Italian houses took full advantage. The merchant who engaged in active trade and visited distant markets with a cargo of goods, was rendering a real service to the community. He was enabling the inhabitants of certain districts to enjoy the benefit of products which did not grow on their own soil, or of wares which they had not the skill to manufacture. So long as the merchant confined himself to such operations, no question was raised by the strictest moralist as to the legitimacy of his transactions or as to the lawfulness of gains thus derived; and capitalists, who joined together in taking the risks of useful business of this kind, were held to be perfectly justified in sharing the profits which accrued to them from their enterprise. While nearly all moneyed men were under suspicion of occasional unfairness, the medieval conscience clearly recognised that the capitalist was fully entitled to some gain, so long as he transported commodities without trying to bargain himself out of risks. Capital engaged in active commerce was employed in producing goods at the