Economic Life

Authored by: A. T. Brown

The Routledge History Of Medieval Christianity

Print publication date:  April  2015
Online publication date:  April  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415660143
eBook ISBN: 9781315716800
Adobe ISBN: 9781317508090


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Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in German in 1905) and R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) form the classic starting point for studies into the interactions between Christianity and the economy. Although these works predominantly focused upon the Reformation and the rise of a more ‘rational’ economic organisation, they also considered the medieval origins of these developments. For Weber, Protestantism and, in particular, Puritan Calvinism, represented the transformation and extension of medieval monasticism beyond the walls of the cloister so that all members of society faced the demands of religious asceticism. 1 It was this ascetic restraint on consumption that Weber saw as facilitating the accumulation of wealth, and was thus an important element in the ‘spirit’ of capitalism. In this line of thinking, the medieval monk was the first ‘professional’ who ‘lives rationally, who works methodically and by rational means toward a goal’. 2 Tawney, by comparison, saw the potential conflicts between religion and economic forces, especially emphasising how the Church was ‘an immense vested interest, implicated to the hilt in the economic fabric’ of medieval society, ‘especially on the side of agriculture and land tenure’, because it was ‘the greatest of landowners’. 3 As J. Gilchrist has argued, the Church in the Middle Ages was a ‘richly endowed corporation’ that ‘disposed of a great part of the liquid capital of the Western world’, and through its role as a spiritual body exercised a tremendous influence over the peoples of Europe, affecting people’s consumption and expenditure. 4 This chapter explores the dual role played by the Church in the economic life of medieval Europe, first by looking at its sources of income and the part it played in the expanding economy of Europe, and second by assessing how Christian teachings influenced economic thought and practice in medieval society more broadly.

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