The Real Economic Consequences of Martin Luther

By Brendan Cook, Instructor, Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies, University of South Florida, and Scott Ferguson, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies, University of South Florida & Research Scholar, Binzagr Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. Both authors are founding members of the Modern Money Network: Humanities Division

Lo, Christ is never strong in us till we be weak. As our strength abateth, so groweth the strength of Christ in us; when we are clean emptied of our own strength, then are we full of Christ’s strength. And look, how much of our own strength remaineth in us, so much lacketh there of the strength of Christ.

– William Tyndale, Obedience of a Christian Man 

Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

– Martin Luther, Thesis 86

While chartalist political economy is now a well-developed critical project thanks to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), chartalist historiography remains in its infancy. Pioneering efforts by Alfred Mitchell Inness, Michael Hudson, and Christine Desan notwithstanding, contemporary chartalism lacks a rich archive of social artefacts and requires more robust and interdisciplinary methods. MMT’s contribution to political economy is, of course, essential for comprehending the fiscal and legal bases of finance, employment, and production under present conditions. However, the future of money will also be forged in the fires of its still-largely opaque history. That is to say, possibilities for social and environmental justice tomorrow will hinge on the struggle over defining money’s past limits and potentials.

Take, for example, the recent account of the Protestant Reformation by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman. Published by The Center for Economic and Policy Research and later featured on Naked Capitalism, the essay argues that the tremendous economic transformation that accompanied the Reformation was precipitated by the breakup of a previously monopolized “market for salvation” and resulted in an “immediate and large secularization” of investment and production more generally.

It is clear that the authors’ entire thesis relies upon unquestioned neoclassical assumptions about the virtues of competitive markets, pricing on the margin, rational expectations, and econometric evidence; this alone should raise the eyebrow of any critical chartalist. Yet when viewed from an interdisciplinary historical perspective, their neoclassical fable of the Reformation melts into thin air.

The authors’ foundational error is to treat the Universal Church not as a governmental institution, as it would be in a chartalist reading, but as a sort of independent contractor providing religious services to interested individuals. They start by affirming earlier scholarship, which casts the various organs of the Church as “producers of salvation” for the lay Christians who served as the product’s “consumers.”

Having begun here, they introduce a second “product.” In addition to manufacturing salvation, the Church is also a supplier of legitimacy for so-called “secular rulers,” by which the authors primarily mean the monarchs of the emergent nation-states. Before the age of reform, the papacy held a spiritual monopoly, they explain, providing the crowned heads of Christendom with salvation, and especially legitimacy, for a very steep price. With the introduction of the new reformed confessions, however, the monopoly was broken, and sovereigns of every faith found they could now purchase the endorsement of religious leaders at a bargain. This meant that resources once diverted towards “religious” ends could be put to other, more “secular” uses.

Although it is hard to deny that the weakness of the papacy after 1517 allowed even Catholic rulers to enlarge the scope of their power, the rest of the account presented by Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman is far less credible. Their least plausible gesture is to stress a one-dimensional narrative of secularization at the expense of a more nuanced understanding of the evolving role of religion in European society.

The development of secular civil society in the West is obviously much debated. Was it a product of the later age Enlightenment? Or a gradual process unfolding over the course of many centuries? Instead of choosing either of these more plausible theories, the authors try to make the Reformation a dramatic turning point. Rather than a single step along a very long road, it is the site of a sudden realignment of social resources and political power away from the realm of the sacred, a moment when “human capital and fixed investment shifted sharply from religious to secular purposes.” The authors speak of a decline in the study of theology, “which paid off specifically in the religious sector,” of “increased [labor] demand in the secular sector,” and a reorientation of construction projects “towards the interests of secular lords – palaces and administrative buildings.”

This simplistic division is a mistake, and not because the transfer of social resources from the institutional church to monarchies and republics was imaginary; that it took place is beyond controversy. Instead we need to question the framing of the shift in terms of an opposition of “religious” and “secular.” Were the so-called “secular rulers” who benefited from the weakening of papal authority really less religious in their orientation?

Take the example of England! While Henry VIII dissolved most, although not all of the monasteries, it never occurred to him to abolish the English Church. Instead he placed himself at its head, appointing bishops, overseeing the indoctrination of his subjects, and setting the patterns of their worship; he did not abolish the papacy so much as take the pope’s place. He also laid claim upon the pope’s authority to punish heresy within his realm, a function enthusiastically continued by his children and successors, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Can we really describe the empowerment of these rulers as a decline of the sacred at the expense of the secular?

And England is hardly an exception. The Catholic monarchs of Iberia inserted themselves even more dramatically into the spiritual lives of their subjects, and it was left to the “secular” town government of Geneva to establish perhaps the most systematically theocratic regime in the history of Western Europe.

The same may be said of the authors’ assertions regarding “secular” labor demand and “secular” construction projects. They speak of the “hiring of lawyers rather than theologians,” but a law degree had been a reliable path to success in the Roman curia since at least the thirteenth century; it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the popes of the later middle ages employed more tax attorneys than doctors of theology. The authors also classify “palaces” as “secular” building projects, in contrast to churches and shrines, but this would be news to the architects and builders of the great ecclesiastical palaces of fifteenth-century Rome.

Moreover, by including “administrative buildings” on the “secular” side of the balance, the authors return to their original error. To treat courthouses and chanceries as more appropriate to a king or a prince than a cardinal or a pope means more than simply ignoring how many were built or refurbished to serve the needs of the massive papal bureaucracy. Ultimately, it is to forget that the pre-Reformation church was not a private provider of this or that service, but a source of political authority in its own right. It was not simply an impediment to the aspirations of would-be theocrats in London or Madrid, but their rival: a sophisticated and self-conscious governing project directed towards the collective life of Latin Christianity.

It is because Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman fail to recognize the political nature of the papacy that their simplified account of a rapid lurch towards secularization is necessary in the first place. Since they cannot acknowledge the real similarities between royal and papal regimes, they must resort to a forced opposition of kings and popes, royal lawyers and church lawyers, princes’ palaces and bishops’ palaces.

Their thinking allows no room for the true story, one not of supply and demand, provider and customer, but of contesting government enterprises, the decline of one, the papacy, and the rise of others in its place. This straightforward and compelling interpretation is inaccessible to the authors’ narrow neoclassical framing. They have already decided that the history of humanity is a story of producing and consuming, and buying and bargaining, and so this is what they find. And because this understanding is derived from a later era, namely the Enlightenment, they must impose the Enlightenment’s opposition of religion and secularism upon their account of the profoundly religious society of Reformation Europe.

Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman mistake a revolution in political and monetary governance for a story of markets, consumerism, and individual bargaining. As a consequence, they set forth a simplified and exaggerated story of secularization.

What is worse, by suppressing the Reformation’s true political contours, the authors misrepresent the period’s complex history and its potential meaning for a future politics. This suppression bears directly on the political history of chartalist thought. Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman reify the reformers’ own anti-chartalist impulses and make anything like a chartalist counter-history of the period imperceptible.

Because the great irony here is that it was the same age of Reformation which the authors so gravely misunderstand that cleared the way for the reductive vision of politics and economics upon which they rely. The later middle ages had nourished a number of diverse intellectual traditions, many of which anticipated chartalism’s sense of the potential of the state to answer the needs of the people.

In the era of Aquinas, Dante, and Accursius, a capacious and expansive understanding of law, government, sovereignty, and, above all, of currency, still seemed possible. It did not appear ridiculous to declare, as Dante does in De Monarchia, that the Empire cannot become insolvent because all things ultimately belong to the emperor.

In contrast, the greatest minds of the Reformation, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, helped complete the work of stifling and foreclosing these traditions, work begun with the parallel development of Humanism and Nominalism in the fourteenth century. In their ostensibly theological writings on God’s power and Christ’s redeeming grace, the reformers developed a style of contracted, zero-sum thinking which, extended to political economy, makes the limitation of public spending seem natural and inevitable. Such thinking is on full display in the two epigraphs above.

The claim of the English reformer William Tyndale that Christ is only strong when the individual is weak is a metaphysical foreshadowing of the modern Liberal doctrine that the state’s power to spend must come at the expense of the private wealth of the citizen. The underlying logic of such a statement points toward a notion of “private money” being “taken” by a grasping state apparatus which is already adumbrated in Luther’s famous Theses.

Laying the groundwork for the later emergence of Liberal political economy and the modern system of nation-states, the reformers actively purged late-medieval conceptions of the monetary instrument as a boundless public utility from the collective imagination. Instead, they construed money as a private, finite and decentered instrument, and sovereign governments as constrained by taxation revenues and borrowing. In historicizing the Reformation through a narrative of market maneuvering, Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman mirror the Reformation period’s self-serving repression of chartalism and bar chartalism’s political potential from expanding the contemporary political imagination.

Rather than disclose the real economic consequences of Martin Luther and the events associated with his intervention, Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman offer us precisely the sort of neoclassical fairytale that chartalists ought to critique and supplant. History is not a transparent window onto bygone times; it is an opaque antechamber to still-undetermined futures. For this reason, chartalists need to tell fresh and compelling stories about money’s complex political and social history. In the meantime, we must insist that if money is irreducible to market exchange, so too is its past. Otherwise, the fate of collective life will remain imprisoned in a dismal story that the Reformation scripted long ago.

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  1. Harold

    If I recall correctly, Alan Ryan’s excellent, “On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present” (2 Vol.), 2012″ stresses continuously that for many centuries, during the Dark Ages and beyond, the Roman Catholic Church, with its institutions, councils, and traditions of jurisprudence, constituted a model of constitutional , transnational government

      1. Ellery O'Farrell

        I think he’s referring to the vast corpus of canon law, which descended from Roman law (with modifications, of course). The Church, which relies on extra-scriptural tradition to a degree perhaps more familiar to Jews than Protestants, can’t really be described as a biblical organization.

  2. Left in Wisconsin

    This is fantastic. I don’t know enough about the history to weigh in on accuracy – what the authors say seems correct to me – but kudos to NC for offering a venue for this type of analysis.

    Laying the groundwork for the later emergence of Liberal political economy and the modern system of nation-states, the reformers actively purged late-medieval conceptions of the monetary instrument as a boundless public utility from the collective imagination. Instead, they construed money as a private, finite and decentered instrument, and sovereign governments as constrained by taxation revenues and borrowing. In historicizing the Reformation through a narrative of market maneuvering, Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman mirror the Reformation period’s self-serving repression of chartalism and bar chartalism’s political potential from expanding the contemporary political imagination.

  3. Wukchumni

    Cortés in Mexico in 1519…
    …Pizarro in 1533

    Martin Luther’s timing was perfectly placed from an economic standpoint of liberalism, combined with the riches of the new world about to come online~

  4. Ned

    Not mentioned,

    Catholic priests can’t marry, thus whatever wealth they accrue goes to the Catholic church.
    Wonder how much of the last 500 years religious strife was over land and wealth ownership here on earth versus the alleged Kingdom of Heaven.

    Looking forward, when is America going to start making synagogues, churches, ashrams et al pay their fair share of property and income taxes?

    How can they get away with offering sanctuary to illegals, trying to influence tax policy, promoting candidates etc. without losing their tax exempt status?

    1. dearieme

      “when is America going to start making synagogues, churches, ashrams et al pay their fair share of property and income taxes?” Whatever laws exempt them from tax are surely unconstitutional? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” seems pretty clear.

      On the same basis, laws forbidding firearms in churches and so on also seem unconstitutional to me.

      1. Vatch

        It seems clear, until we see the full clause:

        Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

        I don’t like tax exemption for religious organizations, but there is a constitutional justification for it.

        I see no justification for allowing continued tax exemptions for religious organizations that engage in politics, though.

        1. Ned

          The First Amendment doesn’t preclude income taxes on individuals.
          Why should the “Free exercise of religion” preclude income taxes on religious organizations?

          1. Vatch

            I don’t know. That’s something I’ve read — perhaps it’s the old “the power to tax is the power to destroy” viewpoint, and if the government can destroy something, then that something isn’t freely exercised. It would be nice to do away with the religious tax exemption.

            1. Ned

              “No taxation without representation”
              Maybe we are taxed because we have “representation”?
              Certainly a reason to tax any religious organization that expresses any political, social or economic arguments and strays in any way from mysticism.

    2. Al

      ‘illegals’ ?
      you mean squatters like yourself Ned? why would you feel the need to pollute an otherwise cogent and interesting comment with racist hatred?
      try to at least pretend we’re all civilized here.

  5. Vatch

    There’s a lot of abstraction in this article, and it might be valid, but I think that some of the economic effects of the Reformation were quite tangible. For example, the prevalence of literacy rose in Protestant areas, because people were expected to be able to read the Bible for themselves. This enabled many people to read secular documents as well as the Bible.

    A second effect was that the Inquisition remained limited to some (not all) of the Catholic nations. The Protestant Netherlands and England became surprisingly vibrant in both commerce and scientific investigation. If the Reformation hadn’t occurred when it did, Thomas More might have succeeded in establishing the Inquisition in Catholic England. What happened to Galileo was a lesson for scientifically minded people in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and to a lesser extent, France.

    1. Brendan Cook

      Literacy DID rise in regions that embraced reformed Christianity. But it had been rising gradually in the centuries before the Reformation too, which is why I suspect C, D, and Y’s narrative of a sudden turn. As the various bureaucracies, royal, papal, and otherwise, began to develop during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the need for literate workers expanded. And after the Reformation, literacy increased in Catholic regions too. There was a stress on empowering ordinary men, and even women, to read approved religious texts — not the Bible of course — for themselves.

      The Dutch Republic certainly allowed an impressive degree of intellectual freedom. But that is certainly not how the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation, played out in many places. The horrific anti-intellectualism of certain Catholic factions during and after Trent must be counted among the consequences of Luther and the events associated with him.

    2. georgieboy

      Per professor Brad Gregory at Notre Dame, there were 18 editions of the Bible, in German, before Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The printing presses were rolling for about 60 years before the 95 Theses. The telling of history sometimes get compressed a bit…

      This fact does not negate the notion that competing Christianities led to more literacy, but it may color that interpretation a bit: increasing biblical readership perhaps led to conditions supportive of the Reformation.

      As an aside, the Plague of the 1350s decimated many monasteries and simultaneously raised worker wages outside them, leading to complaints about the quality of recruits to the Latin Christian communities. Why would an ambitious young adult settle for life in the cloister when more fun stuff was happening out and about?

  6. Watt4Bob

    It has been my understanding that one of the key ‘reforms’ involved the translation of the Bible from Latin, into the native tongues of the people, thus negating the false necessity of having the clergy explain what the scriptures said, and more importantly, meant.

    Back then, I’m sure this resulted in a lot of earnest ‘research’ and then discussion
    which turned into subversive, er, disruptive action.

    Then, as today, it seems there was nothing so important as keeping the ‘deplorables‘ from even reading, let alone understanding the Sermon on the Mount.

    At any rate, it seems that the powers that be were needlessly afraid, since the relationship of Jesus’ teachings to economic justice have been easily obfuscated and the masses have been all to willing to accept, even embrace nonsense like the preposterous prosperity gospel.

    Progressive reform is a long slog even with God on your side, and history is written and rewritten by the winners.

    1. Harold

      This is true, too. The reactionary Counter-reformation Catholic Church doubled down on its retrograde policies, and up until the first half of the 20th c. discouraged education for peasants male (except in those of extraordinary natural ability) and female and middle-class women after 4th grade. Women in particular were encouraged to pursue handicrafts. This ensured that the priests retained a stranglehold on political and cultural life. Although it did result in some beautiful handcrafts, including exquisite lace and embroidery work traditions in Hapsburg lands and elsewhere.

    2. dcblogger

      Back then, I’m sure this resulted in a lot of earnest ‘research’ and then discussion which turned into subversive, er, disruptive action.

      In his history of the German Reformation, Leopole Rankke has these wonderful scene of parishioners rising up to dispute the priest’s sermon and quoting scripture. It must have been a wonderful sight.

      1. LifelongLib

        English Quaker founder George Fox was notorious for this also. Many of his accounts end with something like “and then they hit me with their bibles”, “and then they threw me down the stairs”, “and then they put me in jail”.

    3. Brendan Cook

      I agree with a lot of what you say. However, to keep the Bible in Latin and to restrict it to the clergy are not the same thing. A lot of educated people could read Latin — lawyers, doctors, and so forth. Latin was always the language of secular learning,, too. Also, the Bible WAS available, albeit in fragments of bad translations, before the Reformation. Only in England, where it bore the stigma of the Lollard heresy, was the vernacular Bible frowned upon. It was actually the Reformation, and the reactionary backlash of the Counter-Reformation,which followed, that led the Church to insist on keeping the Bible from the people.

      1. Watt4Bob

        Please don’t think I disagree with your exposition, but I think your last sentence makes my central point;

        It was actually the Reformation, and the reactionary backlash of the Counter-Reformation,which followed, that led the Church to insist on keeping the Bible from the people.

        As soon as people began understanding that they could possibly interpret the teachings of Christ for themselves, and I’m talking here about a collective understanding, that notion became subversive of the status quo.

        The inquisition had already been burning vernacular translations in Germany when they could get their hands on them, prior to Luther’s time, and I would assume increasingly during his lifetime.

        I would also mention that much like our growing awareness that the ‘credentialed class‘ as a whole is in reality dedicated to the status quo, and not truly supportive of a progressive agenda, the “lawyers, doctors, and so forth… you mention were likely not very interested in rocking the boat as concerns a broader understanding of Jesus teachings on the part of the under-classes/villein.

        1. Brendan Cook

          Thank you for the reply; it is much appreciated. There are two points worth adding here:

          1. Like everything else, the emphasis on religion as a personal connection developed across centuries. It is already clearly marked by the later fourteenth century. The Reformation accelerates it, of course, but it is still a fairly gradual process. Part of this involves the idea that Bible-reading is important in the first place, which is partly owed to the Humanists.

          2. The credentialed lawyers and doctors of the later middle ages might not have supported a truly progressive agenda, but they were also extremely subversive. They definitely wanted to “rock the boat,” albeit in favor of a narrow, contracted style of religion more to their liking. Ronald Witt has argued persuasively that Humanism, which becomes essential to the Reformation, originated among the notaries of northern Italian cities such as Padua. Their tendency to see everything as a contingent agreement between contracting parties has had a very long legacy.

      2. Democrita

        I believe the invention of the printing press played a role in accelerating the spread of literacy and the shift from Latin to more vulgar language in disseminating knowledge.

        An overthruster to those long trends empowering deplorables–at least in the near & mid-term.

        1. Harold

          Yes, and also, paradoxically, printing stimulated the development of handwriting and personal letters among lay people — also aided no doubt by improvements in roads and coaches for carrying them from place to place.

          Also, the Catholic Church did get around to producing an English vernacular version of the Bible, known as the Douay Bible c. 1609, but it was a big flop as it tried to transform the style of the text into something approaching the elaborate Ciceronian elegance so beloved of the Italian 15th c. Humanists. Also it was based on the Latin translations of St. Jerome and not the original Hebrew. By then, too, attitudes had hardened as a result of the 16th c religious wars.

          But I do think the Protestant Tyndale and King James must have incorporated earlier traditions of popular medieval preaching and thus was much more effective and approachable. It seems miraculous that Tyndale, anyway, produced his in such a short time.

          1. Brendan Cook

            Thanks for the comment. I would say that the Douay-Rheims version does not really attempt Ciceronian elegance. It is a translation of Jerome’s translation, and I see it reflected in the style. Tyndale might well have taken up elements of medieval preaching, but he also owes a lot to the literary elegance of the Humanists, despite also striving for a simplicity that could speak to the masses. The speed of Tyndale’s translation is slightly less miraculous when we remember that he only translated the New Testament. And the KJV was the work of a committee, so that helped make the work a little faster.

  7. William Neil

    Bravo Yves. It is daunting even to your very game audience in matters of political economy.

    What would Luther have done? That is, what would he have made today, long after the revival of Protestant thought during the 1970’s,of the rise of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, which now have evolved, 2016, or is it devolved, to a pact with what one that we might have imagined they would have branded as the very Anti-Christ himself…or some such near suitable adjective, the most shocking political pact since the infamous one of 1939 : their support for one Mr. Donald Trump? Such pact seems to me to be closer to the terrible trends Luther himself hurled his theses against, the late, decayed quite secular in money matters, of the Roman church and its indulgences.

    1. dcblogger

      Luther would have been aghast at televangelists. Joel Osteen is the spiritual heir of Jan Tetzel. The difference between Osteen and Leo X is that at least Leo X gave us Michaelangelo and Raphael.

  8. dcblogger

    I find it bizarre to read accounts of the Reformation that leave out the religious element, which is at the heart of the crisis. Once you see God in a different way, you see the world a different way. Listen to anything from the Geneva psalter and contrast it anything by Palestrina and you can hear a different way of thinking.

    Once ordinary people understood that they could read the sacred scriptures for themselves and discern their meaning it was but a step to think that they could understand worldly matters such as taxation. It was the Reformation that gave the Dutch to chase the Spanish out of their country and the Socts the courage to take their Church into their own hands in opposition to the Queen regent. The Reformation is a psychological, and dare I say, a spiritual divide in European history with political and economic consequences.

    1. William Neil

      Well put. Reading too much modern and secular into an age, which this posting rightly points out, was still very religious, but with a different individual orientation to the Gospels.

    2. Katsue

      The cities of Flanders were notoriously rebellious in the Middle Ages, going back at least as far as the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, and they had received foreign assistance from the English at several points during the Hundred Years War. The Reformation was no doubt the proximate cause of the Dutch Revolt, but a revolution against an absentee monarch would probably have broken out sooner or later anyway.

  9. David

    Well done Yves for publishing this. I think there’s a tendency to forget (or never to have known) just what a massive political force the Church was before the Reformation. Through its network of parishes, reaching down to the lowest level, and its single language, it could and did enforce its will. It did not need to seek “customers”. The Pope was a prince and lived as one, and the Church was by far the greatest single economic force of its time, largely because of its ownership of land, which was the basic source of wealth in those days. Interestingly, there was an entire office at the Vatican (the Apostolic Chamber if I recall correctly) which managed the Pope’s personal finances through an account at the Medici Bank. Popes often had an overdraft – like many secular rulers they had to keep up appearances.

  10. Mattski

    But many cautionary notes need to be sounded to most any sweeping judgements about Protestantism’s rise. For example: Weber chronicles–not without prejudice–the embrace of capitalism (and clocks, a key component of all all kinds of standardization and institutionalization of work regimens) by Protestants in German, and resistance to the rise of new commodities and standardization itself by Catholics. And hints that a certain kind of corporatism that remained in the church created greater sympathy for socialism, including in a southern Europe that he and a rising Protestantism were and sometimes remain hostile to.

    1. Brendan Cook

      Agreed about the parallels between Catholic corporatism and socialist corporatism. We should be careful with sweeping judgments of any kind, but there is something valuable in the medieval Catholic notion of the Christian communion embracing every member of society. It certainly compares well with the insistence of so many reformers, including Luther and Tyndale, that true Christians will always remain an embattled minority amid a sea of hypocrites. The latter way of thinking has the potential to encourage an unfortunate style of individualism.

      1. Ellery O'Farrell

        It is also true, though not often mentioned, that as a practical measure the only way a woman could have her own career was through the Church: there are many, many medieval women who became not just abbesses (governing their own “corporations”) but respected theologians. I’ll mention only Heloise, Julian of Norwich and Hildegard von Bingen – there were many others.

        It was possible even for poor people and others of no status to rise to positions of respectability within the Church. And there were far more holidays, when the poor could enjoy themselves, then than now. Plus a doctrine of fair price, which of course has completely disappeared.

        Which is not, of course, to say it was perfect. Far from it. But in many (by no means all) ways it deserves consideration for modern social mores.

        1. Harold

          I agree and also would suggest that this was a reason for Christianity’s rise in the first place.

    2. William Neil

      Also surfaces in Polanyi’s magisterial work, “The Great Transformation,” the established Church’s resistance to too fast a pace of economic change, first under Mercantilism, then under the near fanatical classical economists who helped usher in the first full market society in history.

  11. Lyle

    Actually for the US it is John Calvin that was the big reformation figure. Luther’s followers really were 1/2 of the German immigrants and the Scandinavian ones. Secondary would be John Knox. The religious tradition of New England descended from Calvin, and there was a strong streak of Calvinism in the Church of England. It was Calvin that did away with the ban on interest. Luther appears not to take the position of the Calvinists on Usury for example. Luther started the reformation but outside of parts of Germany and Scandinavia the positions of Zwingli and Calvin were far more important, and influenced economic far more.

    1. Brendan Cook

      In terms of influence on the English Reformation, and thus on the United States, I would nominate Erasmus of Rotterdam for the first place. True, he never left the Catholic Confession, and he almost became a cardinal late in life, but those are details. His Humanist critique was radically different from the more theological approach of Luther and Calvin, but that was what made it effective; it appealed to a very different constituency. He may have disliked Luther, but he did more than anyone to make Luther possible. He deserves to be better known, just as the larger contribution of Humanism to the Reformation as a whole deserves far more attention.

      1. begob

        I suppose the Reformation in Scotland and the north of Ireland had a comparable influence on the American colonies – that was the conduit for Calvin and Zwingli.

  12. Objective Function

    Another fascinating piece, many thanks.

    The “Sovereign Individual” and other doomer books by failed tax haven shills James Davidson and Lord William Rees Mogg treat of some of the same material, albeit largely cribbed from one fringe historian Jon Huizenga and cherry picked to support their own thesis. Their elitist/apatrid views (governments ought to serve their ‘customers’, not the grasping mob, but they won’t so the only choice is to grab your capital and flee the pitchforks… someplace) will be anathema to most of the readership here, but there are a few items that provoke thought (yes, I’m a recovering libertarian).

    Anyway, the lads focus on the endless proliferation of feast days and mandated almsgivings. These finally hit a tipping point with the stolid burghers and artisans of Flanders and the Hansa sphere, who now had better uses for their wealth than to tithe it out and ‘store up gold in Heaven’. It was all just awful for productivity and commerce, hence no surprise the Reformation took root there first and fanatically, among elites as well as reformist churchmen. (Feudal land barons weren’t so keen since their capital was tied up in land and paying armed retainers to hold it, and their villeins were underemployed for much of the agrarian cycle anyway). All quite reductionist, but likely a contributing factor.

    (A similar thing seems to have happened to the Buddhist kingdom of Bagan in Burma, except that the frenzy of temple building and monks bankrupted the kingdom, which was already half deserted when the Mongols arrived to sack the remains).

    1. Stavros K.

      “their villeins were underemployed for much of the agrarian cycle anyway)”

      Under-employed? How do you figure? Were they out there trying to get more “employment” and had to make do with less employment, fewer hours and days of employment than they really desired?

      You’re projecting capitalist logic backwards and sideways to feudal ‘barons’.

      Also, “Productivity and commerce” are not “all of a kind”, nor are all ‘capitalists’ always and everywhere in favor of increased productivity and commerce. Tax-farming and armaments capitalists and adventurer capitalists have been around for eons, and they couldn’t care less about ‘productivity and commerce’.

      1. Objective Function

        I think you’d have to read the book yourself mate. The point is simply that if forbidding work on a large number of days for religious reasons doesn’t disrupt farmers in Lorraine as heavily as it does weavers in Bruges. The rest is your projection not mine, but thanks anyway.

  13. Lynne

    This emphasis on religious vs secular completely misses one of the most revolutionary aspects of Lutheran doctrine. Traditional Lutheran doctrine says that prior to the Reformation, the church taught that only way a human , and most particularly a woman, could live a godly life was in the church. Luther elevated the role of women and argued that they served God when they married and raised virtuous children, just as he rejected the prior teaching that the only way a woman could serve God was to reject the world and enter a convent. Similarly, he preached that each man was obliged to use his gifts, whatever they were, in an ethical and honest way, and that by doing so, a man would serve Christ. Traditional Lutheran doctrine **rejects** a firm line between religious and secular worlds.

    I grew up Lutheran and went to a Lutheran college, where we were encouraged to consider what vocation we should pursue in order to use our gifts to benefit others. Contrary to current perceptions pushed in the media of how Protestants view women, I was encouraged as a young woman to enter law school and pursue the law as a means of service. Sounds naive, but ignoring that aspect of Lutheran thought means these contemporary attempts to use the Reformation as a bulwark to remove belief entirely from the public sphere are hollow.

  14. Stavros K.

    “History is not a transparent window onto bygone times; it is an opaque antechamber to still-undetermined futures. For this reason, chartalists need to tell fresh and compelling stories about money’s complex political and social history. In the meantime, we must insist that if money is irreducible to market exchange, so too is its past. Otherwise, the fate of collective life will remain imprisoned in a dismal story that the Reformation scripted long ago.”

    This is the crux of the matter. We simply cannot just assume that the ‘histories’ of any period are veridical accounts by objective specialists which we can rely on ‘as they are’ (or pick and choose from as and when they confirm or disconfirm our pre-conceived notions) for our current purposes.

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