Green, V. H. H. (1952), Renaissance and Reformation: A Survey of European History between 1450 and 1660, London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 398-401, 17.

[Chapter Heading] Appendices



How far Protestantism affected and even caused capitalistic enterprise (1) has given rise to acute discussion and controversy among scholars. The German sociologist, Max Weber, asserted in his important The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-04: translated 1926) that the Protestant view of calling or ‘vocation (die Beruf) by way of allowing practices banned by Catholic teaching and so stimulating the ‘capitalist spirit’ encouraged capitalistic enterprise, for each man felt it his duty to God to apply all his talents to the particular activity or work to which he felt ‘called’. These arguments have been disputed and modified by successive writers. Amintore Farifani, like C. O'Brien in his An Essay on the Economic Effects of the Reformation (1923), vindicated the Roman Catholic position, basing his reply on a considered study of Thornist philosophy. He concluded: ‘Thus Protestantism appeared as the religious sanction of the free efforts of man to attain wealth... Protestantism only marked a further stage in the emancipation of human action from supernatural limits.’ (Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, Trans. 1935). Contrariwise H. M. Robertson in his Aspects of the Rise of Economic lndividualism (1933) held that Catholicism was as formative an influence in producing capitalism as Protestantism, and found the main explanation for contemporary capitalism (i.e. of the sixteenth century) in the rise of the national state and the effects of the geographical discoveries. His general argument was a welcome reply to those who had assumed that Calvinism was naturally sympathetic towards capitalistic enterprise; he showed that the 'economic zeal' of Calvinist countries owed little to religion and much to their geographical location. He writes, not wholly justly, that 'The Spaniards and Portuguese were content to exploit, without developing, the large areas which they had appropriated. But the French, the English and the Dutch had their enthusiasm roused’ (p. 187). It is his conclusion that ‘The [398 to 399] development of Protestant thought on usury was certainly no more significant than the development of Catholic thought on rent charges and threefold contracts, and on implicit contracts of which the legitimacy was secured by good intentions. The attempts at strict regulation of the economic life made by the Calvinist Churches were definite hindrances to capitalistic development and the spread of capitalistic ideas which formed a strong contrast to the comfortable and accommodating religion of the Jesuits’ (p. 160). But he based his study of the Jesuits on too many unscholarly witnesses like their redoubtable opponent the Bishop of Angelopolis, and his attempt to link them with the expansion of capitalistic enterprise was convincingly rebuffed by Fr. Brodrick, S.J., in his The Economic Morals of the Jesuits (1934).

The most distinguished popular product of this literary controversy remains R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, first published in 1926. Tawney adopted a modified version of Weber's view, holding that there was no necessary connection between the development of capitalism and Protestant teaching, but stressing that later Protestant teaching was particularly sympathetic towards the kind of economic initiative represented in a capitalistic society. 'If', he writes 'it is true that the Reformation released forces which were to act as a solvent of the traditional attitude of religious thought to social and economic issues, it did so without design, and against the intention of most reformers. In reality, however sensational the innovations in economic practice which accompanied the expansion of financial capitalism in the sixteenth century, the development of doctrine on the subject of economic ethics was continuous, and the more closely it is examined, the less foundation does there seem to be for the view that the stream plunged into vacancy over the precipice of the religious revolution. To think of the abdication of religion from its theoretical primacy over economic activity and social institutions as synchronizing with the revolt from Rome, is to antedate a movement which was not finally accomplished for another century and a half, and which owed as much to changes in economic and political organisation, as it did to developments in the sphere of religious thought' (p. 84-85). He concludes that among the numerous forces which had gone to form 'a new type of economic character' and 'a new system of economic organisation', 'some not inconsiderable part may reasonably be ascribed to the emphasis on the life of business enterprise as the appropriate field for Christian endeavour, and on the qualities needed for success in it, which were characteristic of Puritanism. These qualities, and the admiration of them, remained, when the religious reference, and [399 to 400] the restraints which it imposed, had weakened or disappeared' (p. 273).

The mass of facts and theories seem to point to certain definite conclusions:

(i) The late medieval age was certainly proto-capitalistic, in the sense that many of the characteristics of later capitalism could be found in its more developed societies, especially in the Italian and Netherlands clothing cities. What was new in the sixteenth century was the scale of such capitalistic enterprise, and the appearance of a wealthy bourgeoisie which took an increasingly important part as agents and collaborators of national monarchs.

(2) The medieval Church, following the teaching of Aristotle and the Fathers that pecunia non parit pecuniam, condemned usury and regarded the trader with suspicion, but there had always been ways and means of evading the canons, especially if risk was involved in the enterprise. (1) The teaching of later scholastics, including Gabriel Biel and Archbishop Antonino of Florence, was less stem, but no less condemnatory of unjust business activity.

(3) The Reformers’ teaching on the subject was conservative and Catholic. In a famous letter written to Claude de Sachins Calvin agreed that it was impossible to judge usury and interest by reference to Biblical texts which referred to conditions differing from those existing in the sixteenth century, but his approval of interest was so qualified that his position in the controversy was conservative rather than radical. Later Protestant theologians were almost as dogmatic as the Roman Catholic writers in their condemnation or qualified approval of business and business activities.

(4) Attempts to prove that Catholic moral theology, especially that of the Jesuits, favoured the capitalistic spirit have failed for lack of evidence.

(5) Yet it is undeniable (a) that there was a great increase in capitalistic enterprise, affecting both Catholics (e.g. German business houses) as well as Protestants, (b) that this activity was more noticeable in Protestant than in Catholic countries. It is probable that this was a historical and economic accident, arising in part out of the geographical discoveries.

(6) It is thus apparent that the Reformation did not cause, or even encourage, except incidentally, the development of capitalism; Protestants and Catholics remained very suspicious of unethical business enterprise, such as capitalism undoubtedly stimulated. [400 to 401]

(7) Nevertheless Protestantism (even more than Catholicism) may have done much, even in its early days, to stimulate efficiency and success in business, e.g. (a) the Calvinist doctrine of election could be interpreted to mean that the successful business man was one of the Elect and that conversely the poor man might be one of the Damned, (b) the emphasis which the Calvinist placed on work, thrift, sobriety, etc., tended to create the good workmen and good business men.

(8) By the eighteenth century popular Protestant theology had come round to the view that capitalistic enterprise was often linked with God’s prevailing grace, whereas the sacramental side of Catholic theory still tended to insist that all work was an instrument in God's hands. It has always been the fate of the Church to accommodate itself to the prevailing economic and political order. Catholicism had adapted itself to Feudalism. Catholicism and Protestantism both came to terms with the rising power of capitalism. It should be remembered that capitalism did not emerge as a dominant force until the nineteenth century. By that time religious sanctions had so weakened that the Church's approval was remembered after its significant moral qualifications had been largely forgotten.

Footnotes here as End Notes

Footnote Page 398 (1) Much of the argument in the discussion has turned on differing definitions of capitalism. I have used capitalism to mean both the emergence of a spirit favourable to largescale business enterprise, and more particularly as representing a society based on a money economy in which the employers own and control the means of production for the purpose of private profit.

Footnote Page 400 (1) See p. 17.

From Page 17 (including more than necessary):

[Chapter Heading] The medieval world-picture

...Broadly speaking medieval society was based on the land, whether royal domain, lord's manor, or newly-assarted acres. Although there were exceptions such land usually had a lord served by labourers, varying in status, who were, as the phrase went, ascriptus glebae, bound to the soil. This predominantly rural society was never completely static but it afforded a sort of economic stability. Lack of communications forced it to be more or less self-sufficient. Feudal obligations and ancient custom gave the peasant some prescriptive rights and imposed many burdens and services upon him. Although many serfs and villeins moved to the towns, the emigration was never on a scale big enough to upset the existing class structure.

The rise of industry and the development of trade and commerce, especially in the clothing towns of Italy and the Netherlands, threatened to overthrow this stratified society. The Church had indeed long evinced a deep distrust of the business man, more particularly of the usurer. In the early Middle Ages he was condemned without much qualification. (1) 'If covetousness is removed', wrote one of the early Fathers of the Church, 'there is no reason for gain, and if there is no reason of gain, there is no need of trade.' Summe periculosa est venditionis et emptionis negotiatio' wrote the schoolman, Henry of Ghent. 'Qui facit usuram vadit ad infernum', noted Benvenuto da Imola, but he added significantly, 'qui non facit vadit ad inopiam'. But who in the Middle Ages would not in theory have preferred temporary poverty to eternal damnation? [Page 17 continues]

Footnote Page 17 (1) It is worthwhile commenting on the qualifications. It was held that where interest was levied on a loan which had to be repaid, it was totally unjustified, but if there was risk of the money being lost interest was justified. Another distinction was made in favour of interest where there was some delay in the repayment of a loan lent for a short time free of interest, or where the lender could have made more profit from his money by engaging it in another venture. Medieval writers described these distinctions as damnum emergens or loss arising, and lucrurn cessans or gain prevented.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful