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Working paper 439

John H. Munro, "Usury, Calvinism, and Credit in Protestant England: from the Sixteenth Century to the Industrial Revolution", 2011-06-28
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Abstract: This study analyses the impact of Protestantism on interest rates in England from the 16th century to the Industrial Revolution. One of many myths about the usury doctrine - the prohibition against demanding anything above the principal in a loan (mutuum) - is that it ceased to be observed in Reformation Europe. As several authors have demonstrated, however, early Protestant Reformers, beginning with Luther, had essentially endorsed the long established Scholastic usury doctrines. The one major exception was Jean Calvin. Though retaining a strong hostility against usury, he permitted interest on commercial loans, while forbidding usury on charitable loans to the needy. That view may have been partly responsible for a crucially important breach in civil support of the usury doctrine. The first, in 1540, was an imperial ordinance for the Habsburg Netherlands permitting interest payments up to 12%, but only for commercial loans. In England, Henry VIII's Parliament of 1545 enacted a statute permitting interest payments up to 10% (on all loans); any higher rates constituted usury. But, in 1552, a hostile Parliament, with radical Protestants, revoked that statute, and revived it only under Elizabeth, in 1571. Since the maximum rate was also taken to be the minimum, subsequent Parliaments, seeking to foster trade, reduced that rate: to 8% in 1624, to 6% in 1651 (ratified 1660-61), and to 5% in 1713: a rate maintained until the abolition of the usury laws in 1854.

The consequences of legalizing interest payments, but with ever lower maximum rates, had a far-reaching impact on the English economy, from the 16th century to the Industrial Revolution. The first lay in finally permitting the discounting of commercial bills. Even if medieval bills of exchange had permitted merchants to disguise interest payments in exchange rates, the usury doctrine nevertheless required that they be non-negotiable, held until maturity, since discounting would have revealed the implicit interest. Evidence for the Low Countries and England demonstrates that discounting, with legal transfers either by bearer bills or by endorsement, with full negotiability, began and became widespread only after the legalization of interest payments in both countries. The importance for Great Britain can be seen in the primary role of its banks during the Industrial Revolution: in discounting commercial bills, foreign and domestic, in order to finance most of the working capital needs for both industry and commerce.

The second is known as the Financial Revolution; and its late introduction into England, from 1693, was in part due to the limits imposed on interest rates. In its final form (1757), it meant the establishment of permanent, funded, national debt based not on the sale of interest-bearing bonds but on perpetual annuities or rentes. The origins can be found in 13th-century northern France and the Low Countries in reaction to the vigorous intensification of the anti-usury campaign by the new mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. Fearing for their mortal souls, many merchants refused to make loans and chose to finance town governments instead by purchasing municipal rentes (annuities). In 1250, Pope Innocent IV ruled that no usury was involved, because those buying rentes could never demand redemptions. Instead, they were licitly purchasing future streams of income. Continuing debates were not finally resolved until the issue of three 15th-century papal bulls (supporting Innocent IV). By the 16th century, the finances of most western Europe states had become largely dependent on selling both life and perpetual annuities.

England was thus a late-comer, in importing this system of public finance. Fully immune to the usury laws, this Financial Revolution permitted the English/British governments to reduce borrowing costs from 14% in 1693 to just 3% in 1757, so that the British economy could finance both 'guns and butter', without crowding out private investments. Furthermore, since these annuities (Consols) were traded internationally on both the London and Amsterdam stock exchanges, they were a popular form of secure investments, which became, with land, the most widely-used collateral in borrowing for the fixed capital needs of the Industrial Revolution.

Keywords: usury, interest, annuities, bonds, public finance, bills of exchange, discounting, Scholastics, Old and New Testaments, Calvin, Luther, Protestant Reformers, Dissenters, Financial Revolution, England

JEL Classification: B11; G18; G28; H30; N13; N23; N43; N94