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'Charity and Usury: Jewish and Christian Lending in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy'

The AHRB Centre for the Study of Renaissance Elites and Court Cultures


'Charity and Usury: Jewish and Christian Lending in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy'

Professor Brian Pullan, University of Manchester

5.00 pm, 4 March 2003

The Auditorium, Manufacturing Engineering Department, University of Warwick

Shylock: He [Antonio] lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with is in Venice.
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1.3.42-3).

Shylock has become one of the icons of modern thought, touching a raw nerve in the European and American mind during the nineteenth century, and, increasingly, in the twentieth, in the fierce afterglow of the Holocaust.  At the outset of the story, when Shakespeare’s play was first performed, Shylock’s role as the Jewish moneylender of Venice stood out already as the most telling of its characterisations, leading to the designation of the play in the Stationers’ Register  (22 July 1598) as ‘a book of The Merchant of Venice or otherwise called The Jew of Venice’.

Professor Brian Pullan’s British Academy lecture, the annual Italian lecture for 2003, is hosted outside London at the Academy’s invitation by Warwick’s inter-disciplinary Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, a research centre incorporating the AHRB Centre for the Study of Renaissance Elites and Court Cultures.  The lecture takes as its title ‘Charity and Usury: Jewish and Christian Lending in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy’.

Professor Pullan begins by referring to Shylock, but rapidly sets the figure of the moneylender in a much wider social and ethical context, seeing the conflict between Jewish Shylock and Christian Antonio as ‘not just a conflict between individuals but a struggle between principles and, in early modern Italy, between rival institutions’.

The conflict Pullan discerns harks back to fifteenth-century Franciscan preachers such as Bernardino of Feltre who, claiming to champion the poor against oppression and injustice, sought to draw moneylending into the realm of Christian charity.  The Franciscans set up Christian pawn banks called Monti di Pietà, to help provide poor relief that did not depend solely on almsgiving, but which offered in addition small loans on easy terms, especially to the respectable poor who had goods to pledge.  Yet these institutions derived their practices from licensed Jewish banks, which the Franciscans condemned as falling under Biblical prohibitions of usury.

A bitter controversy arose, as Pullan shows, over the Monti, since they too were arguably subject to social and theological criticism.  Under various pressures, the Monti developed into institutions carrying out functions their founders did not envisage.  Questions now arise as to why the Jewish banks survived despite opposition and attack, and as to how they related to their Christian rivals.  What part did both institutions play in poor relief in early modern Italy, and how did they cope with illicit back-street lending, which remained active throughout the period?

The Merchant of Venice has proved one of the most finely balanced plays, morally speaking, in the Shakespearean repertoire.  Both Christians and Jews, like the rival banks, are open to adverse assessment.  The money economy of an early-modern city, characterised by entrepreneurship and risk, needed both Shylock’s way and Antonio’s way, though the relationship was unstable and potentially destructive.  Scholars have come to think that Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, as in other plays, offers a critique of contemporary values better informed by a knowledge of current Italian thought and practice than was previously assumed. 

Professor Pullan’s lecture, splendidly illuminating about a little-known set of tensions in the economic history of early modern Italy, has the added advantage of providing an intriguingly pertinent context within which to read an important and frequently controversial Shakespeare play.

Professor Pullan’s lecture, first delivered at the British Academy during February, takes place in the Auditorium, Manufacturing Engineering Centre, University of Warwick, at 5 o’clock on 4 March 2003, hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance.

For Professor Pullan’s summary of his talk, drawn on in this article, log on to the British Academy website.