Read Chapter XXXVI - Usury in history of Usury A Scriptural‚ Ethical and Economic View , free online book, by Calvin Elliott, on

It would require volumes to fully present the history of usury. A very brief summary must suffice in this place. Yet this synopsis may serve as a guide to those who may wish to pursue the investigation further and who have access to any considerable library of general and ecclesiastical history.

The exacting of usury has always been more or less practiced, and there has always been a contention against it as impolitic and wrong. In heathendom the philosophers and economists and common people were usually arrayed against it, and the voice of christendom has been practically unanimous in its denunciation until the 17th century.

Greece: Greece had no laws forbidding usury. The trade in money was left, like the trade in every thing else, without legal restraint. The law declared that the usurer should not demand a higher rate than that fixed by the original contract; it also advised “Let the usury on money be moderate.” One per cent. per month was the usual rate.

There were among the Greeks at various times thoughtful men, who violently opposed the taking of increase. Solon, of aristocratic blood, but with strong sympathies for the oppressed classes, led a Nehemiah-like reformation. Solon was wise and patriotic. His name is a synonym for unselfish devotion to the public good. He was given authority in Greece in times of great financial distress. Debts were increasing. Mortgage stones were erected at the borders of each tract of land, giving the name of the creditor and the amount of his claim. The interest could not be paid. Interest taking had concentrated the wealth and power of the state in a few hands. The farmer lost all hope and was only a laborer on the farm he once owned. The debtor who had no farm to work for his creditor was yet in a worse condition; he was the mere slave of his creditor and could be sold by him. The free farmers were fast disappearing. The most of them were struggling with miserable poverty. Solon at once came to the relief of this suffering class. He released those who were enslaved and brought back those who had been sold abroad. The great work of Solon for this oppressed class has caused his name to be revered by all who have studied the history of his times.

Plato opposed usury, but he does not give extended reasons. Also the philosopher, Aristotle. His name is yet illustrious in the departments of natural and moral science and economics. With regard to usury he said: “Of all modes of accumulation, the worst and most unnatural is interest. This is the utmost corruption of artificial degeneracy; standing in the same relation to commerce that commerce does to economy. By commerce money is perverted from the purpose of exchange to that of gain; still this gain is occasioned by the mutual transfer of different objects; but interest, by transferring merely the same object from one hand to another generates money from money, and the product thus generated is called offspring (toxos) as being precisely the same nature as that from which it proceeds.”

Rome: In the early ages of Rome there were no laws regulating the loans of money. The practice was common and was one of the most frequent subjects of popular complaint. In the celebrated secession of the lower classes of the people to Mons Sacer, when civil strife and fraternal bloodshed was threatened, the loudest outcry was against the oppression of exhorbitant interest exacted by wealthy citizens of those who were obliged to borrow. The common rate was twelve per cent. per annum. This is inferred from the fact that six per cent. was called half interest and three per cent. one-fourth interest.

The early records of Rome prove conclusively the odium attached to the business of money-lending for profit. In the codification of laws in the fifth century B.C. the rate of usury was fixed at one per cent. per month. This limitation of usury was enacted after a long and bitter contest between the rich lenders and the poorer classes.

A compromise seems to have been made in the assigned punishments. The laws for the collection of debts and the punishment of exacting more than the law permitted were alike extremely cruel.

The creditors of an insolvent debtor were given the power of cutting his body in pieces and the power of selling his children into slavery. The penalty of taking more than this legal interest was punished with more severity than theft. The thief must restore double, but the usurer must restore fourfold. This we learn from Cato’s treatise on “Agriculture.” Cato’s own opinion of usury is shown in the answer which he made when he was asked what he thought of usury, his reply was, “What do you think of murder?”

Nearly a hundred years later the Licinian law forbade all increase. A little later we find the one-half of one per cent. permitted by law. Then under Sylla the legal rate is made three per cent. In the time of Antony and Cleopatra it is four per cent. For a time there was utter confusion and intolerably oppressive rates prevailed. Horace, in his Satires, speaks of one lending at sixty per cent. In the reign of Tiberius Cæsar, Rome was again shaken with another usury sedition, an uprising of the people against the usurers. The law was finally adjusted in the Justinian Code, by a compromise permitting six per cent. and severely restraining the exorbitant rates.

Three hundred and twenty-three years B.C., Livy speaks of a creditor who kept his debtor in irons, claiming, besides the debt, the interest which he exacted with greatest severity. It was soon after decreed that this cruelty should end and that no citizen should be placed in irons or sold into slavery for debt.

At the close of the republic the rate was twenty-four per cent.

England: In the earliest periods of which we have any records we find that the doctrine, that letting money to hire was sinful, prevailed universally over the island of Great Britain. It was the prevailing opinion that interest, or usury, as it was then called, was unjust gain, forbidden by divine law, and which a good Christian could neither receive nor pay. In common law the practice of taking increase was classed among the lowest crimes against public morals. So odious was it among Christians that the practice was confined almost wholly to the Jews, who did not exact usury of Jews but of the Christians.

The laws of King Alfred, about 900 A.D., directed that the effects of money-lenders upon usury should be forfeited to the king, their lands to the lords under whom they were held, and they should not be buried in consecrated ground.

By the laws of Edward the Confessor, about 1050 A.D., the usurer forfeited all his property and was declared an outlaw and banished from England. In the reign of Henry II, about the close of the twelfth century, the estates of usurers were forfeited at their death and their children were disinherited.

His successor, Richard I, was yet more severe, forbidding the usurers attending his coronation, nor would he protect them from mob violence.

During the thirteenth century the severities against the usurers were not relaxed. King John confiscated their gathered wealth without scruple. It is recorded that he exacted an enormous fine of a Jew in Bristol for his usuries, and when the Jew refused to pay he ordered one of his teeth to be drawn daily until he should pay. The Jew is said to have endured the pulling of seven, but then weakened and paid the fine.

Henry III was equally harsh and severe in his measures. He exacted all he could and then turned them over to the Earl of Cornwall. “The one flayed and the other emboweled.” It is written in the chronicles of England, 1251 A.D., “By such usurers and licentious liurs as belong to him, the realme had alreadie become sore corrupted.”

In the fourteenth century, under the three Edwards, the taking of interest was an indictable offence and Edward III made it a capital crime.

In the fifteenth century, under Henry VII, the penalty was fixed at one hundred pounds and the penalty of the church added, which was excommunication.

Attorney General Noy, in the reign of James I, thought the taking of money by usury was no better than taking a man’s life. He said: “Usurers are well ranked with murderers.”

In the sixteenth century, under Henry VIII, it was enacted that all interest above ten per cent. was unlawful. Less was not collectable by law, but was not a punishable offence.

Edward VI revived the old laws condemning all interest.

Mary I, next following, executed these laws with extreme severity.

Elizabeth restored the laws of Henry VIII, in which usury less than ten per cent. was not a punishable offence. This edict of Elizabeth adds: “In the interpretation of the law it shall be largely and strongly construed for the repression of usury.”

This law of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, with the rate of interest reduced, was the statute law of England until 1854, when all the usury laws were repealed.

In 1694 William and Mary II entered into a contract to secure a permanent loan and pledged the kingdom to pay interest on it forever.

The loan marked the turning point in the popular mind with regard to usury. As it was approved in their necessity by the king and queen at the head of the Protestant world, ecclesiastics began to shift their ground and to apologize for, and excuse, that which had been formerly unequivocably condemned. As the crown was the head of both the church and the state, the condemnation of usury seemed tinged both with disloyalty and heresy. The courts too began to modify their decisions to bring them into harmony with the action of the crown.

The change in the usury laws were not made by enactments of Parliament, but by the decisions of courts. The precedents were gradually accumulated and the statutes were merely made to conform to them.