What was the attitude of people in Medieval Europe towards earning money, making a profit etc. I know that in some places Jews were well established as merchants because, from the point of the view of Christians, it was not moral to deal with money in speculative way.

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  • Many medieval lords and rulers were entrepreneurs - in ways favored by Medieval ideas - seeking to develop their lands and increase their incomes from them.
    – MAGolding
    Dec 3, 2017 at 3:41
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    @Mark C Wallace: after two large bank crashes in the last century with huge ramifications on the real economy I'm not sure that this suspicion is not altogether well-founded. Dec 3, 2017 at 12:13
  • Money, unlike goods is more frictionless, so it more easily leads to uses and abuses; when financial regulation and access to law was poor it's easy enough to suppose that lending at exorbitant rates is more likely; hence the outlawing of usury outright by both Christianity & Islam; it would be interesting to find out what the civic attitude was; but given the religious temper of the times it's more than likely that it was illegal. Dec 3, 2017 at 12:19
  • Much of the Medici's power was obtained through money lending as much as political maneuvering - usury was a sin, but financial profit was a complicated issue
    – user13123
    Dec 3, 2017 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


Peter Adamson's podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps recently did a summary of medieval thought on economics. I present a brief summary of this podcast episode; I'm not an expert on the subject, so any errors or oversimplifications below are almost assuredly mine and not Prof. Adamson's. He covers two main topics of interest to your question: merchants, and usury.

Profit-making via trade

As a background, Aristotle (in Politics) was disdainful of the notion of profit for profit's sake; he implicitly believed that all goods had an intrinsic value, and that exchanges that did not result in an exchange of equal intrinsic values were ethically suspect. Money was just a convenient method by which this intrinsic value could be measured, and the building of wealth was unnatural.

However, by the medieval era, there was a growing recognition that "market price" was different from an object's intrinsic value. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) and Henry of Ghent (1217–93) both accepted that a lack of supply of a good could lead a merchant to demand a higher price for that good, and that there was nothing ethically suspect about this. (Though Aquinas says it would be particularly noble if the merchant kept charging the customary price.) Many medieval European thinkers converged on the idea that money measured how "useful" an object was, either to the buyer & seller or to the community at large, rather than measuring its intrinsic worth.

A recognition of the concept of "added value" was also present in some medieval thinkers. Duns Scotus (1266?–1308) defended the right of a merchant to buy an object at one place and sell it for more money at a distant place, since the merchant has taken a risk and invested labor in transporting these objects.

All in all, medieval thinkers were generally of the opinion that there was nothing inherently unjust about money-making via trade, contrary to what Aristotle might have thought.


Usury was a trickier business. Renting objects, the providing of services, and usury also challenged the idea that value could attach only to material goods. In all of these exchanges, one party ends up with some extra money without losing anything of value themselves.

For this reason, Aristotle & church doctrine viewed usury as wicked. Medieval thinkers came up with some reasons why this was so. Aquinas echoed Aristotle in the view that it is inherently unjust to demand more back from someone than one has given them. Another view was that the usurer was selling time to the borrower (in some sense), but time does not belong to anyone.

Still, having a few money-lenders in your town did seem to be awfully useful, and a few medieval thinkers came up with ideas about money-lending that are closer to the view we have today. Durandus of Saint-Pourçin (1275?–1332) recognized the utility of money-lending but viewed it as an unseemly business, and suggested that the state should do it instead. Gerardus Odonis (1285–1349) recognized that the usurer is giving up more than just money; they are also taking a risk that it won't be repaid, and losing the use of the money for the period of the loan. However, he justified the ban on usury on the grounds that the borrower was in some sense being compelled to pay costs beyond the money that was being lent, and this compulsion was unfair.

So in general, while medieval thinkers were beginning to recognize that that usury could make an economy function more smoothly, it was still viewed with distaste at best.


tl;dr - if you read nothing else, listen to Mike Duncan's revolutions.; won't directly answer your question, but it will address many of the false premises underlying the question.

Difficult to get much traction on this question because it is based on several false premises.

First, medieval man did not consider money to be wealth - read Ricardo. According to Ricardo, wealth is land, labor and capital; in the medieval era, 90% of wealth was land and labor - and the two were effectively inseparable. The difference between the feudal economy and the capitalist economy is largely around this distinction - that in the feudal economy, capital's effects are severely limited by the availability of land and labor, which land and labor are not effectively limited by a lack of capital.

Second, the portion of racism directed against Jews due to their wealth was first and foremost simple fear of the other. Underlying that hatred was the fact that Christians and Moslems were forbidden to practice usury. Usury was ill understood. Simply put, they were simple people and they refused to accept that if you borrow money, you have to pay back the loan. (I know people like this today; there is probably nothing more consistent in the human character than the notion that "inconvenient for me" is inextricably tied to "Evil". These two points reinforce one another - if borrowing money is evil, then saving money is foolish. In the absence of investments and capital markets, there is very little reason to save money and many reasons to avoid saving money. In a pre-capitalist economy, all money should be spent as soon as possible on a socially valuable outcome.

What is a socially valuable outcome? Today it is fashionable for hipsters to denigrate our modern materialist culture - there are any number of quips about the evils of money and banks and wall street. More than half of those people survived to the age where they can spew that idiotic bile because of the consequence of capital market. Think about the people you know, then adjust that circle on the assumption that 90% of pregnancies will not come to term, and 50% of the women who lie down to give birth die in the effort. (so if a woman has four children, her chance of surviving in the medieval era is 0.5*05.*05.*05; she is 94% likely to be dead. I don't recall the number of children who survive, but from memory it is something like 50% die before they are 1 and another 50% before they hit puberty. But the birth control pills, modern obstetrics and health care that result in all those people surviving long enough to complain about materialism is ignored. One more example - up until WWI, it was pretty certain that the world would starve to death; then someone invented fertilizer. in 1890, 90% of American labor was devoted to farm labor; in 1910, 10% of labor was farm labor. (Drawing a blank on the source's name now - George Mason economist). People will argue my statistics, but nobody sane (modern Marxists are not sane, so I'm safe), will argue that any of these things would have been possible in a feudal economy; feudalism simply doesn't permit capital deepening.

Finally, I think the premise that medieval man though about money is flawed. In the Medieval world, there were three classes:

  • Those who pray
  • Those who fight
  • Those who work

Mmerchants were quite literally weren't important enough to include in the list. I don't know the % of the European economy involved in commerce in the medieval world (If you do, please note in comments), but I'd bet it was less than 1%. I think this is covered in Mike Duncan's excellent podcast

Those who prayed wanted money to advance salvation - to endow religious services, endow religious institutions, to sponsor works of art that glorified God, to propagate the faith, to perform acts of charity and to carry out the mission of those who pray. Money was a tool to an end. Salvation was important; money was merely a tool to accomplish the end.

Those who fought wanted decent arms, decent armor, good horses, logistics, allies and all the other things that led to victory in war. The goal wasn't to accumulate wealth per se - it was to ensure that you, your family, and your feudal obligations were safe and had enough to ensure that the next generation was safe and secure.

Those who worked were, by and large, unaware of money. They paid their taxes in kind, and most of them never held a shilling. They were probably deeply suspicious of anyone who could rub two shillings together - because such people were different, and all humans know that "different" is merely a synonym for "evil". Good people are like us; different people are evil. Some of the men are Jews, some of them are Muslims, some of them are people from a different village, some of them are people who open their egg from the opposite end that we do. The only way to be safe is to kill anyone different from you, and if you can't kill them, flee from them.

People didn't hate Jews because they had money; they hated Jews because humans hate anyone who is different. The fact that Christians were forbidden to practice usury meant that people who practiced usury were not Christians; they are different, and ipso facto, baby eating villains.

They did hate Jews because Jews wanted to collect on the money that was owed them - see earlier hyperbole - those who remind me of things that inconvenient to me bathe in blood.

Tongue in cheek, but I hope I've offered enough resources for you to find some more coherent answers.

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