Public Discourse: Max Weber Was Wrong - Samuel Greg
... Second, the empirical evidence disproving Weber’s connection between Protestantism and the emergence of capitalism is considerable. Even Catholic critics of modern capitalism have had to concede that “the commercial spirit” preceded the Reformation by at least two hundred years. From the eleventh century onward, the words Deus enim et proficuum (“For God and Profit”) began to appear in the ledgers of Italian and Flemish merchants. This was not a medieval version of some type of prosperity gospel. Rather, it symbolized just how naturally intertwined were the realms of faith and commerce throughout the world of medieval Europe. The pursuit of profit, trade, and commercial success dominated the life of the city-states of medieval and Renaissance Northern Italy and the towns of Flanders, not to mention the Venetian republic that exerted tremendous influence on merchant activity throughout the Mediterranean long before 1517.
Since Weber’s time, much scholarly work has been done to illustrate the advanced state of market-driven economic development in the Middle Ages. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Belgian scholar Raymond de Roover penned numerous articles illustrating that, during the Middle Ages, financial transactions and banking started to take on the degree of sophistication that is commonplace today. Likewise, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, by the Italian-American historian of medieval European economic history, the late Robert S. Lopez, shattered the historical claims that formed much of the background of Weber’s argument. Lopez demonstrated in great detail the way in which the Middle Ages “created the indispensable material and moral conditions for a thousand years of virtually uninterrupted growth.”
In recent decades, the historians Edwin Hunt and James Murray have illustrated just how much the medieval period was characterized by remarkable innovation in methods of business organization. They also suggest that the advent of modernity actually heralded the expansion of state economic intervention and regulation in an effort to constrain economic freedom. In a similar fashion, the sociologist Rodney Stark has gathered together disparate sources of historical and economic analysis to illustrate the origins of capitalism and major breakthroughs in the theory and practice of wealth creation in the medieval period. Central to Stark’s analysis is his highlighting of the way pre-Reformation Western Christianity saw the world as one in which humans were called upon to use their reason and innate creativity to develop its resources—including economically.
Here one could add that, before Adam Smith, some of the most elaborate thinking about the nature of contracts, free markets, interest, wages, and banking that developed after the Reformation was articulated in the writings of Spanish Catholic scholastic thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria OP, Martín de Azpilcueta, Juan de Mariana SJ, and Tomás de Mercado OP, anticipated many of the claims made by Smith two centuries later.
To be sure, much of this thinking occurred by way of side-effect rather than as a result of the systematic analysis undertaken by Smith. For as commercial relationships expanded throughout Europe in the centuries preceding and following the Reformation, there was a marked increase in the number of penitents asking their confessors for guidance about moral questions with a strong economic dimension. What was the just price? When was a person no longer obliged to adhere to a contract? When was charging interest legitimate? When did it become usurious? As a result, priests looked to theologians for guidance on how to respond to their penitents’ questions. Thus, as Jürg Niehans stressed in his History of Economic Theory:
The scholastics thus found it necessary to descend from theology into the everyday world of economic reality, of early capitalism, foreign trade, monopoly, banking, foreign exchange and public finance. What one knew about these things in the School of Salamanca was hardly less than Adam Smith knew two hundred years later, and more than most students know today.
Even when we consider modern capitalism’s emergence, a direct connection between this event and Protestantism is very open to question. ...
This is a really excellent piece on the history of capitalism.