Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University. His latest books are Social Movements (Routledge) and Understanding Political Violence (OUP).

Selling Hermes' sandals at zero risk

The history of entrepreneurs is tormented and eventful, in a sense reflecting the rough existence of merchants and traders before them. Their activities can be studied as a succession of breakthroughs which, initially condemned, slowly gained acceptance within the prevailing sensibility of the time. In the Middle Ages the list of officially proscribed activities included all trades which were not aimed at the collective wellbeing. Prohibited above all was commerce conducted lucri causa, that is for the sake of pure personal gain. On Sundays, opera servilia, servile occupations, were also prohibited, except when devoted to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and thus to God.

A distinction was in operation between overtly illicit and sinful activities, such as prostitution and usury, and those lesser vilia officia (vile occupations) that were met with contempt because they infringed taboos. Definitely vile were butchers, innkeepers, jesters, minstrels, wizards, alchemists, physicians, surgeons and notaries. Jacques Le Goff provides a longer, still not exhaustive list which, he notes, would include all medieval trades: "fullers, weavers, saddlers, dyers, confectioners, shoemakers, gardeners, decorators, barbers, fishermen, childminders, land wardens, customs guards, exchange brokers, dressmakers, perfumers, tripe sellers, millers".

Many of these prohibitions derived from taboos inherited from primitive societies. The taboo of blood was directed against butchers, surgeons, barbers and bleeders, but also professional soldiers. In the Middle Ages our societies, bloodthirsty though they may have been, seemed to oscillate between delight and horror for the bloodshed they provoked. The taboo of impurity and dirt addressed fullers and dyers but also cooks. This aversion can be found even in St Thomas Aquinas, who located dishwashers at the bottom of the occupational hierarchy for their incessant contact with filth.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the taboo of money played a major part in the resistance of a society rooted in a natural economy to the invasion of fiscal rule. Merchants were despised for their horrid relationship with money and for the professional sin of their trade: avarice. The condemnation of usurers was also prompted by their infringement of Christ's precept of fraternity among humans (or at least among Christians) wherein the act of lending need not imply hopes of restitution: inde nihil sperantes.

Two important aspects in the work of merchants made them contemptible. It was held that Christians must emulate God, whose Creation should inform their daily work: thus peasants create crops while artisans transform matter into tools and objects. Merchants, however, do not create or transform anything, abstract value being the single aim of their dealings. The earnings of merchants and usurers also rely on the exploitation of time, their goods and finances being valorized through deferral. This is a sacrilege: time belongs to God.

Though despised around AD 1000, some traders occupied a high rank by the time of the Renaissance. Usury, for example, was able to move freely in the Christian conscience once the invention of Purgatory made it a venial and redeemable sin. Christians were thus able to save both their money and their (eternal) lives.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.



Issue 11 £5.20

Back Issues £5.20 to £14.50

Visit shop