Charity and Usury: Jewish and Christian Lending
in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy
Professor Brian Pullan FBA, University of Manchester
19 February 2003
‘He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.’
Thus Shylock, speaking of Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice. The quarrel between Christian merchant and Jewish moneylender was not just a conflict between individuals but a struggle between principles and, in early modern Italy, between rival institutions. In the fifteenth century Franciscan preachers such as Bernardino of Feltre, the self-styled champions of the poor against oppression and injustice, had tried to drag moneylending into the sphere of Christian charity. By establishing the Christian pawn banks called Monti di Pietà they helped to develop a system of poor relief which did not depend solely on almsgiving but also included small loans on easy terms. These were designed to tide customers over temporary crises, and were addressed to the genteel or respectable poor who had goods to pledge. They were adaptations of the licensed Jewish banks which the Franciscans condemned. This lecture will discuss the bitter controversy which surrounded the Monti, for they were themselves accused of conducting usurious transactions. It will try to show how the character of the Monti changed through time and how they came to perform functions never intended by their founders. It will also ask why the Jewish banks survived and how they related to their Christian rivals. It will attempt to assess the part which both institutions played in the systems of poor relief in early, modern Italy, and, where possible, to throw some light on the illicit, back street lending which neither type of bank could do away with.