Christ and the money changers
In the first century, Christ cast the moneylenders out of the Temple, but they gradually arose again during the thirteenth century, which created economic panic among the peasants.
For example, the French town of Villefrance wrote to King Philip IV in the thirteenth century, saying that moneylenders “are absolutely and utterly destroying the town and district.”
The moneylenders throughout the Middle Ages were involved in exploiting the peasants, and thus were hated. Even philo-Semitic historians such as James Parkes admitted that this was the case, where interest rates ranged between 22 and 173 percent.
Similar exorbitant interest rates were widespread throughout medieval England and France. The people behind all of this of course were Jewish moneylenders. During that period, the word “Judaize” took a radical meaning.
Historian W. C. Jordan declared that it meant “to act like an outsider, to regard others not as brothers but under a different set of rules that permitted forms of exploitation that were forbidden to the circle of brothers and friends.”
Jordan also observed that in the thirteenth century Jews in general “never successfully integrated themselves into the local society. They were always conceived as strangers involved in a business that was both extortionate and perverse.”
This was part of the anti-Jewish reaction of that period, for Jewish authorities “suggested that charging interest to gentiles is a religious obligation for Jews.” As a result of exorbitant interest rates,
“many ecclesiastical institutions went bankrupt and were closed down as a result of debts owed to Jews.”
The moneylenders did not suddenly disappear in the early centuries. They evolved into usurious bankers and settled in private institutions which later controlled the ins and outs of nations.
Usurious contracts, which the Bank of England, the Bank of France, the Bank of Italy, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Canada, and the Federal Reserve have used since their inceptions, cannot be ruled out as a cause of the economic collapse.
This again is why serious Western thinkers through the ages saw usury as immoral. Usurious contracts certainly could not exist without “capitalism,” which makes greed, avarice, and many of the vices that early Church Fathers warn about legitimate.
As we have already seen in previous articles, in a usurious society, Mammon always comes first. From a Christian point of view, people have always come first, and using God’s gifts and talents for the benefit of all mankind should always be the ultimate goal.
It is for this purpose that in the seventeenth century many in the Catholic Church were motivated to help the Indians both spiritually and economically. As an alternative to the colonized thought of early Europeans which drove many of the Indians away from the Gospel, many took the path of self-denial and love that Christ had taught His followers.
As a result, a tremendous shift happened both in the economic and spiritual lives of the Indians. This was an alternative to the greed and avarice which capitalism made sophistically legitimate.
The Christian principle of self-denial got its chance in the monasteries right after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was based on the principle Christ told a rich young ruler.
“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
From this the Catholic Church deduced that priests or bishops ought to follow Christ rather than wealth, which can become a powerful stumbling block.
Hence, the monasteries were dedicated for people who would follow the principle of not only self-denial, celibacy, and obedience, but would also abstain from worldly attractions such as wealth.
Celibacy was important because “those who did not marry did not need money to support their families, nor did they need the autonomy necessary to use that money wisely as heads of households.” As E. Michael Jones points out,
“The monasteries became wealthy in the mundane sense by ignoring wealth. The individual monks renounced money, but their labors produced enormous wealth for the monasteries. The wealth grew over generations because the monks did not have children or the expenses they require.
“More importantly, their lands were not constantly divided as children inherited the land from their father. The monks who had turned their backs on wealth ended up living lives of wealth, and wealth led to moral decay. The enemies of the Gospel used that moral decay to justify their attack on a supernatural way of life deeply repugnant to the carnal mind.
“Christ told his followers that those who live according to the Gospel will elicit hatred from the carnal; the monasteries were no exception…Wealth can promote its own decline. Carnal clerics fuel resentment and oftentimes the very resentment their own immoral behavior has fostered in others.”
Monasticism became the religious institution that sought to restore balance in pagan societies after the fall of the Roman Empire. Monks were not only interested in prayer and fasting, but in saving a vast strata of life during the Middle Ages.
In fact, had it not been for their laborious work, Europe as we know it would have been a by-gone continent after the fall of the Roman Empire.Cambridge Medieval historian Christopher N. L. Brooke acknowledges,
“The monastic library, along with the cathedral library, became the repository that ensured the survival of some part of the legacy of ancient literature.”
Other leading scholars in this field, such as the late David Herlihy, have made similar remarks. The academic and intellectual life, according to Brooke, began with Cassiodorus, who lived between 485-580 A.D. and who took a great effort to transmit Greek works into the West.
“His library was the last really massive collection of books that the ancient world produced….
“In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when learning revived for good and all, his scheme provided one of the chief foundations for the reintegration of learning, sacred and profane, of Roman literary science and Christian theological science based on the study of the Bible.
“Cassiodorus was one of the most distinguished of a group of men who tried to gather in encyclopedic form the best of ancient learning before the failure of education and the barbarian onslaught destroyed it.”
In addition, throughout the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, monks were highly trained in the scholarly world. Monks also participated in saving what knowledge was left about almost every aspect of life, including agricultural life.
Those monks knew that they were working primarily for the glory of God, and as such they took some of the most “difficult and unattractive” jobs, such as working in swamps, which used to be considered not only a low occupation but “sources of pestilence.”
One of the primary reasons again was that civilization must reflect God’s creation and beauty.
The Benedictine Rule emphasized that monks were obligated to participate not only in worship and contemplation, but also had the responsibility of doing manual work. Benedict declared,
“Idleness is the soul’s enemy, and so at certain times the brothers ought to be engaged in manual work, and again at certain times in spiritual reading.”
The work hours were varied, but on several occasions they would consist of more than twelve hours—from 2 am until 6:30. In general, a typical day for monks “was given to labor, reading, teaching, hospital work, charity, and rest.”
In 1197, when a famine hit a particular place in Europe, 1,500 people were taken care of; one monk remembered that they helped “all the poor who came to us.” During the same crisis,
“A Cistercian abbey in Westphalia slaughtered all its flocks and herds, and pawned its books and sacred vessels, to feed the poor.
“Through their own labor and that of their serfs, the monks built abbeys, churches, and cathedrals, farmed great manors, subdued marshes and jungles to tillage, practiced a hundred handicrafts, and brewed excellent wines and ales.”
In the process of time, “they managed to dike and drain the swamp and turn what had once been a source of disease and filth into fertile agricultural land.”
This was so impressive that nineteenth-century historian Comte de Montalembert admitted,
“It is impossible to forget the use they made of so many vast districts, uncultivated and uninhabited, covered with forests or surrounded by marshes.”
In a nutshell, the monks “taught metallurgy, introduced new crops, copied ancient texts, preserved literacy, pioneered in technology, invented champagne, improved the European landscape, provided for wanderers of every stripe, and looked after the lost and shipwrecked.”
From villages to villages, cities to cities, and countries to countries, monks followed the same method of industry, and thanks to them, Western civilization was restored during the Middle Ages; by that time, the works of art, biography, and history had began to shape Western culture and later set the backdrop for the scientific revolution and the progress in abolishing slavery.
The monks’ contributions to Western civilization were not limited to agricultural life and farming; they also restored the education that was largely destroyed by the barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Universities, within a few centuries, got built. That monks constituted a central part in preserving a large section of Western civilization has been acknowledged even by some historians who were not sympathetic to monastic life. And all of this was done for the glory of God and for the benefit of His creatures and creation. By the Middle Ages, as philosopher of science David C. Lindberg puts it,
“the church was one of the major patrons—perhaps the major patron—of scientific learning.”
A proper survey of monks’ contributions to Western civilization has been lacking in works written by a number of writers and historians of some repute. Maurice Keen in The Penguin History of Medieval Europe tells us that logic in particular “was uncongenial to the religious, reflective cast of monastic thought. It was not a subject to which the fathers or Holy Writ devoted much attention.”
Within two sentences and with no historical depth and balance, the works of Aquinas, Athanasius, Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, St. Anselm, among others who laid the intellectual foundations of Christendom, were dismissed! However, historian David Herlihy, who was one of the leading scholars in this field, tells us quite the opposite. He writes,
“Christian writers, and the tradition of Christian theology they developed, were instrumental in preserving at least in part classical rhetoric and logic—the fruits of the ordered intellect of antiquity.”
Had it not been for the Church, according to Herlihy, the art of rhetoric, philosophy, and “orderly thought” would not have been preserved into the Middle Ages.
Jewish historian Norman F. Cantor agrees that the Benedictines “were the pioneers in whatever rudiments of agrarian science the early Middle Ages possessed,” yet he goes on to indicate that they got their power from monopolizing others.
In Cantor’s view, their powers increased “as a result of the monastic monopoly of learning.” Congruent with this view is the popular idea that the Church got rich in the Middle Ages because it plundered the wealth of others for its own gain. Moreover, the Church allied with the state primarily for political and lucrative reasons.
There are other historians, however, who try to be fair and honest about the Middle Ages. George Homes in his quite balanced work The Oxford History of Medieval Europe tells us that there were many who converted “for political and financial backing,” but he also acknowledges that
“the Church had scored notable successes in establishing a Christian view of kingship, in setting up enduring centres of education and learning, in moving toward standardization of usages and, most important of all, promoting itself as a distinct elite corporation whose institutional and sacramental structure was intended to lead man to salvation.”
Judith Bennett of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in her widely read college textbook Medieval Europe: A Short History, tells us that Benedictine monks and nuns
“controlled the main repositories of learning, producing most of the scholars of the age and preserving many texts that would otherwise have been forever lost. They were eager vessels of missionary activity, spearheading the penetration of Christianity into the forests of modern-day Germany and later into Scandinavia, Poland, and Hungary.
“They produced scribes to record the business of lay courts, advisers to princes, and candidates for high ecclesiastical offices.
And as recipients of numerous gifts of land from pious donors, they held and managed large estates, some of which were models of intelligent agricultural organization and technological innovation.”
Bennett does not raise the theological plausibility that monks and nuns acquired that much power because they sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (and this is perfectly understandable), and as such they were trusted with worldly goods which could not affect their souls and which they largely used for the glory of God.
In a message to me, Bennett conceded the point that she focuses on “the worldly intrusions that disrupted and guided monastic life that I underplay its spiritual motivations and benefits—both for monastics and for the laypeople for whom they prayed.”
Previously, Bennett likened some of the activities in the monasteries to universities, and stated that there was a “need in secular society for the skills that could be acquired only in monastic schools.”
Bennett continues to declare that as a result of their dedication, hard work, and the wealth they accumulated through that, Benedictine monks and nuns “had an enormous impact on the world they renounced.”
This of course is consistent with the teaching that Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 6:33, and which monks and nuns in general tried to apply. The only historian who was unashamedly fair on this particular issue was Will Durant.
After the monasteries trained monks and nuns to seek first the kingdom of God, “In the course of time the growing wealth of the communities overflowed into the monasteries, and the generosity of the people financed the occasional luxury of the monks.”
Yet monks, like all other humans, were not immune to worldly temptations.
“Morals fall as riches rise, and nature will out according to men’s means. In any large group certain individuals will be found whose instincts are stronger than their vows. While the majority of monks remained reasonably loyal to their rule, a minority took an easier view toward the world and the flesh.”
John William Draper
What we have been told for more than fifty years by a number of writers is that monks not only drew Europe to backwardness but stopped Western civilization from progressing. In addition, science reputedly moved backward during the Middle Ages and beyond because Christianity was out of touch with scientific enterprise.
This widely held view was popularized by John William Draper in his 1874 book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. Draper’s thesis got refined a little by Andrew Dickson White in his 1896 book A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.
Yet those ideas were shown to be demonstrably and hopelessly false. By the end of the twentieth century, the White thesis was completely abandoned by a vast majority of historians of science and intellectuals precisely because it was inadequate and unnecessary.
Historian of science Ronald L. Numbers calls it “the greatest myth in the history of science,” a myth that people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins still hold.
As celebrated historian of science Edward Grant argues in his magnum opus Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus, the Middle Ages in particular were not “a time of ignorance” but “a period of striking innovation.”
Yet the idea that science is in conflict with Christianity has survived in popular books by the “New Atheists.”And, like Charles Darwin before him, White did not write his book on the basis of the sciences.