To be a merchant in the Middle Ages, one needed to know how to write and count. Mastery of foreign languages was beneficial. But perhaps most important was an aptitude for theology. Although trade increased exponentially between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the Catholic Church remained ambivalent about mercantile principles such as profit, not to mention the temptations of luxury. To be successful, a merchant had to apply metaphysical hairsplitting to the practical affairs of business.
A spectacular new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum offers an introduction to Medieval entrepreneurship that is historically informative and also relevant to the present because many of the financial instruments underlying our economy originated in Medieval Europe. A richly-illustrated catalogue provides a scholarly basis for appreciating the artifacts on display, which range from coins and coffers to the illuminated manuscripts that J. Pierpont Morgan hoarded in the mansion that is the site of this exhibition.
To see the precarious position of Medieval merchants in Catholic Europe, take a look at their portraits, which traders started to commission in the manner of princes as they rose to positions of prominence. An early 16th century painting by Jan Gossart is especially striking. The merchant’s sumptuous clothing shows off his affluence, but, in contrast to portraits of royalty, he is not depicted in a state of idleness. The merchant is writing in a ledger, signifying that his profit derives from hard work. This is more than just advertisement of his literacy. Gossart shows that the merchant toils as all people have been compelled to do since their banishment from the Garden of Eden in punishment for Adam and Eve’s original sin.
Another important detail is the merchant’s coin scale, a motif seen in portrait paintings and manuscript illuminations throughout the exhibition. As in the present, scales were associated with equity in the past. Merchants had multiple reasons why they required these apparatus, ranging from the challenge of determining the value of unfamiliar currencies to the need to determine whether a gold coin had been trimmed by an unscrupulous moneychanger. Although weights and measures were in the merchant’s self-interest, their public display suggested that the merchant sought fairness for everyone and balanced society through trade. By tending to people’s “natural needs” – to borrow a phrase that Thomas Aquinas used to justify profit in certain circumstances – the merchant did good work for which he deserved compensation just as compensation was due to farmers and tradesmen.
There was a dark underside to these theological theatrics. The Christian virtue-signaling of Catholic merchants
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