Tonight, we’re pick up our adventures into economics and usury with a few chapters from Dr. E. Michael Jones’ opus, Barren Metal—specifically, chapters eighteen through twenty. The massive tome heretofore covered the economic history of Florentine Italy during the Renaissance. For those of you who played the Assassin’s Creed games, the region, setting, and key players should ring some bells, though the historical absurdity on display with Ubisoft’s illiterate team of storytellers remains wonderfully absent.
The Dominican Friar Savonarola, a key player in much of the events leading up to this point in the book, has found his earthly luck run out. Pope Alexander VI—perhaps better known to popular history as Rodrigo de Borja—has had enough of Savonarola’s reactionary preaching, penchant for prophecies, and altruistic extremism. It was under Savonarola’s guidance that the Florentine state and people managed to give Lorenzo de Medici the boot and institute an elitist republic; the debaucheries of Lorenzo’s circuses, such as Carnival, the Bonfire of the Vanities, and the accompanying rampant spread of sodomy and pederasty among the merchant and elite classes of Florence were stopped dead in their tracks.
When his luck ran out, however, it ran out quickly. He was imprisoned, tortured, and forced into confessing to have invented the prophecies which had stirred up so much trouble in Florence. He, along with several of his confidants, were hanged, burned, and had their ashes scattered into the Arno in order to prevent the collection of artifacts for reverence. Nonetheless, Savonarola, despite some popular depictions of him in contemporary media, remains a powerful figure for good who preached against institutional corruption, sexual misbehavior, and usury.
His establishment of a Florentine monte di pieta, in fact, proved to be one of his most lasting achievements. Dr. Jones spends the greater part of a previous chapter explaining the purpose and function of monte di pieta; essentially, they were charity-run pawn shops which extended loans in exchange for property at zero or near-zero interest. This is in contrast to the standard interest rates for loans at the time which were frequently around or well above forty or fifty percent. The existence of monte de pieta, which were run by the Florentine government itself, helped maintain the working and subsistence classes who often had only barely enough wages to survive the years. Meanwhile, as he explains, it also served as an addendum to the Florentine treasury, so long as it wasn’t pilfered or misused.
From this epilogue to his history of the finances of Florence and the grand drama involving Catholic extremists, the Medici, the Borgia, and common human vice, Dr. Jones turns his attention to north-central Europe: the Holy Roman Empire and, specifically, the Fugger family. We will return to the Fuggers in a while, but in the meantime, Dr. Jones addresses the economical differences of Florentine Italy with Germanic Austria, and in particular, the degree to which guilds influenced, regulated, and decided the economy.
There’s a longer post buried in this information, but the important parts can be found in Barren Metal. Essentially, the guilds existed to protect the dignity and importance of labor, which remains the foundation upon which wealth can even be conceived, much less created. Dr. Jones explains how the Hellenic conception of labor was skewed in antiquity due to the presence of slavery, which contorted labor into an unpleasant endeavor from which no man could derive satisfaction or fulfillment; any self-respecting man of Rome could only pour the labor of his person into intellectual affairs, since labor of the ground and the hands remained the work of slaves.
This should get you thinking, particularly about the position of labor in the contemporary culture. Who do the elites push as those we should hold the most reverence for? What are we told, from childhood, that we need to get in order to succeed in life? What sort of work is discouraged, or ignored, or caricatured as ignorant, futile, and idiotic?