Bacon's essays: Of Usury

Usurer with a tearful woman, 1654, Gabriël Metsue

Of Usury is a hard one! Not just the Latin, of which there is an abundance; also the shifts in meanings of words having to do with financial dealings. And my general ignorance about financial stuff. Ah, well! We can but soldier on, with the aid of our friend Richard Whateley.

Rude words about money-lenders

Bacon gives us a few choice examples: “[T]he usurer is the greatest Sabbath-breaker, because his plough goeth every Sunday.” “That the usurer breaketh the first law, that was made for mankind after the fall, which was, in sudore vultus tui comedes panem tuum (in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread); not, in sudore vultus alieni (in the sweat of another’s face.)”

“That it is against nature for money to beget money.” I wonder at this one. What else would money beget?

But usury is necessary, Bacon rightly observes, so why fuss? “[U]sury is a concessum propter duritiem cordis (a concession on account of hardness of heart); for since there must be borrowing and lending, and men are so hard of heart, as they will not lend freely, usury must be permitted.”

Given the realities of the world we live in, let us take usury as a given and spend our time more fruitfully laying forth its advantages (commodities) and disadvantages (discommodities.)

The discommodities of usury

“First, that it makes fewer merchants. For were it not for this lazy trade of usury, money would not be still, but would in great part be employed upon merchandizing (trading); which is the vena porta (great vein) of wealth in a state.” 

A merchant, possibly from Venice

I don’t understand this. Don’t usurers (banks, nowadays) lend money so that merchants can engage in more trade? Like, buy more stuff to sell somewhere else? Maybe Bacon means that usurers would spend their money on trade, instead of lazily lending it out to others.

“The second, that it makes poor merchants. For, as a farmer cannot husband his ground so well, if he sit at a great rent; so the merchant cannot drive his trade so well, if he sit at great usury.”

This one I understand: paying interest on loans takes a big bite out of your income.

“The third is incident to the other two; and that is the decay of customs of kings or states, which ebb or flow, with merchandizing.” I guess he means that usury inhibits trade among nations?

“The fourth, that it bringeth the treasure of a realm, or state, into a few hands. For the usurer being at certainties, and others at uncertainties, at the end of the game, most of the money will be in the box; and ever a state flourisheth, when wealth is more equally spread.”

That’s the money quote for me: “ever a state flourisheth, when wealth is more equally spread.” We’re living in a time of great concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, with disastrous consequences for nations and peoples. I’m surprised to see Bacon expressing this clear statement, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. He may have loved money, or rather the luxuries money buys, but he could see the negative effects of great disparities of wealth clearly in his own time.

“The fifth, that it beats down the price of land; for the employment of money, is chiefly either merchandizing or purchasing; and usury waylays both.”

The Prison Scene — A Rake’s Progress. (Debtor’s prison) 1732, William Hogarth.

Uh… do interest rates interact with real estate prices? I suppose they do… buyers and sellers do better with lower rates, I think. I’m really not the person to be explaining financial matters.

“The sixth, that it doth dull and damp all industries, improvements, and new inventions, wherein money would be stirring, if it were not for this slug.”

We seem to think the opposite way. We rely on venture capitalists – money lenders – to provide capital for the launching of new enterprises.

“The last, that it is the canker and ruin of many men’s estates; which, in process of time, breeds a public poverty.” Interest payments can bring a person down, that’s for sure, especially at the lower end of the economic scale where the interest rates are the highest. You can never get out of debt, because you can’t get past the interest payments.

The commodities of usury

“[F]irst, that howsoever usury in some respect hindereth merchandizing, yet in some other it advanceth it; for it is certain that the greatest part of trade is driven by young merchants, upon borrowing at interest; so as if the usurer either call in, or keep back, his money, there will ensue, presently, a great stand of trade.”

That’s the way we see it. You have to be able to borrow money in order to go into business, but we don’t want those interest rates getting out of control.

The moneychanger and his wife, 1538, Marinus van Reymerswaele

“The second is, that were it not for this easy borrowing upon interest, men’s necessities would draw upon them a most sudden undoing; in that they would be forced to sell their means (be it lands or goods) far under foot; and so, whereas usury doth but gnaw upon them, bad markets would swallow them quite up.”

Again, still true. If you couldn’t borrow, you’d have to put your principle assets at risk, like your house. Losing that would ruin you. You couldn’t risk it, so you wouldn’t do the business thing you had in mind. But professional money lenders can sustain that loss as part of their normal costs of doing business.

“The third and last is, that it is a vanity to conceive, that there would be ordinary borrowing without profit; and it is impossible to conceive, the number of inconveniences that will ensue, if borrowing be cramped. Therefore to speak of the abolishing of usury is idle. All states have ever had it, in one kind or rate, or other. So as that opinion must be sent to Utopia.”

Get over it, Bacon says. We need money-lending, everyone everywhere always has, so stop railing about these simple facts of life. I really like that last expression: send that opinion to Utopia!

Utopia? Happy Arcadia, 1889, Konstantin Makovsky.


The reiglement of usury

I’ve never seen that word before, but it’s easy enough to guess it’s meaning: regulation.

Three grotesque old men with awful teeth. Engraving by T. Sandars after J. Collier, 1773.

“It appears, by the balance of commodities and discommodities of usury, two things are to be reconciled. The one, that the tooth of usury be grinded, that it bite not too much; the other, that there be left open a means, to invite moneyed men to lend to the merchants, for the continuing and quickening of trade.”

This is the main job of our modern Federal Reserve Bank, isn’t it? Regulating interest rates so that they stimulate the economy by making it easy enough to borrow what you need while providing a fair profit to the money lenders. That’s my simple-minded view anyway.

Bacon proposes a two-tier system: “That there be two rates of usury: the one free, and general for all; the other under license only, to certain persons, and in certain places of merchandizing.”

By ‘free’ he doesn’t mean ‘without charge.’ I think he means, ‘accessible to everyone.’

Then he gets into specific numbers, leaving me in the dust. He must have dealt with such numbers, especially with respect to real estate transactions, all the time as a lawyer. Then as now, who owes what to whom is a big part of legal disputes.

“This will, in good part, raise the price of land, because land purchased at sixteen years’ purchase will yield six in the hundred, and somewhat more; whereas this rate of interest, yields but five.”

Here I am, in that dust again.

“Secondly, let there be certain persons licensed, to lend to known merchants, upon usury at a higher rate…” I think he’s proposing that the state allow an unlimited number of licensed money-lenders in principal cities only, allowing them to lend money at a higher rate to a certain class of established merchants.” Prime, sub-prime?

Jesus casting out the money changers at the temple, 1800s, Carl Bloch.

Here’s a longish paragraph of specifics that I just can’t face. Sorry, y’all. He’s basically proposing some degree of state involvement in the money-lending business, at least to the extent of establishing a tier of interest rates for specified classes of borrowers and thereby in some sense authorizing specified classes of lenders.

“If it be objected that this doth in a sort authorize usury, which before, was in some places but permissive; the answer is, that it is better to mitigate usury, by declaration, than to suffer it to rage, by connivance.”

Does this mean the state officially approves the heinous act of usury? Well, yes. And get over it, Bacon says, which we have. In our time, we don’t even debate the validity of the whole idea of usury (charging interest for loans). It’s an essential thread in the fabric of our economic lives.

On bias in biographies

There’s no such thing as an objective biography, not even of someone as well-studied as Francis Bacon. Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, British biographers turned against their subjects, especially when the subjects had been lauded by Victorian or Edwardian biographers. These modern works express their disgust for the Elizabethan-ness of their subjects at every turn. Every act is seen as purely self-serving, cynical, and craven. They use the words “anxious” and “anxiety” a lot in ascribing motive or emotional states, conditions rarely documented in the historical record and therefore absolutely and only a matter of authorial interpretation.

It’s ok for me to do that; I’m a novelist. But biographers purport to be expounders of historical truth.

The supposedly self-serving Bacon

Francis Bacon, 1617, by Paul Van Somer I (1576/78 – 1622). I’ll grant you he looks a little anxious here. He generally seemed to dislike having his portrait painted – though he kept doing it.

My ire is most often raised on this account by the well-written, well-researched, yet biased biography of Francis Bacon by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, Hostage to Fortune (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.) I’ve whinged about this book before, but here I am again, checking on what Francis was up to in 1590-91 for Let Slip the Dogs (June, 2018), and arguing with every  paragraph.

For instance, on pages 123-124, they tell us about Bacon’s advice letter about the religious controversies stirred up on the left – radical Protestants – by Martin Marprelate. (This is the setting for my third Bacon mystery, Publish and Perish.) Bacon wrote an eloquently balanced Advertisement in which he chided both the established church and the reformists for their extreme responses to one another.

The Advertisement was never published, but many copies remain, so it must have been widely circulated. It was certainly well-regarded. It was so well received, in fact, that over time, both sides used it to support their positions.

This happens to Francis Bacon a lot, over the centuries. I would say it happens thanks to his gift for being able to see above and beyond the immediate fray to larger principles and more important consequences. His exceptional temperament and intelligence allowed him to understand both sides without being the partisan of either. I see his balance as praiseworthy, in other words.

Jardine and Stewart see it as form of cowardice. “Francis Bacon’s desire to tread the via media in his argument [in the Advertisement] may simply have been due to his customary anxiety to offend no party who might ultimately be useful to him for preferment.”

See the difference? The fact is that Bacon wrote an article about religious controversy in which he pointed out the faults of both sides with some sympathy for each. More facts are that later works were published by partisans on each of the two conflicting sides citing Bacon’s moderate work in support of their views. Whether Bacon’s moderation was laudable rationality or fearful self-preservation is a matter of interpretation.

Anxiety and the Renaissance man

Here’s another example of the kind of thing that causes me to throw books across the room (mentally; we don’t want to scare the dog.) This is from Anna Beer’s lame biography of Bess Throckmorton, My Just Desire (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.) Ms. Beers doesn’t like Sir Walter Ralegh at all, mainly because he’s a man, I think, but also because he’s a famous man who has been admired by stupid people for Far Too Long.

Bess Throckmorton Ralegh, ca. 1600, Robert Peake the Elder (ca. 1551-1619). She’s about 35 in this portrait, the age Ralegh was when they were married.

Sir Walter and Bess Throckmorton began a secret affair sometime before the summer 1591, when she was 26 and he was 37. We know it started before that, because Bess fell pregnant in late June. Sir Walter was the Queen’s favorite at this time. Bess was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. The affair would be considered a personal betrayal of the Queen’s trust for both parties. It was madly reckless, in other words. They must both have been possessed by an unquenchable lust!

Beer tries to paint Bess as a victim, which my style of feminism considers outrageous. Sure, Bess had fewer options in life than Sir Walter Ralegh and that’s not fair, by modern standards. But by the standards of Bess’s time and probably Bess herself, it was just the way the world works. She caught the Queen’s Favorite, let us not forget, in spite of not having any money or property whatsoever. The clothes she stood up in, a few pieces of furniture, and that was all. She was 26 and not yet married with no offers on the table, as far as we know.

Anyway, we’re in the part where the couple are getting secretly married, probably in November, 1591, trying to beat the stork while keeping it all secret for as long as possible. Beer wonders how Bess could hide her pregnancy for so long, though I think you could pack a lot of belly underneath a well-tailored farthingale.

Beer also wonders what attracted Bess to Sir Walter, having evidently never seen one of his many portraits. The guy was a babe! Plus he was very tall, plus he was the Queen’s Favorite, smarter than most people in that high-IQ court, braver than your average bear, high energy, witty, and oh yeah — rich. All the Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber must have been angling for a little one-on-one time with Sir Walter!

Poor restless Ralegh!

Beer writes, “Ralegh’s money, however, did not make him any more settled in himself, or less anxious [italics mine] about possible threats to his position. Always busy, he continued to move restlessly from one part of the country to another and abroad, in September alone proceeding from Cornwall, to court in London, and then to Ireland.”

Sir Walter and son, ca. 1602, Artist unknown. Sir Walter’s about 46 here. Queen Elizabeth is still alive, but the writing is on the wall: he’ll be losing her protection someday soon. Does this look anxious to you?

See that scare word, “anxious?” Anxiety plays no part in my characterization of this extraordinary man. Narcissism does; you have be damn confident to put yourself in a little wooden ark and sail off across the sea in search of a new England. And there’s no greatness without narcissism.

But anxious? That’s a diminishing word, a belittling word. A strong person is concerned, aware, interested, involved; a weak person is anxious, fretful, worried.

Ralegh didn’t move “restlessly” from one place to another at that time in his life. He moved purposefully. The Queen had granted him 40,000 acres of land in Ireland after his participation in suppressing the Desmond Rebellions (viewed positively by his peers in his time.) She had also made him Warden of the Stannaries (tin mines), Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Admiral for both Cornwall and Devon. He was hugely admired by the people of those counties in his time and was the go-to guy for disputes between ship owners, captains, and crews. The man had work to do; that’s why he moved around. He was an important man at the top of his game — not anxious!

So you’re thinking, “Jeeps, Anna; over-sensitive much?” Perhaps, perhaps. These are only two examples, presented in exquisite detail here, but the general trend is repeated and reinforced on every page of these biographies. It’s a constant drip of disdain and disapproval for the biographical subject, teaching us, the readers, to despise the said subject and regard him as a selfish, cynical, manipulator. I object as a novelist to the cheap and shallow characterizations and I object as a scholar to the relentless editorializing unsupported by the documentary evidence.

‘Nuff said.

Just for fun, here are the ruins of a tin mine in Cornwall. Lovely! I’d leave the court to take breaks out here too.


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