This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.
Who may mint money?1 So asks the so-called “last of the scholastics,” Gabriel Biel (d. 1495). When I was asked to join a symposium on “political economy,” I had trouble knowing where to begin. By its very definition, this field covers immense ground. It “studies the relationships between individuals and society and between markets and the state, using a diverse set of tools and methods drawn largely from economics, political science, a sociology.”2 In other words, we are dealing with a broad scope, wrestling with an innumerable and complicated set of factors. Sometimes, when thus overwhelmed, it is best to cut to the heart of the issue, as Biel did. Here, then, I would like to pursue a Lacanian point de capiton, a quilting point, that central stitch where what is added on meets what is essential. Our topic is the political economy of liberalism; our points of contact: money and property.
I have chosen Biel’s question (and we will get to his answer momentarily) on account of a sidebar in a recent article by Prof. D.C. Schindler, of the John Paul II Institute. He asks: “What is Liberalism?” He begins with a fascinating account of liberal thought as the process whereby the classical primacy of action is superseded by potentia (power/potential). His central claim—that Catholic Christianity, by its own account, is an ontological and anthropological truth claim and not just an opinion competing in the marketplace of ideas—cuts through so much of what is irksome and unhelpful in contemporary debates about “integralism” and its discontents. And then we come to this:
William of Ockham is a fascinating figure in this context, because the two intellectual shifts mentioned, namely, nominalism and spiritualism, happen to converge in him. The history of Christianity is not unfamiliar with radical eschatological movements, absolutizing the “prophetic” dimension of the gospel, the apocalyptic, and so forth. What makes this late medieval moment so portentous is that the apocalyptic spirit acquires what we might call effective political force by virtue of a re-conception of the very nature of God, and so the nature of power. It is not an accident that William of Ockham happens to be one of the earliest “architects” of the “proto-liberal” separation of Church and State in terms of juxtaposed spheres of jurisdiction.3
Here began my dubia. This is, in essence, the claim made by Richard Weaver some 70 years ago, one relying on an idealistic conception of history, in which ideas act on ideas to produce ideas that, eventually, produce changes in the material world (in fact, Schindler later goes on to blame modern philosophical materialism on this strain descending from/through Ockham). Earlier, however, he confesses that “we do not at all mean to suggest that the metaphysical and theological dimensions we hope to identify suffice on their own to account for liberalism.”4 My argument here is in agreement with this point: such a view does not suffice. Precisely what it misses, the material, must be accounted for in this picture to even make adequate sense of this supposed “theological core.” Schindler goes on to link Gabriel Biel to Martin Luther, and thus to this tradition of nascent liberalism. We will follow him there and discover a rather different scholastic along the way.
Mutans monetam in damnum rei publicæ
Gabriel Biel was an Ockhamite; in fact, his magnum opus, from which both my main title and 2 of 3 sub-headings derive, is a commentary not on the famous Sentences of Peter Lombard, but on Ockham’s commentary on that text.5 Luther, it is true, drew his early theological knowledge from reading Biel’s work. By 1517, however, he would turn on his former guide, seeing in him the rot of scholasticism.6 We remember Biel for more than his erstwhile epigone though; he is considered by many to be both the last scholastic and the first modern theorist of money, such that his work is often included in collections on the history of political economy. Schindler’s slippage thus brought me to my point de capiton. In Biel, we have all the relevant factors: Ockhamism, a moment of great historical change, and the material world as expressed in the universally equivalent commodity (money).
Ironically, despite Biel’s dedication to his master, the latter three books of Biel’s Collectorium deal with topics that Ockham’s commentary left only fragmentary at his death. He had to turn to other sources to find his way. This is the case with the fourth book, which concerns, in part, the question of money. Who, then, does Biel draw from? The answer is, overwhelmingly, moral theorists with a legal bent. In our era, that might make sense: Cass Sunstein and Adrien Vermeule are (in certain circles anyway) household names. In Biel’s work, however, this was odd. The basics of medieval monetary theory had their roots in the Etymologiæ of Isidore of Seville. From there, it branched in two directions. On the one hand, there existed the tradition with which some readers may be familiar: that of Aristotle, which concerned itself with the philosophy of oikos, typically as mediated by figures like Averroës, Thomas Aquinas, and Henry of Ghent. On the other, one had the legal tradition stemming from both canonical and civil jurisprudence starting from the 12th century or so. Biel avoids both of these (at least in terms of direct citation), drawing almost entirely on the tradition of civil jurisprudence as mediated by three men: Nicolas Oresme (d. 1382). Antoninus of Florence (d. 1459), and Angelo Carletti di Chivasso, (d. 1495). None of these men were lawyers, though each had written on what we might call the morality of money and its impact on society, that is, what under Locke and the Physiocrats would become political economy. They synthesized a set of legal traditions as expressed by Innocent IV (d. 1254), Henry of Segusio (d. 1271), John Andreae (d. 1348), and Nicolò of Tudeschi (d. 1445), but did so in such a way that emphasized the anthropological questions around coinage and exchange.7
Let us not get lost in the weeds of source criticism, but rather the weeds of the text itself. The point is clear enough: where does this framework take Biel? He obsesses over four concepts, using them to anchor his entire analysis in Distinctio 15, Quæstio 9: property, sovereignty, the public good, and harm reduction. For example, in Dubium 1, which opens with the question I have taken as my title, Biel answers: “only the prince, that is the emperor, and no other without the prince’s permission [may mint money]. . . Since money (as mentioned above), was created and instituted for the good of the community, it is proper that it be forged by him, by whom the commonwealth [‘the commons’] must be ruled.”8 Money, in this account, belongs to the community it serves. The sovereign marks the coin to demonstrate his authority as the supreme member of the group: “Such a one, thus, is the prince or he who has authority from the prince. It is, moreover, allowed to forge his image or mark his name on money; nevertheless, on account of this, and with the money scattered among the people, it is not his, nor is he the owner of this currency circulating in his dominion.”9
In fact, on Biel’s account, the people own all money because it descends from the “natural fortunes” (naturales divitiæ), meaning the commodities and labor that “equal” (æquivalens) the “medium of exchange” (medium permutandi).10 Thus, the value of currency is defined by human need and any inflation or deflation of its worth detached from this reality is tyranny. He cites an example—with reference to Hostiensis and Panormitanus (Henry of Segusio and Nicolò of Tudeschi respectively), though mediated by his favorite moralistic compilers—of a person who buys up an entire harvest crop and then sells it at an arbitrary price. This fails to account for human need and causes damage to the community (quod est contra iustitiam), “which certainly would be most unjust and tyrannical.”11
There are, however, situations in which the sovereign may, for example, debase or otherwise change the coinage. In most cases, per Biel, this is entirely unacceptable, except—you guessed it—when such would redound to the benefit of the community. Such a shift in value is warranted “in defense of the nation” (pro defensione rei publicæ) and “in paying ransom for the prince” (pro redemptione principis).12 While the second example may sound a bit outmoded, we should recall that the leader of the people is, on Biel’s reading, their ownership over money and property as instantiated in an individual; he is their representative, that is, their sovereign in the Hobbesian sense. Thus, the public good is served by his being ransomed, because such would indeed benefit the entire community. In both cases, the sovereign’s powers are limited, and yet, it is precisely when his role as head of the communal good is threatened that the people’s ownership over money (and by extension, over property) is superseded.
The key term in his entire discourse on money is “injustice” (iniustitia). The word and its opposite (iustitia, or “justice”) come up throughout Quæstio 9, representing the damage done to either an individual or the community in the abstract when money or goods become the object of tampering by either the sovereign or a private citizen. Profit derived from such injustice is tyranny. Hence, we see that Biel’s concern with currency stems primarily from a desire to define and circumscribe rightful potentia such that harm to the true owner of all things, the people, is reduced to a minimum.
This makes sense in light of the particular contexts of his primary sources. Oresme’s De Moneta, for example, was written against the backdrop of John II of France’s debasing of coinage.13 His treatise draws heavily on the work of Jean Buridan, who wrote during a similar time.14 These were practical questions for these men and even more so for Biel, who lived in a time when the alteration of currency was common—including in the regions where he lived.15
We should not be mistaken, however: Biel produced a commentary, not a political pamphlet, even if we have taken the time to draw out some of its ramifications. This discussion of monetary policy appears, in fact, in a section devoted to penitence! Changes to currency come up only because they relate to “falseness” (falsitas), a sin that may be expressed, according to Biel, in four ways. We needn’t tarry with those four, except to say that three of them cause harm to others and thus must be investigated.16 He asks: what sorts of falseness demand restitution before absolution? Everything we have discussed so far is an aside, an analysis buried within an analysis, within a commentary, on a quarter-finished commentary on a commentary on the Scriptures. No wonder he is called the last scholastic!
This may at first sound like it is to Schindler’s point: here we have pernicious liberal Ockhamism birthing itself in the realm of high theology. I see things differently. Biel’s monetary musings are but half-baked, a glancing attempt to make sense of an issue close to him within a framework that can only get him so far. His concerns are those we will later find in early liberals and political economists like Hobbes and Locke—true enough. But they are not yet ready; they grasp at a world not yet made real, not yet linked by international trade or the means of war that make colonialism possible. Biel’s sovereign is still a feudal prince—a man whose monetary policy can only be evaluated in terms of the literal, material weight of coins. His concerns are not even based on Ockham (who left this part of his commentary unfinished at his death); they reflect the systematizing and completionist impulses of a moribund scholasticism. What we have here is a whisper of what was to come, a mere sigh with two feet in the old world, passing along nascent concerns to a future age whose reality would be ready for the final form of such still germinal claims. Biel is our link, the copula between the pre-modern and the modern. No wonder he enjoyed such fame as a monetary theorist until “the early modern era,” that is, the beginning of the 17th century.17
Solus princeps, id est imperator
Now we will leap to a time when the world could take some of these ideas and make them real in a way we are still coping with today.18 At first, it may seem like I am guilty of the idealism I have thus far critiqued: daintily leaping from one chosen moment to the next, pirouetting on each specially chosen historical example I lead you to. That is not what I intend. Instead, I invite you to consider how much the world changed between the late-15th century and 1789 (our next historical stop-off). The dynamics are innumerable, but to mention only a few: the printing press, paper money, the divine right of kings, long-distance sailing ships, and effective guns. Each of these, in their way, defines the shift from Biel’s world to that of Napoleon. What the former could merely whisper, the latter (and those before him) could bring about as actuated potentialities. Worry not—money, and by extension, property—remain our themes. The world of 1789 looked not totally unlike Biel’s; by 1850, it would look very different indeed.
When the French Revolution began, feudalism (and there is a complicated term!) was already dying.19 Rafe Blaufarb summarizes this better than I could hope to:
The men of 1789 understood what they were doing as part of a wider European movement toward the destruction of the feudal order. They were well aware of the other countries that had already begun this process. England had abolished feudal land tenure during its Civil War, but had left intact the non-feudal instances of the tenurial system—and they were many. After independence, the United States had gone farther, abolishing most (although not all) forms of proprietary tenure. On the European continent, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany had achieved the gradual, compensated abolition of most feudal dues in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the Kingdom of Piedmont was in the midst of a similar operation when the French Revolution occurred.20
We must, in other words, recognize that feudal notions of property were already a problem for “modern people” prior to the revolution. We may experience history as a series of events, but those events are linked—even if centuries lie between them. Thus, in Ancien Régime France, property looked more like it did in Biel’s time than it does today. It primarily existed in two forms: venal offices and seigneuries. The former were public offices sold to private individuals, often as a way to accrue power and prestige. These could be guild masterships, clerical positions, and any number of other small municipal offices. In the 18th century, for example, Aix-en-Provence alone had roughly 200 venal offices of high power or prestige.21 The state could always generate more of them too, as it did in that same city, forcing those with existing positions to buy new ones, thus funding public expenditures out of thin air. This could become comically absurd, as, for instance, with venal offices concerning pork. Those who held existing positions had to buy up newly-invented ones in 1704 (“sworn seller of pork” and “visitor of swine”) and 1707 (“sworn inspector of pork” and “controller of hogs”).22 It is worth noting that, while this practice had its roots in the medieval period, its immense scope and role as a backbone of fiscal policy were relatively recent; such a centralizing reach would have been unthinkable in Biel’s day.23
Seigneuries were connected, at least theoretically, to land, though their real and technical purpose was the administration of justice over a particular jurisdiction. If you had the money and wanted to move up in the world, you might purchase a barony or another marquisate, granting you a certain set of privileges over the people within its boundaries, with the specifics depending on the office. Often this would mean the power to control and administer local courts and to affect municipal elections, among many other things.24 So, for example, Gabrielle-Charlotte de Gautier de Girenton, who controlled the fief of Cuges from 1772-1812, tried to exercise many rights that now sound deranged. She pushed for a monopoly on olive-pressing and bread-baking, control of the villagers’ wood-gathering activities in the local forest, exclusive access to the communal wash basin on specific days, the regulation of violin playing in the village, various tax exemptions, power over charitable bequests to the poor, and supervision of the elected municipal council.25 The power of a seigneurie could thus mean petty tyranny.
Even worse, these offices could be broken up virtually ad infinitum, such that different people could be the lord or lady of a place on any given day of the year.26 The Crown sat atop all this confusion, arguing for its sovereignty over all of these positions, which it then handed out to help fund its activities. In the abstract, such power was absolute; in reality, it was mediated a million times over by a hopelessly complex notion of “property.” One could, after all, “own” justice in a particular place on a particular day of the year.
The revolutionaries desired to remedy this situation with a system of (as the Napoleonic Code calls it) “absolute property,” meaning what we have now: individual supreme ownership over a given place or thing.27 Thus, former Church and crown lands would be sold by the government to private individuals, helping to pay off war debts and to more generally legitimize the new state. They, in other words, saw such an individuated and absolute conception of property as a sine qua non of a liberal order. The old ways were but relics; true freedom was only possible once public justice was not privately administered. Further, such a theory of ownership establishes (in theory) legal equality between persons. If everyone can own land, and the (impartial) state mediates between each individual owner, all are the same in the eyes of the law. Such is the advent of much of what we take for granted: the distinction between public and private, between the social and the political, as well as between sovereignty and ownership.
We seem far from Biel now, no? And yet, we are not. By 1789, the revolution of property was to be a legal one, finding its culmination in the Napoleonic Code of 1804. This was only possible because of how old-fashioned the feudal refractions of power had become, not merely in France but across Europe (even in states still ruled by kings and princes!). In Biel’s time, such was unthinkable, and certainly not conceivable within the bounds of a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on Scripture. For him, money (and by extension property, since currency belongs to the public) is but a side note, though one he explores fruitfully within the bounds available to him. The only sovereign there could be was the likeness impressed upon a coin. Still, he is thinking in terms neither simply nominalist nor simply liberal: his is a moment of transition. By contrast, what Blaufarb’s book makes clear is that the Europe of the late-18th century was cognizant of the absurdity of the existing property regime. They too believed, at some level, what we have read above: “Mutans monetam in damnum rei publicæ.” And yet, they saw that the only answer could be a total reevaluation of the res publica through a reinvention of the entirety of moneta, or, if you prefer, possessiones. The hustle and bustle of those intervening centuries: therein lies the story of liberalism. Each incremental change, each invention, each redefinition, brings us from Biel to the infamous Weltgeist on horseback. Here, we have but interrogated the bookends.
Karl Marx, though perhaps now most famous for his youthful Manifesto, did his most serious thinking in Capital, subtitled “A Critique of Political Economy.” It is a “critique” of our topic insofar as it takes all those who came before (from Locke and Smith to the Physiocrats and more) and subjects their analyses to materialist interrogation. It takes the wheat and leaves the chaff. While Marx was concerned with “capitalism” and we are concerned here with “liberalism,” my mission has, for all intents and purposes, been the same (though substantially narrower in scope). What is “capitalism,” after all, but the political economy of liberalism? One could substitute it throughout this piece and little would change.
My goal here has thus been twofold. First and most simply, we cannot attempt to make sense of “political economy” without direct reference to material changes (including changes in technology, yes, but more than that in the banalities of life: money, property, and rights). Professor Schindler’s piece, while well argued and right at points, pulls us away from this understanding. I would pull us back: to get to know how our world came to be through its most potent symbols and the real-world objects that underlay them. My second purpose goes beyond this preliminary question. Can people not once again buy and administer justice? Who could deny that many a citizen, though formally equal, has power over others that would have made Louis XIV jealous? Partly, this is a product of changes in technology and the forms of organization thus made possible. But it is more than that: it is the failure of liberalism, its fully becoming its own supposed opposite. To think about the political economy of a wide-ranging tradition like liberalism is to interrogate how it has failed in this moment—and, by extension, the sorts of futures that such failures make possible. Who is our Biel? Who will be our Robespierre? Our Napoleon? The owl of Minerva, after all, takes flight only at twilight.
1. Gabriel Biel, Collectiorum circa quattuor libros Sententiarum, 220.127.116.11.1, p. 185. My translation. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted. My thanks to Nikolas Churik for help in getting the tone of this translation right.
2. “Political Economy,” Encyclopædia Britannica.
3. D.C. Schindler, “What is Liberalism?,” NewPolity.
5. “The altering of currency [is] damage to the state” (my translation). Biel, 18.104.22.168.2, p. 180.
6. Stefan Kötz, “The Last Scholastic on Money: Gabriel Biel’s Monetary Theory,” Money in the Western Legal Tradition: Middle Ages to Bretton Woods, ed. David Fox and Wolfgang Ernst. (Oxford), 2016, 71-89: 72.
7. Ibid, 80.
8. Biel, 22.214.171.124.1, pp. 185-186. “[S]olus princeps, id est imperator, et nemo alius sine concessione principis. . . Quia cum moneta (ut praemissum est) inventa est et instituta pro bono communitatis, congruum est, ut ab eo fabricetur, a quo regenda est communitas.” My thanks once again to Nikolas Churik for help with this translation.
9. Biel, 126.96.36.199.1, p. 186. “Talis autem est princeps aut qui a principe habet auctoritatem. Licet autem principis sit fabricare ac sua imagine ac nomine signare monetam, tamen propter hoc moneta dispersa in populum non est sua, nec ipse est dominus monetae currentis in suo principatu.”
10. All quotes in this sentence are from Ibid. Translations are from Kötz, 78.
11. Biel, 188.8.131.52.1, p. 186. A more literal translation here is “because it is contrary to justice.” Also, “Quae utique esset iniustissima et tyrannica.”
12. Ibid., 184.108.40.206.2, p. 187.
13. Kötz, 87.
15. Ibid, 88.
16. Ibid, 74.
17. Ibid, 89.
18. See n.7 for translation and context.
19. Whether or not a singular thing called “feudalism” existed has mostly been resolved in the negative. Still, the term is useful in moments like these, where all it need mean is “a set of complicated and overlapping modes of allegiance and ownership having their roots in the European early middle ages.”
20. Rafe Blaufarb, The Great Demarcation: The French Revolution and the Invention of Modern Property. (Oxford University Press, 2016), 8. Much of this section is indebted to Blaufarb’s excellent work in this book.
21. Ibid, 6.
23. Ibid, 2.
24. Ibid, 2-3.
25. Ibid, 7.
26. Ibid, 3.
Featured image: The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600) by Carvaggio via Wikimedia Commons.
Chase Padusniak is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in late-medieval mysticism and urban political culture. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.