286. On the Money: Medieval Economic Theory

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Changing ideas about money, just price, and usury, up to the time of Buridan, Oresme, and Gregory of Rimaini.



Further Reading

• C. Johnson (trans.), The De Moneta of Nicholas Oresme and English Mint Documents (London: 1956).


• B. Gordon, Economic Analysis Before Adam Smith (London: 1975).

• J. Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: 1998).

• J. Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages (New York: 1990).

• O. Langholm, Economics in the Medieval Schools (Leiden: 1992).

• P. Souffrin and A.P. Segonds (eds), Nicolas Oresme: Tradition et innovation chez un intellectuel du XVIe siècle (Paris: 179-93).

• D. Wood, Medieval Economic Thought (Cambridge: 2004).


mehmet on 8 October 2017

What happened to "Concepts

What happened to "Concepts and Mental Language" and "Angels in Medieval Philosophy"?? Are we skipping them??

In reply to by mehmet

Peter Adamson on 9 October 2017

What happened to...

Wow, you're paying close attention! Well, the concepts and mental language episode got sort of swallowed up in the series on Ockham and others - as you may have guessed, given how much I said about it then. Angels however is still coming up! Not far off now, it will be 289 (already written and recorded).

In reply to by Peter Adamson

mehmet on 11 October 2017

".......Wow, you're paying

".......Wow, you're paying close attention!...."  You bet!!  I listen every episode with four-ears (as we say in turkish), as I learn so much from them..

I felt sorry for the "swallowing up" of the "mental language" episode. I have a general difficulty in understanding nominalism, and look forward for every additional scrap of information.. But, anyways..  At least we still have angles with us!!

Thomas Mirus on 8 October 2017

Mutual inequality

Aristotle's judgment that exchange of goods implies that the goods exchanged are equally valuable may seem like common sense - that is what makes it a fallacy rather than a regular ol' theoretical error. If the goods were equal in value, why would anyone bother making an exchange? It turns out that rather than implying equality, the voluntary exchange of goods actually requires that their values are mutually unequal - that is, I value what I am getting more than what I am giving you, and you value what you are getting more than what you are giving me. Thus, prices do not *measure* value but *express* it.

Rafaël Jafferali on 9 September 2018

Roman law on sale

Hello, I would like to make an observation on your account of Roman law. At 08:19, you mention that the buyer is allowed to seek a legal redress if he were sold something for less than half of the true value.

This rule, known as the question of laeso enormis, is based on C., 4, 44, 2 : "Rem maioris pretii si tu vel pater tuus minoris pretii, distraxit, humanum est, ut vel pretium te restituente emptoribus fundum venditum recipias auctoritate intercedente iudicis, vel, si emptor elegerit, quod deest iusto pretio recipies. Minus autem pretium esse videtur, si nec dimidia pars veri pretii soluta sit"

As results from the text, the legal remedy is granted to the seller (in the text tu vel pater tuus). Only in later medieval times will the remedy be also granted in some case to the purchaser (see R. Zimmermann, The Law of Obligations. Roman Foundations of the Civilian Tradition, Oxford, OUP, 1996, p. 262). In modern law codifications, the remedy is however still reserved to the seller only (see e.g. in French law Article 1674 of the Civil Code).

This takes nothing away from the pleasure that I have to listen regularly to your podcast!

Best regards

In reply to by Rafaël Jafferali

Peter Adamson on 9 September 2018

Buy low, sell high

Oh thanks very much - actually why would a buyer mind having been sold something at too low a price anyway? So that was just a slip of the keyboard I guess. Thanks, I'll fix this in the book version!

WG on 3 December 2022

Sniping communism from medieval times

I must say, as an socialist listening to your podcast to learn from the mistakes of the past, it's a bit off-putting for you to be critiquing communism (or socialism, for that matter) 500 years ahead of its invention. Socialist philosophy does have unique answers both to the tragedy of the commons and to the problem of how to motivate necessary labor. I am looking forward to your treatment of Marx (ever since your first Aristotle episode, I understand you are not a fan of his!), but I do hope you ease off on modern political commentary until you get there.

As an aside, I had missed the Aristotelian view of fair exchange; it's heartening to see the medieval pre-capitalists struggling so much with the moral implications of taking out interest and the accumulation of wealth.

In reply to by WG

Peter Adamson on 4 December 2022


I think we're talking about here is the sentence "Aquinas spelled out the consequences with a remark about human nature that communists 650 years later would have done well to heed: were all things held in common, 'everyone would avoid doing any work and leave to others that which concerns the community'”, is that right? I can see why that might annoy you if you are a socialist but I didn't mean this to be a one-sentence dismissal of all socialist thought. I take it to be just an uncontroversial fact that actual communist regimes of the 20th century underestimated this problem and failed to crack it, and that's really all I meant. Whether socialism has the theoretical resources to explain how the problem might be cracked is another matter.

By the way you don't have to wait until I get to Marx for a sympathetic and nuanced discussion of socialism: we have discussed it at length already in the Africana series. Have a look under the "Themes" link below, under "Socialism." Or go straight to this link.

Fr. John Rickert on 17 December 2023

What's the charge? Or who's in charge?


Greetings -- Yet another excellent episode.  A few stray comments here.

1. I am pretty sure that Cicero discussed the moral question of price gouging in his work "De Officiis," but unfortunately, I was not able to find the reference.  I believe it's a fairly old question.

2. While Oresme speaks of "debasing the currency," I personally think it is fair for us to substitute the modern equivalent: "inflationary policy."

3. As you mention, Oresme thinks that not even the sovereign has a right to debase the currency.  What I find interesting is that the U.S. Constitution of 1787, even prior to any amendments, says, that the Congress shall have power, "To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin."  Not sure what that means, other than that there is an assertion of sovereign power over the 'value' of money, contra Oresme, and that, I guess (?), Congress could even stipulate exchange rates!


Feeling just a bit triggered here, I will give Lewis Carroll the last word here:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Dylan on 31 May 2024

All of these arguments seem…

All of these arguments seem fairly weak. I'm fairly sure Jesus didn't object to money lending on the grounds that it violated some sort of natural quality of money, but because it was a wealthy person using their access to a resource people need to live to extract money from the poor. It's an example of the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. 

For Christian thinkers, they seem more interested in describing how things work, than engaging with the actual moral question at hand. 

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