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Banking, Medici style

A new book explores how the Florentine dynasty lent money and still went to heaven. Mark Johnson looks at the ways in which Italy's fifteenth-century bankers circumnavigated religious prohibitions to make their margins

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Islamic banking provides the current focus for investment bankers devising ways to satisfy religious precepts in finance, but in its modern form this dates back only to the 1970s. In Italy and beyond, though, bankers were looking for ways to sidestep religious strictures on charging interest from the early Middle Ages on. That's just one of the lessons to emerge from Tim Parks's fascinating new book on the Medicis, in which the author consistently shows that the past is by no means "another country".*

In medieval Europe it was the Catholic Church that drew up the moral template for society, and its rules extended into all walks of life, including banking. Usury is now taken to be the lending of money at an exorbitant rate; then it was any lending that charged interest.

Saint Luke wrote: "Give, without hoping to make gain." Still, it's not immediately clear why usury acquired the stigma it did. According to Dante, the third ditch of the seventh circle of hell is reserved for sodomites, blasphemers – and usurers. Merchants who thought little of taking child slaves as bed partners, or clipping gold coinage to make a turn, grew cold at the prospect of being branded a usurer as death approached.

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