Jacques Le Goff
Your Money Or Your Life
'It so happened that once upon a time a usurer's field remained intact, although all the land around was damaged by a storm, and, extremely happy, the usurer went to tell a priest that everything was going well for him, and to justify his way of life. The priest replied, "That is not the way it is. Since you have acquired a great many friends in demon society, you escaped the storm they sent."' But when death approached, the friendship ended. The only thing that counted was Satan's greed for the usurer's soul. He made sure that it would not escape him. To that end, he eliminated any chance that the usurer would confess and show contrition. His first stratagem was to make the dying usurer aphasic, mute. Jacques de Vitry asserts that 'when death approaches, many usurers are unable to speak and cannot confess.'
There was an even more radical solution: sudden death, the worst possible death for a medieval Christian, for it generally caught him in a state of mortal sin. This situation was inevitable for the usurer, who lived in a perpetual state of mortal sin. In the days of Stephen of Bourbon, the mid-thirteenth century, an astonishing news item attests to this. I am referring to the dramatic and exemplary story of the usurer of Dijon.
It happened that, in Dijon, toward the year of Our Lord 1240, a usurer wanted to celebrate his wedding with great pomp. Led by musicians, he proceeded to the parish church of the Blessed Virgin. He stood beneath the church porch so that his fiancee could state her consent, and so that the marriage would be ratified, as was customary, by the 'words of present' [verba de presenti], before the marriage was crowned by the celebration of the Mass and by other rituals inside the church. When the bride and groom, full of joy, were about to enter the church, a statue over the porch, the statue of a usurer being carried off to Hell by the Devil, fell, with his money pouch, upon the head of the living usurer, who was about to be wed, and struck and killed him. The wedding was changed into mourning, joy was changed into sorrow. The stone usurer excluded the living usurer from the church, and from the sacraments, although the local priests, instead of excluding him from the church, were on the contrary willing to admit him. The other usurers of the city gave money to tear down the other sculptures outside and at the back of the porch, so that another accident of this sort could not happen to them. I have seen these destroyed statues.We should really comment at length upon this text, upon the information it provides about the wedding ritual, the most important part of which still took place outside the church; upon the exclusion versus the admission of usurers; upon the connections between usurers and the clergy; upon the real and imaginary relationships between the world of the living and the world of stone church statues; and upon the group solidarity shown by urban usurers. Let us, however, restrict ourselves to the striking image of the symbolic brutality of this news item, which occurred in an actual place and on a specific date. The usurer of Dijon met his own version of the Commendatore's statue. The guilty indulgence of certain clerics in regard to usurers did not, however, change the situation for the impenitent usurer. 'At Besancon I saw,' recounts Stephen of Bourbon,
a great usurer suddenly stricken dead at the table, in the midst of a joyous feast. Seeing this, his sons by his two marriages pulled out their swords, and, completely forgetting their father, fought over his chests [full of money], which they wanted to keep and to lay hold of, caring little for their father's soul or body. He was buried in a tomb adjacent to the parish church of St. John's Cathedral. A fine tomb was constructed and inserted into the side wall of the church. In the morning it was discovered pushed far away from the church, as if to show, in this way, that he had not been in communion with the Church.Perhaps the worst way for the dying usurer to be kept away from the confessional was for him to become completely mad. Insanity led the usurer to his final impenitence. Take the story of the usurer of Notre Dame of Paris, as told by Stephen of Bourbon.
Here is what I saw with my own eyes. When I was a young student in Paris, I went to the church of the Holy Virgin one Saturday to attend vespers. I saw a man being carried on a stretcher, suffering from a limb burned with the evil that is called the 'sacred evil,' or the 'infernal evil' [ergotism]. He was surrounded by a crowd. People close to him acknowledged that he was a usurer. And so the priests and clerics exhorted him to give up that trade and to promise that he would return his usurious gains, so that the Holy Virgin would deliver him of his illness. But he did not want to listen to them, paying no attention either to criticisms or to flattery. At the end of vespers, he persisted in his obstinacy, although this fire had spread all over his body, which had become black and swollen up, and although his eyes were bulging. He was thrown out of the church like a dog, and he died on the spot, that very evening, of that fire, still stubbornly obstinate.At the end of the Middle Ages, the ars moriendi engravings depict the usurer's death. But as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the exempla of the clerics portrayed all the struggles, all the nightmares, all the horror attendant at the dying usurer's bedside. Repentant or not, the usurer who had reached this final stage of his life was caught up in what would soon become the danse macabre.
Take Gottschalk, a peasant usurer from the diocese of Utrecht, of whom Caesarius of Heisterbach had heard tell. The Crusade was being preached in his region, and he gave only five marks when he could have donated forty without disinheriting his children. Seated in the tavern, he scoffed at the crusaders: 'You are going to cross the sea, and waste your substance, and expose your lives to all kinds of dangers, while I, for the five marks with which I redeemed my vow, shall stay home with my wife and children, and get as good a reward as you.' One night, he heard a sound like that of a grindstone in a mill adjacent to his house. He sent a young servant to see what was happening. The servant returned terrified and said that he had been frozen in his tracks by terror, at the threshold of the mill. The usurer then rose, opened the mill door, and saw a terrible vision: there were two coal-black horses and, beside them, a horrible man who was black, like them. He said to the peasant: 'Quick! Mount this horse; it has been brought for you.' Incapable of resisting, the usurer obeyed. With the Devil astride the other horse, he sped through the regions of Hell. There he met his father and his mother, and many acquaintances whom he did not know would be in these regions. He was particularly struck by the sight of a burgrave, whom people had thought to be an honest knight, sitting on an enraged heifer, his back exposed to the horns, which tore his flesh with each uncontrolled bounce. This fine knight had stolen his cow from a widow. At last the peasant saw a fiery seat in which there could be no rest, but only endless punishment for he who sat in it. The Devil said to him, 'After three days you will put off your body, and your soul will return to your own place, and seated in that chair you will receive your reward.' His family found the usurer in the mill, unconscious, and carried him to his bed. Sure that he would undergo the fate he had witnessed, he refused confession and contrition. Without confession, without the viaticum, without extreme unction, he was buried in Hell.