< Back to previous page


Debt or Sin? Legal-Theological Roots of the Moral Confusion in the EU Debt Crisis

The FWO research project “Debt or Sin?” starts from the hypothesis that the current moral confusion regarding debt and credit started already long before the present European debt crisis, or, for that matter, the rise of classical economics in the 18th century. It assumes that the principle that debts must be repaid and promises honored was elevated by moral theologians and jurists into a fundamental principle for organizing market transactions, right at the time when modern markets and states came into existence (15th-17th centuries). The overall objective is to clarify this symbiosis of morality, law and finance in a formative albeit neglected stage in the development of European legal and economic thought. This objective will be achieved through a close analysis of a number of writings on the law of obligations by jurists and theologians between ca. 1400 and 1700, which are, of course, mostly written in Latin. Regardless of their confessional denomination, both Protestant and Catholic authors have produced a vast amount of moral and legal literature that seeks to govern the life of Christians in all its dimensions, including debtor-creditor relationships. Particularly, they have elaborated a sophisticated normative framework to regulate capitalism at the very moment of its global expansion by emphasizing the need for individuals, especially merchants and bankers, to maintain certain moral principles to save their souls while doing business. 

Pursuant to the methodological principle that abstract ideas should be put into a real life context, the debate on “debt” will be investigated in the works of specific authors from the 15th to the 17th centuries in light of the specific historical context in which they worked. Even though the writings on debt and contract of well-known authors such as Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria or Leonardus Lessius constitute essential background reading material, our doctorate wil take the work of one author in particular as a starting point: the highly influential legal, moral and economic thought on debt of Conrad Summenhart (c. 1458-1502), a theologian at the University of Tübingen, whose impressive work on contract law, the 'Septipertitum opus de contractibus pro foro conscientiae atque theologico' (c. 1500) has had a profound influence on Spanish theologians of the school of Salamanca, some of whom often made reference to “Conradus.” Nevertheless, the research done on this work from a legal perspective is quite limited, meaning that it will be important to make a substantial analysis in order to correctly assess the place and importance of the work in the history of ideas. This will involve studying both the works which have influenced Summenhart (for instance, works on Contract Law of predecessors like Jean Gerson, Matthew of Kraków, Johannes Nider and others) and, conversely, some of the authors of the School of Salamanca, whom Summenhart has influenced himself. In the course of this undertaking a further geographical widening of previous research will, if possible, be achieved by investigating the work 'Contra malos divites et usurarios' by Stanislas Zaborowski, a Polish priest and jurist (1470/77-1530). He stands in a rich, yet widely unexplored, eastern European tradition of legal-theological thinking.

The research activities and the analysis of the work of Konrad Summenhart and other authors will be guided by common research questions such as: 1) how can we situate the life and work of the figure in their proper intellectual and historical context; 2) what is the relationship between legal, moral and economic thought in the author’s work; 3) what are the religious roots of the author’s thought; 4) what is the author’s approach to the law of insolvency; 5) how does the author deal with new financial techniques (e.g. sale of debt, lending techniques, quantitative easing); 6) what is the author’s approach to the issues of austerity and profligacy, respectively; 7) does the author make a distinction between private and public debt, respectively; 8) what impact did the author have; 9) what is the author’s attitude towards debt relief and the Biblical idea of the Jubilee?; 10) what overall contribution did the author make to sanctionning the principle that “debts must be paid and promises kept”?

Date:1 Sep 2017  →  Today
Keywords:Debt, Guilt, Early Modern Period, Recht, Moraal, Schuld
Disciplines:Law, Other law and legal studies, Metalaw
Project type:PhD project