U is for Usury

German woodcut of Italian bankers. Photo from medium.com

Usury was denounced by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, a potential route to heresy and excommunication. But royalty, the church, and the merchants needed bankers. The bankers found ways around restrictions. The Medici thrived on banking, but it proved to be their downfall, or their rise depending on how you look at it. Lending to people in charge seems to have an inherent risk, usury or not.

Criminal Interest

Usury is defined as charging an “exorbitant” interest according to Webster’s. But there’s that third dictionary definition, listed as Obsolete. Usury was once defined as charging any interest at all. It varied with the century.

There were banks in Rome, which might charge from 5-12% interest. There were banks in the 6th century Byzantine Empire, because Emperor Justinian set loan rates, which varied by the venture: 4% for “exalted personages,” 7% for business loans, and 12% for maritime loans. The Council at Nicea centuries earlier had banned interest but for clergy, not everybody.

Yet a few centuries later, between the time of Charlemagne (750 CE) to the Black Death (1350), usury was more strictly banned. First, the Catholic church said that usury was banned to everybody, that you could not have a transaction where more was returned than was given. Even in a simple transaction, like selling a cow, the farmers had to find a just price, where they would only receive what it cost.

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L is for Leonardo (and the Giant Horse of Francesco Sforza)

Da vinci’s sketches of the horse, from the Royal Collection Trust.

A 28-year-old offered his services to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in 1480. The letter writer provided visions of weapons design and military engineering, tasks close in mind to a man whose province had repeatedly churned through turmoil in recent decades The duke’s brother had been assassinated in church and his young son assumed the title, under Uncle Ludovico’s watchful eye. Better armaments might help fend off the numerous challenges from the French, Burgundians, Guelphs (or Ghibellines? or both?), Ottomans–you name it, and there was a threat.

Plus, Ludovico wanted to erect a giant commemorative statue to his grandfather. The letter writer said he could paint a little and knew something about sculpting.

Sketchy Ideas

The letter, of course, came from Leonardo Da Vinci. Even though Da Vinci had been apprenticed in an artist’s studio for a dozen years and opened his own studio for a few more, he had not yet completed a major work. Wikipedia calls Da Vinci a polymath, meaning he knew how to do everything. At this point in his life, he hadn’t been able to do much of it yet. But he had a lot of ideas. And he had heard about the horse.

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A to Z 2022: The Snackable Renaissance

It’s coming. The blogger’s A to Z challenge for 2022 starts tomorrow, and I’m going all in! Well, partly in. Get ready to learn a little bit about history for the next 26 days…

…the Renaissance!

Close-up of Raphael’s School of Athens, photo by kajmeister.

Why the A to Z Challenge?

Phew! It’s been a busy time here for kajmeister. I know the blogs have thinned out recently. I haven’t been writing much here because I’ve been writing as a student and on my part-time job. Both are things that have emerged because I’ve been here, and because you’ve been reading these blogs. So, Thank You! If you’d like to hear about the Civil War (one of my history classes) or need suggestions for how to make a career change (my writing job), let me know… I’ve probably written something.

Meanwhile, it’s about to be April, and the blogosphere has this crazy challenge called A to Z. Write 26 posts on a theme. It starts off fun, gets a little grueling around L and M, hard to figure out X, Q, and J, and even if Z doesn’t make sense is exciting to write that last letter! It requires both the strategy of how to generate the challenging letters and the stamina of writing a marathon.

Two years ago, when the world shut down for all of us, the A to Z challenge was a sanity check for me. I didn’t know what I was getting into but tried it out using one of my favorite topics. Those 26 posts on the Olympics turned into a mini-book. That, in turn, helped me pitch a longer book to a real live publisher (my book on women at the games, coming this summer, *shameless plug*), and teach two short classes on the subject. I’m also now in graduate school because of that experience, learning how to write history better.

Last year, I wrote about Accounting–my previous career–and had a lot of fun exploring the background of something I knew well technically. This past January, when my first major school project required a research topic, I turned to those accounting blogs. As a result, I’m writing an accounting history paper which I’m to broaden into a thesis and another book. How can accounting history be fascinating you say? Wait two years, and we’ll find out together.

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