The Catholic Origins of Capitalism: Max Weber Clarified

According to Max Weber, monasticism played a fundamental role in the origins and development of western capitalist society. Monasticism exercised this role through its “rational character,” its “systematic method of rational conduct,” and its attempt “to subject man to the supremacy of a purposeful will.” Weber maintains that, “Contrary to many popular ideas, the end of this asceticism was to be able to lead an alert, intelligent life. . . . All these important points are emphasized in the rules of Catholic monasticism as strongly as in the principles of conduct of the Calvinists.”

In a footnote to a later edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber protests against a critic: “I am surprised to find Brentano citing the ascetic labour of the monks and its recommendation against me. . . . But that continuity is, as anyone can see, a fundamental postulate of my whole thesis: the Reformation took rational Christian asceticism and its methodical habits out of the monasteries and placed them in the service of the active life in the world.”

As this last quotation indicates, Weber believed that the medieval monks confined those ascetic qualities which were, according to Weber, essential for the development of capitalism, solely within the religious context. In other words, for Weber, medieval monasticism was a purely religious affair and never affected the secular domain.

This abrupt dualism that Weber sets up between the religious and the secular domain, like so many sharp dualisms, naturally raises the question whether monasticism and the secular world really were so sharply separated Weber thought they were. Researchers during the last hundred years have shown that monasticism was highly active in numerous areas that are normally considered to be secular. So there was every probability that the monasteries should apply their rationality to the field of economics; and Randall Collins, in Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1986), confirms this.

In his third chapter, “The Weberian Revolution of the High Middle Ages,” Collins finds that capitalism originated in the High Middle Ages, and that it was the Roman Catholic Church that produced it. Medieval monasticism was the cutting edge of capitalistic activity. As Collins says, “I intend to argue. . .that the Middle Ages experienced the key institutional revolution, that the basis of capitalism was laid then rather than later, and that at its heart was the organization of the Catholic Church itself.”

It is worth noting that Collins is not putting forward this thesis in opposition to Weber. On the contrary, he maintains that what he is saying is the real and true Weberian thesis concerning the origins of western capitalism, since the thesis is the logical consequence of Weber’s own thought. Collins says that a factor that prevented Weber from arriving at this later formulation was Weber’s premature death, before he had had time to complete his projected study of medieval Christianity. Collins also hints at certain religious sentiments that may have had a temporary inhibiting role in this matter.

When Collins talks about the Catholic Church he is talking about the ecclesiastical part of the Church, and he is concerned with it from the viewpoint of its unity of structure and its efficiency of operation. So he treats the papal bureaucracy as a kind of model of administration basic to the future of capitalism. Likewise, he treats the Canon Law of the Church, with respect to its own members and corporate bodies as a kind of legal model for the new world of capitalism. As regards freedom of movement and initiative, Collins notes that the Church as an ecclesiastical institution is a voluntary body that people freely decide to join. Furthermore, positions of authority inside that institution are filled by the elective system, thus avoiding the inevitable inefficiencies resulting from hereditary systems of authority and power.

Collins denies that our western capitalist system began only in the modern period, with the harnessing by the Calvinists of the other-worldly asceticism of medieval monasticism to secular purposes. To the extent that he opposes Weber, Collins stresses the institutional, structural requirements for capitalism; and he rejects the role that Weber gives to the individualistic money-oriented motivation that derived from Calvinist predestinationist theology. This stress on the institutional and corporate aspect as opposed to the atomistic individualistic aspect of capitalism is the center of Collins’s disagreement with Weber.

Collins stresses the legislative, judicial, and administrative institutions which have to exist before capitalism can exist, and which capitalism must embody. Such institutions provide a combination of security and freedom, for which the Catholic Church developed the first model, above all in its monastic orders.

The monks founded capitalism by producing an agricultural revolution in northwestern Europe, Collins observes, and northwestern Europe, not the Mediterranean cities, was the cradle of our modern capitalist society. The rationality that the monks introduced into their agricultural enterprises was a specific application of a general rationality that they applied to all their activities. Similarly, in The Dynamo and the Virgin Reconsidered (MIT Press, 1968), Lynn White, Jr., places the monks among the leaders of technical innovation, in the technological revolution that occurred during the Middle Ages. The innovations of the monks in architecture, in agriculture, and other areas are by now well known.

Collins’s researches in the beginnings of capitalism, like Lynn White, Jr.’s researches in the origins of the industrial revolution, illustrate the general trend in medieval studies. This trend is to push back to medieval times the new developments and discoveries that were supposed to have come about abruptly in the modern era. The model of the abrupt transition from medieval darkness to modern luminosity has been replaced, as a result of historical studies, by a model of a continuation into modern times of an innovative mentality reaching back into the eleventh century. So the rationality of capitalism is simply one more example of an overall rationality which entered into the whole body of life in the Middle Ages under the aegis of the Catholic Church.

Let Collins speak for himself. On the development of Weber’s own theory: “Weber ended up with a model for the preconditions of capitalism involving a long chain of historical conditions. These conditions are primarily institutional rather than motivational.” Furthermore, “If we examine Weber’s causal chain as whole, it can be seen that the institutional preconditions for capitalism fell into place for the first time in the High Middle Ages. And not only the institutional preconditions but a version of the developed characteristics of capitalism itself can also be found then.” Collins stresses this point:

The crucial preconditions include the bureaucratized state, a rationalized legal system, and citizenship rights. The significance of the Middle Ages for the last is in little dispute. Modern autonomies and corporate privileges of self-government under enacted law derive from the chartered cities of medieval Europe. . . .the institutional preconditions for capitalism were developed in medieval Europe, not so much in the wider society as in one specialized part of it, the Church.

On the role of the papacy in the development of capitalism: “It is no coincidence that the height of economic boom within Europe was in the very centuries (1100-1300) when the Papacy was at the height of its power, and that the European economy declined during the 1300s and 1400s, when the Papacy became split and secular princes grew increasingly autonomous and at war among themselves.”

On the way Catholic ecclesiastical structures satisfied Weber’s institutional requirements for capitalism: “Citizenship is important because it balances the authoritarian tendencies of bureaucracy and gives some autonomy of action to the individual, as well as fostering the rule of a calculable law that provides rights from below as well as from above.”

On the role of legal systems in the substructure of capitalism: “The more important point was that some form of regularized and objective law should exist, in a political situation of balancing powers that gave businesspeople proper access to it. What I would argue is that the Canon Law had exactly this place within the economic activities of the Church itself.”

Collins adds that “the dynamism of the medieval economy was primarily that of the Church itself. And within that economic structure the key role was played by the monks.” Of the Cistercian monasteries he says, “These monasteries were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world before that time. . . . The community of monks typically operated a factory. There would be a complex of mills usually hydraulically powered, for grinding corn as well as for other purposes. In iron-producing regions, they operated forges with water-powered trip-hammers.. . . In England, the entire monastic economy was geared toward producing wool for the export market. The Cistercians were the cutting edge of economic growth. . .. The spread of Cistercian monasteries in Europe was probably the catalyst for much other economic development, including imitation in its cutthroat investment practices. We find here. . . .the main features of capitalism itself.”

Collins stresses the capitalistic tendencies of the Cistercians: “The Cistercians also represent the entrepreneurial organization of capital, indeed in a more massively centralized and effective form than most private capitalists were to achieve before the late nineteenth century. They followed a form of rational cost-accounting, and plowed back their profits into the business. . . . Moreover, because they had a centrally controlled organization, they could move capital around internally from one enterprize to another, building up prospering ones and cutting their losses in unsuccessful areas.”

Various religious orders had a hand in the development of banking, for example the Knights Templar and the Augustinians. “The Augustinian canons, who grew up contemporary with the Cistercians, . . .were taking money on deposit by the 1200s and investing it in property. Many Augustinian houses became prosperous small bankers. The immobility of capital that operated as a hindrance to economic development in the secular economy was thus circumvented to a considerable degree in the centralized features of the Church.”

Of course, in the Middle Ages, immobility of capital was just part of a far more general problem of immobility, and once more the Church played a hand in solving the problem: “Feudalism, of course, is notoriously lacking in a freely moving labor market responding to the pressure of wages. But, to a degree, the Church provided a way of circumventing this as well. The Church and the new monastic orders were the only international organizations in Europe. Moreover they recruited freely from all social ranks.”

I hasten to add that the economic condition of the worker under medieval capitalism was the opposite of that of the worker under modern capitalism, at least until late in the nineteenth century. The standard of living of the ordinary worker in the High Middle Ages was better than it would be for workers in modern times, until the last hundred years or so. As Marx points out the economic condition of the worker deteriorated down to the nineteenth century. In Eastern Europe with the so-called Enlightened despots in modern times, we find a reintroduction of serfdom. Collins calls it a second serfdom. In telling us that “One of the largest economic enterprises of the High Middle Ages was the building of the great cathedrals during this period,” Collins notes that the stonemasons who worked on these cathedrals, “operated on a wage labor market, at levels of real wages that were considerably higher in the early 1300s than they were four and five centuries later.” So from the point of view of workers’ wages, medieval capitalism was distinctly different from modern laissez faire capitalism.

Collins denies that modern capitalism comes from the merchant capitalism of the Italian cities, since these cities were “dealing in luxury goods, and involving little manufacturing for the market.” Collins looks to northeastern Europe, and to a mass market in utility goods for the origins of modern capitalism: “The entire Cistercian economy in England could be oriented to the wool-export trade, and there was a considerable movement of stone, textiles, timber, metals, and other bulk commodities throughout Europe. The Baltic trade of the Hanseatic cities was almost entirely in bulk goods, and by the late 1200s entire countries such as Norway had become wholly dependent on imported grain. Clearly there was a mass market in some areas.”

As regards the role of the Church in the creation and sustaining of mass markets, Collins tells us, “Moreover, the Church was active in attempting to shore up one of the crucial institutional underpinnings of a mass market: security from robbers and military predators. . . . In the 1000s and 1100s, just as the medieval economy was beginning to develop, there was a widespread movement to establish peace. Certain days of the week and times of the year were declared ‘God’s Truce’ in the wars among nobility. More significantly, bishops took the initiative in organizing ‘peace associations,’ whose members swore to abjure private violence and also acted to put down robber barons and brigands. .. . The Church thus brought about at least an approximation to a capitalist economy within the larger feudal economy of the High Middle Ages.” It is worth noting that while a peaceful society is good for business, the Church’s aim in bringing about a peaceful society was not commercial but religious. A peaceful society was, in the Church’s eyes, a good and religiously necessary goal to aim at.

Collins tells us that, “The facts show us a paradoxical situation in which the monks themselves harnessed their energies and created the first dynamic, world-transforming capitalism, albeit in religious form.” Of course, the initiative and enterprise that the monks displayed in this form of capitalism was a community-oriented initiative and enterprise. He stresses by contrast the relative abnormality of our own individualistic laissez-faire capitalism which is aimed purely at private and personal financial advantage. He says, “We are used to conceiving capitalism as individualistic, secular, and bourgeois. But the twentieth century shows us a capitalism that is corporate and that sometimes even appears, it is said, under the guise of socialism.”

We might also note that, in tracing back the legal foundations of modern business corporations to medieval canon law, Collins says that the thirteenth century Pope Innocent IV, “has thus been described as the father of the modern learning of corporations.”

But while medieval capitalism stressed the community-oriented aspects of production, it nevertheless by no means ignored individual activities. This can be seen in the standard judgment that the modern Englishman, from whom capitalism derived, was different from his continental European contemporaries in being more individualistic and more free in his activities. But this freedom and individualism are not confined to the modern Englishman, but can be seen already in his medieval English ancestor. Collins refers to the work of the British historian, Alan Macfarlane, who found himself driven to the conclusion that this freedom and individualism of the modern Englishman, necessary for modern capitalism, are in fact a continuation of that same freedom and individualism which the medieval Englishman had in his medieval society, going back at least to the thirteenth century. Macfarlane reviewed historical documents going back from the eighteenth century to the thirteenth, including such documents as “local records, legal textbooks, and autobiographical documents,” and concluded that men and women in the thirteenth century had the same kind of freedom in property matters that had earlier been considered to be purely distinctive of modern times and only in modern England. One factor was the success of the English common law, by contrast with the secular Roman law, revived on the continent, which reestablished the use of torture in legal proceedings and in general restricted the freedom of the ordinary person. England escaped this, and its inhabitants kept their freedom and their greater wealth. Macfarlane supports this conclusion with documentation from contemporary observers of medieval England, including Sir John Fortescue.

The tracing of modern individualism and freedom of activity back to the High Middle Ages fits in well with all the other trends we have seen in medieval historical scholarship. The point becomes more convincing in the present case when Macfarlane tells us that he had originally, held the standard opposing view. As he himself says, “I myself have long been misled.”

We might note that the thirteenth century, to which Macfarlane traces this individualism, is noteworthy for a famous crisis in philosophy and theology concerning human freedom. The parallel seems significant. In the third quarter of the thirteenth century occurred the famous Averroistic controversy, in which the so-called Averroists held that there was an impersonal determinism that denied human free will and even a personal human destiny. Against this viewpoint were arrayed the Christian philosophers and theologians who affirmed human freedom and also affirmed a personal human destiny over which each person has control.

This crisis was the major philosophical crisis of the Middle Ages. And one of many signs of the strain under which the contenders were laboring was the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas, in his work On the Oneness of the Intellect Against the Averroists, a work written at the height of the controversy, gave way to possibly his only public display of anger in a philosophical dispute.

One might say that the modern idea of free enterprise in business is just one expression among others of a far more basic and more universal freedom of enterprise, namely of the human free enterprise to fulfill each person’s human destiny. In the thirteenth century, scholastic theologian-philosophers with St. Thomas at the center of the storm fought for the philosophy of freedom and the value of the human person, in conflict with the antipersonal deterministic metaphysics of Greco-Arabic thought. The period of the first foundation of western capitalism, according to Collins, the period from about 1050 to 1300, was in fact the high period of scholastic philosophy, culminating in St. Thomas Aquinas. So the foundational language of western rational society, at the time in which this society was being founded, was the language of scholasticism. And historians of science and technology have acknowledged the debt owed by western science and technology to medieval scholasticism. (See, e.g., the works of the historian of science, A.C. Crombie.)

Returning to Macfarlane, perhaps it is significant that the scholastic thinker who put forward the doctrine of individualism in its most extreme and arbitrary form, was the fourteenth century nominalist theologian William of Ockham — an Englishman. The Scotsman, John Duns Scotus, studied in England at Oxford University, and is also known for his stress on freedom and on individuality — a stress much praised by the nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Given the popularity nowadays of the philosophy of praxis, it is worth noting that in the Middle Ages there was a long-standing theology of praxis, institutionalized in the Benedictine Order, and summed up in the famous unofficial slogan of the Benedictines, “Laborare est Orare,” to work is to pray. What we read about in Vico and Marx, about homo faber, man the maker, has already appeared in the medieval theology and the medieval religious practice of the religious orders.

Of course, the individualism that Alan Macfarlane refers to in medieval England, which was backed up by scholastic theology and philosophy, was not the outright and extreme individualism that we are familiar with in modern thought. It operated in a context of community. The difference can be indicated by a distinction made by Aristotle, which Marx appeals to in Das Kapital. Marx notes that Aristotle distinguishes between economics and chrematistics (Politics, Bk. 1). For Aristotle is concerned with economics, the production of goods for use, whereas chrematistics is concerned with money making. The difference between medieval capitalism and modern capitalism is substantially the difference between economics and chrematistics. The goal of medieval capitalism was the production and consumption of goods for use; and money was instrumental to this goal. In modern capitalism the aim is the making of money and the production of goods and services is only instrumental to this goal.

In this distinction, we can see the difference between two theologies. According to Weber, modern capitalism receives its impulse from Calvinistic theology which gradually developed the doctrine that the possession of wealth was a sign of predestination to salvation, whereas the lack of wealth was a sign of damnation to eternal torments. Evidently, such a doctrine puts a premium on making money and making as much money as possible. Goods and services were a purely secondary instrumental affair, compared to the main theological goal of moneymaking. In this we see the solipsistic idealism of Calvinistic theology as interpreted by Weber. On the other hand, medieval capitalism, stressing the production in bulk of useful goods, is a reflection of the communitarian materialistic theology of Catholicism. Marx’s own praise of modern chrematistic capitalism is, of course, a reflection of the gnosis which Marx inherited from Hegel.

One criticism of Collins is that he draws an artificial distinction between the Cistercians and their predecessors, the Benedictines. The founders of the Cistercian Order considered that they were restoring monasticism to its original spirit as infused by St. Benedict. They were in no way rejecting St. Benedict or his rule. As far as they were concerned, they were once again putting it into practice in the light of their own circumstances.

By accepting continuity between the Cistercians and the Benedictine Order in its original formulation, we would be tracing back at least the spirit of capitalism another five hundred years earlier, to the time of St. Benedict. And certainly, if monasticism lies at the source of modern capitalism as Weber claims it does, then there is no way to avoid going all the way back to St. Benedict, the universally recognized founder of western monasticism.

A further advantage of doing this would be to bring Weber’s thesis in line with other explanations of the medieval origins of our modern world. As noted above, Lynn White, Jr., found a major inspiration for western technology in the monks of the Benedictine Order who, as he says, were the first intellectuals to get dirt under their fingernails, i.e., the first body of men to unite intellectual activity and manual labor. In this judgment, Lynn White epitomizes the fundamental role of monasticism in the creation of our western world. Indeed, even so unsympathetic a scholar as Bertrand Russell devotes part of a chapter of his History of Western Philosophy to St. Benedict and his role in western society.

One thing that the revised Weberian thesis seems to do is to refute the standard rationalist charge, made by Enlightenment ideologists, that the Middle Ages were a period of stagnation and intellectual darkness brought about by the irrationality of religion. However, in the twentieth century the anti-religious rationality of the Enlightenment has given way to another anti-religious tradition, opposed anyway to the religious culture of the Middle Ages. This long tradition combines religiosity with an attack on rationality; and in the twentieth century it has become highly influential. (See Ernst Topitsch, “Marx und Gnosis,” in Sozialphilosophie zwischen Ideologie und Wissenschaft, 1961.) It combines a sort of free-floating religiosity that is not connected with any acceptance of a God in the traditional sense, nor with any established religion or religious belief. Nor is it connected with any objective ethical norm, though it cultivates a moralizing attitude along with its free-floating religiosity. For this tradition, the rationality of the Middle Ages in the western world would serve simply to confirm its judgment that the Middle Ages lacked true, authentic, religious feeling. So in the twentieth century the anti-medieval animus can remain as strong as ever. The reasons for that animus have simply been reversed. The biggest objection to Randall Collins’s thesis will probably be that it is even more explosive than the original Weber thesis.

  • Michael Slattery

    At the time this article was written, Michael Slattery taught in the Department of Philosophy at Villanova University.

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