Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2023, ISBN: 9780691240923; 392pp.; Price: £42.00
University College London
Date accessed: 28 November, 2023
It is hard to review this book without lapsing into the language of academic letters of recommendation: it is brilliant, illuminating. The genre is the Anglo-American 'book of the thesis’. This genre contrasts with that of first books from young German and French scholars in that the author has taken years to revise his 2015 Harvard thesis thoroughly. German and French theses tend to be published without substantial revision. Though No Return is a substantial volume, it is also more compact than continental counterparts tend to be, in that they are created in a culture where length is a virtue in itself. But it has more in it than many much longer books. Even at a university that used to be known for denying tenure to medievalists, Dorin has taken the time to visit an impressive number of manuscript libraries, and master a formidable volume of primary and secondary sources, in all the main scholarly languages. He masters them critically, and is aware of the limitations of his primary sources: note for instance his careful use of Matthew Paris (pp. 45-7). Any early career scholar could take this as a model to follow if possible, though any medieval historian would be proud to have written it.
The mass expulsions of Jews have long since been exhaustively researched, but here they are bracketed together with mass expulsions of Christian usurers, a topic never systematically investigated. The Christian usurers expelled were normally foreign. A logic connecting the expulsion of foreign Christian usurers and of Jews is that both were under the protection of rulers, who were therefore morally responsible for what they got up to.
Dorin rightly observes that this kind mass expulsion is hard to find in the ancient world (though populations were shifted within empires); or in the early Middle Ages. He traces a build-up of a pattern of ejecting non-natives from the 12th century on, with England important in the genesis of expulsion as a system (pp. 52-56)—expulsion of Flemish mercenaries being a case in point—after which Paris would become an important centre of diffusion; then the pontificates of Innocent III and Innocent IV are turning points in the process. The rest of the book shows a system spreading, evolving, and expanding, with independent strands coming together.
The expulsion of the Jews from Leicester by Simon de Montfort was probably motivated by a fear of profiting from dirty money. While the English monarchy continued to profit from the Jews so long as they could be taxed, Italian merchants were threatened with expulsion on the grounds that they were guilty of usury, though probably also to raise cash. General xenophobia fed into this. In 1263, during the ‘Barons’ Wars’, London mobs ‘pushed for England to be “completely purged of foreigners”’ (p. 77). A year later, there was a massacre of Jews in London, but not yet a call for expulsion. Clearly there was a generalised hostility in England to anything alien.
As the foregoing makes clear, Simon de Montfort’s expulsion of Jews from Leicester is something of an outlier from a pattern in England in which financial exploitation plays a prominent part. The pious and intellectual Simon was (Dorin argues) influenced by Paris Theology, which was rigorist on the subject of usury. But theological influence is the overriding cause of the expulsions in 13th century France. Both Jews and foreign moneylenders were targeted. Louis IX’s strong feelings and actions had a great influence, even though he was more discriminating than either his father or Philip Augustus or his grandson Philip the Fair. There was a temporary expulsion of Jewish moneylenders from the royal domain and later an expulsion of ‘Lombard’ moneylenders. Perhaps because of Louis IX’s status, this set a pattern that would be repeatedly followed in France and on its borders.
The pattern set by Louis IX probably helped shape the decree of the Second Council of Lyon that universalised the rule that ‘foreign’ usurers must be expelled. In his analysis of its reception his discussion of Godfrey of Fontaines also deserves mention. Godfrey argued that foreigners, specifically, are to be expelled because they impoverished the country they were in.
Different versions of the Lyons II decree got into circulation because copies were made before it was formally promulgated. Another important finding with regard to reception is that the decree was (correctly) understood by 13th century canon lawyers to apply only to Christian usurers. Only in the first half of 14th century was the decree interpreted by some as requiring also the expulsion of Jews, and then authoritative canon lawyers cut off that line of thought.
Awareness of this the wide but patchy diffusion of the decree is one of the impressive features of Dorin’s book. He maps the different channels through which it became known, not confining himself to canon law commentaries, as he easily might have done, and finding that the ‘disjuncture between learned commentaries and local interpretations proved ruinous to many Jewish communities’ (p. 221). Notably, he draws on an unrivalled knowledge of local ecclesiastical legislation throughout Europe. Dorin also points to limitations on the process. For instance, he has taken the trouble to look at a lot of sermons, and found that, with the exception of Italian observant Franciscans, expulsion for usury is a rare theme. Another significant negative fact is that ‘episcopal evasion’ and ‘papal inaction’ tempered the effects of the decree. Perhaps occasional inconsistencies in papal interventions—see e.g. pp. 191, 200, 219—may be explained by the responsive character of papal government: i.e. in each case the pope was trying to meet the wishes of whoever had asked for the letter.
This final third of the book is a thorough investigation of how the pairing of usury and expulsion ‘could alternatively be emulated, evaded, ignored, reworked, or revived’ (p. 146) in the later Middle Ages. A chapter on England and France in the late 13th century juxtaposes the persecution and expulsions of foreign and Jewish moneylenders. On the definitive expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, after a sensitive exploration of the variety of causal factors in play, he can comment that ‘the recurring ouster of foreign moneylenders from England over the past half-century had clearly established expulsion as a just response to illicit lending’ (p. 162), and usury could be invoked to legitimize the act even if it was not the motive. He notes that both Edward I and Philip the Fair of France collapsed the categories of ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish usurers’. But he draws contrasts: Philip IV’s mass expulsion of Jews in 1306 was not legitimized in any serious way by proclaimed horror at usury, and Dorin points out that ‘retrospective accounts simply lumped the expulsion together with the king’s measures against the Lombards and the Templars’ (p. 166). Throughout, Dorin is realistic about motives, and aware of nuances, and of the complexities and varieties of reasons for acting or not acting. He is wary of the simplistic generalisation. One general conclusion does come through: Christian usurers native to France or Germany were not in any danger of expulsion.
Dorin makes it clear that this is not a history of credit, but even so it might have been worth commenting more directly on the difference between usury and legitimate credit in canonistic categories. He does point out that for canonists only ‘manifest usurers’ were in the frame, but (as Dorin certainly knows, because this was well studied in an earlier generation, by scholars like Le Bras) canonists also drew a series of distinctions to legitimate what they considered a reasonable amount of interest on a loan, invoking compensation for the risk that one would not be repaid, or for the opportunity cost of the loan. Historians may view these ideas as legalistic quibbles to get around the usury prohibition, but that may not be right. We should not assume that medieval intellectuals—especially not canonists!—were narrow or stupid. They were instinctively aware that the usury prohibition had been originally directed at consumption loans and that credit accorded to merchants or rulers, including popes, was essentially different, even if they could not easily put a concept to the distinction. Indeed, the problem remains to this day. It is not easy to draw the line beyond which credit becomes exploitation of the desperate by a loan-shark. It was really the loan-sharks that the canonists were after, but the border between them and legitimate lenders was a difficult grey area. That difficulty was a complicated factor in enforcement. Significantly, Dorin points out that Pope Innocent IV, with his canon lawyer hat on, was of the view that a usurer became ‘manifest’ only after conviction by an ecclesiastical court. This may explain some of the ‘continuing interpretative instability’ surrounding the decree of the second council of Lyons. This is not a criticism. Such reflections lie outside the main remit of the book.
In summary: the core argument is that the spread of mass expulsion is explained as an ‘accumulation of certain ideas and practices’ that ‘came to make expulsion ever more likely as a historical outcome’; ‘each successive expulsion could spur others in turn’ (p. 222). There is a logic to his ending the book with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, even though that was not primarily about usury.
Dorin’s aim is to explain the process, rather than to evoke the experience. Social theory lacks and needs an appropriate concept for the kind of process he reconstructs. Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory (e.g., his Liebe als Passion) might provide a conceptual framework for the snowballing process described here, though Dorin has managed very well without it. Not that he is unaware of relevant social theory—see for instance his reference (pp. 228 and 344, note 9) to ‘threshold models’ to put a label to limits on the lowering of the threshold of possibility of expulsion as part of his explanation of the unevenness of instances of the practice, detailed mapping of which is one of the great strengths of the book. Another example is his awareness in Quentin Skinner mode of how the need to legitimate is a factor independent of sincerity (p. 18). Alertness to theory goes with avoidance of ideology. It is salutary that the book focusses on a category—moneylenders who were surely often loan sharks—which does not elicit much sympathy from modern academics and students. That makes it easier to avoid the judgmental preachiness to which historians can be prone. In fact, the tone is commendably cool and clinical throughout. In this respect, too, Dorin is a good model. An extra dimension could have been added by a sociological comparison of the medieval expulsions with others in world history, for instance the expulsion of Asians from post-colonial Uganda. But that would have been a different book.
Though Princeton UP has, as usual, produced an elegant book, it diminishes the scholarly value by putting the footnotes at the back. A great German scholar said that a book without footnotes is ‘dead to scholarship’. A book with footnotes that are laborious to access is not that, but the arrangement is certainly a drag on scholarship. There is a long list of manuscripts used but it is not an index of them, which would have been much more helpful. For the bibliography one is directed to a publisher’s website, a link which is unlikely still to be working in 10 years’ time, let alone 50, and this is a book that will be studied for a long time to come.
The author is very grateful to the reviewer for such a generous and incisive analysis. As for endnotes, the author shares wholeheartedly the reviewer's frustration.