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Book Review: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study, R.H.

Tawney, Mentor Books (New York, 1954) =========== Ajmal Waqif =========== Tawney's aim in this work is to explore the relationship between the religious sphere and the economic sphere, the distinctions between the two, if there were any, in Early Modern Europe and the changing position, relations and roles of the Church and religious thought in general in informing, understanding or addressing the massive shifts in the European economy between roughly the 15th and 18th century. Tawney's thesis draws on the Weberian concept of the relationship between protestantism and capitalism but poses the question much differently. Instead of Protestant ideals and ethics giving birth to a capitalist economy Tawney shows how religious doctrine changed to reflect changes in the economy and how the Church and State first denounced, then palliated, then triumphantly justified in the name of economic liberty (p.27). The bulk of Tawney's argument is underpinned with the understanding that religion and economics were completely intertwined in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods. Religion, if not a reflection of economic beliefs, was used to interpret and express ideas of economy, society and rights in a way that is alien to modern theory which tends to explain things by nature or science:
Modern social theory, like modern political theory, developed only when society was given a naturalistic instead of religious explanation, and the rise of both was largely due to a changed conception of the nature and functions of the Church (p.21).

Therefore what seems like arguments that concerned only the religious sphere, i.e the controversy between the Catholic Church and its theologians against the critics, reformers and protestants is also at the same time conflict raging in wider society and economic life, the typical controversy is carried on in terms of morality and religion as regularly and inevitably as two centuries later it is conducted in terms of economic expediency(p.22). All of these spheres are interrelated. The chronology of the book is quite loose and sporadic with the first section focusing on the Church's economic role in medieval society, the second focusing on the shifts in the European economy and the rise of Church reformers and protestantism due to these changes, the third focusing on the position of the Church of England and its adaptations to change and finally the fourth section discusses the growth in popularity of Puritanism in certain sections of the population. The first section of the book deals with how medieval theoreticians rationalized the social order of feudal society. Tawney defines several times what he terms feudalism the dominant form of society in Europe in the beginning of the period that the book deals with. It was a society that aspired to a community of unequal classes with varying functions, organized for a common end(p.26) but the reality was a society characterised by class privilege, class oppression, exploitation, serfdom. These relations had to be rationalized in some way in the minds of people living in that society, which
were rationalized in the Middle Ages by a functional theory of the society....Each member has its own function, prayer, or defence, or merchandise, or tilling the soil. Each must receive the means suited to its station, and must claim no more. Within classes there must be equality ; if one takes into his hand the living of two, his neighbour will go short. Between classes there must be inequality; for otherwise a class cannot perform its function. (p.35)

The second section of the book is devoted to the developments of religious ideas by the Church reformers. The great upheavals against what was regarded as the natural order of society began with the trickling of economic power from Italy, which Tawney suggests is the main economic driver of Europe during the Renaissance, and percolating throughout the rest of Europe. However by the Reformation the Low Counties of the Netherlands replaced the Italian city states as the hub of the European economy, in particular the city of Antwerp which all the largest commercial companies of Europe moved their operations to and where the basis for Renaissance Humanist ideas developed, which found its purest incarnation in Erasmus(p.82). Numerous events, processes and changes occur in the period between the mid 15th century and the 16th century, these include
The decline of Venice and of the south German cities...the new economic imperialism of Portugal and Spain; the outburst of capitalist enterprise in mining and textiles; the rise of commercial companies...a revolution in prices which shattered all customary relationships; the collapse of medieval rural society in a nightmare of peasants' wars; the subjection of the collegiate industrial organization of the Middle Ages to a new money-power; the triumph of the State and its conquest, in great parts of Europe, of the Church...(p.80)

Religion needed to catch up with the changes in the economy. At first new economic practises tried to fit

themselves in with the already existing religious regulations. Merchants consulted theologians over whether speculation could be squared with the Canon Law or whether interest could lawfully be charged in transactions between merchants (p.90). It was in these conditions of increased monopoly and combination of merchant houses and financiers, especially in Germany, that Luther emerged. Tawney argues against the idea that Luther was an early proponent of economic individualism. Luther, Tawney argues, was Of that revolutionary conservatism...who hated the economic individualism of the age not less than its spiritual laxity... (p.98). He also states that
Luther's revolt against authority was an attack, not on its rigour, but on its laxity and its corruption. His individualism was not the greed of the plutocrat, eager to snatch from the weakness of public authority an opportunity for personal gain. (p.99-100)

Tawney argues that Luther, furious at the corruption, selling of indulgences etc of the Church, wanted to return to a primitive, uncorrupted faith by separating the Church entirely from the wider economic and social life of society. Religion should retreat from institutions and instead be about the refinement of personal faith, thus Luther successfully divorces the Church from the material world, relegating the two to separate spheres. He was opposed to turning a spiritual message into a programme of social reconstruction. (p.102) instead arguing that a Christian's only responsibility is to strengthen his faith alone more and more (p.109). We can see therefore that on the one hand Luther broke radically with the old order: furiously denouncing the corruption and malpractice of the Church, secularizing monasticism by putting forward all men on the same footing towards God, criticising medieval charity, fraternities, mendicant orders, festivals and pilgrimages (p.107) thus laying the basis for Reformation. But on the other hand he was unable to set out on the path he laid out because he could not follow the arguments in favour of reforming to their correct, logical conclusion and he was therefore unable to set out a coherent alternative. It is with Calvin that the full scale rewriting of religious doctrine into terms ideal for the new economic orthodoxies began. Tawney states that Calvinism was largely an urban movement...it was carried from country to country partly by emigrant traders and workmen; and its stronghold was precisely in those social groups and as this was the original social basis of Calvinism it was therefore of no surprise that it found its original headquarters in Geneva, and later its most most influential adherents in great business centres, like Antwerp with its industrial hinterland, London and Amsterdam (p.113). Calvin defended merchant's trade unequivocally, writing What reason is there why the income of from business should not be larger than that from landowning? Whence do the merchant's profits come, except from his own diligence and industry (p.113). It is with Calvinism that the ideals that are most often associated with Protestantism find their complete expression. For the first time it was argued that there was an inherent virtue in [seeking] wealth with the sober gravity of men who are conscious at once of disciplining their own characters by patient labour, and of devoting themselves to a service acceptable to God, not just seeking wealth for the purpose of self-indulgence or ostentation (p.114). Thus hard-work - whether it be that of the merchant, middling peasant or craftsman - is to be glorified and promoted whereas the ostentatiousness of the aristocracy or the idleness of the lazy peasant or beggar is to be denounced. At first it may seem that Calvin's theory of predestination, that God not only foresaw...the fall of the first man but also arranged all by the determination of his own will and his rejection of good works is antithetical to the principles of a belief system that preaches constant industry, hard work and activity. But in fact as Tawney points out
That aim is not personal salvation, but the glorification of God, to be sought, not by prayer only, but by action the sanctification of the world by strife and labour...Good works are not a way of attaining salvation, but they are indispensable as a proof that salvation has been attained. (p.117)

Another aspect, one that Tawney fails to mention, is that the idea of predestination - that those that will be saved have already been chosen and therefore there is no point dwelling on the matter - is the perfect expression of the belief that the forces of the market have already decided who to make wealthy and who to ruin and there's no point in the State or the Church interfering in that sphere. It is clear in Tawney's narrative that Calvinism was the ideology of the rising capitalist class:
Such teaching, whatever its theological merits or defects, was admirably designed to liberate economic energies, and to weld into a disciplined social force the rising bourgeoisie...Calvin did for the bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century what Marx did for the proletariat of the nineteenth...(p.120)

In so doing Calvin armed the growing capitalist class with the weaponry it needed to wage its struggle against the

traditional feudal order. England was not immune to the massive economic changes happening throughout Europe. Many transformations occurred in the English economy that established an increasingly thriving capitalist economy
Foreign trade increased...as manufactures developed, cloth displaced wool and the principal export...English capital poured into the growing London money-market...with the expansion of of internal trade which followed the Tudor peace, opportunities of speculation were increased, and a new class of middlemen arose to exploit them. In industry the rising interest was that of the commercial capitalist, bent on securing the freedom to grow to what stature he could, and produce by what methods he pleased.(p.141)

The processes of enclosure, conversion of arable land to pasture, dissolution and selling off of monastic land, rack-renting by covetous landlords, redistribution of endowments etc drew the anger of a number of preachers which included Latimer, Crowley, Lever, Becon and Ponet, who became known as the 'Commonwealth men' for their angry denunciations of the new State-backed policies promoting economic individualism. To quote Thomas Lever's fiery preaching
You which have gotten these goods into your own hands, to turn them from good unto evil, be ye sure it is even you that have offended God, beguiled the king, robbed the rich, spoiled the poor, and brought a common wealth into a common misery. (p.149)

or Latimer who preached


Both for the housynge and the lande That you have taken from the pore Ye shall in hell dwell evermore (p.151)

The Commonwealth men were outraged by the idea that private property or individual interest could trump any obligation towards the well-being of ones neighbour, or society as a whole. By the end of the 16th century the streams of Calvinist thought had developed into three doctrines, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism and Puritanism, which actually pervaded both but was not restricted to either. A Puritan was, Tawney argues someone who remakes, not only his own character and habits and way of life, but family and church, industry and city, political institutions and social order(p.200). Puritanism found its most ready adherents in a certain section of the English population,
those classes in society which combined economic independence, education and a certain decent pride in their status...Such, where the feudal spirit had been weakened by contact with town life and new intellectual currents, were some of the gentry. Such, conspicuously, were the yeomen 'mounted on a high spirit, as being slaves to none'...Such, above all, were the trading classes of the towns...(p.202).

These were of course the main section of Society that supported Parliament during the Revolution. England's increasing economic power and competitiveness following the Revolution was acknowledged by contemporaries as due to its Puritanism and its religious tolerance (of anything but Popery). As one pamphleteer stated in 1671
There is a kind of natural unaptness in the Popish religion to business, whereas on the contrary among the Reformed, the greater their zeal, the greater their inclination to trade and industry, as holding idleness unlawful...The domestic interest of England lieth in the advancement of trade by removing all obstructions both in city and country, and providing such laws as may help it, and make it most easy, especially in giving liberty of conscience to all Protestant Nonconformists, and denying it to Papists (p.206)

Tawney makes a very interesting point in regards to the opposing, contradictory nature of Puritanism. A contradiction that was amplified in the English Revolution where the two traditions split:
There was in Puritanism an element which was conservative and traditionalist, and an element which was revolutionary; a collectivism which grasped at an iron discipline, and an individualism which spurned the savourless mess of human ordinances; a sober prudence which would garner the fruits of this world, and a divine recklessness which would make all things new. For long nourished together, their discords concealed, in the furnace of the Civil War they fell apart...(p.212)

However in reality most groups and individual's ideas were a combination and synthesis of both these traditions rather than inhabiting one opposite or another. The conclusion of the Revolution heralded the defeat of the collectivist, half-communistic aspect of Puritanism. Instead the Individualism congenial to the world of business became the distinctive characteristic of a Puritanism which had arrived, and which, in becoming a political force, was at once secularized and committed to a career of compromise(p.233). Despite this, Tawney points out that Puritanism made an enormous contribution to political freedom and social progress...it is is possible that democracy owes more to Nonconformity than to any other single movement. (p.269) It was with Puritanism that the separation of Church policy from economic and social affairs was

completed, Puritanism taught individual responsibility, not social obligation...it prized as a crown of glory the qualities which arm the spiritual athlete for his solitary contest with a hostile world, and dismissed concern with the social order as the prop of weaklings...(p.270) Tawney's style is relatively accessible but often overly prosaic. Sometimes although rarely - a thorough analysis or explanation of a certain situation, event or process is eschewed in favour of some poetic language. In terms of bibliography, the sources Tawney favours are sermons, pamphlets, religious tracts, polemics of which he draws from a very rich and extensive familiarity and knowledge of. This gives the reader a very vivid idea of the atmosphere of religious dialogue for the given time periods. However, the bibliography is severely lacking when it comes to empirical, quantitative evidence which, for an economic history, is a huge shortcoming. Tawney's work would benefit significantly if the main elements of his argument were bolstered with economic facts and figures that concretely demonstrated the changes he was describing. The absence of empirical evidence also makes itself evident in the main body of the narrative. Actual events and factors tend to be mentioned off-handedly or as lists of several events. They do not occupy the central kernel of the narrative upon which the ideological, theoretical and historiographical discussions are built on. Instead most of the narrative seems more like a theoretical discussion interspersed with mention of social upheavals and economic developments or quotations of theologians. In the sections devoted to the feudal economy, Tawney tends to posit, prior to the encroachment of commercialisation, a homogeneous and inert, if not almost harmonious, feudal society - a body of class relations sharply defined by custom and law. But feudal customs were not just calcified traditions but relationships and regulations that were constantly being reinterpreted and redefined between the peasant and the landlord in light of struggles in the village economy. There is also a tendency to emphasise those who talked, preached and criticised over those who actually took action and made demands. For example the one time mention of anti-enclosure rebellions such as the Pilgrimage of Grace and Kett's Rebellion are made, they are almost immediately smothered by an in-depth discussion of the social thought of the Commonwealth men. This is also part of a broader trend in the work that, probably unintentionally, fails to distinguish between the anticapitalism of anti-enclosure rebellions and peasants uprisings, which in many cases were also anti-feudal, and the arguments of ecclesiastical authorities like Thomas More or later William Laud who criticised the encroachment of capitalism only because it meant the destruction of the rural, agrarian economy and therefore the destruction of the basis of feudal relations and feudal society. Often it seems that ecclesiastical authorities are given a louder voice than the actual classes and groups that were involved in the economic and social relations and related upheavals. Another shortcoming of the work is where Tawney's personal conviction awkwardly enter the narrative. There is no such thing as a completely objective historian but again it is precisely because Tawney does not supply the sides he takes with his arguments with sufficient evidence which means that those parts of the argument seem artificial and tacked on. For example when discussing the wealth accrued from financial capitalism by European states in the early 16th century, Tawney argues that the sluice which they opened to drain away each new accession of superfluous wealth was war.(p.86) and had they only chosen peace (as if it were simply a choice!) then all of that wealth could have been used for better purposes. This is in line with Tawney's pacifist sympathies. However, often war was the pre-requisite for the opening up of the trade routes and the markets in the first place, other times war created the demand for the goods that trade supplied, most of the time war was the direct consequence of competition for trade routes. There was no separating the issue of merchant's trading and war. Here we can see Tawney's pacifist beliefs are grafted, anachronistically and awkwardly onto the historical narrative. Despite these criticisms Tawney manages to grasp the fundamental relationships and conflicts between the various concepts he discusses, between the economy and religion, between feudalism and capitalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, in a bold and consistent way. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism was one of the first works to not only place several significant arguments at the forefront; that the shifts that occurred in the Early Modern economy was the destruction of feudalism and its replacement by capitalism; that the Catholic church, generally, represented the interests of a feudal society; that Protestantism was primarily the ideology of the middling sort;

that the growth of Protestant thought was linked directly with the growth of capitalism; that the Civil War was in some sense a bourgeois revolution led by the Puritans; but also place them all in a consistent and over-arching narrative.