2018-09-17

Book Review: "Medici Money" by Tim Parks

I've recently read the book Medici Money by Tim Parks. It's a book that covers the rise, consolidation of money and power, and downfall of the Medici banking family in Florence in the 15th century. It focuses on the main players in the Medici family as they relate to their banking business, and how that business grew, became intertwined in politics & religion, and was able to fund the collection & creation of artworks and other cultural artifacts; the whole story is just a long power play, with jockeying between Medici family members, popes & cardinals, politicians, and competing nobility & business interests.

The book itself is a well-written, engaging, fun jaunt through that period in history; by the fact that it only has a casual section at the end containing bibliographic notes, without having a formal bibliography, footnotes, or endnotes, I can tell this was written for popular rather than technical/academic consumption, which I can appreciate. It was particularly interesting to see the tensions, contradictions, and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church's views on usury (in the old sense of lending money at any nonzero interest rate) explored fully in this book: the argument is that usury allowed ordinary people to become wealthy without needing to inherit it or work as hard, upending the social order, while the Catholic Church depended on usury to fund its own wars & extravagant lifestyles even as it condemned the practice (though even people at that time struggled to find coherent Biblical justifications for injunctions against usury), leading to weird debates about whether some commercial practices like speculation on currency exchanges were really usury in disguise. My only quibble is that the author ties the notion of usury too much to currency: the way I see it, currency simply liquefies commercial value across space (i.e. making value available across different geographic areas), while usury liquefies commercial value across time (i.e. making value available to future buyers), so while currency certainly makes usury much more feasible by combining liquidity in space and time, it is conceivable to imagine usury without currency, simply through bonds between people expecting greater future returns to be settled through consensual barter. Overall, I think this book could be an interesting and fun history for a general audience.

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