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Bankers, pawnbrokers, actors, jugglers, acrobats, quacks, and brothel keepers...in 16th Century Holland

posted by Adam Levitin

It's pretty amazing how the status of some professions has changed over time.  I came across this astounding passage in Simon Schama's The Embarassment of Riches:  An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (now you know what I read for fun): 

"Bankers were excluded from communion by an ordinance of 1581, joining a list of other shady occupations---pawnbrokers, actors, jugglers, acrobats, quacks, and brothel keepers---that were disqualified from receiving God's grace.  Their wives were permitted to join the Lord's Supper, but only on condition that they publicly declared their repugnance for their husband's profession!  Their families shared the taint and were only permitted to join communion after a public profession of distaste for dealing in money.  It was not until 1658 that the States of Holland [the representatives of the estates of nobles and commoners to the court of Holland] persuaded the church to withdraw this humiliating prohibition on "lombards."

That's a remarkable shunning of those in finance by a culture that was absolutely obsessed with material goods of every sort (tulips, satin, brocade, damasks, gold, silver, pearls, etc.).  There's a long history of religious discomfort with finance, but to see this in as commercial of an early modern culture as there was surprised me. 

Comments

I didn't know that, thank you!

Hello pot, this is kettle...

"In tribal times, there were the medicine men. In the Middle Ages, there were the priests. Today, there are the lawyers. For every age, a group of bright boys, learned in their trades and jealous of their learning, who blend technical competence with plain and fancy hocus-pocus to make themselves masters of their fellow men. For every age, a pseudo-intellectual autocracy, guarding the tricks of the trade from the uninitiated, and running, after its own pattern, the civilization of its day."
- Fred Rodell

or

"While law is supposed to be a device to serve society, a civilized way of helping the wheels go round without too much friction, it is pretty hard to find a group less concerned with serving society and more concerned with serving themselves than the lawyers."
- Fred Rodell

Of course, Rodell isn't exactly an impartial witness, so let's consider...

"Undistinguished and often shabby in appearance, Ulysses S. Grant did not recommend himself to strangers by looks. He once entered an inn at Galena, Illinois, on a stormy winter's night. A number of lawyers, in town for a court session, were clustered around the fire. One looked up as Grant appeared and said, 'Here's a stranger, gentlemen, and by the looks of him he's travelled through hell itself to get here.'

'That's right,' said Grant cheerfully.

'And how did you find things down there?'

'Just like here,' replied Grant, 'Lawyers all closest to the fire.' "

I suppose that Grant wasn't particularly admirable either, so how about...

"As your attorney, it is my duty to inform you that it is not important that you understand what I'm doing or why you're paying me so much money. What's important is that you continue to do so."
- Hunter S. Thompson's Samoan Attorney

Cazart! That's the best I can do? A quote from an unreformed degenerate? How about we bring out the big guns...

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2

Of course, I'm taking that completely out of context. Still, it's a bit incongruous for a lawyer to be pulling out historical quotes that bash bankers. In both cases, it's like shooting fish in a barrel. One would wonder, however, why I couldn't dredge up some better quotes...

Chabot simply missed the point of the quotation. It wasn't to bash bankers. There are plenty of easy ways to do that without reaching back to early modern Holland. And I don't think I've ever put the legal profession up on a pedestal.

The point I thought I made pretty explicitly in the first sentence of the post was that there's been a stunning CHANGE in the way banking has been viewed as a profession. Not many other professions have had that sort of change in status. Certainly not lawyers, as the quotations provided by Chabot show.

Oh, I see. Through this quote, you were trying to point out that bankers were viewed as scum in the past, in contrast to their "esteemed" position today. I thought that you were noting how bankers were considered to be scum in the past, with the implicit similarity to their standing - which I would generally interpret to be scum - today.

Anyway, I guess that's the point, although I may still be wrong. Sorry for being obtuse, but maybe you're being a bit too subtle.

Also, sorry for the lawyer quotes. Only for its randomness, I'm particularly fond of the H.S. Thompson one. That's the only one I won't retract. "As your attorney, I advise you to..." - Thompson managed to pervert that statement better than almost anyone.

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