Debt and Usury Case Usury

Topics: Debt, Interest, Usury Pages: 21 (8060 words) Published: April 26, 2009
History and Background
To begin my research, I wanted to get a clear understanding of just exactly what usury was and how it came about. The word usury is derived from both the Medieval Latin word usuria, meaning "interest" or "excessive interest", and from the Latin word usura, which simply means "interest". At that point in time, the definition of usury meant the charging of interest on loans, but over time after the legislation of countries to limit the rate of interest on loans, the definition of usury came to mean the interest above the lawful rate. As it stands today, usury would be found to mean the charging of unreasonable or relatively high rates of interest. The practice of usury can be traced back over four thousand years ago (Jain, 1929), and during its subsequent history it has been repeatedly condemned, prohibited, scorned and restricted, mainly on moral, ethical, religious and legal grounds.  Among its most visible and vocal critics have been the religious institutions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.  Other critics also included ancient Western philosophers and politicians, as well as various modern socio-economic reformers. In regards to the religious institutions of Hinduism and Buddhism, the oldest known references to usury were found in ancient Indian religious manuscripts (Jain, 1929). The earliest reference was found in the Vedic texts of Ancient India (2,000-1,400 BC) in which the word “usurer” was mentioned several times and interpreted as meaning “any lender at interest.”  More frequent and detailed references to interest payment are to be found in the later Sutra texts (700-100 BC), as well as the Buddhist Jatakas (600-400 BC).  It was during these times when the condemnation of usury was first expressed. Usury in Islam became well known through the teachings in the Holy Quran[i] by the Prophet Mohammed, dating back to around 600 AD.  The word they used for usury was riba which means “excess or addition”. This referred directly to interest on loans so that the prohibition of interest was a well established working principle integrated into the Islamic economic system and also what was described by a couple of Islamic economists as “a gradual evolution of the institutions of interest-free financial enterprises across the world” (Choudhury and Malik, 1992).  Usury in Judaism has its roots in several Biblical passages in which the taking of interest is either forbidden, discouraged or scorned.[ii]  The Hebrew word for interest is neshekh, which means "a bite" and is believed to refer to the exaction of interest from the point of view of the debtor.  In the Exodus and Leviticus texts of the Bible, neshekh applies only to lending to the poor and destitute, while in Deuteronomy, the prohibition of it is extended to include all money lending, excluding only business dealings with foreigners.  Usury in Christianity was derived heavily from the usury in Judaism, however, a new reference to usury was introduced in the New Testament of the Bible.[iii] Based on the texts in the New Testament, the Roman Catholic Church had by the fourth century AD prohibited the taking of interest by the clergy. In the eighth century under Charlemagne, they took it a step further and declared usury to be a general criminal offence.  This movement continued to gain momentum during the early Middle Ages and perhaps reached its peak in 1311 when Pope Clement V made the ban on usury absolute and declared all secular legislation in its favor, null and void (Birnie, 1952). Usury was denounced by a number of Ancient Western philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, the two Catos, Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch. For instance, both Plato and Aristotle viewed usury as being immoral and unjust. Evidence that these sentiments found their concurrent manifestation in the civil law of that period can be seen, for example, from the Lex Genucia reforms in Republican Rome (340...
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