The High Middle Ages were established by the commercial revolution of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, in which trade, production and finance flourished, living standards rose markedly, and the institutions of commercial capitalism developed in western Europe. With the advent of economic growth and prosperity, canon and Roman law, learning and social thought, also began to flourish once again.
The fountainhead and great centre of both canon and Roman law studies during the High Middle Ages was the University of Bologna, in Italy, flourishing from the early twelfth century to the latter part of the thirteenth. During those two centuries, both canon and Roman law, including the Justinian Code, were revived at Bologna, influenced each other, and penetrated to the rest of western Europe.
The great and definitive collection of canon law, the Decretum, was published around the year 1140 by the Italian monk, Johannes Gratian, who founded canon law studies at the University of Bologna. The Decretum was the definitive canon law work from that point on, and for the remainder of the twelfth century Bolognese scholars, known as the decretists, elaborated, discussed, and wrote glosses on Gratian's work.
Gratian himself and his early glossators took a traditional zealous anti-merchant position. Speculation, buying cheap to sell dear – purely mercantile activities – were turpe lucrum and inevitably involved fraud.
The first decretist to begin to take an intelligent position on the activities of the merchant was Rufinus, a professor at Bologna who later became bishop of Assisi and then archbishop of Sorrento. In his Summa (1157–59) to the Decretum, Rufinus pointed out that artisans and craftsmen could buy materials cheaply, work on them and transform them, and then sell the product at a higher price. This form of buying cheap and selling dear was justified by the craftsmen's expenses and labour, and is permissible even to the clergy as well as to the laity. However, another activity, practised by the pure merchant or speculator, who buys cheap and sells dear without transforming the product is, according to Rufinus, absolutely forbidden to the clergy. The lay merchant, however, could honourably engage in these transactions provided that he had either made heavy expenditures or was fatigued by hard labour. But a pure entrepreneurial cheap purchase to be followed by a sale when market prices were higher was condemned unconditionally by Rufinus.
This partial rehabilitation of the merchant by the decretists was included in the important Summa of 1188 of Huguccio, professor at Bologna, later chosen bishop of Ferrara. Huguccio repeated the views of Rufinus, but shifted the justification of the merchant from labour or expenses to actions that provide for the needs of the merchant's family. Huguccio's stress, then, was not on objective costs but on the subjective intentions of the merchant, supposing that they could be discovered: was it mere greed or was it a desire to fulfil his family's needs? Clearly, Huguccio allowed considerable room for mercantile activities.
Moreover, Huguccio began a radical reconstruction of Patristic teachings about private property. From the time of Huguccio, private property was to be considered a sacrosanct right derived from the natural law. The property of individuals and communities was, at least in principle, supposed to be free from arbitrary invasion on the part of the state. As ‘moderator and arbiter’ of his own goods, an individual owner could use and dispose of them as he saw fit, provided that he did not violate general legal rules. A ruler could only expropriate the property of an innocent subject if ‘public necessity’ required it. This, of course, was a hole in the system of rights, since ‘public necessity’ could be and was an elastic concept. But this concept of private property was an enormous advance over patristic teachings.
After the late twelfth century, the decretist movement in canon law gave way to the decretalists, who based themselves on a stream of papal edicts or decretals, from the late twelfth to the thirteenth century. Since the pope is supreme in the Catholic Church, the decretals pronounced by him and his Vatican curia automatically became incorporated into the body of canon law. In this way, canon law came to differ from that of Gratian and the Decretists, who built the law chiefly on ancient sources. But the new decretals were scarcely arbitrary; they built on and elaborated previous canon law. The continuity of the building process was greatly aided by the fact that several of these popes were former Bolognese. Thus, Pope Alexander III (Roland Bandinelli), who initiated the new decretal process and who enjoyed a long papal reign from 1159 to 1181, had studied both law and theology at Bologna, was probably a professor there, and had direct contact with the great Gratian. A distinguished legal scholar, who himself had written an early Summa to Gratian's Decretum, Alexander became cardinal and chancellor before being elected to the papacy. Another significant papal decretalist, Pope Innocent II (Lothaire de Segni), who reigned from 1198 to 1216, had studied canon law under Huguccio at Bologna. Finally, Pope Gregory IX (Ugolino de Segni), a pontiff from 1227 to 1241, commissioned and published the momentous Decretals in 1234, incorporating Gratian's Decretum of a century before in addition to the various papal decretals. Gregory IX's Decretals became the standard work of canon law from that point on.
The decretalists had a far more favourable attitude towards merchants and the free market than had the early decretists. In the first place, instead of the negative patristic attitude toward merchants and trade, the decretalists, beginning with Pope Alexander III and continuing through Gregory IX, incorporated the free market attitude of the Roman law. Unfortunately, it was not the pure laissez-faire attitude of the Theodosian or even Justinian law. For when the Justinian Code came to Bologna and western Europe at the beginning of the twelfth century, the French author of the Brachylogus took up the laesio enormis principle of the Justinian Code and greatly changed its meaning. Instead of applying the concept of ‘just price’ differing from the actual price to the assessment of damages as in the Justinian Code, the Brachylogus expanded the concept from real estate to all goods, and from assessing damages to actual sales. In the hands of the Brachylogus, if any sale, even a voluntary one, had been made at less than half the ‘just price’, the seller could present the buyer with the choice: either pay me the difference between the sale price and the just price, or else rescind the contract, with the buyer returning the goods and the seller returning the payment. It has been pointed out that this was not a cartelizing device, since neither third parties nor the state could step in to enforce laesio enormis; the enforcement had to be done on a charge made by the seller himself.
The Roman law developing during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was largely the product of the University of Bologna, where Roman law studies had been founded by Irnerius in the late eleventh century. In the mid-twelfth century, the Bolognese Roman jurists began to incorporate the broader concept of laesio enormis of the Brachylogus. About 1150, the Provençal Lo Codi, a popular adaptation of a recent Bolognese Summa, added another fateful expansion of laesio enormis. For the first time, this Provençal work included buyers as well as sellers as suffering from laesio enormis, when the sale price was significantly higher than the just price. In the Lo Codi, if a buyer had paid more than twice the true value, or just price, of a product, then the seller had the option either to pay the buyer the difference between the just and the sale price, or else rescind the contract. Remarkably, when the Lo Codi was translated back into Latin, this new extended restriction on laissez-faire was added to the Roman law, particularly by Albericus, professor of Roman law at Bologna, in his canon law collection at the end of the twelfth century.
The burgeoning principle of laesio enormis reached its final extension in the late twelfth century work of the Bolognese-trained Petrus Placentinus. Placentinus lowered the maximum permissible price to 1.5 times the just price, beyond which the principle of laesio enormis went into effect. This final expansion was incorporated into the works of the three great Bolognese Roman law professors of the thirteenth century: Azo (c.1210); Azo's highly influential student and follower Accursius (c.1228–60), a native of Florence; and the culmination of the Bolognese school in Odofredus, in the mid-thirteenth century.
While it is true that the twelfth and thirteenth century Romanists took the trivial concept of laesio enormis and made it a significant restriction on freedom of bargaining and laissez-faire, at least by the late twelfth century they also made clear that there was to be full freedom of bargaining and freedom to outwit the other, within the matrix of laesio enormis. The decretalists, beginning with Pope Alexander III, incorporated much of this developing Roman law. This meant that Church law now included not only the patristic fulminations against merchants per se, but also the contrasting Romanist tradition of full freedom of bargaining within the laesio enormis matrix. The decretalists reached their culmination, after building on and glossing the Decretals of Gregory IX, in the works of Cardinal Henricus Hostiensis de Segusio, first in the late 1250s and finally in 1271, the year of his death. Hostiensis had studied canon and Roman law at Bologna, had taught in England and France and was cardinal-archbishop of Ostia.
The decretalists justified speculative buying and selling, freeing it from the sin of turpe lucrum, by adopting and expanding the Huguccian line that speculation was permissible if the speculator was acting to fulfil the needs of his family. In the Gloss of the French Dominican canonist William of Rennes (c. 1250), this area of freedom was broadened still further. A merchant's or speculator's actions were not considered sinful unless he was driven by ‘a wanton desire for having temporal riches, not for necessary use or utility, but for curiosity, so that the fancy is charmed by such, just as a magpie or a crow is enticed by coins, which they discover and hide away’. Surely this kind of stricture, which can only apply to a few persons in the real world, had come very far from the patristic denunciations of merchants and traders per se.
Another loosening of restrictions came with Alanus Anglicus, an English-born professor of canon law at Bologna, writing in the first two decades of the thirteenth century. Alanus declared that no turpe lucrum (or usury, for that matter) could exist if the future price of a good was uncertain in the mind of the merchant. Not only is uncertainty always present in the market, but also it is impossible for outside courts or authorities to prove that a merchant did not feel uncertain when he bought or sold. In effect, all turpe lucrum restrictions on trade or speculation had now been removed.
In analysing business profits, the later thirteenth century canonists added to the older justification of profit as covering labour plus expenses. This was the element of risk, present in every business situation. Increase of price as a consequence of risk was first justified in the prominent canon law commentaries of Pope Innocent IV (Sinibaldo Fieschi), published between 1246 and 1253. Before becoming pope, Innocent had been a native of Genoa and a student of Roman and canon law at Bologna, a professor of Roman law at that university, and finally a cardinal and a famous statesman.
If transactions were to be sinful and illegal beyond a certain zone above or below the just price, then the Church and the authorities had to find some way of figuring out what the just price was supposed to be. This had not been a problem before the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, since the doctrine of laesio enormis had not really been applied before. The Romanist and canonist solution, reminiscent of Carolingian doctrine, was that the just price was the going, current, common market price (the communis aestimatio). This meant either the competitive, general market price as contrasted to single isolated transactions, or it could refer to prices fixed by governments or government-privileged guilds, since such controls, by strict legality, would be the going de jure price. Perhaps it would have been beneath the dignity of these jurists to sanction or even recognize any black market prices that violated such regulations.
Placentinus used this criterion in late twelfth century Roman jurisprudence, as did in particular Azo in the early thirteenth. Azo was liberal enough to refer to the price of a sale equalling that of any other comparable sale as being a ‘just price’, but Accursius, and after him Odofredus, explicitly referred to the general or common market price as being the standard of justice. As Accursius put it, ‘a thing was valued at that for which it could be commonly sold’.
The canon lawyers adopted the same criterion for the just price. Influenced by Carolingian practice, and by hints from the sixth century Rule of St Benedict, the late twelfth century canonist and student of Gratian, Simon of Bosignano, first described the true value of goods as the price for which they commonly sold. The same position was then taken by the decretalists in the thirteenth century. Canonists and Romanists alike were now agreed on the common price of a good as the just one.
But still the developed canonists of the thirteenth century had a problem. On the one hand, they had adopted the Roman law view that all free bargaining was legitimate except for a zone more than a certain degree above or beyond the ‘just price’, which they held to be the going, common market price. But on the other hand, they had inherited from the Church Fathers and the earlier decretists a hostility toward mercantile, especially speculative, transactions. How could they square this contradiction?
Partly, as we have seen, they were able to weaken the extent of shameful speculation. Also, from the thirteenth century on, the Church and its canon lawyers largely solved the problem through the highly sensible doctrine of the ‘two forums’ over which the Church exercised jurisdiction. The ‘external forum’ – the jus fori – judged the social activities of Christians in public ecclesiastical courts. There the courts judged offences against the Church and her common law in much the same procedures as the secular courts. On the other hand, the ‘internal forum’ – the jus poli – was the confessional, in which the priest judged individual Christians on the basis of their personal relation to God. The two forums were separate and distinct, the respective judgements on two different levels. While the Church presumed to rule over both, the one was external and social, the other private and personal.
The doctrine of the two forums enabled the canonists to resolve the seeming contradiction in canon law. The free-bargaining, laesio enormis, common market principle was the realm of external law and the open court, where, in other words, a roughly free market could prevail. On the other hand, the strictures against mercantile profits going beyond labour, costs, and risk were a matter not for the state and external law, but for conscience in the confessional. Even more obviously for the confessional alone were the injunctions against trade or speculation based on avarice as going beyond honourable need to support one's family. Clearly, only the man himself, internally in his conscience, could know his intentions; they were scarcely observable by external law.