John Contreni

title.none: Newhauser, The Early History of Greed (John Contreni)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.019 04.01.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Contreni, Purdue Univ.,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Newhauser, Richard. The Early History of Greed: The Sin of Avarice in Early Medieval Thought and Literature. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 246. ISBN: 0-512-38522-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.19

Newhauser, Richard. The Early History of Greed: The Sin of Avarice in Early Medieval Thought and Literature. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 246. ISBN: 0-512-38522-9.

Reviewed by:

John Contreni
Purdue Univ.

Writing to King Charles the Bald about the vices Christians ought to avoid, Hincmar of Reims (845-882) borrowed liberally from Gregory the Great's Moralia in Iob and his homilies on the Gospels. But Hincmar drove home his own points even while using the language of others. Where Gregory emphasized pride as the root of all evil, Hincmar substituted greed (see Hinkmar von Reims: De cavendis vitiis et virtutibus exercendis, ed. Doris Nachtmann [Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1998]). And therein lies a tale, well told by Richard Newhauser in this engaging book. Greed or avarice has had its own modern history in the literature as one of the Deadly Sins. Newhauser's emphasis falls on avarice as a social problem and on the changing attitudes toward the sin as the Christian community grew in numbers and in cultural complexity.

As with so many other elements of early Christian thought, thinking about greed first began in North Africa and in the east. Clement of Alexandria's position, not surprisingly given his urban experience and audience, was moderate. Wealth per se was not evil. What mattered was the attitude of the wealthy toward their possessions. Origen, also of Alexandria, but a teacher, not a bishop, was less flexible. Perfection demanded total renunciation of wealth and practiced cultivation of poverty. Cyprian of Carthage agreed, but to a point. Those who remained in the world could attenuate the evil potential of their wealth by almsgiving. Almsgiving balanced wealth. To prove his point, Cyprian painted a trenchant portrait of the unbalanced Christian, the miser. Newhauser notes that Cyprian and after him Hilary of Poitiers stressed not only the social damage caused by the miser, but also the psychological state of busyness, fear, and loneliness that characterized those fixed on insatiable acquisitiveness. Newhauser's attentiveness to the psychological dimensions of his authors' analyses is especially welcome and enriches a study that might simply have charted changing attitudes toward materialism. As he points out, apropos of Basil the Great's teaching to his flock, what mattered uppermost was the personality of the individual Christian. Basil "saw in avarice the culmination of the egotism of possession, not the mere fact of possession itself" (29).

The tension between monastic and episcopal attitudes characterized thinking about avarice in the Latin West. Cassian, recognizing the social consequences of greed, counseled renunciation, the monastic ideal of "absolute possessionlessness" (69). Ambrose and a host of northern Italian bishops in the fourth and fifth centuries eschewed monastic ideals for the reality of private ownership. It is the attitude of the possessor that matters. Material possessions could be beneficent when they allowed the wealthy Christian to perform charitable acts. As Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville and others contributed to the evolving concept of greed, they also elaborated the relationship of the vice to other vices and to their opposites, the virtues. Although teaching about the vice became more nuanced and contextualized, the focus remained fixed on greed as the principal vice. Ambrosius Autpertus, to take one example, was another writer for whom, like Hincmar, "pride does not go before avarice" (115). All this centuries-long discussion about greed that Newhauser traces with such skill and insight might, at first, surprise the casual observer of the early Middle Ages. Was not the period especially known for its poverty, not its riches? But ecclesiastical writers addressed their concerns to the wealthy few, whose love of gain caused great social harm to the poor and weak. In the Carolingian age, writers such as Alcuin in his Liber de uirtutibus et uitiis written for the layman, Wido, margrave of Brittany, and Jonas of Orleans in his De institutione laicali written for Count Matfrid of Orleans showed wealthy lay people how they could remain good Christians while still remaining wealthy. They key for the Carolingians, was not renunciation, but moderation. Only when wealth begets lust for wealth did wealth become a public evil. (Readers interested in a more detailed treatment of the Carolingian period, should consult Newhauser's essay, "Towards modus in habendo: Transformations in the Idea of Avarice: The Early Penitentials through the Carolingian Reforms," Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung fur Rechtsgeschichte, Kanonistische Abteilung 75 (1989), 1-22.) The Carolingian balance was not to last. The emergence of the profit economy of the tenth and eleventh century and increasing opportunities for the acquisition of wealth by more people led moralists to condemn acquisitiveness not so much for the social evil that it caused, but for the social change it seemed to promote. Others of an eschatological frame of mind saw the new wealth and commercialism of urban Europe as a sign of decay and the fall from grace.

An appendix collects an interesting roster of images writers employed when thinking about greed. Fire, fingers, foxes, thirst, Midas, and wolves still conjure greed in modern minds, but bears, camels, cows, dogs, a fortress, horses, impetigo, shackles, and shipwrecks are but a few of the many terms that also flowed from early Christian and medieval pens when it came to driving home the lessons of greed.

Although a slim book (131 pages of text), this is an important study. Newhauser shows us how the history of ideas should be done. His penetrating analysis keeps greed firmly in view, but not simply as a concept. His pursuit of greed in thought and literature is grounded in thinking about human psychology and early Christian and medieval society.