The idea that Protestants invented capitalism is a myth. In fact the system dates back to the 9th century and the great monastic estates

I was raised on the glories of the Reformation. Like all Lutherans, each Sunday I was further enlightened about Catholic wickedness and about how Martin Luther had set us free to think for ourselves and to seek knowledge, thereby bringing about the modern world. Although I had outgrown much of this by the time I entered graduate school, once there I was instructed in depth and detail in the gospel of Max Weber (1864–1920): that Protestantism gave birth to a unique work ethic that spawned capitalism, and thus it is that modernity is a direct result of the Reformation.

Even now, Weber’s thesis of the “Protestant work ethic” lives on among sociologists, being recounted in detail in every introductory textbook on the market. According to Weber, Protestants dominated the capitalist economy of the West because of all the world’s religions only Protestantism provided a moral vision that led people to restrain their material consumption while vigorously seeking wealth.

Weber argued that prior to the Reformation restraint on consumption was invariably linked to asceticism and, hence, to condemnations of commerce. Conversely, the pursuit of wealth was linked to profligate consumption. Either cultural pattern was inimical to capitalism. Weber claimed that the Protestant ethic shattered these traditional linkages, creating a culture of frugal entrepreneurs content to systematically reinvest profits in order to pursue ever greater wealth; and therein lies the key to capitalism and the path to modernity.

Perhaps because it was such an elegant thesis, it was widely accepted – despite the fact that it was so obviously wrong. As a great deal of subsequent research has demonstrated, Catholic areas of western Europe did not lag in their industrial development. And fully developed capitalism had appeared in Europe many centuries before the Reformation.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper explained: “The idea that large-scale industrial capitalism was ideologically impossible before the Reformation is exploded by the simple fact that it existed.” The celebrated Fernand Braudel complained that “all historians have opposed this tenuous theory [the Protestant ethic], although they have not managed to be rid of it once and for all. Yet it is clearly false. The northern countries took over the place that earlier had been so long and brilliantly occupied by the old capitalist centres of the Mediterranean. They invented nothing, either in technology or business management.” Moreover, during their critical period of economic development, these northern centres of capitalism were Catholic, not Protestant – the Reformation still lay well into the future.

Everyone writing on capitalism accepts that it rests upon free markets, secure property rights and free (uncoerced) labour. By this definition, capitalism was a very Catholic invention: it first appeared in the great Catholic monastic estates, way back in the 9th century.

Many of the very early Church Fathers shared the views prevalent in the Greco-Roman world that commerce is a degrading activity and, at best, involves great moral risk – that it is very difficult to avoid sin in the course of buying and selling. However, soon after the conversion of Constantine in 312, attitudes toward commerce began to mellow, leading Augustine to teach that wickedness was not inherent in commerce, but that, as with any occupation, it was up to the individual to live righteously.

This helped bring about the eventual deep involvement of the Church in the birth of capitalism, when its earliest forms began to appear in about the 9th century in the great estates belonging to monastic orders. Because of the immense increases in agricultural productivity that resulted from such significant innovations, such as the switch to horses, the heavy mouldboard plough and the three-field system, the monastic estates were no longer limited to mere subsistence agriculture. Instead, they began to specialise in particular crops or products and to sell these at a profit, allowing them to purchase their other needs, which led them to initiate a cash economy. They also began to reinvest their profits to increase their productive capacity, and as their incomes continued to mount, this led many monasteries to became banks, lending to the nobility – as they did to so many Crusaders.

As Randall Collins noted, this was not merely a sort of “proto” capitalism involving only the “institutional preconditions for capitalism … but a version of the developed characteristics of capitalism itself”. Collins referred to this as “religious capitalism”, adding that the “dynamism of the medieval economy was primarily that of the Church”.

Throughout the medieval era the Church was by far the largest landowner in Europe, and its liquid assets and annual income not only far surpassed that of the wealthiest king, but probably that of all of Europe’s nobility added together. Many Cistercian houses farmed 100,000 acres, and one in Hungary had fields totalling 250,000 acres.

Until this era, the estates were largely self-sufficient. But with the great gains in productivity came specialisation and trade. Some estates only produced wine, others grew only several grains, some only raised cattle or sheep – the Cistercians at Fossanova specialised in raising fine horses.

Meanwhile, the rapid increase in agricultural surpluses encouraged the founding and growth of towns and cities – indeed, many of the monastic centres themselves became cities. Writing about the great monastery of St Gall in Switzerland, Christopher Dawson noted that by 820 it was “no longer the simple religious community envisaged by the old monastic rules, but a vast complex of buildings, churches, workshops, store-houses, offices, schools and alms-houses, housing a whole population of dependents, workers and servants like the temple cities of antiquity”.

When estates grew into small cities and sustained many scattered outposts, they evolved a more sophisticated and far-seeing management. Unlike the nobility, monks’ affairs were not subject to the vagaries of inherited leadership. The essential meritocracy built into the orders could ensure a succession of talented and dedicated administrators having the capacity to pursue plans of long duration. As the historian Georges Duby put it, the new era forced monastic “administrators to turn their attention to the domestic economy, to reckon up, to handle figures, to calculate profits and losses, to think about ways and means of expanding production”.

Attendant to specialisation was a second development, a shift from a barter to a cash economy. It simply was too complicated and unwieldy for a winemaking estate, say, to barter for its other needs, transporting goods hither and yon. It proved far more efficient to sell its wine for cash and then buy whatever was needed from the most convenient and economical sources.

Beginning late in the 9th century, the reliance on cash spread rapidly. In 1247, a Franciscan chronicler wrote of his order’s estate in Burgundy that the monks “do not sow or reap, nor do they store anything in barns, but they send wine to Paris, because they have a river right at hand that goes to Paris, and they sell for a good price, from which they get all their food and all of the clothes they wear.”

In contrast, the estates of Greco-Roman times were entirely, or primarily, self-sufficient, subsistence operations. Moreover, they were so unproductive that a wealthy family required huge estates in order to live in style. But, even in its earliest stages, capitalism brought immense wealth to orders having only modest fields and flocks.

Meanwhile, the great monasteries began to utilise a hired labour force, more productive than either the monks or tenants required to provide periods of compulsory labour. Thus, as “religious capitalism” unfolded, monks still faithfully performed their duties, but aside from those engaged in liturgy, the rest now “worked” as executives and foremen. In this way, the medieval monasteries came to resemble remarkably “modern” firms – well administered and quick to adopt the latest technological advances.

Traditional societies celebrate consumption while holding work in contempt. This is true not only of the privileged elite, but even of those whose days are spent in toil. Notions such as the “dignity” of labour or the idea that work is a virtuous activity were incomprehensible in ancient Rome or in any other pre-capitalist society.

Rather, just as spending is the purpose of wealth, the preferred approach to work is to have someone else do it and, failing that, to do as little as possible. In China, the Mandarins grew their fingernails as long as they could (even wearing silver sheaths to protect them from breaking) in order to make it evident that they did no labour.

Consequently, capitalism seems to require and to encourage a remarkably different attitude toward work – to see it as intrinsically virtuous and also to recognise the virtue of restricting one’s consumption. Of course, Max Weber identified this as the Protestant ethic, so-called because he believed it to be absent from Catholic culture. But Weber was wrong.

Belief in the virtues of work and of simple living did accompany the rise of capitalism, but this was centuries before Martin Luther was born. Despite the fact that many, perhaps even most, monks and nuns were from the nobility and wealthiest families, they honoured work not only in theological terms, but also by actually doing it. In Randall Collins’s words, they “had the Protestant ethic without Protestantism”.

The virtue of work was made evident in the 6th century by St Benedict, who wrote in his famous Rule: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have specified periods for manual labour as well as prayerful reading … When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the Apostles did, then they are really monks.”

This commitment to manual labour distinguishes Christian asceticism from that found in other religious cultures, where piety is associated with rejection of the world and its activities. In contrast with Eastern holy men, for example, who specialise in meditation and live by charity, medieval Christian monastics lived by their own labour, sustaining highly productive estates. If this was not capitalism in all its glory, it was certainly close enough.

This is an extract from Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (Templeton Press)

This article first appeared in the March 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here