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A subject of interest: usurers on trial in early nineteenth-century France

  • Erika Vause (a1)
Abstract

This article examines perceptions and practices of habitual usury, a crime consisting of lending above the legal rate of interest on multiple occasions, in early nineteenth-century France using descriptions of usury trials found in the popular legal periodical the Gazette des Tribunaux. Following the French Revolution, French law legitimized lending at interest in principle, but punished ‘habitual usurers’ who ‘made a profession’ from lending above the legal limit. The decades that followed witnessed striking growth in banking, joint-stock companies and other financial institutions. Highlighting the connections between cultural constructions of the usurer and the actual processes deemed usurious, this article seeks to understand a paradox: that usury was deemed omnipresent in French society yet it was rarely prosecuted. By examining how habitual usury was defined and prosecuted in French courtrooms, this article shows how habitual usurers both validated and undermined stereotypical notions of predatory lending behavior found in popular culture of the time. Habitual usury trials also reveal the actual practices that allowed those excluded from formal financial networks to participate in the growth of capitalist relations. This article argues that the nineteenth-century obsession with the usurer can be explained by the crucial role played by usurious practices in the credit economy of the period. As such, prosecution of usury tended to focus on the character of the usury rather than the actual practice of illegal lending. This article suggests that by occasionally prosecuting particularly egregious ‘immoral’ moneylenders, the legal system and journals like the Gazette des Tribunaux worked to keep credit accessible to the ‘underbanked’.

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Copyright
Corresponding author
Dr Erika Vause, Department of History and Political Science, Florida Southern College, 111 Lake Hollingsworth Drive, Lakeland, Florida 33801, USA; email: evause@flsouthern.edu.
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The author is grateful to two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and suggestions.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

F. Chauvaud (1984). L'usure au xixe siècle: le fléau des campagnes. études rurales, 95–6, pp. 293313.

A. Gueslin (1992). Usure et usuriers dans les campagnes françaises du xixe siècle. Cahier des Annales de Normandie, 24, pp. 135–44.

W. Reddy (1987). Money and Liberty in Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Y. Rinaudo (1980). Usure et crédit dans les campagnes du Var au xixe siècle. Annales du Midi: revue archéologique, historique et philologique de la France méridionale, 92, pp. 431–52.

H. Smith. (1999). The discourse of usury: relations between Christians and Jews in the German countryside, 1880–1914. Central European History, 32, pp. 255–76.

E. Vause (2014). Disciplining the market: debt imprisonment, public credit, and the construction of commercial personhood in revolutionary France. Law and History Review, 32, pp. 647–82.

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Financial History Review
  • ISSN: 0968-5650
  • EISSN: 1474-0052
  • URL: /core/journals/financial-history-review
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