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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