The Spirit of French Capitalism
Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment
Charly Coleman



AT THE DAWN OF THE FRENCH ENLIGHTENMENT, Jean-Frédéric Bernard and Bernard Picart published a seminal work of comparative religion. Both were Huguenot refugees who had fled France for the Dutch Republic. Bernard oversaw the composition of more than 3,000 pages of text; Picart produced some 250 plates.1 The seven folio volumes of Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723) ran the gamut from the ancient Greek polytheists to contemporary debates over Quietism and Jansenism. Fulsome exposés detailed the rituals of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, and the “idolaters of the two Indies.”2 But another faith stood foremost in the authors’ minds as at once strange and familiar. Part of the first volume and the entirety of the second scrutinized the Catholic obsession with material objects like the Agnus Dei, which Bernard illustrated in finely grained detail (fig. 0.1). The pope himself blessed the medallions, made of unused wax from Easter candles and stamped with the image of Christ as paschal lamb, which were cast by the millions to satisfy global demand.3 Picart’s composition is a trompe-l’oeil, with the Agnus Dei featured in the reproduction of an actual handbill from 1662 advertising the “great profit” that the devotional object bestowed on believers. Among other marvels, it “wipes away sin,” “confers graces,” and protects from illness, shipwrecks, and other misfortunes. Prayer beads, a prayer ring, and a scapular surround the notice as if on display in a boutique.4 Bernard and Picart’s message was clear: the Roman Catholic Church harbored inveterate fetishists whose ostentatious rituals contributed to the wanton economization of spiritual life.

Figure 0.1 Bernard Picart. Les vertus de l’Agnus Dei, 1723. In Jean-Frédéric Bernard and Bernard Picart, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The decidedly Protestant stance adopted in Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses foreshadowed things to come: a supersessionist account of intellectual and material progress. Karl Marx hailed Adam Smith, born a Scottish Calvinist, as the “Luther of Political Economy” and the progenitor of an “enlightened” science of production. Catholics were, like mercantilists, outmoded “fetishists” who mistook the “subjective essence of wealth” for an “objective substance confronting men.”5 Max Weber followed suit with his contentious claim that Puritan anxieties for signs of salvation inspired compulsive profit-seeking among once and future capitalists.6 Scholars committed to divergent ideological and disciplinary positions have remained beholden to grand narratives along Marxian and Weberian lines, with rationality—whether financial, political, scientific, or religious—serving as the coin of the realm.

Picart’s image and Marx’s metaphor signal this book’s chief problematic: the convergence of spiritual and material wealth under the auspices of economic theology, a term of art denoting the economic dimensions of theology and the theological dimensions of the economy. As a historical corpus, economic theology refers to the economic writings of theologians themselves, a surprisingly rich and varied literature that remains neglected despite its prominence during the period. As an interpretive framework, economic theology points to (1) a belief in the economy as a means of redemption and fulfillment and (2) an economy of belief by which persons and objects were designated as sources of value. From an economic-theological perspective, Catholicism did not merely approximate Puritan ideals of industry and austerity in a French religious context; rather, it posed forceful alternatives and additives of its own. Nonetheless, historians and sociologists seeking confessional antecedents to economic modernity have long held the British case as paradigmatic. Weber’s thesis on the Protestant ethic buttresses the foundational myth of Anglo-American exceptionalism while marginalizing not only France, the most powerful kingdom in eighteenth-century Europe, but also much of the globe.7

This study argues for the vital influence of Catholic economic theology as the spiritual ground in which the master-ideas of French political economy took root. It makes the case that the early modern economic sphere encompassed a range of activities aimed at stewarding wealth broadly conceived, from the celestial treasures embodied in communion and indulgences to stylized projections of royal power in painted portraits and on minted coins. A set of reproducible practices instantiated value both in its earthbound and otherworldly forms. Receiving a pardon, partaking in the Eucharist, or purchasing a rosary entailed a transaction with the “divine merchant [Marchand Dieu] of paradise,” to cite the seventeenth-century religious writer François Arnoulx.8 Each exchange deepened relations with an infinitely superior party who stored up every good imaginable yet was equally willing to disburse them without limit.

Under the Old Regime, the clergy were both practically and theoretically entangled in a host of economic affairs. The French or Gallican church performed functions associated with a state bank, regularly transferring massive sums to the monarchy as the lender of first and last resort. Beyond providing financial services to the crown, ecclesiastics administered a vast spiritual economy, redeeming the debt of sin and distributing the bounty of grace through the sacraments, the denial of which condemned souls to eternal suffering. The potential for metamorphosis, which extended from the transubstantiation of the Eucharist to banknotes and fashionable goods, underwrote faith in the material economy as a realm of mysterious forces endowed with procreative agency. Astute yet ambivalent participants in the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, theologians laid bare the spiritual and psychic mechanisms by which new wants crystallized into new needs. Anticipating Marx’s critique of fetishism, they denounced the blasphemous rage for commodities as symptomatic of idolatry. At the same time, they recommended mass-produced instruments of piety to assuage suffering in this life and to assure salvation in the next. These ideas and practices demonstrate that, from its inception, the modern economy has reached far beyond rational action and disenchanted designs in ways that scholars of religion and capitalism, and of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, have yet to apprehend.

Only by engaging with economic theology can we begin to understand how the quintessential capitalist fantasy of unbridled consumption first coalesced—in, as the following chapters will show, ruminations on the mystery of the Eucharist, the generative faculties of money, the legality of usury, the allure of commodities, and the limits of luxury. Even during the Enlightenment, a sense of the miraculous did not wither away in the cold gaze of calculation. Rather, it emerged anew as a belief invested in the perpetual, endlessly creative expansion of the economic domain. In contrast to Weber, I reveal the existence of a distinctly Catholic ethic that animated the French spirit of capitalism. This imperative privileged the marvelous over the mundane, consumption over production, and the pleasures of enjoyment over the rigors of delayed gratification. Although the modern economic system may be said to contain both sets of impulses, the latter continues to dominate in narratives of its religious origins.

The Spirit of French Capitalism

For generations, scholars regarded the French economy as bound to traditional hierarchical strictures that limited growth, from the demands of an absolutist monarch and feudal lords to monopolistic trade corporations. Their findings echoed the pessimism of eighteenth-century observers who regarded debt and depopulation as omens of France’s commercial decline and its seeming powerlessness to forestall England’s rise to prominence.9 More recent literature emphasizes dynamism over stagnation and the possibility of change within existing institutions.10 Real wages for Parisian workers began vying with those of Londoners, especially in the late eighteenth century, although not at a rate sufficient to compensate for rising prices. The return on rents, however, grew by a third, and as the population increased, so did total economic productivity.11 Excepting periodic short-term crises in the 1760s and 1770s, French trade flourished as never before, with Paris, Bordeaux, and Lyon emerging as financial centers led by major banking houses as well as a network of more modest notaries.12 The nobility blazed a trail toward protoindustrialization in funding the use of steam engines for shipping, cotton spinning, mining, and iron casting.13 The sugar islands of Saint-Domingue and Martinique brought unprecedented wealth to planters and merchants, and with generally higher profits than their British competitors, despite restrictions imposed by royal trading companies. Foreign trade quintupled between 1716 and 1788, from 215 million livres per year to 1.62 billion. The state’s revenues likewise rose with each passing decade, approaching 500 million livres by the eve of the Revolution.14 The ever-shifting sands of fashion in wardrobes, jewelry, household furnishings, and personal consumption reached new heights of quantity and quality—or, for some commentators, sunk to new depths of depravity.15 As Louis-Sébastien Mercier ruefully noted in the 1780s, “the mania for overabundance has impoverished everyone. . . . No century has ever been as profligate as ours. One spends his entire income, displays a scandalous excess, and wishes to outshine his neighbor.”16

Whatever Mercier’s misgivings, France stood at the apex of early modern capitalist development by multiple metrics—credit and consumption, self-interested ambition and patriotic motives, metal and paper money, metropolitan and transoceanic circuits of trade.17 Its economy, although overwhelmingly agrarian, loomed over Europe as a center of luxury production with colonies across the world. The French government manipulated the fiscal apparatus in an effort to generate revenue and service debt. It even experimented with liberalizing the most precious commodity of all, grain, in the 1760s and 1770s.18 Ultimately, the kingdom oscillated between two competing impulses. One privileged the corporatist order, the stability of rents, and economic paternalism alongside age-old laws against immoderate wealth creation and display. The other embraced financial speculation and commercialization despite their depersonalizing effects.19

The Gallican church, fiercely Catholic yet jealous of its temporal prerogatives, contributed morally and materially to these undertakings both as a bulwark of tradition and agent of change. The First Estate collected the tithe (a tax on agricultural produce that was intended to fund religious services), which by 1789 raised the staggering sum of 180 million livres, equivalent to 80 percent of the total raised by all royal levies.20 The Assembly of the Clergy imposed charges on holders of benefices and venal offices. It committed to investing in perpetual and lifetime annuities [rentes perpétuelles and viagères]. The church formed a “state within the State”; its various sources of income yielded two times the amount of the taille, or basic land tax.21 Ecclesiastical institutions owned thousands of properties with associated seigneurial dues and privileges. Despite prohibitions against charging interest, members of the clergy amassed debt contributing to the royal purse, whether in the form of rents, loans assumed on the king’s behalf, or officially voluntary payments known as the don gratuit, which during the eighteenth century averaged more than 3.6 million livres per annum.22 By virtue of their social standing and moral vocation, priests served regularly not only as chaplains but also as legal arbiters in merchant courts.23 Preachers gave financial advice from the pulpit. Religious orders operated poorhouses, hospitals, and other charities. As individuals and as a corporate body, the clergy could scarcely afford to neglect economic matters.

The eighteenth century, long seen as a beacon of Enlightenment, offers a unique perspective from which to gauge the connections between secularization and capitalism. The church remained a preeminent authority in spiritual, political, and fiscal affairs; its clergy advised the government in various enterprises from foreign policy to plans for agricultural improvement. Economic theologians participated in diverse systems of production, consumption, and distribution that influenced classical political economy yet have gone largely unrecognized by historians. This book explores their activities in concert with two major trends in recent scholarship on Old Regime and Revolutionary France that the academic division of labor has set apart: the revival of religion and the resurgence of economic history.

The revisionist literature on the French Revolution denied that class interests mechanistically determine the intellective dimensions of social life. From the ruins of the Marxist paradigm arose a new religious history of the long eighteenth century, a period once synonymous with virulent anticlericalism, ascendant skepticism, and declining belief.24 Scholars have identified the role of religion in the emergence of what were once regarded as unambiguously secular ideas and institutions. The specter of a hidden God compelled theologians and philosophers to conceive of society—a “divinity . . . on earth,” according to the Encyclopédie—as an enclosed domain populated by creative, knowledge-generating human subjects.25 This view in turn precipitated the coalescence of intersecting spheres of activity, each with its own dynamics. For instance, according to David Bell, the modern idea of the French nation sprang from a need to “discern and maintain terrestrial order in the face of God’s absence.” Political leaders during the Revolution adapted clerical strategies for promoting civic devotion through theater and festivals in latter-day crusades to regenerate the body politic.26

Despite fears to the contrary, revisionism did not sound the death knell of economic history. A new wave of scholars, armed with insights gleaned from intellectual and cultural approaches, has returned the field to prominence. Political economy is now understood not as the discovery of eternal laws of development but rather as the product of intense contestation in the face of urgent conceptual and practical problems.27 The menace of public debt haunted French writers, who warned of the existential wager behind modern finance: states seeking military supremacy would be tempted to borrow funds to the point of ruin.28 Government officials and merchants struggled to reconcile geopolitical exigencies with traditional virtues. Their labors met with only partial success. Grievances of middling elites occasioned by the liberalization of the grain markets, the commercialization of the nobility, and the expansion of plantation slavery depleted the crown’s political capital and moral credibility.29 The vertiginous growth in transatlantic trade incited thinkers across the ideological spectrum to scrutinize the regime’s inability to meet the demands of globalization, setting the stage for its eventual collapse.30

Whereas historians of economic thought reflect the sense of dread in their sources, cultural and social historians of consumption find glimmers of progress. Shaking off dogmas regarding the productive base, scholars have paid renewed attention to the role played by modes of expenditure in the crystallization of capitalism as an economic and cultural system.31 The expansion of global trade and financial markets, the plethora of money and credit instruments, a growing taste for colonial products like sugar, coffee, and chocolate, and the vogue for French fashions in clothing and interior design augured a new dispensation. In 1695 Pierre Le Pesant de Boisguilbert proclaimed that “all wealth in the world, for the prince and his subjects alike, consists only of consumption.”32 The following century witnessed a rise in the purchase of market goods that fundamentally altered how persons related to things and shifted the locus of political power.

The consumer revolution is bourgeois revolution for a postindustrial age. According to William Sewell, Marxian economic critique should deemphasize the “wage-labor relationship” in favor of “the conversion of use value into exchange value.”33 The eighteenth-century fashion industry acted as a catalyst for turning a hierarchical society into one based on the abstract interchangeability of persons and things. Even if aristocratic taste stood in the cultural vanguard, the possibilities for emulation by the middling and working classes meant that economic and civic equality gradually, if paradoxically, reinforced each other.34 This transformation did not occur in a seamless manner. French economic operations assumed myriad forms, from sprawling royal manufactories and the guild system to independent entrepreneurs in the clothing trades and rural subcontractors in the putting-out system.35 The tendency of capital to occlude the labor that produced it did not wish away the work of artisans, domestic servants, or the hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons who toiled on Caribbean plantations. Although Voltaire remained stalwart in his defense of enlightened luxury, a chapter from Candide featured the account of an African slave, who, after relating the horrors of dangerous working conditions and brutal punishments under inhumane masters (he himself had lost a limb for attempting escape), quipped that “it is the price we pay for the sugar you eat in Europe.”36

Even money, the ultimate capitalist totem, remained mortgaged to the past and tied to the conditions of its production. In the eighteenth century, metal currency coexisted with land, rents, and venal offices. These equally attractive stores of value required common effort and mutual commitment. Given the scarcity of coin, financial, moral, and religious credit subtended while also altering economic relations. Artisans were required to possess technical acumen as well as personal honor to attract a clientele that in turn sought to project a reputation for cultural discernment. Completing the cycle of production and consumption, a merchant’s financial survival depended on the customer’s willingness to pay for goods; however, the timeliness of remuneration could vary depending on the status of the buyer. As Rebecca Spang argues, the history of monetary objects belies the tendency to segregate the economy from other spheres and to distinguish the seemingly “solid reality” of gold and silver “from intangible faith.”37 The multivalent nature of social bonds implicated the clergy, not only given their use of financial instruments and role as advisers to merchant courts but also in accordance with the rituals they performed to keep material and spiritual capital in circulation. After all, the terms credit and creed share a common derivation in the Latin verb crēdere—that is, to believe.

Priests and pastors elaborated an economic theology that plumbed the depths of human desire. Although the church rebuked luxury pursued in the name of vulgar self-glorification, popes and bishops surrounded themselves with pomp. They also dispensed heavenly riches, promising physical as well as spiritual redemption from the wages of sin. The faithful believed that bodies could be healed, worldly ventures made successful, and souls rescued from purgatory through the surfeit of merit acquired by Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. A fashionable means for obtaining these blessings involved the acquisition and use of devotional objects of the kind illustrated by Bernard and Picart. Produced for a mass market, these “populuxe” commodities doubled as repositories of immense spiritual wealth accessible to all comers.38

By situating theology and economy within a single interpretative frame, this book reveals the spirit of French capitalism, understood in Sewell’s terms, following Marx, as the rule of the commodity form. Early modern theologians frequently remarked that manufactured objects appeared to take on a life of their own. Mere trinkets organized human existence in beguiling ways that obscured human labor and forged a community of buyers.39 My study historicizes the insights found in Capital as a successor to eighteenth-century economic theology without accepting Marxian claims as pure dogma. In so doing, it contributes to the emerging field of heterodox economics, which calls into question the fixity of laws governing market relations and remains open to an array of alternatives, both past and future, for which the classical liberal and socialist traditions cannot fully account.40

French trade during the eighteenth century underwent rapid expansion—at once on a global scale and within the constraints imposed by an absolutist monarchy that ruled over a hierarchical society of orders.41 What concerns me are the ways in which the anticipation of rising material quantities led to perceptible qualitative changes in how economic desire was experienced and how it found concrete expression. Against the dour prognoses of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, Marx and Friedrich Engels contended that the forces unleashed by capitalism held the possibility of ending “all the old filthy business” of ruthless, zero-sum struggles over scarce resources.42 Philosophes and abbés foretold this revelation a century earlier. Belief in limitless accumulation did not arrive as a mathematical certainty. It required faith and psychic investment in freedom from want, which political economists modeled in part on the mind-altering magnificence of sacramental signs.

The Catholic Ethic

This book analyzes the formative effects of economic theology in France during the age of Enlightenment. By necessity, however, it also traces lines of inquiry that extend beyond a single period or national context. Debt and redemption were perennial concerns for a church founded by an act of expenditure—that is, Christ’s sacrifice. Nonetheless, the spiritual economy varied in relation to its terrestrial forms over time. Turning from the medieval preoccupation with voluntary poverty, early modern Catholicism upheld the fecundity of the sacraments against Protestant invectives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French thinkers applied this fortified doctrine to shore up their kingdom’s distinctive alliance of ecclesiastical and financial power and to articulate a religious response to expanding possibilities for consumption. The enrichment of the mundane world, then, need not entail the looting of the heavens; rather, faith in celestial opulence could affirm the prospect of accumulation in the here and now.

Accounting for this state of affairs requires a brief excursus on the twin histories of Christian theology and philosophy—one that attends to the deep religious past as well as to persisting debates over the nature of the secularization process. Indeed, economic theology has its own fraught but telling genealogy. The term alludes to Carl Schmitt’s understanding of political theology—a body of secularized religious concepts that structure modern categories of sovereignty and the state.43 My approach departs from Schmitt to align with what Hans Blumenberg has called the “reoccupation” of classic theological problems by the subject matter of human history. The apparent continuities between spiritual and temporal power indicate “a mortgage of prescribed questions,” the “answer positions” to which have been filled with an unrelated content that performs a function similar to its theological predecessor.44 To adopt elements of Blumenberg’s method, although not his normative stance, the capitalist ideal of limitless material profusion owes its existence not to the inevitable transposition of originally religious values into an economic register but to the unforeseen convergence of theological and material determinants.45 As I will show, the Catholic ethic evolved out of contingent interactions between the doctrine of sacramental plenitude and the consumer revolution of the eighteenth century.

Since economic theology refers both to a discrete canon of sources and a framework for interpreting them, it has drawn the attention of scholars of religion. According to Giorgio Agamben, theology has always contained within itself seminal economic logics and categories. His claims for the existence of a Christian oikonomia from the second and third centuries seemingly obviates the need to chart its subsequent migration to the material realm. For Agamben, following Michel Foucault, the “economy” originated in the early history of pastoral governmentality—or the conditioning of the community of believers as a population—rather than in the science of wealth creation and resource allocation codified in the Enlightenment. As such, Agamben looks to the church fathers, who organized the three persons of the Trinity on the model of the classical oikos. God reigned from on high and left the stewardship of the ecclesiastical order to surrogates. Out of this arrangement emerged the distinctively Christian demarcation of sovereignty and administration that structured Nicolas Malebranche’s occasionalist rendering of providence and Adam Smith’s vision of a self-organizing economic sphere.46

The work inspired by Foucault and Agamben argues along chronological and theoretical lines extending from the political theology of late antiquity to the neoliberal financial order.47 By enveloping the present in an eternally recurring past, this approach neglects questions of change over time that historians must necessarily confront. If Christian theology was already structured by economic relations in the patristic period, the effects of these relations only became fully apparent once human forces of production seemed to resemble God’s creative power. Despite claims to universal naturalism, nascent economic science revealed its religious origins in moments of speculative crisis compounded by confessional violence, financial experimentation, consumer revolution, and intellectual tumult. As Walter Benjamin noted, capitalism thus assumes the form of a “pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme there ever was.”48 The obverse holds equally true. Catholic theology was shot through with economic significance—not only in the terms of the Trinity or the Incarnation but also in relation to material wealth. The system was general rather than restricted, concerned not with preservation of scarce resources but the dissipation of superabundance.49

This rendering of the theological economy breaks with Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5), which argued that the “worldly asceticism” of English Calvinists, Pietists, Quakers, and Anabaptists gave powerful impetus to “rational bourgeois economic life.” The soul’s election was settled from the moment of birth. No human act could sway the determined course of events, a predicament that led to anxiety as well as coping mechanisms for alleviating spiritual doubt. Although meritorious deeds could not assure entry into heaven, the faithful might discern in their “calling” a sign of their fate. Believing that fidelity to God-given vocations presaged salvation, Puritans glorified unrelenting diligence. Their equally fervent commitment to austerity led them to save the returns on their labor, thereby facilitating investment. Ironically, then, the Puritan disdain for wealth established conditions for its accumulation.50

It is well known that Weber’s work met with immediate controversy.51 As Felix Rachfahl noted in an early review, Paris, Antwerp, and Amsterdam had emerged as centers of commerce and industry well before the Protestant Reformation.52 Werner Sombart posited Judaism as the antecedent to Weber’s Protestant ethic in a manner that the historian Yuri Slezkine describes with characteristic aplomb as “Puritanism without pork.”53 Weber sounded an equivocal tone that further complicated his case. The essay’s first edition identified Calvinism as “the cradle of modern economic man”; a subsequent introduction to the text stipulated that it furnished “only one side of the causal chain” linking religion and capitalism.54

Historians have found these pronouncements sufficiently expansive to discover the values associated most strongly with Calvinists in other times and places. Giacomo Todeschini’s groundbreaking work on the economic doctrines of the medieval church preserves the paradoxical mode of the original Weberian claim but shifts its chronological and geographical scope to the thirteenth-century Mediterranean. The Franciscan ideals of voluntary poverty and “‘rational’ asceticism” had the unanticipated effect of stoking interest in the functioning of markets. Monastic self-denial produced surpluses to be invested in campaigns championing personal salvation and the good of all. Given the order’s aversion to handling money, friars delegated their financial affairs to merchants, whom they also charged with overseeing from a Christian perspective the profitable circulation of wealth throughout the community.55

In a tour de force of economic-theological analysis that ranges from the medieval period to the present, Eugene McCarraher, like Todeschini, breaks with the Weberian theme of the “disenchantment of the world” while upholding the essential narrative of The Protestant Ethic.56 English Puritans and their American progeny make up the religious forebears of capitalism, which in McCarraher’s view “has been a regime of enchantment,” if not “a misenchantment, a parody or perversion of our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world.” The modern corporation acts like a vulgarized church, with economic science as its dogma and money as its holy ghost. The fetish-character of commodities mimics the means of transcendence without reaching the loftier orders of spiritual fulfillment, which McCarraher identifies first with the Catholic tradition and then with “Romantic sacramentalism.” Market forces have perverted the desire for communion. The critical task, then, is to resurrect faith in the “grandeur of God” as manifest in the wonders of nature and in fellowship with all beings.57

The difficulty with such noble aspirations lies with their presumption of the return to a culture of belief that, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s state of nature, no longer exists and may never exist again. If theology has always posited an economy, albeit in a highly contingent manner, then one must face the disquieting prospect that the past cannot be merely lived anew.58 Religious tradition is no refuge from the economic system that has come to dominate it. In the beginning, there was no Word, but rather a void, and in the end there will be no salvation. The routinization and banalization of commodity fetishism have left humans not so much desensitized to quotidian miracles as dependent on their presence. This book does not view economic theology as a tragic deviation from a higher calling but as what that calling has unexpectedly made possible.

For much of Christian history, the convergence of the theological and the economic fields remained latent or confined to monastic communities before becoming fully explicit in clashes between Protestants and Catholics over the nature of the sacraments.59 France was the first battleground of the Reformation outside the German-speaking lands. The Wars of Religion (1562–98) altered the spiritual as well as political and economic terrains of the kingdom. The Reformers’ doubts compelled the Gallican church to hone its doctrines and redouble its efforts at evangelization. Prelates avowed the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, a priceless artifact worthy of unending devotion. Bishops authorized the founding of confraternities in which the clergy and laity engaged in frequent communion and the perpetual adoration of the host while amassing rosaries, medals, and other objects. The papacy endorsed such practices by issuing countless indulgences. Drawn from the spiritual capital of the saints, these pardons quantified the advantages of religious observance in this life and hastened the acquisition of eternal riches in the next.

At the same time, the French crown continued the singular policy of allowing “baptized Jews” to settle in the kingdom even as it moved against the Protestant minority with renewed vigor after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This decision coincided with attempts to systematize maritime law and commercial practice. As Francesca Trivellato argues, the debate over interest-bearing contracts played out against the backdrop of intentionally ambiguous religious and economic policies. In Bordeaux, Jewish merchants remained under the watchful eye of church and state but were allowed to live in relative peace. Nonetheless, French commentators inherited a potent myth from the devoutly Catholic lawyer Étienne Cleirac: that Jews were responsible for inventing bills of exchange. Perpetuated by the major economic thinkers of the Enlightenment, Cleirac’s account introduced a “crisis of legibility” in the heart of commercial discourse, problematizing the acceptance of financial instruments that had long circulated among Christians and Jews alike.60 This ambivalence belonged to the wider legacy of Catholic reform, which oscillated between attraction and revulsion in its treatment of wealth.61

The church had frequent recourse to the language of terrestrial riches in describing the splendors of heaven. Although such rhetoric had patristic and medieval precedents, it took on new meaning as the possibilities for consumption proliferated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.62 In reaction to Protestant asceticism and iconoclasm, Catholic economic theology elevated manifestations of opulence. Over time, it also conferred credibility on the idea of abolishing physical as well as spiritual deprivation through the employment of capital. The Eucharist, a ritual that made thinkable the everlasting circulation of otherworldly treasures, established a template for such ambitions. The host furnished a visible, reproducible sign of Christ’s embodiment that drew divinity back into the mundane world with each act of consecration. In an analogous manner, the material economy came to be resacralized—understood as an immanent force with all-encompassing creative power, the prime mover of human history.63

As these manifold applications indicate, economic theology coalesced in an array of sources. Successive pontiffs and bishops issued thousands of indulgences to French confraternities, with figures for the dioceses of Tournai and Cambrai remaining nearly as robust between 1720 and 1760 as they were in the mid-seventeenth century, after a period of decline around 1700.64 A new genre of spiritual manuals directed members in their devotions and the management of their assets. The monarchy, the parlements (sovereign law courts), and the theological faculty of the Sorbonne found it necessary to adjudicate recurring doctrinal controversies—most notably over frequent communion in the 1640s and the refusal of sacraments in the 1750s. The Scotsman John Law’s experiments in public finance during the regency of Philippe d’Orléans (1715–23) triggered a rush of speculative activity among traders, who made and lost fortunes overnight. Political tracts, newspaper accounts, personal correspondence, memoirs, and stage plays represented the seemingly incredible scene. In 1720 alone, 48.2 percent of all satirical works made reference to Law, among them popular prints and ditties that likened the issuing of banknotes to transmutation and transubstantiation.65 The collapse of what became known as Law’s “System” locked church and crown into structural indebtedness. A staggering number of treatises were published on the question of usury—more than two hundred volumes, amounting to sixty thousand printed pages—the lion’s share penned by ecclesiastics.66 Theologians set the terms of the early modern luxury debate with their injunctions against avarice and immodest display. The polemics touched nearly every work of moral and political philosophy from the period, spawning forty-seven devoted studies between 1762 and 1791.67

The intellectual, religious, and economic history of the eighteenth century changes in substance and form when viewed through the prism of the Catholic ethic. To be sure, names such as Bernard Mandeville, John Law, Voltaire, and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot will strike an immediate chord with specialists. Nonetheless, historiographical conventions have unduly cloistered the sacred from the profane, obscuring how the Gallican church affected French finances and how civil law remained bound to canon law. A publicist for Law’s bank, the abbé Jean Terrasson, justified the productive potential of paper currency in terms of transubstantiation. Contributors to the Encyclopédie gave credence to articles of faith regarding usury and luxury. The Physiocratic movement led by François Quesnay embedded its quantification of the net product in a natural order derived from Male-branche’s understanding of divine providence. Taking cues from Archbishop François de Fénelon’s Télémaque, Rousseau advocated the subordination of property rights to an omnipotent force, the general will, that altered the moral bearing of individual citizens.

Although philosophical doubt was on the rise in the eighteenth century, religious observance stood firm throughout the kingdom, albeit with considerable local variation. Likewise, recent work in historical epistemology bears out Ernst Cassirer’s claim that the Enlightenment itself heralded a “new form of faith.”68 Dan Edelstein has sketched the contours of a so-called Super-Enlightenment, an “epistemological no-man’s-land between Lumières and illuminisme,” where speculation was rife, myth structured narrative, and nature had not ceased to amaze.69 The mainstream Enlightenment coexisted with occult practices—not only, as scholars have demonstrated, among Freemasons, Mesmerists, and other marginal figures but also among the clergy who presided over French spiritual life.70 The Bourbon monarchy conferred theologico-political legitimacy on a sacrament that exalted bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. Crowned heads solicited the advice of alchemists who claimed that the philosopher’s stone turned lead into gold. Philosophes discovered the secret of perpetual generation in various channels, whether money, land, or manufactured commodities. Rather than the triumph of intellectual and financial skepticism, economic theology exposes the proliferation of beliefs vested in multiple sources of value, from the treasury of saintly merit to the capacity of banknotes to produce wealth through circulation.


1. On the history and significance of Bernard and Picart’s work, see Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, Book That Changed Europe; Hunt, Jacob, and Mijnhardt, Bernard Picart; and Wyss-Giacosa, Religionsbilder der Frühen Aufklärung.

2. Bernard and Picart, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, 1:xxxiv.

3. Bernard and Picart, 1.2:138–39. On the production and distribution of the Agnus Dei, see Troyon, “Les ‘Agnus Dei,’” 69–78; and Lepoittevin, “La fabrique romaine des Agnus Dei,” 89–104.

4. Bernard and Picart, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, 1.2:176.

5. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 290 (emphasis in original).

6. Weber, The Protestant Ethic.

7. Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, 13–15, 22–28, 39–67. Recent works that examine the Protestant roots of the market economy include Hilton, The Age of Atonement; Waterman, Revolution, Economics, and Religion; Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize; and Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart.

8. Arnoulx, Du paradis et de ses merveilles, 75. Unless indicated otherwise, all translations from French are my own. For primary and secondary sources originally published in languages other than French, I have relied on English versions whenever possible.

9. See, e.g., Labrousse and Braudel, Histoire économique et sociale de la France, vol. 2, Des derniers temps de l’âge seigneurial. For eighteenth-century ruminations on France’s economic fate, see Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce, 21–51; and Shovlin, Political Economy of Virtue, 44–58.

10. For an overview of this historiographical shift, see C. Jones and Spang, “Sans-culottes,” 40–47; Grenier, L’économie d’Ancien Régime; and Horn, Economic Development.

11. Weir, “Les crises économiques,” 919–21, 934–39; Sonenscher, Work and Wages, 174–209.

12. Cullen, “History, Economic Crises, and Revolution,” 639–46; Hoffman, Postel-Vinay, and Rosenthal, Priceless Markets.

13. Taylor, “Types of Capitalism,” 495; Chaussinaud-Nogaret, French Nobility, 104–13; and Crouzet, Britain Ascendant, 34–42.

14. Crouzet, Britain Ascendant, 18–19; Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce, 15–16, 135.

15. On the rise in consumption, see, e.g., Roche, La culture des apparences; Roche, Histoire des choses banales; and Kwass, Contraband.

16. Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 1:50, 7:164.

17. This point has received recent confirmation in Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 4.

18. S. Kaplan, Bread, Politics and Political Economy, 1:52–82, 90–299, 2:408–90, 611–96.

19. Grenier, L’économie d’Ancien Régime, 417–24.

20. Goldsmith, Lordship in France, 11.

21. On ecclesiastical wealth, see Blaufarb, The Great Demarcation, 54, 119–22 (quote on 119); McManners, Church and Society, 1:95–140; and C. Michaud, L’église et l’argent.

22. C. Michaud, L’église et l’argent, 12–21, 201–53, 540–45.

23. Kessler, A Revolution in Commerce, 74–78; and Kessler, “Enforcing Virtue,” 79–89.

24. On this development, see Kselman, “Challenging Dechristianization”; Van Kley, “Christianity as Casualty”; and C. Coleman, “Resacralizing the World.” Key works include Van Kley, Religious Origins; Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible; Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment; and Burson, Rise and Fall.

25. Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, s.v. “Philosophe,” 12:510. The article was written by César Chesneau Dumarsais. On the eighteenth-century invention of society as an independent field of action, see Baker, “Enlightenment,” 95–96, 114–20. Baker draws on the conjectural history elaborated in Gauchet, Disenchantment of the World.

26. Bell, Cult of the Nation, 7. See also Sepinwall, Abbé Grégoire.

27. For an overview of this literature, see Larrère, L’invention de l’économie; Perrot, Une histoire intellectuelle; Kwass, Privilege; Clark, Compass of Society; Hont, Jealousy of Trade; Terjanian, Commerce and Its Discontents; and Soll, The Reckoning, esp. 87–164.

28. Sonenscher, Before the Deluge.

29. Shovlin, Political Economy of Virtue.

30. Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce.

31. In addition to Roche, La culture des apparences; Roche, Histoire des choses banales; and Kwass, Contraband, see the following cross section of scholarship on the topic: Brewer and Porter, Consumption and the World; C. Jones, “Great Chain of Buying”; Berg, Luxury and Pleasure; Vries, The Industrious Revolution; Coquery, Tenir boutique à Paris; and Trentmann, Empire of Things.

32. Boisguilbert, Factum de la France, 282.

33. Sewell, Logics of History, 150.

34. Sewell, “The Empire of Fashion”; Sewell, “Connecting Capitalism.” See also C. Jones, “Great Chain of Buying,” 14–15, 19–20, 24–26. On the fashion industry, see also J. Jones, Sexing La Mode; Crowston, Fabricating Women; and Crowston, Credit, Fashion, Sex.

35. Sewell, “The Empire of Fashion,” 115–16.

36. Voltaire, Candide, 180.

37. Spang, Stuff and Money, 1–44, 271–74 (quote on 272). On the material, moral, and social valences of the credit economy, see Crowston, Credit, Fashion, Sex, 3–12, 21–55, 166–69, 195–245; Coquery, Tenir boutique à Paris, 211–60; and Fontaine, The Moral Economy. On the history and semiotics of money, see Vilar, History of Gold and Money; Shell, Money, Language, and Thought; Goux, Les monnayeurs du langage; and, more recently, Desan, Making Money; Yuran, What Money Wants; and Bandelj, Wherry, and Zelizer, Money Talks.

38. Fairchilds, “Production and Marketing”; Fairchilds, “Marketing the Counter-Reformation.”

39. On this theme, see also Pietz, “Fetishism and Materialism,” 129, 149; and Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 25–33.

40. See, e. g., Konings, Emotional Logic of Capitalism; and McGowan, Capitalism and Desire.

41. Cheney, Revolutionary Commerce, 15–16; Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 28–30.

42. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, 49. On Marx’s understanding of capital accumulation in historical context, see Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 3–13.

43. Schmitt, Political Theology, 36–52. For highly influential critiques of Schmitt, see Peterson, “Monotheism”; and Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 89–101. More recently, Gil Anidjar offers an especially evocative definition of economic theology as “the history of religion as political economy” in Blood, 141–48 (quote on 142).

44. Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 27–36, 63–75 (quote on 65, emphasis in the original). As he specifies further, “What mainly occurred in the process that is interpreted as secularization . . . should be described not as the transposition of authentically theological contents into secularized alienation from their origins but rather as the reoccupation of answer positions that had become vacant and whose corresponding questions could not be eliminated” (65).

45. In emphasizing a form of binding contingency over positivist causality, I also draw in part on the “aleatory materialism” of Althusser. See Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter, 167–207.

46. Agamben, Kingdom and the Glory. Michel Foucault traces antecedents of governmentality in the Christian pastorate in Security, Territory, Population, 115–254. See also Sheehan and Wahrman, Invisible Hands, 16–18, 49, 234–35, 245–48, 264–68.

47. Subsequent engagements with Agamben’s work have placed greater emphasis on financial matters per se. See Leshem, The Origins of Neoliberalism; Singh, Divine Currency; and Heron, Liturgical Power.

48. Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion,” 259.

49. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933); Bataille, The Accursed Share, 19–41. Bataille’s contributions to the field of general economy extended arguments formulated by Marcel Mauss in The Gift (1925).

50. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, xxxi–xxxix, 53–56, 102–25 (quotes on 107, 117, 121).

51. On the reception of Weber’s work, see Chalcraft and Harrington, The Protestant Ethic Debate; and Swatos and Kaelber, The Protestant Ethic Turns 100. For a recent attempt to salvage aspects of the original thesis, see Gorski, “The Little Divergence.”

52. See Chalcraft and Harrington, The Protestant Ethic Debate, 55–59.

53. Sombart, Jews and Modern Capitalism; Slezkine, The Jewish Century, 54.

54. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 117, xxxix.

55. Todeschini, I Mercanti e il Tempio, esp. 40–45, 89–94, 326–92, 479–86 (quote on 42); Todeschini, Franciscan Wealth.

56. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, 61, 71, 97, 178n19. For rejections of this view, see Todeschini, I Mercanti et il Tempio, 8–9; and McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon, 6–13.

57. McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon, 3–175, 361–401 (quotes on 4, 5, 676, 679). For Catholic responses to commodity culture, see V. Miller, Consuming Religion, 184–94; Grumett, Material Eucharist, 255–58; and Clavero, La grâce du don, 163–97.

58. Here I follow Rousseau’s speculations on the plausibility of an idealized state of nature devoid of competition over scarce resources, which extended to his assertion that socialized humans cannot recover their prior innocence. See Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inégalité, 122–30, 207–8.

59. On the view that modern economic categories owe their existence to the regular clergy of the medieval period, see Todeschini, I Mercanti e il Tempio, 40–45, 349–70.

60. Trivellato, Promise and Peril, 49–98, 128–61 (quotes on 68, 95).

61. For an overview of the historical terminology associated with the Catholic Reformation, see Hsia, World of Catholic Renewal, 1–7.

62. Here I draw on what Michel de Certeau termed the “formality of practices,” whereby “the content of practices scarcely changes” even as “their formality does”—that is, the manner in which they are deployed. In particular, Certeau claimed that previously autonomous religious referents gave way to “social utility” and a “merchant morality” during the eighteenth century. See Certeau, “The Formality of Practices,” 148, 173.

63. On resacralization, see C. Coleman, “Resacralizing the World”; and C. Coleman, The Virtues of Abandon, 11–12.

64. On historical rates in the granting of pardons, see Tingle, Indulgences after Luther, 40. Tingle cites the statistics compiled in Desmette, “Les confréries religieuses,” 355–70 (figures on 357–59). See also Froeschlé-Chopard, Dieu pour tous.

65. On the publishing statistics, see Duranton, “La ficelle de Law,” 112.

66. McManners, Church and Society, 2:265.

67. Provost, Le luxe, 13–22, 159–63.

68. Cassirer, Philosophy of the Enlightenment, 135–36. On historical epistemology, see Sheehan and Wahrman, Invisible Hands; Rosenfeld, Common Sense; and Matytsin, Specter of Skepticism.

69. Edelstein, “Introduction to the Super-Enlightenment,” 33.

70. Fleming, The Dark Side; Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts; Cameron, Enchanted Europe; Edelstein, The Super-Enlightenment; and Landy and Saler, Re-enchantment of the World.