It is well understood that the formation and rapid expansion of the Dominican and Franciscan orders took place against a backdrop of economic expansion. Throughout the 13th century, within the emerging universities, teachers from both orders are associated with emerging approval of commercial activity. Yet at the same time, especially within the Franciscan order, rejection of property became an important theme in discourse. In the work of Peter Olivi, whose teaching on economics has recently been shown to have been the foundation of St Bernardine’s in the middle of the 15th century, acceptance of the doctrine of evangelical poverty is seen to have been one of the causes of repeated investigation by the leadership of the order, and restriction of his teaching activities.
Recent work on the economics of creative industries may provide valuable insights into what the laity valued about monasticism and consequently why heretical figures and groups which resembled monks achieved such popularity.
As 12th-century Christian writers attempted to articulate ethical economic behavior to both clergy and laity, they often turned to representations of idealized friendship as a powerful model. Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx’s De spiritali amicitia updates Cicero’s De Amicitia in order to align the classical friendship ideal with Christian ethics and, at the same time, offer a discernible framework for managing the distribution of wealth among those one can trust. The tale of two merchant friends in Peter Alfonsi’s Disciplina clericalis even more directly instructs the laity regarding the management of charity and profit. The text, a popular source for clergy discourses, similarly re-writes classical friendship ideals in order to construct an ethical framework that condones a self-interested relationship to money that better fits the expanding medieval economy.
I focus in this paper on issues raised in the analysis of religious choice by individuals in historical situations. The economics of religion, far from being an esoteric side-show in economics, is obliged to confront directly a key question in economic theory. Namely, the appropriate type of rationality to assign to agents and their decisions. This discipline is also obliged to engage with fundamental critiques in anthropology and history of the two types of rationality described in Vernon Smith’s 2002 Nobel prize winning lecture: constructivist and ecological rationality. I illustrate the paper with relevant historical examples of belief and conversion.