Religion and Money: Economy of Salvation in the Middle Ages

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April 2, 2015 – “Economy of salvation in the Middle Ages” is a project based on interdisciplinary and international cooperation using material culture as evidence collected from museums in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Historical and literary sources form the basis for a study of the phenomenon Economy of Salvation. Linking documentary evidence with material culture in new and innovative ways lies at the root of this project.

Religion and money forms fundamental pre-conditions for human society. Its presence or absence is critical to the way in which societies shape themselves and inscribe their values. One of the project’s objectives is to investigate the relation between religion and money in an innovative study of the period that created the cultural preconditions for the rise of money economy, the birth of capitalism and the economy of salvation. The secondary objective is to study how money found form in a society embedded in religious belief in which homo oeconomicus first became modern using medieval Scandinavia and Northern Europe between c.1000 and c.1300 as laboratory.

A particular field of study is coin finds in churches as a reflection of money-offerings that became universal within medieval Western Christendom. Christian doctrine emphasised the importance of money-offerings: gifts given on earth had eternal effects. Ecclesiastical architecture, art and liturgy formed the physical and habitual framework in which parishioners approached altars, saints shrines and money-boxes with their money-offerings. In medieval Europe coins became a universal token in the economy of salvation. In this economy it was not necessarily the size of the offering that mattered. In millions of cases every year petty cash was trusted as a material mediator between Man and God.

The role of the medieval church in medieval society cannot be overestimated. The church provided the guarantee of salvation mediated between heaven and earth acting as spiritual and financial broker in contemporary society. In the rise of money economy you can observe a commodification of religion, monetization of vocabulary, and an increasing awareness of financial matters from an ecclesiastical and vernacular perspective. This was a period of profound change within church practice and church doctrine. Doctrinal change, from scholastic treatises to monastic meditation, led to the definition of financial trust. Christian learning was decisive for how people understood their relationship to money and value.

The project is funded by the Norwegian Research Council and the project members come from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and United Kingdom, with outreach and cooperations with scholars from a number of other countries.

The project has its own blog.