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The Early History of Greed: The Sin of Avarice in Early Medieval Thought and Literature.

By Richard Newhauser. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 246 pp. $64.95 cloth.

It is safe to say that Richard Newhauser has written the definitive book on avarice in the early church. His study traces the narrow topic of greed or avarice through a broad span of late antiquity and early medieval history--the first through tenth centuries, C.E. In describing the purpose of his book, Newhauser explains that traditional views of avarice argue that the vice comes especially under attack by the church in the late Middle Ages (that is, after the tenth century). He contends, however, that theologians in the early medieval period had already been actively concerned with avarice, identifying it as the source of all evil and "the most important of the vices threatening Christian society" (xiv). Newhauser persuasively builds his argument by examining a wide spectrum of sources, especially writings of the early medieval theologians and, to a lesser extent, literary texts.

Early theologians, however, disagreed on questions as fundamental as a definition of avarice. For instance, was avarice the desire to acquire goods and riches one did not possess? Or, was avarice the desire to retain the goods and riches one did possess? Was the desire for non-monetary materials, such as social status, a sort of avarice? In exploring these questions, Newhauser establishes "that the pressures of asceticism asserted a transformative power on the definition of the vice throughout the early Middle Ages" (xiii).

The book is structured in five chapters. The first establishes the issue of avarice as a social problem facing the early church. From the first centuries of the church, avarice could be defined in two ways. Philargyria describes avarice as the love of money; pleonexia refers to broader sort of greed for more of everything. Theologians staked out various positions. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160-215), for example, took a moderate stance, suggesting that wealth by itself was a neutral tool, while Origen (ca. 185-251) demanded "complete, material poverty as a prerequisite for avoiding the sin and achieving perfection" (13).

Of particular interest in the early period are the ways that early writers, such as Lactantius (ca. 250-ca. 325), cast avarice in a historical mythology of a "golden age," a prelapsarian state in which greed did not exist. From such a golden age, it was easy for Lactantius to believe that "the defeat of avarice is necessarily a simple matter of conversion" (19). The golden age mythology also allowed later writers to make eschatological arguments, suggesting that greed would cease to exist in the end times.

Chapter 2 stresses ways that ascetics in the Eastern church rejected avarice, a position articulated especially by Basil the Great (330-79). The monastic ideal, driven by caritas for one's neighbor, called for the "absolute lack of care for one's own material needs" (25). As church thinkers continued to wrestle with this topic, a double standard emerged. Discussions began to expect different behavior from the clergy, anchorites, and monastics than from the laity. In part, these distinctions reflect a practical recognition that living in the world requires monetary resources. While some writers called for radical poverty, others, such as John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), reconciled themselves to a compromise in the "form of a daily insistence on expelling avarice through almsgiving" (46).

In chapter 3, Newhauser takes up the Egyptian ascetic tradition and the gradual transmission of its ideals to western monasticism, where the emphasis shifted from the individual to the cenobitic monastic community. From this perspective, the study moves smoothly to chapter 4, which opens with Ambrose's condemnation of private property as "unjust acquisition" (71) and moves to a fascinating study of Prudentius's Psychomachia (ca. 405) before concluding with discussions of social criticism of avarice by Jerome (ca. 347-420).

Chapter 5 is a transitional chapter on "secularizing avarice and cupidity." Gregory the Great synthesized the ideas of Cassidorus and Augustine into a psychological model that combines the material evil of avarice with its withering effect on the individual psyche. Thus, writers after Gregory could draw on three traditions to attack avarice: "the Deadly Sins; the octad of Capital Vices; and the Gregorian heptad, in effect a synthesis of both" (106).

Newhauser's epilogue brings his study to the time approaching the millennium. In Y1K thinking, avarice became a sign "of decay because it served as a determining factor in the understanding of humanity's deterioration from its pristine beginnings" (131).

A potential complaint against the book is that Newhauser juxtaposes texts chronologically without demonstrating that one necessarily influenced the other. Newhauser's approach is an honest one, however. Rather than claim connections that can not be proven, he instead establishes merely that writers did hold these ideas throughout the early Middle Ages.

Although The Early History of Greed is a 246-page book, Newhauser's text proper ends on page 131. The remaining 115 pages are devoted to several invaluable resources: a listing of "imagery surrounding avarice" in primary texts (132-42), extensive notes (143-204), a thorough bibliography (205-31), and both general topic and specific name indices (232-46).

The cover of the book adapts a striking eleventh-century illustration of a rich man being tormented by devils in Hell. A reader may turn to the appendix on "Imagery" expecting to find further visual examples. Be warned, however, that this appendix refers only to textual images.
David Sprunger
Concordia College, Moorhead
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Author:Sprunger, David
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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