So where did it all begin? Well, you can make your own mind up, but here’s a quick journey back through time to look at the origins of pawnbroking. This piece will take us from ancient times up to the 1700’s. Things change quite a lot in the 1700’s but let’s take a look at way back when.
According to history, evidence of pawnbroking can be seen as long ago as 3000 years in Ancient China, Greece and in Roman life. Without appearing to split hairs, there may well have been a form of money lending but it does not bear any real relevance to the modern day practice of pawnbroking. There may have been relaxed agreements between shopkeepers and their customers, with a system of secured lending in operation. No wily business man would lend money without a mechanism to protect them if the loan could not be satisfied.
It’s also important to remember that money lending, or usury, was frowned upon by the Church and is discussed in Deuteronomy – unless of course it was to someone from out of the area:
“Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury, but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.”
This can be taken as the genesis of the pawnbroking industry and it very clearly demonstrates how usury has been at the heart of the local community, looking after ‘ their own’ – it becomes easier to understand how pawnbroking is known as ‘Uncle’ colloquially.
The Bible continues to offer guidance on pledging:
“When thou dost lend thy brother any thing, thou shalt not go into his house to fetch his pledge. Thou shalt stand abroad and the man to whom thou dost lend shall bring out the pledge abroad unto thee.”
In the UK, or Britain as it was at the time, there is no hard and fast evidence of pawnbroking in Roman times, nor after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when the Saxons and Vikings took their chance in Britain.
Moving on to the Middle Ages, the Church once again had a tremendous impact in society. There was a very strong belief that social mobility was a very bad idea. People were supposed to be happy with their lot, only having exactly what they needed and nothing more.
Interestingly in Rome, priests engaged in money collections from all over Europe to ensure that the Church was financially strong. This was at odds to the reality for the everyman, when moneylenders were outlawed by society and the Church. Moneylenders were refused a valid will, confession, absolution and burial – until they had made amends for the immoral gains, although how you manage that if you are recently deceased is a thing of great wonder.
Back in Blighty, William the Conqueror encourage Jewish settlers to bring their industry to the UK. With moneylending running strong in Jewish communities, it is clear that moneylending was becoming more accepted. As with most things in life your job is only as good as your boss, and so with the ascension of the very tightfisted monarch, Edward I, two hundred years after William, Edward promptly threw Jews out of the country – and prohibited from returning for 350 years. With the support of the Pope and moneylending being facilitated by the now-established Lombard.
Moneylenders have had quite a tough time throughout the years. While the Church have ruled them with a rod of iron, the monarchy have relied on them to shore up dynasty after dynasty with many rulers pawning their crowns to get them through the next battle. In some cases, kings even used their noblemen as human security!
With high rates of interest and the success of the Italian montes pietatis, thepawnbroking industry took a back seat through the 1500 and 1600’s.
With the formalisation of pawnbroking still some years off, the system as we know it today was not yet fully formed.
Pawnbroking was just about to take the great leap forward…