White Collar Crime In The Middle Ages
It is difficult to ignore the many prolific examples of white-collar crime today. From Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff, who "made off" with 20 million and 20 billion dollars respectively, to the fall of Enron and the accounting scandal that bankrupted Worldcom, it is clear that white-collar crime is present today more so than in yesteryears (Smith; "Charles"; "10 White Collar"). But is white-collar crime a modern-day invention, with only modern-day consequences? No. While records show that perhaps white-collar crime was not as extensively documented as it is today, white-collar crime has always existed, and was abundant even as early as the Middle Ages, especially in the forms of fraud, bribery, embezzlement, identity theft, and forgery.
One early example of forgery, the Donation of Constantine, dates back to the eighth century ("Donation"). In 756 A.D., King Pepin of the Frankish Empire gave the Catholic Church the papal lands of Italy. Seeking to establish legitimacy in this "marriage between the Catholic Church and the Frankish state," either a member of the Frankish
Empire or a member of the church forged the Donation of Constantine that year, a document alleging that Emperor Constantine granted the Church ownership of "vast territories within the western Roman Empire" in the third or fourth century A.D. as thanks for curing his leprosy. Thus, it could be argued that King Pepin was returning the land to its rightful owners, not merely gifting land to the Church. Though the Donation was unheard of until the eighth century A.D., the Church continued insisting on its legitimacy even after the Donation was debunked in 1440. The Church did not cede the papal lands back to Italy until 1929.
Another example of white-collar crime- and Catholic Church corruption- came three centuries later. Pope Benedict IX, in the 11th century A.D., accepted a monetary bribe from his godfather ("Top 10 Scandals"). Pope Benedict IX was to step down from the papacy, so his godfather could be elected the new pope. According to a successor, Pope Benedict's reign had been marred by murder, rape, and other "unspeakable acts" (unnamed successor, as quoted by "Top 10 Scandals"). But his godfather was not without vice, and Benedict returned within the year to depose his godfather and reclaim the papacy. So bad were their combined antics that the German emperor came to Italy to remove the both of them from power.
It was not just the higher-ups in the Catholic Church who were capable of committing white-collar crimes. After the Glastonbury Abbey burned down in 1184, the monks who called the abbey home needed money to rebuild. Consequently, they committed fraud ("Legends"). By starting rumors that Glastonbury was the burial site of King Arthur and his wife, Queen Guinevere, the Glastonbury monks were able to raise funds for the abbey's restoration. To further their ruse, they even set up a cross bearing Arthur's name. Scholars relished the idea of Arthur's burial there so much that they suppressed any evidence that pointed to these rumors being just that- rumors- for generations.
Muslims, too, committed white-collar crimes, such as forgery. In the 1140s, some members of the Knights Templar inherited a Syrian fort, Krak Des Chevaliers, in Tripoli (D'Costa). The Knights Templar were able to transform this fort into a profitable holding, but Sultan Baibars, who was angry with the Crusaders, wanted to get the Knights out of Syria. In 1271, Baibars attacked the outer fort, but the Knights Templar fled inward. No doubt realizing this was a cowardly bunch, Baibars gathered his men and forged a document from "The Grand Master of The Knights Hospitaller," the sect of Knights Templar whose members were occupying the fort, saying it was okay to surrender. The Templars did surrender, and in return, Baibars did not kill any of them- just seized the fort, converting it into a mosque.
Outside of religion, some workers conspired to defraud their employers. Robert Carpenter, the author of a 1260s collection of letters and legal texts designed to aid
local law enforcement, included in his text many detailed instructions on how to embezzle sheep, sheepskins, sheep meat, and, on an unrelated note, cheese, as well as instructions on how to falsely fine a shepherd ("How To Defraud").
In English critic John Gower's scathing French tribute, entitled Mirour de l'Omme, or The Mirror of Mankind, Gower skewers the coincidentally sheep-based 14th-century English wool business (Strohm). More specifically, the fraud endemic to the wool business was skewered in John Gower's tribute through his supernatural character Fraude or Triche ("Fraud" or "Cheating"), which infected every business it came in contact with. In the concrete, non-literary world of the 14th century, the honest part of the wool business was overshadowed by those who committed "dishonest skimming, false weighing, and other forms of smuggling and illicit profit-taking" as well as by the powerful Collectors of the Wool Custom who "abused their positions to avoid duties, take bribes, enhance profits by weighing wet wool, favor friends, ship their own unauthorized cargoes, and engage in other profit-making scams."
In Italy, bad business had nothing to do with sheep. Also in the 14th century, the Medici family set up their own bank with branches across the European continent ("Top 10 Scandals"). A litany of poor business choices and bad loans led to the Medicis embezzling money from both the Florentine state treasury and a charity- the bank was finally dissolved in the late 15th-century when King Charles VII of France invaded Italy. Cosimo de Medici, who was born in the latter end of the 14th century, reflected the spend-easy attitude shared by his Medici peers in the following quote:
All those things [meaning works of art] have given me the greatest satisfaction and contentment because they are not only for the honor of God but are likewise for my own remembrance. For fifty years, I have done nothing else but earn money and spend money; and it became clear that spending money gives me greater pleasure than earning it ("Cosimo").
On a less grand scale was the falsification of saffron, a type of commercial fraud, in the 14th century South of France (Reyerson). A merchant pepperer or "spice-dealer" named Johannes Andree had his product seized, and, on the testimony of witnesses, was tried and convicted of the crime. He ultimately contested the verdict due to the fact that he was a banker or coiner of money and therefore the law did not apply to him (Reyerson; "Pepperer"; "Moneyer").
Returning to the Catholic Church in the 15th-century, we have yet another story of a bad pope- Pope Alexander VI of the late 15th and early 16th century. Having successfully bribed his way onto the papal throne, he wielded his newfound power neither for good nor for any reasonable modern person's idea of Christianly behavior ("5 Of History's"). Instead, the Pope chose to exert his powers to win over women, amass wealth- often by selling fraudulent indulgences- and curry political favors and marriages for his children, of which up to seven were illegitimate.
Michelangelo's fame can be at least partially attributed to his forgery. In the late 15th-century- 1496 to be exact- Michelangelo made a sculpture of a sleeping cupid, then buried it in order to artificially age it (Amineddoleh). Eventually, this piece was sold to a cardinal, who was both furious at the dealer and impressed with Michelangelo once he discovered the subterfuge. He was so impressed with Michelangelo, in fact, that he allowed Michelangelo to keep his portion of the money for the sculpture. Michelangelo was lauded for his "triumph over antiquity" and this incident only served to increase his fame.
Another case of 15th-century forgery concerned a tome called The History of Crowland. From the ninth century onwards, the Crowland Abbey had monks living a quiet, solitary life. This was upended by constant legal threats against their abbey, culminating in an early 15th-century legal ploy by a neighboring abbey to claim Crowland land, and the ensuing court case ("The History Of Crowland"). In order to prove their right to the land, as the only people who had a right to the land, they presented Historia Crowlandensis, or the History of Crowland, a "string of historical land charters woven together into a general history of the abbey." The Crowland monks won the court case, and the information drawn up inside the Historia excited scholars, as they now had a record of hundreds of years of past church life. Seen as legitimate, the Historia was quoted and cited all the way into the 18th century. However, in the 19th century, further scrutiny revealed the Historia was rife with reported impossible lifespans and anachronisms. Nineteenth-century scholars concluded that the book was a fraud designed to spare the monks' home.
Identity theft was not unheard of in the Middle Ages, either. After the death of warrior-turned-heretic-turned-posthumous-saint Joan of Arc in the 15th-century, many pretenders claimed to be her (Cohen). One notorious example is the story of Claude/Jeanne des Armoises, who, like Joan, had supposedly received instruction from God to go forth in men's clothing and become a soldier ("Claude"). A few years after the real Joan's death, Claude impersonated her, and, having either convinced two of the real Joan's brothers that she was Joan or at least having convinced them to go along with her
scheme, appeared as Joan with the boys' approval to attend many lavish parties and receive many expensive gifts (Cohen). Eventually, she gave up the charade and was tried, but after trial returned to her life as a soldier ("Claude").
With the advent of the internet, and thus the advent of in-your-face-all-the-time media, it is easy to find oneself believing that all the crime and negativity surrounding us- especially white-collar crime- is a symptom of modern times. But that's simply untrue. Humans have always found ways to steal from each other and rip each other off, and they most likely always will. It is paramount to remember that for every Bernie Madoff wreaking havoc in modern times, there was a Cosimo de Medici ripping off one's ancestors- the only difference is, we are more aware of it now.