Roman Women and ‘Microcredit’

Edificio de Eumaquía en Pompeya

Edificio de Eumaquía en Pompeya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From a Universitat Jaume I press release:

Some women in ancient Rome already implemented the concept of microcredit as a loan of small amounts of money that enables people without resources to develop work projects on their own. The study conducted by the professor of Roman Law at the Universitat Jaume I Carmen Lázaro shows how women managed to evade the legal rules that excluded them from activities related with the bank and exchange through credit contracts of small amounts of money made by and among women and guaranteed by pledge agreements in which they gave as collateral personal property of small value.

The existence of this microcredit system is known through various sources, mainly epigraphic, such as the inscriptions found in Roman Granio House in Pompeii, which reflect legal transactions as the ones carried out among the moneylender Faustilla and other women with an interest at 6.25%, remaining as collateral for reimbursement by way of endorsement (through pignus-pawns) personal items such as earrings or coats. Lázaro points out that these loans were done legally and avoided the need to be approved by the tutor (according to the rules of the necessary intervention of a tutor in carrying out legal transactions performed by women) “since money was a fungible good and therefore, not subject to formalities for the transmission to provide legal effects.” Moreover, as what was deposited was the capital of the pawnbroker, “the loan could have taken the form of an irregular deposit, imperfect bilateral agreement which in principle would only generate obligations to the depositary.” The usefulness of the irregular deposit would only raise obligations, in principle, for a part, the deposit taker, so that the lender could also avoid the necessary intervention of the tutor.

Researches carried out by Carmen Lázaro also collect other evidence of business loans for women as the ones found in the Pompeian tablets of Murecine or at some literary sources. In short, the researcher points out that the epigraphic and literary sources show how, despite the prohibition on engaging in banking activities and exchange, women were an active and passive part of monetary obligations for loans and that they operated in the field of banking and credit.

Legal constraints, which suffered women in ancient Rome, were just, as the researcher says, what led to consolidate this system that without opposing the legislation, developed the right mechanism to allow women to make their transactions. In this regard, it should be noted that the law prevented women from having access to certain contractual arrangements that limited the performance of specific legal transactions without the presence of a tutor, for example, an application for a monetary loan or the possibility of become moneylenders. However, loans among women, formalized through legal concepts beyond common and customary limits and carried out because of the gender, allowed the mobility of small amounts of money, that is, the execution of loans operated by well-off lenders to borrowers supposedly poorer that could not obtain credit through traditional means. In short, as the researcher says, it is “a business that has the characteristics of what we know today as microcredit and allowed women to enjoy some freedom of action and avoid the prohibition in the rule of law”.

Perhaps Roman women kept abreast of the current development of microcredit system driven by Nobel Peace Prize and honorary doctor from the Universitat Jaume I Muhammad Yunus, who started, through the Bank of Poor in Bangladesh, a system of small loans that allowed escape from poverty to millions of people, especially women. Moreover, the lenders were also women.

In addition, Lazarus states that the activity of women in the business sector in ancient Rome was beyond lending activity since there is written evidence of women participating in the world of commerce and business. Thus, women headed shipping, textile manufacturing and footwear companies, business aimed at providing embellishment to other women, traded luxury goods and food products or managed accommodation business, among other activities. “This freedom of women in the field of business despite the prohibitions was favored by the succession of periods of war. The lack of men, who died or were fighting in the front, made virtually impossible the exercise of parental authority, it is to say, women were independent de facto, at least in economic terms as they were the heirs (of husbands, fathers, brothers and sons who, sadly died during the war) in a system in which most marriages were celebrated sine manu, that is, a marriage that provides an economic regime that we believe precedent of separation of marital property” explains. A position of women that leads Carmen Lázaro to remember the quote of Rene Pichon which states “in a people, as the Roman, which is not exactly a feminist one, women have freedom, activity and influence, more than in other societies that boast about having it”.

I have to admit I found a great deal of this confusing and I suspect the Past Horizons people did as well (their gloss seems to be trying to get rid of the confusing bits) … the relatively short leap from:

In this regard, it should be noted that the law prevented women from having access to certain contractual arrangements that limited the performance of specific legal transactions without the presence of a tutor, for example, an application for a monetary loan or the possibility of become moneylenders.

to:

In addition, Lazarus states that the activity of women in the business sector in ancient Rome was beyond lending activity since there is written evidence of women participating in the world of commerce and business. Thus, women headed shipping, textile manufacturing and footwear companies, business aimed at providing embellishment to other women, traded luxury goods and food products or managed accommodation business, among other activities.

… without any explanation other than something about ‘microcredit’, doesn’t strike me as a complete argument, although we do have to admit that we’re dealing with something filtered through a journalist. It should be pointed out, however, that the ius trium liberorum (and its concomitant freedom from requirement of a tutor’s approval) likely threw a huge spanner into the concept of tutela mulierum and that by the time the first century came to a close, it may have been more of a formality than anything else. As we’ve mentioned before in these pages as well, the Codex Justinianus also provides examples of women engaging in the highly speculative world of bottomry loans with no indication of a tutor’s involvement. Whatever the case, it’s probably safest to admit that post-Augustus’ ius trium liberorum, the whole tutela thing would be undergoing changes … perhaps this ‘microcredit’ thing is another aspect thereof.

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