As I finished up The She-Wolf of France, the final chapters of this volume of the The Accursed Kings series has a plot thread that was very revealing to me. Although the story takes place more than a century before the events portrayed in Pax Renaissance, it illustrates the thesis of that game in a concrete way.
I’m giving away the ending of a book here but the events of the book are really just the history of England and France. I don’t know if you would consider this a spoiler or not, but proceed accordingly.
The story follows Queen Isabella as she joins the French court (her brother is King of France) and exiled Baron Roger Mortimer. At first, she uses political pretext to avoid returning to England and the control of her husband (Edward II) and his advisors (the Despensers). Eventually, Edward’s appeals to the Pope and feudal tradition result in the court of France no longer being a safe haven for the Queen and her now-lover. The story has her, through a web of political and familial ties, finding refuge in Hainaut (now part of Belgium). Before leaving Paris, however, she and Mortimer seek additional loans from a Lombard banking syndicate.
This series explains a pair of mysteries which are implicit in the premise of Pax Renaissance. The first is how banking families could build wealth in an environment where the Pope had forbidden the charging of interest. The second is just how a mere merchant might manipulate the governments of nations, starting wars and toppling dynasties.
As to the first, while we’re not presented with a spreadsheet, we can see how by making loans to important people, the merchant-banker can turn a profit. If a loan is repaid at face value, there are perhaps other considerations that can serve as the “juice.” Information about impending government actions might be “bought” using money that eventually is going to be paid back, allowing the merchant to make a side profit trading before the news of court actions becomes public.
It may post-date the novel, but when loans were secured with real property, that provided another means of earning without charging interest. Estates and other properties were typically income-producing meaning that, for the duration of a loan, a banker was really trading up-front currency for an annuity. Again, the loan is paid back in full so that money earned in the meantime becomes profit. The term “Lombard” has come to be synonymous with pawn shops as well as the type of loan where the amount borrowed is guaranteed with securities with a preset contract to repurchase them. In modern terminology, this repurchase-sale transaction, or repo, earns a the lender a profit on the loan, but may have skirted the medieval definition of usury.
What ever the merchant’s angle, his ability to survive financially rests on the “if the loan is paid back” clause, which can be a big “if”. Bankers were considered to be, even if staying on the godly side of the Pope’s dictates, in a rather ignoble profession, both literally and figuratively. They were considered sinners and leaches upon the great and good of society and, therefore, were at a minimum subject to laws, taxes, and other harassment if they expected to remain in business. Despite wealth that matched or exceed the nobility to which they lent, the nobles looked down upon merchants and felt few qualms about asserting this superiority within the natural order of things. Arbitrary seizure of assets and expulsion from a sovereign’s nation was not out of the question. However, this cut both ways. The bankers portrayed in The Accursed Kings show themselves to be a separate power structure, outside the control of the nobility and the Church. This again allows them to provide services (carrying messages between nations, not subject to intercept by officialdom) and profiting from them (carrying messages means being privy to their content).
So while there is an opportunity for great profit, there is also the possibility of ruin. Getting the best odds on that “if the loan is paid back” might take a bit of political manipulation. Reading The She-Wolf of France, one can see how that might have happened.
Isabelle and Mortimer were already very much in debt and were seeking loans for a cause (deposing a sitting King) that was neither particularly righteous nor likely to succeed. Of course, when it comes to military success, having the biggest purse can be a deciding factor. As it turns out, Edward and the Despensers also owed the same (fictional) bank a considerable sum and it would seem impossible that both Edward and his opposition would both repay their loans. So in exchange for a further, and decisive, extension of credit, Isabella (as Queen of England) agrees to honor not only her personal loans but those of Edward II, should she find herself in control of the incomes of England.
And so she did.
Thus a banker can finance both sides of a war and come out making money from all sides. Its a move lifted right out of Pax Renaissance.