Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality is the first to examine the economic revolution in medieval Europe and to chart the expanding role and perception of money during that period. Anchored around some of the Morgan’s most acclaimed medieval manuscripts, it critically recontextualizes items from the collection as well as other exceptional objects on loan through a decidedly new lens.
Medieval Europe witnessed an economic revolution: trade was conducted on an unprecedented scale, banks were established, and coin production surged. The expanding role of money in daily life sparked ethical and theological debates as individuals reflected on fluctuating markets, disparities in wealth, personal conduct, and morality. This installation brings together the Morgan’s illuminated manuscripts with paintings and other loans, including a brass alms box, a wealth of medieval coins, and a formidable strongbox, to reveal the complex ways people conceived of money during this time of rapid economic change.
The exhibition dramatizes a struggle that followed the rise of capitalism in the Middle Ages: Would you rather have your money or your eternal life? Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting Death and the Miser, which opens the exhibition, shows a man confronting this very question on his deathbed, as a demon offers him a money bag while an angel urges him to turn to God. The display reveals the tension between material gain and spiritual fulfillment, between the desire to succeed in business and accumulate wealth and Christian ideals of poverty and charity.
In another section, the exhibition explores the question, “Will money damn your soul?” For medieval Christians, avarice—the desire for material things—was a deadly sin. With the rise of commerce, investment, and banking, many began to interpret avarice more narrowly as the lust for money. This section foregrounds medieval perspectives on immoral ways of acquiring and spending money, concerns that find ready parallels in contemporary life. While numerous debates centered on usury, the practice of lending money at interest, swindlers, robbers, embezzlers, tricksters, and gamblers were condemned by secular and ecclesiastical authorities alike. Conversely, the exhibition examines the potential of money, highlighting moral responses to it, as well as societal transformations brought about by the new culture of commerce.
Medieval Christians did not reductively condemn money; rather, they saw how it could be channeled to support religious initiatives and to help the less privileged. The installation tracks the rise of the new mercantile class, as shown in the Morgan’s Portrait of a Man with a Pink by Hans Memling, which likely depicts a young Italian merchant. With the rise of commerce and the invention of financial instruments came changes in social and economic mobility, as the accumulation of wealth became possible for those who were not born into it.
Additional highlights of the exhibition include a steel strongbox borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with an elaborate locking mechanism consisting of nine bolts and various leaf-shaped shields. Also on view are two volumes of the Morgan’s extraordinary “Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves. One volume is open to an image of St. Gregory framed by an unusual border of gold and silver coins. Several of the medieval coins depicted in the miniature, or their close equivalents, will be displayed alongside the manuscript, thanks to the generosity of the American Numismatic Society
This exhibition is curated by Diane Wolfthal, David and Caroline Minter Chair Emerita in the Humanities and Professor Emerita of Art History at Rice University, with Deirdre Jackson, Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum. It is accompanied by a groundbreaking new publication of the same name, which includes new essays by Steven A. Epstein and David Yoon.