The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along…

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

The Ten Commandments were widely believed to be a comprehensive distillation of God’s will.  As such, every sin discussed in scripture could be located in at least one of the commandments – if God disapproved of it, the Decalogue must forbid it, somewhere.  However, there were some manifest sins in early modern England which were not discussed in the Bible.  As a perfect system of justice and morality, the Commandments also had to forbid these, meaning that the Decalogue effectively provided carte blanche for ministers and authors to condemn whatever they felt was sinful, and to do so with the weight of God’s law behind them.

39749-004-144cf988Nowhere was this aspect of ‘making it up as they went along’ more visible than in discussions of the Eighth Commandment – for while certain sins were pretty much universals of human nature (sins of violence and lust, for example) the realities of economic life in sixteenth century England were very different from those of the ancient Middle East.  Scholars from Max Weber onwards, and more recently my fellow monster head Brodie, have reminded us that religious and cultural factors can help to condition and regulate attitudes to economic behaviour (and therefore economic activity itself) in powerful ways.[1]  There isn’t space here to consider the extent to which economic actors responded to godly exhortations; but the mere existence and nature of those exhortations tells us a lot about economic morality and practice in early modern England.

Like many authors, the Lincolnshire clergyman Thomas Granger, in his 1616 work A tree of good and evill, gave biblical references for his exposition of the commandments wherever possible.[2]  However, he occasionally struggled to provide convincing biblical precedents for the fifty ‘sins forbidden’ he enumerated under the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Steale’.  Sin I, ‘Hindering, or diminishing our neighbours goods by any meanes, in thought, word, or deed’, summarised the overall negative aspect of the commandment without reference to scripture.  Granger also itemised ’20 signes of a covetous heart’; those without biblical clout behind them included sign 11, ‘He will not let to doe much hurt, to gaine himself a little’; and sign 13, ‘He is cruell and tyrannous, where he can overmatch, otherwise he loves no doubtfull suites’.  Sign 14 condemned ‘He [who] hates prodigall and dissolute persons, because he thinkes they hate him, and love him as Lyons do their prey’, referring to the paranoia of the wealthy.

top-10-biggest-lawsuits-in-historyFurther contemporary sins with no biblical precedents were sin X, ‘all cunning and secret practises to enhaunce the price of things’, and sin XII, ‘concealment of lands and abilities, that the poore may be overburthened in all manner of charges, which our selves might easily beare’.  Sin XV condemned ‘Mixt Settements’ as ‘a wicked theft lately come in use’, while sin XIX excoriated greedy purchasers who refused ‘to give a man the worth of a thing, because need compelleth him to sell it’.  Several sins alluded to the increasingly litigious nature of early modern English society, and the ruinous economic consequences that could arise from lengthy acrimonious lawsuits: sin XXVII criticised ‘Delaies in Courts of Justice to the impoverishing of our neighbour’, while sin XLVIII forbade ‘wearying of our neighbours with many suites and delaies, to enforce him to forgo his right’.

Sin XXX alluded to quackery – those who made their living by ‘ignorant profession of Phisicke and Chirugery for gaine’; sin XXXI criticised those who sought to profit from bankruptcy; and sins XXXII and XXXIIII attacked the professions of ‘beggery’ and ‘roguery’, not with reference to scripture, but ‘Act.4.Stat.Anno.Eliz.39.’.  These were social problems which Granger perhaps witnessed first-hand at Butterwick in Lincolnshire.  His ODNB biographer has even suggested that the fact Granger died with £73 owing to him in bonds may indicate that he developed ‘an implicit gathered community’ of the godly, in which he was a source of significant financial support.[3]

robbery-clipart-robber-1893761In contrast, of 25 virtues listed by Granger as being required by the Eighth Commandment, only one came without the support of scripture – ‘XVII. Restitution of goods wrongfully taken from the Church’.  Still, biblical support of varying degrees could readily be found for many of the virtues and vices which afflicted early modern England, such as covetousness, fraud, deceit in buying and selling and weights and measures, hoarding of goods to sell at inflated profits (ingrossers and monopolists), rack-rent, wasteful spending, being ‘liberall on the purses and goods of other men’, and usury.

What receives very little attention in Granger’s exhaustive list, is straightforward theft – petty larceny, grand larceny, burglary, robbery, and so forth.  His vision of the social implications of the Eighth Commandment – and Granger was not alone in this respect – was much more totalising; he was concerned not simply with stealing, but with articulating an all-encompassing moral economic worldview.

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott parsons, intro. Anthony Giddens (London: Routledge Classics, 2001/2005); Brodie Waddell, God, duty and community: in English economic life 1660-1720 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2012).

[2] Thomas Granger, The tree of good and euill: or A profitable and familiar exposition of the Commandements, directing us in the whole course of our life, according to the Rule of God’s Word, whereby we must bee iudged at the last day (1616), STC2: 12185, pp. 49-61.

[3] John Morgan, ‘Granger, Thomas (bap. 1578, d. 1627)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [, accessed 24 Oct 2017]

1 thought on “The Eighth Commandment: Theft; or, making it up as you go along…

  1. Pingback: Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface | the many-headed monster

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