The Ben & Jerry’s of Medieval Times

“Social responsibility” seems like a recent trend, but businesses have been practicing it for more than half a millennium.

A painting of a meeting in the year 1520 between King Henry VIII of England and King Francois I of France
A painting, done in the 19th century by Friedrich Bouterwek, of a 1520 meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francois I of France (Photo Josse / Leemage / Getty)

Profits and public-mindedness are often at odds. A business’s aim is to make money, and most of the time, concerns about social good are secondary at best, frequently touted for public-relations purposes.

One exception is benefit corporations, companies that explicitly set out to do right by their workers, society, and the environment. The nomenclature is relatively new—the first companies to be officially certified as “B Corps” received the title in 2007, and many hip brands, including Warby Parker and Patagonia, have joined their ranks. Ben & Jerry’s, a longtime exemplar of the category, predates this official certification, having prioritized a social mission for a few decades now.

But as trendy as this seems, the idea that business could have a social conscience actually has deep historical roots. In a recent paper, researchers in England found that medieval entrepreneurs used large portions of their profits to help their communities—embodying what the paper called “compassionate capitalism.”

Before the 13th century, the English gentry usually maintained their wealth simply by owning land, and commerce mostly involved specialized craftsmen who made goods in small quantities. But after that time, as larger-scale production became more common, entrepreneurs started amassing larger fortunes than was previously possible. Rather than spending their profits entirely on themselves, many entrepreneurs donated their money to monasteries and other institutions to support local education, health care, and infrastructure. Local governments used these donations to build roads and bridges, and monasteries were able to fund classes for priests, administrators, and civil servants. Sometimes, this “compassion” was a social expectation.

I talked with Catherine Casson, a professor at the University of Manchester who co-authored that paper, to talk about the history of this business model and how it’s changed over the centuries. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Ilana Strauss: Compared to today, how did business owners in the Middle Ages use their profits differently?

Catherine Casson: Obviously nowadays, there's quite a lot of interest in how businesses spend their money. I used to work in a history department, and now I work in a business school, and people in business schools think that's a really new thing, as though social responsibility just suddenly started yesterday. We’re saying, “Look, this is something that has been going on a long time.”

And actually, if you look back to the Middle Ages, what’s interesting is that philanthropy was just part and parcel of doing business. Medieval property speculators saw their business activities and their philanthropic activities as intermeshed. It's not like today, where there’s this idea that a business has to tag on a strand of social responsibility. In the Middle Ages, it was seen as quite a positive thing to both be a success in your business and also a success in helping your community as a whole.

Not that all medieval entrepreneurs were terribly nice. A couple characters were really nasty. One guy we looked at was a wool merchant who made lots of money at the expense of others, and then he drowned in a warship. Everyone was very pleased that he drowned because he was so nasty. So we can’t say philanthropy was entirely widespread, but I think what we're trying to say is that these philanthropic things happened much earlier than we consider them to have happened.

Strauss: How much did local communities depend on these kinds of donations?

Casson: Probably quite a lot. In the Middle Ages, unlike today, there weren’t any sort of real, centralized welfare states. So your education and your medical care and your basic infrastructure—bridges, roads, things like that—generally had to be dealt with either by a local council or by you as an individual. So the fact that you have entrepreneurs stepping forward to help with that is filling a significant gap.

Strauss: So it’s sort of a substitute for welfare.

Casson: Yes. And we see entrepreneurs acting individually to make donations, but there are also occasions where they collaborate. For example, in medieval Abington in the 1400s, there’s a river with no bridge, and so people can only get into the town to trade by taking a very dangerous ferry that’s very expensive. So the entrepreneurs pool their resources and build a bridge, and the English government really praises that as a collaborative effort.

Strauss: What did income inequality look like at that time?

Casson: There's some debate in medieval history about the distribution of wealth. There is one strand of the literature that would say that most people were either very rich or very poor, especially looking at land ownership in the countryside. There is, however, more of an awareness now in the literature that just like today, there were people with varying degrees of wealth.

I think our work is showing that, although you had varying degrees of wealth, there was an understanding that people who were making money had to do something to help the people who were less well-off.

Strauss: In your paper, you wrote about the economic effects of the Black Death. Can you talk about those?

Casson: There are two things that happened. One of them is that the Black Death has an impact on attitudes toward social mobility. The survivors see an opportunity to earn higher wages, because there’s a shortage of workers. Some of them perhaps see an opportunity to socially advance themselves, and so there is a worry from the English monarchy that this will distort the status quo.

Another big shift is the Protestant Reformation, when some European countries give up Catholicism and become Protestant. The king of England at the time [the first half of the 16th century], Henry VIII, makes England a Protestant country and shuts down many Catholic monasteries. Some entrepreneurs, seeing that, start buying up monastic lands and making businesses on those properties.

There’s also a bit of a shift towards entrepreneurs becoming slightly less embedded in the community, and starting to make more of their money from opportunities provided by the Crown, such as getting a lucrative royal job as a customs collector. This route, which had always been there, becomes more common around the 1500s. As you get interested in making money from serving the monarchy, you want to spend your money and your profits from your wealth to build bigger houses and get grand estates. You want to impress the king so he’ll come and visit you.

Strauss: And then how did the Industrial Revolution affect the philanthropy you’ve described?

Casson: One thing that shifts is that entrepreneurs have bigger premises and more employees, and so philanthropy is shifting more to the needs of the workforce. Many employers exploited their workers, but some invested in their education. For instance, William Hesketh Lever, who made and sold soap, provided an art gallery for his workers. He’s very big into advertising his product, and he buys lots of oil paintings that he uses in advertisements, which often consisted of paintings of women and children having a fun time washing their clothes. And then he has to find somewhere to put the oil paintings. So he puts them in a gallery for his workers.

Meanwhile entrepreneurs in Manchester are motivated by the idea that English cotton manufacturing needs to be more competitive with what America’s producing, and since they see good design as a key element of competitiveness in textiles, they want to improve their workers’ skills in that department. They invest in standard school training, but they also build galleries and get workers to walk in parks and admire the flowers and plants, on the assumption that workers will learn design skills by looking at nature.

Strauss: When you think about compassionate capitalism in the Middle Ages, how does it change the way you think about business today?

Casson: In the Middle Ages, the expectation was really that, if you were a successful trader and you made money, you should be willing to help others and put your time back into helping other people make money. You’re a successful merchant, you've made money, you've made it—so you help the rest of the community to make it too. And in doing so, you keep your own business doing well because your business benefits if the whole town is doing well.

The medieval economy was probably a more collaborative one than what we're used to today. Businesses today are often more focused on competition with each other. You wouldn't really expect to see much collaboration across businesses for social projects. There’s some, but it’s not common. In medieval England, even competitors would collaborate together if there was a problem where, unless it was solved, the whole town would be damaged.