Conny Waters - AncientPages.com - The need of fast cash is not a new phenomenon. Our ancestors realized it a long time ago and came up with the idea of pawnbroking.
Money has always played a central role in the people's lives, regardless of whether payment has been rare shells, worthless iron coins, small springs or stamped precious metal pieces.
This topic is covered in our comprehensive article “our lives have always been manipulated by money”. The origin of money is hidden in the far distant past but for the first time, money is mentioned in writing in Mesopotamia (today: Iraq).
In Greece, for example, prehistoric falsifiers covered cheap copper with a thin layer of gold and tin they used to cover with the thin layer of silver.
The history of banks can be traced to ancient Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. In Babylon at the time of Hammurabi, there are records of loans made by the priests of the temple. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. Then, they redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor.
It should not come as a surprise to learn that the history of pawnbroking goes also far back in time. The first pawn shops emerged about 3,000 years ago in ancient China when peasants needed money quickly. So, they visited a pawn shop that offered them short-term credit. This ancient business idea spread to ancient Greece and Rome where similar pawnshops were established. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church stopped the growth of pawn shops because charging interest on loans was not correct in the eyes of the Christians.
If you have visited or passed a pawn shop you may have noticed the three golden balls suspended from a bar. These three spheres are the pawnbrokers' symbol and their history can be traced to the powerful Medici family.
As mentioned earlier on Ancient Pages, the Medici family were sort of Renaissance Godfathers. They were bankers and the had “access to untold resources which they used to obtain civic power over the city of Florence. As history tells us, they were not the only famous or powerful family of the Renaissance era, but they lasted the longest and ruled Florence for roughly 250 years.”
Left: A London shop displays the traditional pawnbroker's sign. Credit: Kim Traynor, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 Right: Medici family members placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men in the Tuscan countryside in a Benozzo Gozzoli fresco, c. 1459. Credit: Public Domain
But what is the connection between the pawn shop’s three golden balls and the Medici family?
The answer is quite simple. “The three golden balls were originally the symbol of the Medici family of Florence, who were the owners of many pawnshops in Italy during the Middle Ages.
According to legend, Averado de Medici, while serving under Charlemagne, once slew a giant warrior named Mugello on whose mace were three golden balls. To commemorate his victory, Averado adopted these bails as a device on the Medici family coat of arms. Later, the balls were displayed over the entrances of the de Medici pawnshops and eventually came to symbolize pawnshops in general.” (Smith, Douglas B.. Ever Wonder Why?)
This is also the reason why most European towns called the pawn shop the "Lombard".
It’s a bit ironic that the Christian Church prohibited pawnbroking and yet, later Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.
The symbol is associated with Saint Nicholas because he was kind enough to give a poor man's three daughters each a bag of gold so they could get married.
Written by Conny Waters – AncientPages.com Staff Writer