And to Think That I Saw It on Lombard Street


Hey, who wants to hear about something other than my pending nuptials? Cool. Me too, so let’s do it! :D


I took this photograph a few months ago deep in the heart of the Ewok Village in which I live, known to Google Maps and government folks as Chisinau.

The picture makes me laugh for many reasons, but I think my favorite part is the blatant theft of the trademarked image of the Disney Corporation, who are themselves the biggest intellectual thieves in the world, so fuck ’em. They deserve to have Scrooge McDuck used to sell something other than princess fantasies and crappy movies.

But the reason I’m writing this post is the interesting history of what a “Lombard” is, and why in the world a region of (what is now) Italy is here in Chisinau, and why everybody knows what it means, but not where it came from.

“Lombard” is the Moldovan word for this kind of business, and in most other languages too, including Italian, German, Russian, and dozens of others. In Romania proper, it’s called an amanet, a word adapted from the verb amanare, which means “to postpone, delay, temporarily suspend”.

In English, this type of business is called a pawn shop (UK: pawnbroker).

My girl Mary Lou Lord wrote an awesome song about it for her good pal Jerry Garcia, whom some of you may recognize as the legendary founder of the musical troupe The Grateful Dead. Here she is singing about how everything she owns is “down in pawn” (tot ce am este dat la amanet/lombard):

So Romanian and English are the outliers, we know that now, but why do dozens of languages refer to this type of business as a “Lombard”? The answer lies deep in the past, during a time when a powerful Italian family named the Medicis rose from their base in Florence and Tuscany to dominate the Renaissance in Europe.

At one point, the Medicis were so rich that they set up their own bank. But banks only work with rich people, or people who have money, so the cunning Medici family figured out another way to make money – take it from poor people. Genius, eh? I’d say so, as it’s still going on all over the world (UK: see Wonga).

In essence, poor people bring their few miserable possessions to the pawnshop, and the pawnbroker “fronts” them some money. If the poor person wants their item back, they have to pay back the loaned money plus interest. If the don’t want the item back, or can’t scrape together the money+interest, the pawnbroker then becomes the owner of the item, and will try to sell it for a profit. As with all casinos (ahem, banks I meant to say), the House Always Wins. Trust and believe it ;)

Okay, so everyone already knows what a pawnbroker/amanet is, but we’re still nowhere getting closer to understanding why it’s called a Lombard. To truly understand this, you’ve got to read my lengthy post The Hidden History of 1492, or How Romania (And The Entire World) Became Indebted to Bankers.

But if you want the short version: the first modern pawnbrokers were called a “Lombard” precisely because they were invented and codified by the Lords of Lombardy, called by some folks the Langobards. Although Lombardy is, today, part of northern Italy, and home to such quintessential Italian cities as Genoa (which, let’s not forget, was the city that spawned Christopher Columbus, who played his own special role in 1492), Pisa, Turin (Torino), and Milan(o), it was once a much different place.

Today, there is very little left of the original Lombards except for a few weird churches with heretical images still preserved in a few remote corners high up in the ceilings, as even their language has been forgotten and is not spoken by any living person anymore. But at one time the Lombards were the fiercest, most powerful tribe on the face of the planet.

It wasn’t their unique form of Christianity, or their use of the incalculably old Elder Futhark runic writing system, or their special Germanic language, or the financial domination of their neighbors, that made the petty kings of Europe lust for the power of the Lombards. The greatest treasure that the Lombards possessed was a very special crown that only the very highest and most powerful Lombard was allowed to wear.

Little is remembered about it today, but France’s greatest hero and savior, Napoleon Bonaparte, knew that his first and most important goal (after uniting France itself) was to send his legions eastward to seize the Iron Crown of Lombardy. If you are ever fortunate enough to visit the town of Monza (in what is now northern Italy), there is a cathedral there that has the Iron Crown, and if you get a chance to see it on display, count yourself lucky, as you have just been in the presence of the very oldest continuously-used royal crown known to humankind (over 1,250 years).

You: Woah!
Me: Woah is right.

Far, far older than the Crown Jewels of England, the Stone of Scone of Scotland, or even the mighty crown of Hungary’s legendary King Steven I (Istvan kiraly), the Iron Crown of Lombardy is not actually even a crown. That is to say, it is not your typical royal sign of leadership, a fancy precious metal circle meant to be worn on the top of the head. No, the Iron Crown of Lombardy was originally meant to be worn around the arm as a form of holy armor, based on certain ancient texts in the “Old Testament” to safeguard Israelite soldiers as they battled pagan enemies.

It was these Lombards who once made the kings of England and France tremble and fall to their knees. It was these Lombards who successfully crushed the pathetic remnants of the Western Roman Empire and humbled the haughty Emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was these Lombards who wiped out three entire elite Roman legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in the year 9, and who made even the legendary historian Tacitus quake with fear in his writings. It was these same Lombards who committed genocide against the Gepid people, erasing them forever from history. It was these same Lombards who once combined forces with Charles “The Hammer” Martel to drive the Arabs out of France and Northern Spain, and who successfully defended southern Italy from the rampaging Islamic armies waving the sword of Mohammed the Prophet, and who are directly responsible for keeping Europe a majority-Christian continent.

threegoldenballsAnd it was these Lombards who ignored prevailing Catholic admonitions against lending money at interest, and set up banks to lend money to all the royal houses of Europe, and then yes, formed the modern concept of a pawnshop that we all know today.

Later, the House of Medici, the neighbors directly to the south, and eventual inheritors of the knowledge and power of the Lombards, took over and expanded the Lombards’ banking and pawnbroker businesses. Realizing that most of their poorer customers were illiterate, the Medicis used a simple symbol of three golden balls (taken from the banner of the House of Medici), and hung it outside every one of their pawnshops.

Indeed, in America, Britain, Germany, and all around the world, you will often see this “three golden balls” symbol still being used outside a pawnbroker’s shop to let poor people know that inside is a wonderful place to sell their valuables for a small amount of cash.


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