This article reinterprets the origin and evolution of the Basel Accords. We argue that the Basel I paradigm was very different from the regulatory approaches that had been applied successfully in most European countries since the Second World War. Banking systems relied on a multitude of tools including entry restrictions, liquidity rules, reserve requirements, deposit rate ceilings, lending and investment restrictions, combined with hands-on supervision and discretional interventions. By focusing exclusively on capital adequacy and credit risk, Basel I shifted attention in a very different and somewhat unexpected direction. The Basel regulations are often understood as a reaction to the bank failures of the 1970s and 1980s, but in fact their capital adequacy rules would not have prevented these failures. Indeed, even today, several of these risks are still not addressed by Basel updates, suggesting that the original and current proposals have a rather different raison d’être, placating political constituencies and banking interests.