Antimercantilism in Late Medieval English Culture
In the chapter ‘Langland’s Merchants and the Material and Spiritual Economies of Piers Plowman B’, Ladd argues that L in some ways follows the antimercantile tradition of estates satire, particularly in his portrayal of Covetise, but that L goes beyond that tradition to apply an ongoing tension between trade and charity in the contrasting economies of the world and the spirit. L uses mercantile language both to portray the problematic world of trade, and also to describe the business of salvation: ‘[T]he poem presents worldly economics as both antithetical to and implicated in the success of the spiritual economy, and these economies overlap when material economics functions as a metaphor for the spiritual enterprise of salvation’ (p. 23). The chapter begins with a detailed reading of the portrayal of Covetise in passus 5, noting in particular the extent to which Covetise’s practices match late medieval concerns about mercantile malpractice, while engaging with just price theory and the usury ban. Repentaunce’s insistence on restitution and abandonment of trade pushes Covetise in the direction of charity, mediated through a good bishop. Ladd continues with a reading of the figure of Haukyn, who is also mercantile in part but less thoroughly depraved in moral terms. Haukyn’s mercantile sins overlap with Covetise’s, and at this point in the poem, L is less optimistic about the possibility that the church can help Haukyn out of his moral collapse. Charity continues to be presented as a form of opposition to trade, however, and is suggested more broadly as an antidote to materialism, not just merchandise. From here Ladd goes on to look at other moments in the poem where he sees elements of antimercantile satire, such as the Mede sequence, the Pardon scene, the discussion of Charite in passus 15, and then the poem’s collapse at the end, with another half-acre scene much more removed from the actual material world. Ladd concludes that ultimately for L, merchants and trade come to represent the contradictions of living in the material world, contradictions he is unable finally to resolve. Ladd also suggests that, because PPl takes merchants’ moral concerns seriously as it is critiquing that estate, it might have been suited to a mercantile audience (though he cannot prove that it reached one). (RAL)
(New York: Palgrave, 2010).
Ladd, Roger A.