Piers Plowman and the National Noetic of Edward III
Despite the fact that the idea of the “nation is virtually a synonym for modernity,” Smith argues that certain emergent national ideas under Edward III can be traced within the economic practices described in PPl (235). The various discussions and appropriations of the ideas of usury and brokering in the poem reflect the condemnation and suppression of these practices in directives issued under the privy seal during Edward III’s reign. After a wide ranging discussion of “how money works, or how it was imagined to work in the Middle Ages,” Smith argues that, in comparison with much vernacular writing about merchants and usury, Piers Plowman is virtually unique in “attempting to imagine productive, positive roles for both money and merchants” in PPl (236). Smith suggests that L , in his “withdrawal from explicit criticism” of “the crucially unstable mercantile subject,” is responding, like Edward, to the “phenomenology of exchange” created by the circulation of money and mercantile activity (237). For instance, Smith reads the complicated, intertwined sequence of grammatical and monetary metaphors in C.3 as indicative of L’s apprehension of the intrinsically “‘indirect’ nature of social relations” engendered by the exchange of money in an economy (240). He goes on to chart how Edward III’s “national thinking” about money and merchants – his attempts to constitute a “fourth estate” of merchants which would allow him to raise capital bypassing the Commons – appears in response to the emergencies and expediencies of the Hundred Years’ War. It is against these contexts that Smith presents a reading of the Pardon scene in B.7, which includes merchants, literally, in the margins of that document sent by Truth under his secret seal. Smith traces immediate parallels between that Pardon, which grants certain economic liberties to merchants so long as the excess money generated is put to good social use, and a 1365 writ issued by Edward to the city of London that includes the provision that “practices deleterious to the individual soul and the public commodity . . . could be [exceptioned] at the instance of the king himself, ‘par letters desouz nostre Secre Seal'” (251). Thus, according to Smith, L envisages a “sociological vision of exchange” in which the individual effects of sinful commercial practice are subjugated to the public good which might be derived from the regulation of such exchanges (250).
Lavezzo, ed., Imagining a Medieval English Nation, 234-57
Smith, D. Vance