The Account Book and the Treasure: Gilbert Maghfeld’s Textual Economy and the Poetics of Mercantile Accounting in Ricardian Literature
The account book for 4 July 1390-23 June 1395 kept by Gilbert Maghfeld, ironmonger, credit broker, London sheriff, and moneylender, witnesses to the social and economic networks of late fourteenth-century London, and to the involvement of the region’s major literary figures in them (including the discovery of an important biographical connection between Maghfeld and Thomas Usk). This essay ‘seeks to show that this unparalleled glimpse of Ricardian mercantile documentary culture can also reveal some central historical, ideological, and narrative features of Ricardian literature. […] Revisiting Maghfeld’s book and social networks in the context of major London writers and their works offers the prospect of a further, and more historically integrated, exploration of the ways in which mercantile culture and the “new literacies” associated with credit and commerce contributed centrally to the development of Ricardian London literature’ (pp. 65-66, 69). In the section on ‘PPl and the Invention of English Literary Accounting’ (pp. 81-92), Galloway discusses Conscience’s distinction between ‘meed measureless’ and ‘measureable hire’ in passus 3, which ultimately ‘leaves vague the faith that a community must have in a system of credit for it to function in general’ (p. 85). In the pardon scene, Truth grants the merchants a temporary reprieve from judgement, and extension of their credit, a focus on the settlement or deferral of debts (rather than on profits reaped), an emphasis that seems odd to us today, but on which Conscience insists in the final passūs as well. Similarly, in his apologia (C passus 5) the narrator figures himself as a merchant pleading for temporary reprieve. Yet this is precarious: Will’s ‘public London auditing closes with a plea not for reward but for credibility, for continuation of the much-extended faith of an audience—human as well as suprahuman—in him’ (p. 90). ‘L’s commitment to a lifetime of expanding and heroically endorsing the poetics of mercantile accounting also demonstrates its fragility and defeat’ (p. 91).
Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 33 (2011), 65-124.