The Economy of Need in Late Medieval English Literature
Since the eighteenth century, economic thought has made identity legible in terms of production, consumption, and profit. This essay argues that, in contrast, in later medieval culture social thought was often framed in terms of an economy of need. The essay establishes that claim in the realms of canonists and theologians, but it also argues that, in a context where the blurring or transformation of the idea of need can be traced on many sides, late-medieval vernacular English writers—preachers, prose writers, poets—as well as artists addressing vernacular culture, more fully emphasized this ‘economy of need’, pursuing its details and contradictions. The London writers (Gower, Chaucer, and L) especially elaborated the contradictions of this frame of thought. The concept and its contradictions help explain many of their poetry’s preoccupations, even as their critical scrutiny shows how the idea of an ‘economy of need’ would ultimately collapse. (AG; from the journal’s abstract)
Viator, 40 (2009), 309-31.