The Medieval Review 11.04.13

Ladd, Roger A. Antimercantilism in Late Medieval English Literature. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp. 218. $80 ISBN 978-0-23010-386-3. .

Reviewed by:

Donald Leech
University of Virginia's College at Wise

The New Middle Ages series uses what they impressively label a pluridisciplinary approach to the period. The majority of the series, predictably, consists of cultural history and literary theory, although there are some interesting exceptions. In this case Roger Ladd uses well-grounded historicism to contextualize several literary texts in their attitudes towards merchants. Ladd organizes the book into chapters that are based on the major authors, Langland, Gower, and Chaucer, along with two broader chapters which use examples of actual mercantile voices in literature. Ladd seems to be combing the literary corpus of the Late Middle Ages for material, and therefore finds an interesting complexity. Ladd does try to unveil a narrative of increasing acceptance of merchants, but I wonder if he is simply finding variety across a range of sources.

The book begins with a thoroughly historiographic discussion on late medieval merchants and mercantile activity, as well as on social attitudes concerning merchants. Ladd effectively cites the standard monographs that a historian would expect to see, though I would also suggest Joel Kaye's Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century, as it would help to clarify the increasingly powerful effect of the money economy on the world view of church scholars. Ladd argues that the church had a long tradition of condemning avarice, money, and usury, but would relax slowly over time and positively adjust to circumstances by producing ideas of the just price and fair trade. Ladd argues for a shift in attitudes over the course of the Late Middle Ages, as writers recognized that trade brings important products to where they are needed. However, the merchants as a class fit into society neither as true laborers nor as the aristocracy, and so their livelihood, and hence status, was considered of somewhat questionable virtue. The merchants themselves seemed anxious about their virtue, hence their assertive almsgiving through guilds and in their wills. Langland is an inevitable choice to read for social attitudes, and this is well-ploughed material. Ladd is able to tease out from the text, and from the many discussions by modern readers, passages specifically concerning merchants. The criticism of mercantile activity in Langland is over the contradictions between the spiritual and worldly economies. Langland uses the characters Coveitise and Haukyn to represent the fraud, cheating, and dishonesty that the material economy produces. Their confusion is to mix material deal-making with spiritual works in a way that charity and poverty become calculated restitution for material sin rather than performed as simple virtues. To Langland, caritas (charity) means both love and alms. The emphasis should be on the former, but to the materialistic merchants it is the latter that serves as a material solution to spiritual anxiety.

Gower is also mined for references to antimercantilism, and Ladd finds the most useful in a lesser known work, the Mirour d l'Omme. Outside a brief comparison of the courtly audiences for the Vox Clamatis and Confessio as opposed to a possible mercantile audience for Mirour, we are left to ourselves in our knowledge of Gower, the broader context of his writing, and the context and approach of the Mirour de l'Omme itself. The tension in this work is over pro-trade attitudes, in that merchants bring needed goods from afar, versus the standard criticism of the profit motive. Gower, like Langland, notes the ties between the material and the spiritual economies accomplished via charity. While criticism for material fraud at first appears, as usual for the period, aimed at foreign merchants, especially the Lombards, Gower shifts to criticism of certain domestic grocers and drapers and specifically to the monopoly of the Staple. But this seems to me less a case of antimercantilism, and more a case of criticizing the general corruption of the worldly.

Chaucer is another inevitable choice. There is even more of a Chaucerian scholarly industry than there is for Langland; Ladd cites the relevant scholars, and tries to wade through their very disparate views. He wisely argues for retaining the ambivalence in interpretation rather than imposing one reading or another on the texts. Chaucer provides evidence, again, of both acceptance of mercantile activity and of antimercantilism. Ladd, logically, uses the Merchant's Tale while cautioning the reader that it is an estates satire rather than description. Chaucer's merchant is an ambivalent character, so there is a lack of consensus among scholars on reading him, hence Ladd's argument for ambivalence in reading. The merchant is wealthy and speaks knowledgeably of trade, but neither attribute is automatically negative or positive. It is the same with his livelihood based on trade; as we have seen with Gower, that can be read either way too. Finally, by leaving the merchant unnamed, Chaucer keeps his identity ambivalent. Even the tale itself told by the merchant is ambivalent about the values of the clergy and aristocracy. We are left with a nice complexity.

In his chapter on medieval mercantile voices, Ladd finally finds merchants writing, rather than being simply written about or, perhaps, to. Specifically we find their voices through Margery Kempe and in several minor poems. Ladd puts Kempe rather nicely in the historical context of urban guilds and society. However, Kempe rejects that material world for the mystical and spiritual. Yet she always remains anchored to her estate and to material charity. Like so many in her class, she switches easily between the material and spiritual economies. In the small poems, Ladd tries to tease out some more clues, and like the other literature he finds contradictions and grey areas. There does appear a thread in the poems in the attempts to bring chivalric values to merchants. But I think more telling is Ladd's contention that merchants are becoming satirized like the other estates rather than getting singled out under antimercantilism.

Finally, Ladd reads the York mystery cycle as a sample of very late medieval merchant productions for merchant audiences. Here is the only area where Ladd can determine with some confidence an actual merchant audience as opposed to a possible one. The full complexity of the interactions between estate, materialism, and piety come into play in the cycle. The best discussion revolves around the mercers and drapers who fully display their power and wealth through their pageant, while ensuring, perhaps still anxiously, their salvation through charity and piety. This chapter is quite successful in that Ladd reads both the mystery plays and the records associated with them to historicize the literature.

Ladd may have shown us a progression from antimercantilism to acceptance, or he may simply have shown an increase in the merchant voice. It is not the only voice missing for much of the Middle Ages; one often ponders what the attitudes of women and peasants must have been. Merchants are not the subaltern, but many historical debates over the Middle Ages have revolved around the effects of the retention and origins of select sources, and around changes in their form and content. Essentially, are we reading changing attitudes? or are we reading changes in the documentary record? Regardless of the question, Ladd has provided us with a clear and thorough overview of merchant attitudes found in literature in the Late Middle Ages. This is an important foundational reading that now allows us to set off with all sorts of interesting questions.