09.02.11, Farber, Anatomy of Trade

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Kellie Robertson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.011


Farber, Lianna. An Anatomy of Trade in Medieval Writing: Value, Consent, and Community. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. 185. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4412-8.

Reviewed by:
Kellie Robertson
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Trade plays a major role in the fairytale that is frequently told about the formation of Britain's class system. It is said that the ever-rising middle classes began their precipitous ascent during the medieval period, largely through the economic activities of the guilds that systematized protocols of exchange and valuation. And yet, as Lianna Farber's insightful and well-organized book argues, discourses about trade were common to many parts of society that did not actively engage in mercantile enterprises.

Farber's book is a sophisticated addition to the growing literature that situates trade in its historical context; as such, it joins the work of John Baldwin on theories of just price and Diana Wood on medieval economic thought more generally. In terms of its intended audience, it has most in common with Joel Kay's Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (1998) and D. Vance Smith's Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary (2003).

What Farber's account contributes to this on-going conversation about exchange is the idea that medieval accounts of trade portray exchange as being composed of several interdependent parts (value, consent, and community) and that each of these parts needs to be examined in its larger social context rather than in a narrowly economic one. After a general overview of scholastic attitudes to trade generally, each of these parts is elaborated in turn. What the reader will not find here is any discussion of actual trading practices or the material economic culture of the later medieval period. Rather, the book largely concerns itself with the "theory" and "representation" of trade. While the author demonstrates that there is no such thing as a homogenous entity known as "medieval economic thought," she successfully shows the significant extent to which various strains of economic thought determined the texture of everyday medieval society, even in arenas far removed from the scholastic setting where many of these theories originated.

One of the challenges facing medieval writers interested in what constituted just exchange was to reconcile what they saw happening in the cities around them with what Christian doctrine prescribed. Farber's first chapter follows scholastic attempts to reconcile contemporary practice with both the New Testament and the classical notion of the "bonum communum" (particularly as articulated in Aristotle's Politics and Nichomachean Ethics). While neither of these sources was particularly friendly to the trader, Farber shows how a grudging acceptance began to permeate scholastic commentary on these sources from the thirteenth century onwards. The chapter argues that the "rose-tinted" picture of commerce that emerges in Nicole Oresme's late fourteenth-century De Moneta was the culmination of this extended attempt to reconcile practice and theory. Oresme argues that, since money (like trade) is organized for the good of the human community, when a prince debases his coinage or a forger alters a coin both are equally guilty of damaging social equilibrium. What is striking in Oresme's argument, according to Farber, is that "he invokes the story of trade not as justification for trade itself but as uncontroversial evidence for his larger, more controversial argument:" that currency debasement is a form of tyranny (37).

Scholastic writers wrestled with the question of how to value a thing in relation to its price as a commodity: if price fluctuates, does value necessarily also fluctuate? In Chapter Two, "Value," Farber tracks a number of competing answers to this question across several distinct domains, including commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics, legal writing about the just price, and scholastic ideas about the right of a merchant to profit. This chapter is perhaps the most substantial and most important of the book in large part due to its incisive discussion of how conflicts between scales of natural value as opposed to human utility were resolved. While our first impulse may be to esteem sentient creatures over inanimate objects, Augustine pints out the difficulties of adhering to this ostensibly common-sense hierarchy: "would not anyone prefer to have food in his house, rather than mice, or money rather than flees?" (quoted on p. 40). Augustine's insight points to the ways in which valuation in trade demands that we absent ourselves from the natural order and its absolute standards of valuation in order to participate more fully in the human world of need and economic value.

The chapter ends by considering how medieval literature takes up questions of valuation similar to those that preoccupied the scholastics. Theories of value and just price advanced by writers such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Chobham, and Robert of Courson provide a useful context for assessing the Chaucerian lessons of the "Shipman's Tale" and the "Franklin's Tale." Rather than seeing these tales as examples of cold-hearted commodification invading human relations, Farber argues convincingly that it is "our longing for a world of absolute values" that is misplaced (39). Chaucer's choice to treat sex as a commodity would have discomfited medieval scholastics just as much as it seems to discomfit modern literary critics. Henryson's "The Cock and the Jasp"--a tale about a rooster who rejects a precious stone because he can't eat itpits natural modes of valuation against human values of knowledge and wisdom in order to affirm the latter. Taken together, all of these tales question "whether that distinction between natural and economic value always remains as firm as the scholastic authors suggest" (89).

Chapter Three, "Consent," argues for the centrality of legal and theological definitions of this term as a constitutive part of what allowed trade to take place. Scholastics were interested in the question of consent because of its relation to free will and the degree to which people were responsible for sinful behavior. Most writers identified degrees of consent present in different situations, such as the ship's captain forced to jettison cargo in a storm. This chapter moves away from more pointedly economic definitions of consent to explore ecclesiastical discussions about what constitutes consent in marriage. While acknowledging the potential limitations of the analogy between trade and marriage (since the latter is "not only worldly but sacramental" [98]), Farber suggestively mines a variety of sources--from bishop's registers to Gratian's Decretum to medieval commentators on Roman civil law to penitential literature--to trace how the "consent theory" came to conquer other competing theories about what legitimated a marriage.

This finely nuanced genealogy then serves as a context for reading Chaucer's "Physician's Tale." In attempting to explain the tale's most troubling aspect--Virginia's consent to her own death--Farber argues that Chaucer's additions to his sources focus our attention on the mental process by which Virginia brings herself to assent to her own destruction. It is less an exemplum of informed consent than a meditation on potential abuses of governance, a dilation on the "question of who controls the ways we learn to think and what power we have over the people and sytems who have this control" (139). The conclusion reached here suggests a somewhat darker than usual reading of the tale: Virginia's "consent," based as it was on her father's misprision, amounts to little more than ideological false consciousness. Those readers most interested in discussions of medieval trade more specifically will probably find this chapter to be the most tangential to the book's larger stated purposes. The chapter remains useful, however, as it identifies several domains (trade, marriage law, discourses about conversion) where analogous conversations about what constitutes "consent" were taking place simultaneously.

Appeals to the "common good" and the "common profit" were ubiquitous in late medieval society. The final chapter, "Community," asks just what type of community is being invoked when trade is justified in the name of good to the community. The London poem St. Erkenwald recruits the miraculously resurrected pagan judge as an affirmation of the wholeness and inclusiveness of the London mercantile community. The poem's optimistic vision of municipal cooperation is in direct contrast to contemporary guild records that extol the common profit while simultaneously excluding certain groups. The continual invocation of "community" found in the guild documents belies the factional infighting among the City's most powerful guilds, the territorial spats between guilds intent on preserving their markets, the sometimes partisan charges of craft fraud, as well as economic associations that pitted the interests of buyers against sellers. A final perspective on London activities is provided by the ballad London Lickpenny, "in which anyone who does not possess goods to trade is excluded from a community built upon it" (184).

Given the breadth of learning about economic theories on display in this study, it is perhaps ungracious to wish that the study would also have devoted more time to the literary representations of trade. One could easily imagine Farber's analysis offering new readings of Middle English texts such as the fifteenth-century poem "Libelle of English Policy" or Hoccleve's diatribe against coin-clipping in his "Dialogue with a Friend" or Dunbar's "To the Merchants of Edinburgh" or even more familiar texts, such as the "merchants in the margin" moment in Passus 9 of the C-version of Piers Plowman.

Such desires, however, do not detract from the achievement of Farber's study and its importance for understanding the social contexts of the discourses that together comprised late medieval notions of trade. In its insistence that medieval descriptions of trade were neither descriptive nor even prescriptive but instead theoretical, the book will have much to say not just to medievalists but to those interested in the ways that medieval ideas about trade were understood (or misunderstood) by later writers such as Adam Smith. As an example of longue durée literary historiography, it is refreshing in its unwillingness to travel the well-worn New Historicist path of seeing particular poetic traits as narrow responses to specific political events, arguing rather for the necessity of evaluating explicit statements about trade in the context of several centuries' worth of arguments over the legitimacy of valuation and exchange.

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Author Biography

Kellie Robertson

University of Wisconsin, Madison