12.10.05, Davis, Medieval Market Morality

Main Article Content

Jessica Dijkman

The Medieval Review 12.10.05

Davis, James. Medieval Market Morality: Life, Law and Ethics in the English Marketplace, 1200-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 514. ISBN: 978-1-107-00343-9.

Reviewed by:
Jessica Dijkman
Utrecht University

Medieval Market Morality is a book with a theme that is highly relevant to present-day debates as well as historical ones. It deals with the influence of morals on market rules and market behaviour, and vice versa: a pertinent issue against the background of the current financial crisis, but also one that has a long ancestry.

James Davis examines the interaction between moral perceptions, inspired mainly by the teachings of the Church, and market regulation and market practice in late medieval England. Davis focuses on the retailers and craftsmen that provided the main link between producers and consumers. Christian ideology did not hold these petty traders in high esteem: they were suspected of avarice and damage to the "common good." Market regulation was influenced by these suspicions: rules echo the desire to restrain such undesirable behaviour and protect consumers from its effects. But at the same time the vital contribution of petty traders to the sustenance of society was acknowledged and even accommodated. Legislators often took market considerations into account and, even more importantly, enforcement practice provided considerable room for flexibility.

By arguing that the prevailing moral framework in late medieval England did not impose rigid constraints on commercial development, Davis brings the issue of morality into the ongoing debate on the commercialisation of society in the late Middle Ages (or in a broader perspective, the transition from feudalism to capitalism). He also establishes a link with another important discussion: the debate on the origins of institutions and their effects on transaction costs. Davis agrees with Avner Greif (whose last name is consistently misspelled as "Grief") that cultural beliefs matter: shared morals that stressed the moral duty of traders towards the community enhanced trust and security, and even if the formal rules based on these morals were not always enforced, they still helped to clarify the limits of acceptable behaviour. Thus, Davis concludes, medieval market morality did not hamper commercialisation; in fact, it rather promoted the efficiency of trade.

Besides an introduction and a conclusion the book has four chapters, the first three of which are very long. In chapter 1 Davis uses a wide range of literary and didactic texts and even works of visual art to investigate attitudes towards and beliefs about petty traders. In the view of the creators of these works these traders were inclined towards the sin of "covetousness": the temptations of profit easily led them to deceive and exploit others and neglect their duties towards the community. Davis shows that the views of late medieval moralists were not as uncompromising and unchanging as often thought. Some writers did acknowledge, for instance, that middlemen had a useful role in the supply and distribution of grain at times of dearth, as long as they did not overstep the line by manipulating the market (119).

The second chapter presents a detailed overview of the legal rules, national and local, that were to guide and control the behaviour of traders. These rules, Davis points out, were not simply a result of economic needs or even of social and political relations. They were also affected by ideologically and morally inspired concerns and considerations. Davis demonstrates how, for example, forestalling prohibitions were related to the dominating moral concepts: through their insistence on public markets accessible to all, such rules intended to restrain accumulative traders and protect vulnerable consumers (254-263). The most informative part of the chapter is arguably the section on the Assizes of Bread and Ale (231-248). Its value lies not just in the clear explanation of the finesses of the arrangement, but even more so in the characterization of the assizes, which linked the prices of two basic foodstuffs to the price of grain determined by supply and demand, as an example of a compromise between moral concepts and the exigencies of the market.

Chapter 3 examines the enforcement of both national and local rules through a detailed study of court roll evidence from three communities in Suffolk: the two small market towns of Newmarket and Clare and the borough of Ipswich. Davis emphasizes that there was a significant difference between the letter of the law and its enforcement in everyday life. Penalties for traders were often much lower than statutes or local ordinances indicated. The authorities did punish flagrant abuse and thus helped to maintain confidence in the validity and justice of the law, but they also had an open eye for the needs of traders and consumers, which were often served best by a lenient attitude towards smaller transgressions. Interestingly, Davis claims that tolerance towards petty traders and thus the flexibility to accommodate the social and economic changes of the late Middle Ages was greater in the two small seigniorial market towns than in the borough of Ipswich. Newmarket in particular stands out: its courts were run by small local traders sensitive to the benefits petty trade brought to the town (381).

Chapter 4, finally, extends the analysis into the early modern era. This relatively short chapter takes Thompson's seminal article on the moral economy as point of departure. [1] Based on an analysis of limited scope, Davis suggests that medieval moral concepts continued to permeate English market culture until at least the eighteenth century. In fact, if anything, attitudes towards greed and fraud in the market place hardened. Nevertheless, whereas Thompson envisaged a struggle between traditional paternalism and modern market ideology, Davis, in keeping with his findings in the previous chapters, concludes that the two were not by definition antithetical: both medieval and early modern market users accepted that prices were formed by supply and demand, but they insisted on an open, accessible and competitive market place.

The existing literature on morals governing trade and traders in the Middle Ages mostly concentrates on ideological concepts and attitudes. [2] Davis discusses these issues as well, but also examines legislation and finally the actual enforcement of rules. His main contribution to the debate on markets and morals lies exactly here: in the link that he establishes between Christian morality, laws, and everyday practice in the market place. A book like this requires extensive research into three very different types of sources: literary, prescriptive and administrative. Davis has done just that and he has done it thoroughly.

This, however, does not mean that the book has no flaws. For one, Davis focuses almost exclusively on England. It is hardly realistic to expect research like this to cover more than one country in the same degree of detail, but that would not have been necessary to position English market regulation in an international perspective. A comparison based on existing literature would have sufficed. This would have shown that many of the rules affecting market behaviour in England were mirrored on the continent. To give just one example: regulation of market hours and restrictions on trade in inns and private houses resembling those described by Davis for England were common in Flemish cities as well. [3] If we see these rules as the products of Christian ideology this makes sense: the similarity demonstrates the unifying effects of the teachings of the Church. However, an international perspective would also have highlighted some of the differences between England and the continent that did exist, and that, in turn, might have given rise to interesting questions. England, for example, possessed a system of national, uniform weights and measures at a much earlier stage than its continental neighbours, where the use of correct weights and measures was first and foremost the responsibility of the urban authorities. Clearly then, on this issue similar morals led to different results, and equally clearly it was the early rise of central power in England that made the difference. What does this tell us, then, about the respective influences of political and moral factors on the organization and efficiency of markets?

This links up to a second point of criticism. While Davis fully recognizes that market rules were affected not just by morality but also by economic, social and political conditions, and while he is certainly right in underlining the complex character of the interaction between these factors, it seems to me that he would still have been able to take another step towards unraveling this complexity. One way to do this would have been by drawing comparisons, internationally, as just described, but also between towns in England. In chapter 3 Davis does in fact compare the enforcement of market regulations in Newmarket, Clare and Ipswich, and is able to relate some of the differences between these towns to social, economic and political circumstances. A similar analysis might also have helped to explain local differences in the rules as such. An attempt to fit the empirical data into a more rigorous theoretical framework might have provided an alternative approach. New Institutional Economics has rendered models that explain, for instance, under which conditions inefficient institutions tend to perpetuate themselves, or the reverse, what is needed for efficient institutions to develop. [4] Most of these models do not take morality into account, but they can be adapted to do so; and to give Davis credit, he has convinced me that they should.

Finally, the added value of chapter 4, which deals not with medieval but with early modern markets, seems rather questionable. Davis does make it clear that a full discussion of early modern market morality is not intended. However, the deviating subject of this chapter raises doubts as to whether it would not have been better to publish the content separately, as an article, instead of incorporate it in this book, especially since that book has enough to offer to its readers anyway.



1. E.P. Thompson, "The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century," Past & Present 50 (1971) 76-136.

2. E.g. Diana Wood, Medieval Economic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

3. Peter Stabel, "Markets and Retail in the Cities of the Late Medieval Low Countries. Economic Networks and Socio-Cultural Display," in S. Cavaciocchi (ed.), Fiere e mercati nella integrazione delle economie europee, secc. XIII-XVIII (Florence, 2001) 797-817.

4. Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, "Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth," in Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf (eds.), Handbook of Economic Growth (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005) 385-472.

Article Details

Author Biography

Jessica Dijkman

Utrecht University