The Ideology of Common Profit: Rebels, Heretics, Merchants

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


When Caxton translated Jacobus de Cessolis’s Game and Play of Chesse (c. 1474), he saw in the individual chess pieces the natural divisions of society: from the king and queen down to the pawns who represented the whole range of the third estate (from carters and plowmen to merchants). For Caxton, as for most medieval moralists, the idea of a natural and divinely ordained comyn prouffit—the mutually beneficial work performed by each of the three estates—licensed the division of labor that underwrote society. But the common profit was also always already in the past: for Caxton, as for most medieval moralists, no social class now performs their obligations as they were wont. This nostalgia for a lost, golden age of common profit (a happy time from which we are always on the downward slope) is just as conspicuous in the writings of modern economists and sociologists as it was in the writings of medieval theologians. Herein lies the paradox of the common profit: even as it purports to offer a Utopian vision of society—communally affirmed obligations that produce not just enough to eat but also spiritual and social stability—it is most often articulated in, and so contrasted to, dystopic (even apocalyptic) predictions of the dire state of contemporary society.


Fifteenth Century Labor Shortage Fourteenth Century Labor Legislation Civic Friendship 
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