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The Ideology of Common Profit: Rebels, Heretics, Merchants

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Fifteenth Century Labor Shortage Fourteenth Century Labor Legislation Civic Friendship 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    M.S. Kempshall, The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For the reception of the term from late antiquity through the European Middle Ages, see The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought, ed. J.H. Burns (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988). The phrase is perhaps most familiar in England from controversy over Ricardian rule in the 1380s and 1390s where it became a rallying call for modifying (and, later, opposing) Richard’s purportedly tyrannical behavior.Google Scholar
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    G.C. Macaulay, ed., The Complete Works of John Gower: The French Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899), p. 296, ll. 26758–60: “Dieu, q’ ad tous les biens crée, sont les estoilles ordiné/ Pour nostre bien communement.” Subsequent references in the text refer to this edition.Google Scholar
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    See Ruth Bird, The Turbulent London of Richard II (London: Longmans, Green 1949), esp. pp. 114–19. According to Bird, Northampton’s followers were “principally small masters of various non-victualling misteries, notably the mercers, the tailors, the goldsmiths, the drapers, the cordwainers and the armourers” (p. 75).Google Scholar
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    Consulting the Letter-Books G and H (covering the years 1352 to 1399) shows that the phrase only occurs in these notices sporadically before this time. I have found no uses of the phrase in regulation of commodities before 1320; three uses between 1320–49; and five uses between the years 1350 and 1370. Joshua Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith, English Gilds, EETS o.s. 40 (London, 1870); reprint guild ordinances from various parts of England that were elicited in reponse to the 1388 legislation that demanded all guilds document their histories and by-laws. These returns only rarely use the language of common profit. For a discussion of these guild returns, see Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, pp. 83–103 and Caroline Barron and Laura Wright, “The London Middle English Guild Certificates of 1388–9,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 39 (1995): 108–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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