Money, Books, and Prayers: Anchoresses and Exchange in Thirteenth-Century England

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


For literary scholars, the question of how economic contexts influence literature is not a surprising one, given that we are now routinely familiar with both Marxist and New Historicist approaches to our subject.1 Even so, we do not often ask the question, “How does economic history help us understand devotional literature?” much less the extra-disciplinary yet correlative one, “What does devotional literature have to offer economic history?” To take up this less familiar query (through which we might participate more fully in a cross-disciplinary fashioning of historiography), we need to consider that devotional materials might provide more than just representations that help to date economic changes. Devotional literature, like other kinds of literature, can also provide greater understanding of what economic practices meant to medieval people. After all, even the most scholastic of medieval writers did not discuss “the economy” as a self-contained structure but rather saw trade as imbricated in social and spiritual relations of many kinds. And, as Lianna Farber has recently argued, medieval thinking about the essential conditions of exchange also frequently arrived at “the absence of an external standard and the necessity of inscribing acts of imagination and fiction into the law.”2 Imaginative/fictional representation of social and spiritual relations is of course the subject of literature, so these observations suggest that medieval writing about economic issues could, or even had to, cross into “literary” genres easily. Following its divergent paths into imaginative representations of spiritual selves and communities may prompt us to reconsider what kinds of information economic history should take into account.


Economic History Commercial Exchange Medieval Literature Manuscript History Romance Literature 
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  1. 1.
    The relation of medieval studies and Marxist analysis is the subject of The Marxist Premodern, a special issue of The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:3 (Fall 2004). For examples of recent work on the relation of economic history and medieval literature, see: D. Vance Smith, Arts of Possession: The Medieval Household Imaginary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) andGoogle Scholar
  2. Andrew Cowell, At Play in the Tavern, Signs, Coins, and Bodies in the Middle Ages (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Lianna Farber, An Anatomy of Trade in Medieval Writing: Value, Consent, and Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 148–49. Farber is here discussing the interpretation of “consent” in both marriage and exchange relations.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See Farber, An Anatomy of Trade; Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  10. 4.
    The definitive study of English anchoritism is still Ann Warren’s Anchorites and Their Patrons in Medieval England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985),Google Scholar
  11. but see also the earlier survey by Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London: Methuen, 1914). Anchoritsm in northern France and the Low Countries has been discussed in Anneke Mulder-Bakker’s Lives of the Anchoresses, which has been recently translated into English by Myra Heerspink Scholz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). Mulder-Bakker focuses in particular on the advisory and even “ministerial” roles taken on by anchoresses in urban communities.Google Scholar
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    See The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Brown Meech (Early English Text Society o.s. 212. London: Oxford University Press, 1940), p. 42.Google Scholar
  13. 6.
    The “AB” dialect was first identified by J. R. R. Tolkien in “Ancrene Wisse and Mali Meiðhad,” Essays and Studies 14 (1929): 104–26.Google Scholar
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    On anchoritic reading in the context of the AB texts, see Lara Farina, Erotic Discourse and Early English Religious Writing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) andGoogle Scholar
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  18. 8.
    All four prayers have been edited by W. Meredith Thompson in Þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (Early English Text Society o.s. 241. London: Oxford University Press, 1958).Google Scholar
  19. 13.
    Ancrene Wisse: The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien (Early English Text Society, o.s. 249, London: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 43, 71.Google Scholar
  20. 14.
    Famously documented by Caroline Walker Bynum in Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) and in her Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992).Google Scholar
  21. 15.
    Seinte Katerine, ed. S. R. T. O. D’Ardenne and E.J. Dobson, Early English Text Society, s.s. 7 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 80, 83. Translation mine. D’Ardenne and Dobson give the text of Seinte Katerine from both BL MS Royal 17 A. xxvii and BL Cotton MS Titus D. xviii. I quote from the Titus D. xviii version of the text since this manuscript also contains þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd. However, the Royal MS 17 A. xxvii contains another member of the Wooing Group, the Oreisun of Seinte Marie, and is even more explicit about the sweet nature of reading using “swoteliche” where Titus D. xviii reads “softeliche.”Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    Vices and Virtues, ed. Ferd. Holthausen, Early English Text Society, o.s. 89 and 159 (Oxford University Press: London, 1888 and 1921), p. 17. The manuscript of Vices and Virtues is BL MS Stowe 34, which has been dated only as precisely as “c. 1200” by Holthausen. It is a small, thin manuscript, missing the first portion of the text and probably taken out of its original context and rebound. The hand, layout, and rubrication appear similar to early thirteenth-century manuscripts prepared in the West Midlands, particularly around Herefordshire, which is the originary location of the AB texts.Google Scholar
  23. 19.
    See the references in note 2 and also, on the English economy in particular: John Hatcher and Mark Bailey, Modeling the Middle Ages: The History and Theory of England’s Economic Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  25. 21.
    See Warren, Anchorites and Their Patrons, for extensive discussion of financial support for anchors. See also The Life of Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth-Century Recluse, ed. and trans. C. H. Talbot (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) pp. 124–27, on the bids of rival monasteries for Christina’s affiliation.Google Scholar
  26. 22.
    LeGoff, Your Money or Your Life, pp. 78–79. The exemplum is from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus miraculorum, Vol. 2, ed. J. Strange (Cologne, 1851), pp. 335–36, available in translation as The Dialogue on Miracles, Vol. 2, trans. H. von Scott and C. C. Swinton Bland (London, 1929), pp. 313–14.Google Scholar
  27. 23.
    Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 34–36.Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    Shell, Money, Language and Thought, pp. 34–35; Sarah Kay, The Chansons de Geste in the Age of Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. On the relation of literary genre, particularly romance, to economic history, see also R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983) andGoogle Scholar
  30. Judith Kellogg, Medieval Artistry and Exchange: Economic Institutions, Society, and Literary Form in Old French Narrative (New York: Peter Lang, 1989).Google Scholar

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© Theresa Earenfight 2010

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