An Introduction to Late Medieval English Literary Merchants

  • Roger A. Ladd
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Powerful commoners in an age of aristocrats, international operators in an age of dangerous travel, city-dwellers within a predominantly rural population: merchants were a paradox in medieval society, and wielded power and influence far in advance of their social status. Literary scholars have only recently started to give merchants the attention they deserve, and while much work has been done by historians of the medieval economy, to date only a few historical studies have been dedicated entirely to English merchants as a social group. Literary scholarship rarely focuses directly on merchants outside the work of Geoffrey Chaucer or the York Mercers’ Play.1 Some recent work has been done on the intellectual history of the concept of trade, but no one has undertaken a comparative study of the position of merchants in late medieval English literature, and this book begins to fill that gap.2 While I suspect that much scholarly aversion to merchants arises from class-guilt on the part of scholars who desire to launder our own middle—class origins, the simplicity and descriptive power of the three—estates model itself have enabled its dominance as a paradigm. If we imagined that the three estates were a universal ideology of the Middle Ages, reliance upon that model might at least seem true to period values, but Georges Duby argues convincingly that the ideology of the three estates was never universally descriptive, but was instead a contingent social model created for France around the year 1000.3 It is the lasting ideological power of this imagined social structure that impinges on my study of literary representations of merchants, their sins and virtues. Despite the historical contingency of the three-estate theory, it is remarkable how it still permeates the study of medieval literature, and not just that of estates satire. Although historians have long since abandoned the three estates as a descriptive model, even literary criticism that does not overtly discuss class generally follows medieval satirists by organizing itself around one or another of the three estates, with a strong historical preference for the thicker discursive legacies of the clergy and aristocracy. More recently, study of the peasantry has been lifted by the rising tide of Marxist criticism. Without listing and categorizing all of medieval literary criticism, a glance at a few key branches of criticism should suffice to show why merchants have been given such short shrift.


Fifteenth Century Charitable Activity Medieval Literature Marxist Criticism Canterbury Tale 
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