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Langland’s Merchants and the Material and Spiritual Economies of Piers Plowman B

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

Abstract

In 1949, E. Talbot Donaldson dismissed William Langland’s satire on medieval merchants, characterizing it as entirely conventional: “cheating, along with a disposition to keep shops open on Sundays and holy days, is the occupational hazard incurred by tradesmen.… But so long as they trade fairly, and make distribution of their profits in good works, Truth, and the poet of all three texts, bear them no ill will and promise them heaven at the last.”1 While Piers Plowman B does often follow the antimercantile estates satire tradition, though, Langland transcends conventionality by questioning the very possibility and necessity of honest trade in Christian society. Langland goes beyond the simple opposition of trade and alms cited by Donaldson, applying this tension between trade and charity to contrasting worldly and spiritual economies. For Langland, merchants best embody the irresolvable conflict between the often contradictory necessities of the material and spiritual worlds. He complicates mercantile language by expanding on a technique from the New Testament as he, in James Simpson’s terms, “consistently uses economic imagery to describe spiritual relations;”2 his description of the two economies constantly intermingles. The poem presents worldly economics as both antithetical to and implicated in the success of the spiritual economy, and these economies overlap when material economics functions as a metaphor for the spiritual enterprise of salvation. This shifting use of mercantile language and characters creates a persistent tension between Langland’s traditional disdain for worldly profit and his emphasis on the hoped-for (and forever deferred) success of Piers’s metaphorical plowing.

Keywords

Material World Material Success Profit Economy Material Economy Equal Exchange 
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.
    E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman, the C Text and Its Poet (1949; repr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 128–29.Google Scholar
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