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

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


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.


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.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  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
  2. 2.
    James Simpson, “Spirituality and Economics in Passūs 1–7 of the B Text,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987): 85 [83–103].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    F. R. H. Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and His Vision of the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1991), p. 6.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    David Aers, “Reading Piers Plowman: Literature, History and Criticism,” Literature and History 1 (1990): 8 (4–23).Google Scholar
  5. David Aers, “The Good Shepherds of Medieval Criticism,” Southern Review 20 (1987): 179 [168–85].Google Scholar
  6. Anne Middleton, “Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,”, Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 208–317.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Ralph Hanna, London Literature, 1300–1380 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 255.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    All citations from Piers Plowman are from William Langland, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, Volume I: Text, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Longman, 1995).Google Scholar
  9. William Langland, Piers Plowman: The B Version. Will’s Visions of Piers Plowman, Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, rev. ed. (London: Athlone Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  10. William Langland, Piers Plowman: The C Version. Will’s Visions of Piers Plowman, Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, ed. George Russell and George Kane (London: Athlone Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  11. William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge Ms. B.15.17, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt, 2nd ed. (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle-Everyman, 1995). Because Schmidt’s square brackets for emendations conflicts with my own use of brackets for glosses and quote management, I have silently removed his bracketed emendation markings. Italicized glosses in brackets come from Schmidt’s Everyman edition.Google Scholar
  12. 7.
    John T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 78.Google Scholar
  13. 8.
    “Langland’s London,”, Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), p. 191 [185–207].Google Scholar
  14. 9.
    For a clear discussion of fraud per se, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Latin Text and English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices and Glossaries, 60 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill-Blackfriars, 1975), II.2.77; pp. 38:212–13. For Aquinas’ relevance to Langland’s economic theory, see Pearsall, “Langland’s London,”, Written Work, p. 193. On Olivi’s cutting-edge economic theory, see Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 121–22.Google Scholar
  15. 11.
    Laying and losing a wed closely resembles the terms of a late medieval mnemonic on usury, which among other things defined the sin as when “a man leneþ mone or oþer good upon a wed of catel moeble to a certeyn day, and for hi is noght payed at þe day, wiþholdiþ the wed for euere. For it is more worth þan þe lone.” R. H. Bowers, “A Middle English Mnemonic Poem on Usury,” Mediaeval Studies 17 (1955): 229 [226–32].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 12.
    Howard Kaminsky, “Estate, Nobility, and the Exhibition of Estate in the Later Middle Ages,” Speculum 68 (1993): 689 [684–709].Google Scholar
  17. 13.
    Pamela Nightingale, A Medieval Mercantile Community: The Grocers’ Company & the Politics & Trade of London 1000–1485 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 57–60.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Paul Strohm, Hochon’s Arrow. The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 57–60.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    D. Vance Smith, Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary, Medieval Cultures 33 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 127–28.Google Scholar
  20. 24.
    John Alford, “Haukyn’s Coat: Some Observations on Piers Plowman B XIV 22–7,” Medium Ævum 43 (1974): 133 [133–38].Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century, Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 5 (1955; repr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press for Medieval Academy, 1980), pp. 47–75.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
    Steven A. Epstein describes, for example, two suits taken to court in London in 1299 over the issue of working at night. Wage Labor & Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), p. 202.Google Scholar
  23. 29.
    Edwin Craun attributes this “wanhope” more to Haukyn’s background as a “mynstrall” (B.XIII. 225), reading this passage in the very different context of the pastoral discourse of minstrels. Edwin D. Craun, Lies, Slander and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 174–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 30.
    David Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 28Google Scholar
  25. 31.
    Lawrence M. Clopper, “Songes of Rechelesnesse: “Langland and the Franciscans (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 242–43.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 247; Clopper, Songes of Rechelesnesse, p. 77.Google Scholar
  27. Lawrence M. Clopper, “Langland’s Persona: An Anatomy of the Mendicant Orders,”, Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 144–84.Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    Schmidt, ed., The Vision of Piers Plowman, p. 463 n16–21a. The various Do’s change too rapidly in the poem to point to any single definition of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest, but for a variety of definitions in the poem, see Nevill K. Coghill, “The Pardon of Piers Plowman,”, Style and Symbolism in Piers Plowman: A Modern Critical Anthology, ed. Robert J. Blanch (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), pp. 40–86.Google Scholar
  29. 39.
    Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), p. 35. Joerg O. Fichte counts up the commercial words used in the Prologue, and finds “eighteen in B and two more in C.” ‘“For couetise after cros; þe croune stant in gold’: Money as Matter and Metaphor in Piers Plowman”, in Material Culture and Cultural Materialism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Curtis Perry (Turnhout: Brepols, 2001), p. 62n [57–74].Google Scholar
  30. 40.
    For those urban references, see Pearsall, “Langland’s London,”, Written Work, p. 188. For different political analyses of the Meed sequence, see Nicole Lassahn, “Literary Representations of History in Fourteenth Century England: Shared Technique and Divergent Practice in Chaucer and Langland,” Essays in Medieval Studies 17 (2001): 49–64.Google Scholar
  31. Matthew Giancarlo, “Piers Plowman, Parliament, and the Public Voice,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 17 (2003): 135–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 42.
    Martyn J. Miller, “Meed, Mercede, and Mercy: Langland’s Grammatical Metaphor and Its Relation to Piers Plowman as a Whole,” Medieval Perspectives 9 (1994): 74–75.Google Scholar
  33. 43.
    Robert Adams argues that the “more complex description of human economic relationships and their figurative connection to divine grace” will in part arise from the distinction between medes in the B-Text. “The Evolution of the Economics of Grace in the Piers Plowman B and C Versions,”, Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1988), p. 218 [217–232].Google Scholar
  34. On the temporal significance of rewarding before and after deeds, see D. Vance Smith, “The Labors of Reward: Meed, Mercede, and the Beginning of Salvation,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 8 (1994): 127–54. A more detailed investigation of the differences between the B-text and C-text versions of Langland’s financial theology would be worthwhile.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 44.
    Robert Adams labels this focus on rewards as “semi-Pelagian” (“Evolution of the Economics of Grace,”, Medieval English Studies, p. 219); see also his “Piers’s Pardon and Langland’s Semi-Pelagianism,” Traditio 39 (1983): 367–418.Google Scholar
  36. 46.
    David Aers, “Class, Gender, Medieval Criticism, and Piers Plowman”, in Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections, ed. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 68–69 [59–75].Google Scholar
  37. 47.
    Clare A. Lees, “Gender and Exchange in Piers Plowman”, in Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections, ed. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 117 [112–30].Google Scholar
  38. 53.
    William Langland, Piers Plowman: A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, Volume II: Introduction, Textual Notes, Commentary, Bibliography, and Indexical Glossary, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008), p. 504 n313.Google Scholar
  39. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary [OED], 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), s.v. “permutation” MED, s.v. “permutacioun.”.Google Scholar
  40. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879), s.v. “permu-tatio;”.Google Scholar
  41. P. G. W. Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), s.v. “permutatio” The medieval evidence is less clear, as J. F. Niermeyer does not even list permutatio in his Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, and defines commutatio as “directly contractual, either an exchange contract, a record of one, or property gained by one.” Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976). R. E. Latham in defining commutatio reflects the economic usages seen above in Aquinas and Duns Scotus, while his Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources lacks a specifically financial definition for permutatio, defining it as “giving or receiving in exchange,” “interchange,” “substitution, replacement,” or “(act of) making or becoming (completely) different.” Dictionary of Medieval Latin From British Sources (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1975-), s.v. “permutatio.” Latham’s Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources gives a financial definition for permutatio only as a word for the exchange of benefices (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1965), s.v. “permutatio.” Based on Niermeyer and Latham, a preliminary conclusion might be that Langland chooses a relatively unused word that had a history of some monetary connotations, and substitutes it for the medieval commutatio, which had expanded into permutatio’s older semantic range.Google Scholar
  42. 56.
    Mary Catherine Davidson praises Langland’s use of English-Latin code-switching in Conscience’s debate with Meed, which would support a high degree of Latinity on Langland’s part. “Code-Switching and Authority in Late Medieval England,” Neophilologus 87 (2003): 476–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 59.
    Raymond de Roover, “The Concept of the Just Price: Theory and Economic Policy,” Journal of Economic History 18 (1958): 424 [418–34]. De Roover points out that opposition to Duns Scotus lasted into the fifteenth century (“Concept,” p. 425).Google Scholar
  44. 62.
    David Aers, “John Wyclif: Poverty and the Poor,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 17 (2003): 69 [55–72].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 65.
    Malcolm Godden, “Plowmen and Hermits in Langland’s Piers Plowman,” Review of English Studies n.s. 35 (1981): 129–63.Google Scholar
  46. Denise Baker, “The Pardons of Piers Plowman,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 85 (1984): 464 [462–72].Google Scholar
  47. 66.
    Traugott Lawler, “The Pardon Formula in Piers Plowman: Its Ubiquity, Its Binary Shape, Its Silent Middle Term,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000): 118 [117–52].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 70.
    All biblical citations in English come from the Douay-Rheims translation in The Catholic Comparative New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
  49. 72.
    Janet Coleman, Piers Plowman and the Moderni (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1981), p. 139.Google Scholar
  50. 75.
    Wendy Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anti-Clericalism, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 4 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 97.Google Scholar
  51. 77.
    Daniel F. Pigg, “Apocalypse Then: The Ideology of Literary Form in Piers Plowman,” Religion and Literature 31.1 (1999): 108 [103–16].Google Scholar
  52. 78.
    Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Reformist Apocalypticism and “Piers Plowman”, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 7 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 160–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Roger A. Ladd 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roger A. Ladd

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations