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Drawing on an array of archival evidence from court records to the poems of Chaucer, this work explores how medieval thinkers understood economic activity, how their ideas were transmitted and the extent to which they were accepted. Moving beyond the impersonal operations of an economy to its ethical dimension, Hole’s socio-cultural study considers not only the ideas and beliefs of theologians and philosophers, but how these influenced assumptions and preoccupations about material concerns in late medieval English society. Beginning with late medieval English writings on economic ethics and its origins, the author illuminates a society which, although strictly hierarchical and unequal, nevertheless fostered expectations that all its members should avoid greed and excess consumption. Throughout, Hole aims to show that economic ethics had a broader application than trade and usury in late medieval England.



1. Introduction

What has ethics to do with economics? Today, corporations and entrepreneurs regard their role as profit-making, but in the medieval period such a consideration was meant to be governed by ethical principles such as the common good, and although economic inequality was accepted, individuals were instructed to moderate their greed and share some of their wealth. Economic ethics were embedded in commentaries on the Bible and the thought of Aristotle, but this book is a socio-cultural study rather than a theoretical one since it will investigate the question of how philosophical and theological concepts influenced attitudes and beliefs in late medieval England. Primary sources include pastoral manuals, sermons and literary works. The wording of legislation, petitions and wills reflect some of the moral attitudes expressed in those texts, while the correspondence of individuals show a differing set of values. Throughout, the aim is to demonstrate that definitions of theft, avarice, moderation and fair pricing were applied to the whole of society, from the king downwards, not merchants and traders alone.
Jennifer Hole

2. Economic Ethics

“Economic ethics”, as discussed in the Introduction, is a term useful to describe the moral evaluation, judgement and prosecution of offences detrimental to what was thought to be a fair economy in late medieval England. Economic ethics, however, were a means by which not only to criticise dishonesty or greed but also to instil the positive virtues needed to overcome those vices. They could be described as practical ethics in the same way as present-day “business ethics”, but the term “economic ethics” gives the sense of a wider application than commerce, including the distribution of wealth, the treatment of the poor, and the livelihoods of all. As shown in the Introduction, this wider view is in contrast to most modern studies of medieval economic ethics, which tend to focus on usury and commerce or on transactions which occurred largely within urban marketplaces.This chapter firstly examines the sources and traditions of the concepts which comprised medieval economic ethics: excess or artifical wealth, avarice, justice, the just price, the common good and good lordship. It then turns to a discussion of late medieval English theologians and philosophers, some of whom criticised economic exploitation by lords.
Jennifer Hole

3. The Translation of Economic Ethics into the Daily Practices of the Laity

The last chapter showed that many theologians and philosophers understood that there was more to economic ethics than offences by merchants and usurers. However, the question remains as to how their understandings might have been conveyed to the rest of society. Here, the clergy had an important role as pastors of their flocks, preachers and confessors. This chapter examines a variety of texts, some of which were compiled or translated into Middle English and some of which remained in Latin and were in circulation in late medieval England. The examination comprises extracts from some religious tracts and the relevant parts of most surviving pastoral manuals, whether for confessors or preachers or for the laity to read for themselves. It also includes sermons, guides for the conduct of rulers or of others in positions of authority, and popular books of wisdom. The large number of surviving copies of some manuals indicates substantial usage by both clergy and laity, and some sermons and books of wisdom were printed, indicating a high level of demand from lay readers.
Jennifer Hole

4. Wealth and Lordship in Late Medieval Literature

have examined economic ethics in late medieval England from the point of view of theologians and philosophers, the authors of pastoral manuals and guides to conduct and sermons. Incorporated into those texts were condemnations of avarice, usury and prodigality; praise for the virtues of liberality, moderation and justice; and promotion of the concepts of the just price, good lordship and the common good. In order to convey meaning and relevance to their readers or hearers, writers looked to the secular world for illustrations. As I have shown, they not only drew upon the activities of merchants and usurers, craftsmen, traders and labourers but also considered examples drawn from landowning and noble levels of society. I am drawing upon literary evidence in this chapter because many fourteenth-and fifteenth-century literary works were informed by ideas similar to those found in theological and pastoral works, but literary works were able explore the problems of economic ethics in different ways. I have argued that economic ethics were intended to apply to all members of late medieval society, but in this chapter I do not intend to discuss the criticisms of idle labourers, fraudulent merchants and traders, or usurers in late medieval English literature as they have been very well addressed elsewhere. Instead, I will focus upon the portrayal of lords and rulers, both as offenders and as ethical role models. Late medieval English writers had concerns about economic changes. They valued conservatism and wished for a society of a kind that preceded the expansion of commerce, harking back to a prelapsarian or a mythical golden age, or a society where all abided by Christian teachings and the virtues.
Jennifer Hole

5. The Application of Theory: The Language of Economic Ethics in Statutes and Petitions

Did ethical principles relating to economic life have any impact or application in secular society? Did they, for example, influence how regulations were worded and applied? What do the written petitions of those with grievances reveal about their expectations of justice, the common good and good lordship and their actual experiences? To answer these questions, this chapter investigates three kinds of evidence: statutes regulating economic activity in late medieval England; petitions against economic abuses; and cases involving abuses of the right of purveying, extortion by lords and their officials, unreasonable tallage, fines and tolls, and land enclosures. This chapter shows how moralistic language was used by petitioners and regulators in order to empasise economic wrongs. Criticism of purveying abuses saw greed as the underlying problem. However, criticism of extortion and oppression by lords was limited owing to the power of lords in late medieval England: targets were more often gentry landowners or lords' officials. The ethical problems created by some land enclosures were not addressed until very late in the fifteenth century, probably because so many Parliamentarians tended to be landowners.
Jennifer Hole

6. Lords of the Manor: Rapacious or Reasonable?

The argument put by moralists was that income from their own estates was not sufficient for many lords, as a result of their indulgence in excessive consumption and profligacy. Their remedies of increasing land rents, entry fines, amercements and a range of feudal fees and charges led to economic hardship for many of their tenants, particularly the poor. Chapter5 gave some examples of petitions complaining about extortion and oppression by some landowners or their officials or retainers. The historian Rodney Hilton’s explanation was that it was a matter of necessity for lords to get their rents by physical force or threat. For K.B. McFarlane, it was a matter of “lordly high-handedness or extortion in which neither tenants nor servants were spared”. Examples he gave are the illegal land acquisitions of Ralph, Lord Cromwell (d. 1455), Sir John Fastolf’s pursuit of debtors, and the practice of some landlords, such as Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham, in the 1440s, of threatening or even imprisoning their own receivers to ensure that they pursued tenants owing rents or services. Were lords (lay and ecclesiastical) and gentry landowners commonly rapacious? Is there evidence of their being reasonable and pragmatic? To answer questions about the levels of rents and fines, the burden of services placed upon unfree tenants or villeins, the extent of poverty and how tenants were treated, this chapter investigates not only manor court records, but also wider-ranging studies by historians. Wills also reveal that some lords of the manor made conscientious efforts to make restitution for economic wrongs.
Jennifer Hole

7. Merchants and Landowners’ Responses to Economic Ethics

In Chapters 2, 3, and 4, I presented evidence which showed that ethical notions such as the just price, the common good, good lordship, justice and charity were disseminated, debated and problematised amongst medieval readers and listeners through a wide range of texts, such as pastoral manuals and guides to conscience, sermons and literary works. Chapter 5 showed that such notions reappeared in the framing of petitions and in economic regulation, and Chapter 6 looked at the evidence of landowner attitudes in manor court records and other sources. A question that remains is to what extent individuals were influenced by these notions in their understanding of economic ethics and applied them in their actual economic practices. In particular, were the more prosperous, whether merchants or landowners, influenced by the teachings of the Church concerning excess wealth and avarice? Were there, perhaps, other notions which were more influential in the way they managed their affairs? Were there circumstances in which these overrode the principles of economic ethics? Correspondence and other documents can reveal how economic ethics were perceived and applied in practice.
Jennifer Hole

8. Conclusion

A study of the history of economic thought shows a tendency for modern scholars to assume that economics reflect rationality rather than morality. In late medieval times, however, economic thought was subsumed to ethical thought and religious beliefs. In modern times, economic historians have followed the tendency to construct value-neutral spheres within the discipline of economics, despite early work that highlighted the importance of economic morality. Also, most social and economic historians have tended to overlook the fact that economic ethics had a wider application in late medieval England than urban trade. Although some commentators have extended their inquiry beyond the ethics of the marketplace, the sources they have consulted are limited and impressionistic. Here, a wider range of contemporary sources has been explored, which have shown that kings, lords and gentry, and the officials of all of them, were considered to be engaged in economic activities with ethical ramfications. From the observations made in these sources, there followed criticisms and exhortations to abhor avarice and abide by such ideals as the common good, moderation and liberality. Ideals of balance and harmony underpinned much thinking about the good order of society. Late medieval English theologians and other writers placed much importance upon good lordship, especially the notion that lords and their agents should be virtuous and refrain from exploiting the poor.
Jennifer Hole


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