The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature

The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature

The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature

The Face of Mammon: The Matter of Money in English Renaissance Literature


Money talked in sixteenth-century England, as money still does today. But what the sixteenth century's gold and silver had to say for itself is strikingly different from the modern discourse of money. As David Landreth demonstrates in The Face of Mammon, the material and historical differences between the coins of the English Renaissance and today's paper and electronic money propel a distinctive and complex assessment of the relation between material substance and human value.

Although the sixteenth century was marked by the traumatic emergence of conditions that would prove to be characteristic of the modern economy, the discipline of economics had not been invented to assess those conditions.The Face of Mammonconsiders how literary texts investigated these unexplained material transformations through attention to the materiality of gold and silver money. In new readings of Spenser's Faerie Queene, Marlowe's Jew of Malta, three plays by Shakespeare-King John, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure-the poetry of John Donne, and the prose of Thomas Nashe, Landreth argues that these texts situate the act of exchange at the center of a system of "common wealth" that sought to integrate political, ethical, and religious values with material ones, and probe the ways in which market value corrodes that system even as it depends upon it.

Joining the methods of material-culture studies to those of economic criticism,The Face of Mammonoffers a new account of the historical transformations of the concept of value to scholars of early modern literature, culture, and art, as well as to those interested in economic history.


And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness;
that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

—Luke 16:9

This is a book about the Mammon of Renaissance England, as he appeared to English writers and thinkers from the declining years of Henry viii up to the accession of James I. “Mammon” is an Aramaic word meaning “riches” that appears in two of Christ’s sayings in the Gospels; it is the name of a demon who personifies those riches, who in Spenser’s Faerie Queene calls himself “God of the world and worldlings”; and we might define the relation of object to personification in Mammon as the principle that “money talks.” That money talks is not, of course, an insight peculiar to the Renaissance. Money is the chattiest and most persuasive of human inventions, bar discourse itself, and the comparison of money to discourse is as old as money is. Nevertheless, I want to claim that there is something meaningfully specific about Mammon as he is confronted by sixteenth-century Englishmen: something at once historically unique and, in that uniqueness, significant to our understandings both of the English Renaissance and of the material history of money in its relation to discourse.

I will argue that this historical specificity inheres in both faces of the Renaissance English Mammon: in his aspect as material thing, the accumulation of silver and gold coins, and in his aspect as discursive personification. the sixteenth century was a moment of unprecedented and in some ways still unmatched pressure upon its monetary objects, a pan-European inflation so rapid and so sustained as to be known to modern historians as “the price revolution.” This crisis was compounded in England by the wholesale debasement of the . . .

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