Academic journal article Parergon

The Justification of Wealth and Lordship versus Rulers' Exploitation in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article Parergon

The Justification of Wealth and Lordship versus Rulers' Exploitation in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

This article begins with a definition of economic ethics and how its principles were used to justify wealth as well as economic inequality. These were discussed by medieval theologians and scholastic philosophers and the principles were transmitted to lay society in late medieval England via pastoral manuals, religious treatises, sermons and some advices to princes. Pastoral manuals and treatises written for the laity served to remind the more literate members of society about practical economic ethics, while manuals for the priesthood and their sermons were ways of passing on those teachings to the unlettered as well as the lettered in late medieval England.

Many historians have studied economic ethics as they applied to merchants and traders in the marketplace. A few examples are Richard Britnell who in a number of articles studied particular economic activities, James Davis, whose extensive study included late medieval moralising literature, and Raymond de Roover, with his conceptual study of the just price. (1) There have also been many studies of usury, including those by Richard Helmholz on prosecutions in the church courts and Gwen Seabourne on national legislation. (2) However it is well known that in medieval England most economic activity took place in the rural sector. (3) I have argued elsewhere that there were many others, besides merchants and traders, who had opportunities to profit from their occupations or duties. (4)

To give an instance of the broader application of economic ethics, Dives and Pauper (an early fifteenth-century Middle English treatise) has at the end of its section on the Commandment against theft, Dives' declaration that the whole nation must be guilty of covetousness and theft, for simony 'regnyth' in the clergy, usury amongst the merchants and the wealthy, ravine (open theft, using force) and extortion amongst lords and great men, and robbery and 'mycherye' (petty theft) 'amongis the pore comounys'. (5) The Book of Vices and Virtues says all manner of people can be avaricious 'prynces and prelates, clerkes, lewed, & religious'. (6) Likewise, John Bromyard's manual for preachers (Summa praedicantium, which was completed in 1348), states that avarice is found in all parts of society: the clergy, the laity, merchants and artisans. (7)

In this article I narrow the focus to the rulers of society, lords and the king, and examine some justifications for wealth, economic inequality and lordship. I also discuss charging exorbitant land taxes, of which lords were frequently accused; and abuses of the right of purveying, about which the king was often petitioned. Both of these examples show that the moral principles proposed by the justifications for wealth, economic inequality and lordship were subverted. However, a major difference between the role of a king and that of lords is that the king was expected to respond to allegations of economic injustice with appropriate action and he was reminded of his duty to dispense impartial justice: lords, on the other hand, were feared as arbitrary wielders of power.

II. Economic Ethics: Its Definition and Constituents

'Economic ethics' is a useful term to describe the moral evaluation, judgement and prosecution of offences detrimental to what was thought to be a fair economy in late medieval England. They could be considered as practical ethics in the same way as present-day 'business ethics', but the term 'economic ethics' gives the sense of an application broader than purely commerce and which includes the distribution of wealth, the treatment of the poor and the livelihoods of all.

Odd Langholm explains that although the word economica was known to scholastic philosophers through the works of Aristotle, they did not, initially, have a sense that economics was 'a set of separable social phenomena and relationships'. (8) Medieval theologians and scholastic philosophers were aware of the material needs of mankind but saw these as a source of temptation; therefore, according to Langholm, 'If they studied economic phenomena and relationships, it was in order to advise about proper economic conduct'. …

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