Merchants and mercantile culture in later medieval Italian and English literature

Olivia Mair

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

[Truncated abstract] The later medieval Western European economy was shaped by a marked increase in commerce and rapid urbanisation. The commercialisation of later medieval society is the background to this research, whose focus is the ways in which later medieval Italian and English literature registers and responds to the expanding marketplace and the rise of an urban mercantile class. What began as an investigation of the representation of merchants and business in a selection of this literature has become an attempt to address broader questions about the later medieval economy in relation to literary and artistic production. This study is therefore concerned not just with merchants and their activities in literature, but also the way economic developments are manifested in narrative. Issues such as the moral position and social function of the merchant are addressed, alongside bigger economic issues such as value and exchange in literature, and to some extent, the position of the writer and artist in a commercialised economy. The study is primarily literary, but it adopts a cross-disciplinary method, drawing on economic and social history, literary criticism, art history and sociology. It begins with an assessment of the broader socio-economic context, focusing on ecclesiastical and social responses to the growth of … This chapter discusses the thirteenth-century Floris and Blauncheflur (c. 1250), and the late fourteenth-century Sir Amadace, Sir Launfal, Octavian and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in relation to the commercialised economy and with reference to late medieval thought concerning value, exchange and the role and function of merchants. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1380s) is the subject of the third and final chapter, “Narrative and Economics in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer treats commerce and merchants with a complexity very close to Boccaccio’s approach to commerce. Both writers are acutely aware of the corruption to which merchants are susceptible, and of the many accusations levelled at merchants and their activities, but they do not necessarily perpetuate them. Rather than discussing exclusively the tales that deal extensively with merchants and commerce, or that told by the Merchantpilgrim, this discussion of the Canterbury Tales focuses on the Knight’s Tale, the Man of Law’s Tale and the Shipman’s Tale and the way they relate to broader ideas about the exchange and the production of narrative in the Canterbury Tales as a whole.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2005

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