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Response to Review of A Country Merchant, 1495-1520: Trading and Farming at the End of the Middle Ages

It is often a slightly strange experience, after one has lived with a book for many years, and after you imagine that you have considered it from every possible angle, to find that the reviewer sees it in new ways. Dr Colson points out that there is a developing trend for writing about general themes through the experience of an individual, which is not quite biography but does add a human dimension. So A Country Merchant is part of an historiographical movement. I also liked his use of the word ‘opportunistic’ to describe the way that the many people to whom my merchant Heritage owed money, meeting him on the road or in a market place, greeted him in a friendly manner, and were rewarded with a further installment which brought the settling of the whole debt a little closer. Writing the book made me appreciate more fully that indebtedness served as a bonding force in local society. The reciprocal and mutual aspects of credit meant that they were ‘all in it together’. People were tolerant of the slow payment of debts, because they were in the same position in relation to other people. You avoided quarreling with someone who owed you money, as that might slow down the flow of payments. Paying off a debt in full might end a relationship, to the disadvantage of the creditor.

I was grateful to the reviewer for spotting the connection between my book and Jim Bolton’s new study of money. Bolton makes the point that formal written records of indebtedness are not a very accurate guide to the ups and downs of credit, because most debts went unrecorded, and of course the entries in Heritage’s account book demonstrate this very well, because they are just memoranda, jottings to remind the merchant of an oral agreement. There will be no second edition of course, so I can only lament that a cross-reference between the works can only be made in reviews. Even more recently Jacques le Goff’s book on medieval money has appeared in English translation, and there are some connections between that book, Bolton and myself, but Le Goff has put too much emphasis on the anthropological approach, to the point of stating that there was no medieval economy.

Dr Colson was not entirely satisfied by the sections in the book which dealt with the rural landscape and the agrarian economy. Another reader expressed this by saying (with a note of disapproval) ‘there seems to be rather a lot about deserted villages’. The relevance of the deserted villages is clear because Heritage lived in one, helped to remove inhabitants, and dealt with people living on decayed villages. But more important were the contrasting economies of villages that survived, some of which had access to pastures and some of which had none; villages of both kinds were able to produce large quantities of wool. The themes of landscape and economy could have been knitted together more closely but this is difficult to achieve, and one can never satisfy fully the various interest groups. Landscape history began in Hoskins’s book as a byproduct of economic history, and on the continent the two strands of history are studied comfortably together. Landscape history (or rather landscape archaeology) has developed enormously in Britain in the last 30 years, and economic history has moved in a different direction, but as they have the capacity to complement and enhance one another, they should be kept in communication.

I am grateful for a thoughtful review which has stimulated me to renewed thinking.