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Response to Review of Medieval Market Morality: Life, Law and Ethics in the English Marketplace, 1200–1500

I would like to thank Shami Ghosh for this lucid review of my book, which summarises the main issues in a succinct fashion and informed context. In particular, Ghosh provides some excellent supplementary arguments regarding the growing tensions in the ‘moral economy’ of the 16th to 18th centuries. I have no substantive responses to the review, though I would like to comment briefly on a few aspects.

Firstly, Ghosh notes that times of dearth are very important when considering how a medieval market morality functioned and that perhaps more could have been said about this subject for the medieval period. I agree. Indeed, I am currently completing an article that looks at some of these issues, focusing primarily on the difficult years of the early 14th century.

Secondly, Ghosh mentions that ‘the fact that merchants allowed themselves to profit without too much regulation actually says relatively little, I would suggest, about morality’. Although a light hand was shown in the regulation of many smaller markets, there were still certain limits as to what was regarded as acceptable profit-making. There was a concept of reasonable profit and just behaviour that was resurrected in court proceedings when someone was regarded as having erred too far. Consequently, moral norms can be glimpsed in the way that officials and elites ran the markets, developing what I term a pragmatic market morality that drew upon clerical, literary and even legal exhortations, but shaped them in new, practical ways. For instance, I discuss in the book how the enforcement of market regulation was often more lenient than might be expected if one looked only at the polemic of preachers and poets. However, if an offender flagrantly disregarded what might be called the ‘margins of acceptability’, defined as much by moral concerns as legal limits, then they were punished heavily and publicly. This is a type of market ethic shaped by the complex interaction between views of social commentators, assumptions of law, vested interests, and the practicalities of everyday exchange. I agree that there was no absolute morality at work, and that merchants, retail traders and consumers probably formulated and interpreted market ethics in flexible ways depending on their own aims (though it must be remembered that these groups overlapped considerably). In this vein, it must also be remembered that flexible conceptions of morality in the marketplace shaped trader-trader relations as much as trader-consumer.

Lastly, Ghosh is probably right that I am overly optimistic regarding the endurance of the ‘pragmatic moral economy’, particularly since the developed world is not as anxious as it once was about shortages of basic necessities. However, it is interesting to note how the recent slide into economic stagnation in the UK has led many to call for a return to a more ‘moral economy’. This has become a favourite phrase of Ed Miliband, though it is debatable whether he fully understands the concept, while David Cameron refers to ‘responsible capitalism’, particularly in relation to the banks and big business; we will see if this is reflected in future policy. The church has entered the fray, such as when the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote an article in Newsweek (1 February 2010) on the ethical economy, questioning the assumptions of modern economic practices and consumer culture. The protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral suggested an underlying sense of what constitutes economic fairness, though the arguments of the protesters were ill-defined. Nevertheless, whether we can have an economy imbued with both capitalist endeavour and a semblance of moral responsibility is becoming an issue of growing dispute. There is a recognition today, despite the assertions of certain economists and politicians, that even developed economies are not totally in thrall to ‘free market ideology’ (as it has been branded). Indeed, economists have promoted behavioural economics into the mainstream, recognising the continuing constraints of culture and ethics upon basic economic decision-making. Historians have an important role to play in contributing to this debate, and the last paragraph of my book was intended merely as a spur to further discussion.