Published: Dec. 1, 2006 By

Woman’s complexion is more humid than man’s. [The nature] of the humid receives an impression easily but retains it poorly. The humid is readily mobile, and thus women are unconstant and always seeking something new. Hence when she is engaged in the act under one man, if it were possible she would like at the same time to be under another.
– Albertus Magnus

What is so uncertain as something that rolls away? It is appropriate that money is round because it never stays in one place.
– Augustine

[1] What is the gender of money? Depending on the audience, such a question might elicit blank stares or furrowed brows. The tacit assumption of neoclassical economics, for example, is that money—just like the field of economics itself—is genderless. However, a growing number of feminist economists have challenged the field’s claims to scientific objectivity. Their work exposes the sexist and heterosexist assumptions of neoclassical economics and its foundational myths. Even its metaphors are gendered–“homo economicus” serving as one of the most readily recognizable examples (Ferber and Nelson; Barkar and Kuiper).

[2] From the perspective of literary theory, Jean-Joseph Goux examines money more specifically, and his findings suggest that money is male as well. While we generally think of the “general equivalent” in relation to money, Goux argues that “general equivalents” are also selected in other domains, including semiotics and psychoanalysis. That is, an object, a subject or an action is placed in a position of privilege (a “general equivalent”) and all other objects, subjects and actions are measured in relation to it (for ease, I will call these “secondary signs”). The Father, for example, becomes the general equivalent of subjects, the phallus, the general equivalent of objects and the spoken word the general equivalent of expression. According to Goux, the selection of the general equivalent is always gendered, although how this is so may be less obvious in the case of money and language than it is in the case of the phallus or the Father. Regardless of the register, however, the general equivalent enjoys a position of privilege and idealization, one that transforms it into an active agent, the measurer of all things. Secondary signs are placed in a passive position; they are measured and their differences are subsumed by the authority of the general equivalent. What is more, the general equivalent enjoys a stable position. That which is being measured, however, is marked by instability. Secondary signs can change or be exchanged without unsettling the authority of the general equivalent. Goux reads in this hierarchy of values an inheritance of Aristotelian theories of gender as transmitted through texts such as On the Generation of Animals and Physics. According to Aristotle, men play the active role in procreation, providing the form. Women, on the other hand, are passive receptacles who provide the chaotic matter of generation, which lacks form without the imprint of a man. In Aristotle’s theory, just as in economics, man serves as the model—the measurement–whereas women are the secondary signs that are measured and subsumed by this hierarchy. In short, then, we might think of general equivalents as masculine and secondary signs as feminine.

[3] The selection of the general equivalent is always obscure, always shadowy. Indeed, it must be in order for the general equivalent to maintain its idealized position. Examining the genesis of the general equivalent is one way to demystify its privileged status and to disclose gender’s role in the construction of hierarchies of value. In terms of money in particular, the Middle Ages serve as a uniquely productive site for mounting such a challenge. During this period money usually was personified as a woman. This is not to suggest that one will not find male personifications of money in the Middle Ages. For example, money is male in the poem “Du denier et de la brebis” (“The Coin and the Sheep”), which I will discuss later in this essay. Yet in this case money’s gender seems to be simply a matter of grammar (that is, “denier” is a masculine noun). The author does not draw the reader’s attention to money’s gender, as so often is the case when money is depicted as a woman. John Yunck, whose The Lineage of Lady Meedremains one of the few book-length studies on venality satire, notes that the portrayal of money as a woman is so common as to be conventional. However, Yunck does not explore the reason for this convention, leaving one with the impression that there is something natural, or at least nothing noteworthy, about the conflation between women and money. Nor does Yunck’s observation account for why the analogy works in the other direction. That is, why medieval writers as varied as Augustine, Chaucer, Langland, Gower, Boccaccio, Dante and Fernando de Rojas (to name a few) use monetary tropes in their descriptions of women, and usually when their observations are far from flattering.

[4] I argue that money is feminine in the Middle Ages because it was not the general equivalent of economic exchange for much of it. Until the mid-eleventh century, money was viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Even after the rise of money, it was still regarded as something unstable and destabilizing, both physically and socially. Currency could be debased, for example, a practice that was quite common in the fourteenth century. This physical instability often translated into social instability as well, as these alterations to the currency had wide social ramifications. But beyond this particular practice, many writers of venality satire and detractors of the profit economy believed money could drastically destabilize traditional social hierarchies. It is why writers like Augustine, for example, associate money with movement: it is always being exchanged and always changing the status of the person who possesses it or is deprived of it. Women in the Middle Ages are marked by a similar movement, as misogynistic discourse repeats ad nauseam. Women and money are imagined to have the same character: both are supposedly passive and yet potentially powerful; both are unstable and do not hold their “imprint” (whether that imprint is from the royal mint or from a husband); and both are viewed as items of exchange. But perhaps most importantly, both women and money were imagined to threaten homosocial bonds and traditional social hierarchies. Mobility, and the anxiety that mobility produces, is at the center of medieval definitions of both money and women and motivates calls to keep both under the tight control of social and cultural institutions. As we will see, well-entrenched stereotypes about women provide detractors of the profit economy with a ready vocabulary for conceptualizing the dangers of money. In turn, fears and fantasies about money provide writers with a new way of depicting women’s “debased” natures.

[5] It is important to underscore that this link between money and women is more than metaphorical. We might consider money and women in the Middle Ages to be what Anne McClintock, in a different context, calls “articulated categories.” “Articulated categories” are “not distinct realms of experience, existing in splendid isolation from each other; nor can they be simply yoked together respectively like armatures of Lego. Rather, they come into existence in and through relation to each other—if in contradictory and conflictual ways” (5). McClintock’s formulation of “articulated categories”—categories that come into being by and through their relationship with one another—captures the connections between money and women that this essay explores. In the Middle Ages money and women were not simply imagined as metaphorically alike; rather, medieval theories about women influence the way that money is imagined. Similarly, theories about money informed–and transformed–the way women were imagined in the Middle Ages. There is an analogical logic here that unites discussions of money and women, even when writers discussing one do not refer directly to the other. As a consequence, seemingly gender-neutral discussions of money often have much to tell us about medieval notions of gender, although what those are may be occluded. Likewise, discussions of gender, which might seem to have nothing to do with economics, have a lot to tell us about medieval views of money.

[6] In the first part of this essay, I trace changing attitudes towards money as it shifts from a reluctantly accepted form of payment in the central Middle Ages to the general equivalent of all commodities in the late Middle Ages. Throughout the period, mobility is the distinguishing characteristic of money and anxiety seems to be the distinguishing response to it–a characterization and response that parallel the medieval attitude towards women. In the second part of the essay, I suggest how the intersections between money and women might be applied to literary analysis through a reading of two texts, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and Thomas Chestre’s Launfal. Both texts, albeit in very different ways, serve as examples of how in the Middle Ages a work can simultaneously transmit ideology about money and about women.

* * * * *

[7] While coinage had circulated in Western Europe since the Roman Empire, in the central Middle Ages it served mainly as a measurement of value rather than as a form of payment. A tapestry might be described as having a value of ten solidi or a candlestick a value of ten denari. Yet entries in records of payment during the Carolingian period rarely documented purchases made in cash. Property, rather than money, indicated wealth during this period. In Flanders, Verona and the Low Countries during the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries, gold, silver and jewels appeared at the ends of lists of household valuables, preceded by oxen, foodstuffs, tools, land, servants, followers and even the enjoyment of hawks and hounds. When money was used to purchase items it served primarily as a supplementary form of payment. For example, a person might purchase a piece of land with a horse worth ten solidi, plus two solidi. Those who possessed money often found it difficult to spend. Soldiers paid in cash by the government complained that few merchants would accept their money. In response, a series of laws were passed that threatened fines and even flogging if sellers refused cash. These laws were amended and expanded over a seventy year period, suggesting a prolonged resistance to the adoption of coinage (Murray 31-37).

[8] However, by the end of the millennium, several events converged that contributed to money’s transformation from a reluctantly accepted form of payment to the general equivalent of all commodities. Perhaps the most important of these were the growth in international trade and the increase in large urban markets, both of which were fueled in part by the increase in the consumption of luxury goods in the wake of the Black Death. Long distance trade required a more portable form of payment. Carrying a bag of coins rather than something cumbersome, like a sack of grain, made sense as merchants and consumers traveled longer distances to markets. At the same time, the discovery of new silver mines in 970, as well as an influx of Eastern Islamic silver, provided the material needed to make the coinage that was now in demand. By 1381, there were some 800 tons of silver circulating as coins—at least a twenty-fourfold increase since the mid-twelfth century (Spufford, Money and Its Uses in Medieval Europe, 240-263). Changes in language also indicate the shift taking place in money’s status. Prior to 1100, “pecunia” was defined as non-monetary wealth: land, buildings, animals and occasionally treasures. Vestiges of this definition linger after the eleventh century in expressions such as “pecunia viva” for livestock. By 1100, “pecunia” more strictly meant money. A similar shift occurred in the words “riche,” “rich,” and “reich.” For most of the tenth and eleventh centuries these words connoted power more generally. By the end of the twelfth century they developed their specifically economic meaning (Murray 58).

[9] Alongside this influx of currency emerges an expansive body of literature that both satirizes and frets over money’s seemingly limitless power. Many of these texts focus on money’s negative influence on social institutions, such as the Church and the courts. For example, the early fourteenth-century Simonie (a possible source text for Piers Plowman) attacks money’s corruption of the Church. London LickPenny, which follows a poor petitioner’s futile attempts to acquire justice without money, concentrates on the corruption of the courts. The fifteenth-century carol “Money, Money,” casts a larger net, noting not only money’s corruption of the Church and the courts, but also its influence on virtually every facet of an individual’s life. The poem opens with the claim that “Above all things thow (money) arte a kyng, / And rulyst the world over all” (l. 1-2). Several authors worry that money turns upside down traditional social hierarchies. For example, “The Cross on the Coin” (“De cruce denarii”) begins with the observation that the little star on the English sterling penny could “make a king of a serf and a serf of a king” (Wright 1.1-2, 223-226). While this statement suggests the possibility of downward movement, most of these texts worry that money will enable people to move up the social ladder. For example, Proverb 193 of the Villein’s Proverbswarns, “Do not believe God does not grieve / At poor men’s self-elation / For each man should do what is good / Within his proper station. / Not all can get a coronet / or royal coronation” (qtd. in Murray: 98). Money is not only seen as a king, as the author of “Money, Money” describes it, but also as a god. In “On Money” (“De denario”), Petrus Pictor complains that

Cash shares with Jove the throne of emperor,
For both as gods are worshipped by our race,
And yet it’s cash that really holds first place
For what the thunderstorm and lightning flash
Leave unmoved, can be moved by cash.
(qtd. in Murray: 76, l. 32-36)

“The Gospel According to the Mark of Silver” transforms the traditional dictum about Christ (Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules the world) into a statement about the power of money: “Nummus vincit, Nummus regnat, Nummus imperat.”

[10] Aristotle viewed money as a kind of “nonsense” since it is a human invention designed to facilitate trade and not something based in nature (Aristotle, Politics, 1.3.10,39). Both Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus shared this view. But it is precisely money’s nonsensical quality that gives it seemingly limitless power. This is best illustrated by the mid-twelfth century “Du denier et de la brebis” (“The Coin and the Sheep”). The poem stages a debate between a coin and a sheep over which is more valuable, “artificial” or “natural” wealth. As the representative of the “natural” economy, “brebis” touts the consumables it can produce, including milk, butter, meat and wool. “Denier,” on the other hand, is incapable of producing anything natural. In terms reminiscent of Aristotle, “brebis” accuses “denier” of lacking intrinsic value. Rather, its value stems from what has been inscribed upon it: “[‘Denier’], if you lose your cross, you lose your value, / Then you would not be taken for anything” (qtd. in Cowell: 154, l.133-134). “Brebis” also criticizes money for destabilizing traditional social hierarchies. Money can transform a hermit into a thief and “With a wicked man, hunched-backed and deformed, / You work such wonders that he is more loved / Than a wise man full of goodness” (qtd. in Cowell: 155, l.202-204).

[11] Money, however, is unruffled by these reproaches. It declares that it is more valuable than anything alive because, unlike “brebis,” it can produce more than just a few items. Indeed, “denier” can create anything: roads, bridges, even desire:

Whoever gives me out by the fistful
Receiving in return loving embraces,
From women and other maidens;
Whoever often mounts them,
For love of me: whoever gives me,
His desire amounts to the sum of this giving
And receiving. (qtd. in Cowell: 151-152, l.61-66)

“Denier” also turns the traditional “use-value” argument on its head by alleging that without money the products that derive “naturally” from “brebis” would be valueless: a shepherd would be unwilling to raise sheep if he was not promised a profit and “wool would never be made yarn….Without my aid” (qtd. in Cowell: 153, l. 99-100). In addition, “denier” is rather proud that it can increase the “pris” (in the sense of praise and price) of a disfigured man, an act that it sees as a clear sign of its power:

There is no man in the world so noble
Who could rise to esteem without me,
For I am taken in exchange for everything,
And I am the one who takes and gives all.
(qtd. in Cowell: 154, l.258-261)

[12] Augustine asks, “What is so uncertain as something that rolls away? It is appropriate that money is round because it never stays in one place.” Money’s uncertainly takes several forms, as the poem makes clear. As “brebis” notes, money is valueless without inscription and even then its value can be manipulated, as the detractors of currency debasement complained throughout the later Middle Ages. In addition, unlike the limited possibilities of “natural” wealth, money can be “taken in exchange for everything”; the possibilities of “artificial” wealth are only limited by its possessor’s imagination. “Denier” is able to create anything and to transform people into their seeming antitheses: hermits into thieves and wicked, deformed men into admired ones. This transformative power is what Eugene Vance calls the “terrifying yet marvelous, power of change and exchange” (129). Money might be a kind of “nonsense,” but it is a nonsense that elicits a great deal of anxiety.

[13] Misogynistic discourse depicts women, as well as money as changeable, unreliable and a danger to the stability of relations among men. In the Middle Ages, “woman by definition finds herself in a position of constant over determination, or movement” (Bloch 19). Aristotle, whose theories about money were so influential in the Middle Ages, is influential in this regard as well. As noted above, Aristotle divides the world into two elements, form and matter. In reproduction women provide the “matter,” the shapeless, raw material from which life is molded, and men provide the “form,” the active agent that shapes that raw material. For Aristotle, the essential difference between the sexes is the distinct roles they play in procreation: “The female always provides the material, the male provides that which fashions the material into shape; this, in our view, is the specific characteristic of each of the sexes: that is what it means to be male or female” (729a). Although their views on procreation differ in significant ways, the Anatomy of the Living (ascribed to Galen and widely quoted in the Middle Ages) presents a similar theory: “One can compare the relation which exists between the instrument of reproduction in the man and the instrument of reproduction in the woman to the relation which exists between the seal which leaves its imprint and the impression” (qtd. in Jacquart and Thomasset: 37).

[14] Aristotle’s and Galen’s descriptions of procreation sound remarkably similar to the stamping of coins. As “brebis” notes in “Du denier et de la brebis,” money “would be taken to be nothing” if it were not inscribed with a mark that gives it worth. Similarly, women are imagined as unminted metal, raw material waiting to be impressed by men and inscribed with value. In the influential Complaint of Nature, Alain de Lille uses precisely this image to describe procreation. Nature explains to the poet-narrator that God “appointed [me] as a sort of deputy, a coiner for stamping the order of things” (210.453). Jean de Meun repeats this image in the popular Romance of the Rose:

Compassionate Nature, seeing that Jealous Death and Corruption are together destroying everything they can find, is continually in her forge, hammering and forging and renewing individuals through new generations. When she has no other solution, she stamps them out bearing the impress of particular letters, for she gives them true forms in coins of different currencies. (247, l.15975-15983)

[15] Women’s supposed impressionability, in turn, serves as an explanation for why women are “naturally” less constant than men. In the History of the Destruction of Troy, Guido delle Colonne complains that young, unmarried women are especially changeable, constantly searching for a husband “just as matter always seeks form.” Yet even after marriage, a wife’s formless “nature” makes it unlikely that her husband’s impression will last very long:

Oh, would that matter, passing once into form, could be said to be content with the form it has received. But just as it is known that matter proceeds from form to form, so the dissolute desire of women proceeds from man to man, so that it may be believed without limit, since it is of an unfathomable depth, unless by chance the taint of shame by a praiseworthy abstinence should restrict it within the limits of modesty. (qtd. in Blamires: 48)

And to give one more example, Andreas Capellanus notes that “woman is like melting wax, always ready to assume fresh shape and to be moulded to the imprint of anyone’s seal” (3.1.84, 312-313).

[16] Chaucer draws on this image as well in “The Merchant’s Tale.” Twice during the tale the reader is told that Januarie has a “fantasye” about the perfect wife (IV l.1577;1610). She should be young because “certeynly, a yong thyng may men gye, / Right as men may warm wax with handes plye” (IV 1.1429-1430). The idea of May as wax to be molded in the image of Januarie’s “fantasye” not only reflects the notion that women are formless matter to be shaped by men, but also the “fantasye” about money: that, as “denier” argues, it can be molded into anything that one might desire—a bridge, a road, honor, love. Yet it is this pliability that, according to Guido delle Colonne, makes it impossible for a man to leave a lasting impression on his wife. Because of her formless “nature,” a woman will inevitably seek another man’s impression. This is precisely what occurs in “The Merchant’s Tale.” May falls in love with Damyan, an event that also is depicted in monetary terms: “this fresshe May / hath take swichimpression that day / Of pitee of this sike Damyan / That from hire herte she ne dryve kan / The remembrance for to doon hym ese” (IV.1.1977-1979) [my emphasis]. This “fantasye” turned nightmare in “The Merchant’s Tale” parallels the terrifying power of money. As with money, May can be molded into whatever Januarie wishes, but her “nature” as warm wax means that the impression will not last.

[17] In the medieval imaginary, then, women and money are thought to possess the same character: both are supposedly passive yet potentially powerful; both are unstable and do not hold their “imprint”; and both are transgressive and therefore must be carefully monitored and contained. This linkage allows both writers of misogynistic discourse and detractors of the profit economy to draw upon the vocabulary of one domain in order to support the claims of another. As a consequence, medieval discussions of money or women often perform a dual role: they simultaneously warn about the dangers inherent in both and the need to contain them within socially sanctioned institutions and practices.

[18] Perhaps the clearest example of this strategy is found in William Langland’s depiction of Lady Mede inPiers Plowman. Precisely who or what Lady Mede is has been a question of some debate among scholars of the poem. She has been interpreted as everything from an emblem of “bastard feudalism” to a thinly veiled representation of Edward III’s mistress. However, I agree with those scholars who read Lady Mede as an embodiment of the profit economy or, at the very least, the power of money (Yunck; Aers). Like money, Mede’s influence seems omnipresent, touching every aspect of society, down to the “bakeres and breweres, bocheres and cokes” (“bakers and brewers, butchers and cooks”) who make a profit by selling inferior foodstuffs. However, like most venality satirists, Langland focuses his critique on the corruption of the courts and the church (C.11.19-23; C.III.170-215). At the beginning of passus II, Holy Church complains that Lady Mede is as “pryve” as herself in the Pope’s palace (C.II.23), a word that not only suggests Lady Mede’s privileged access to the Church through simony and bribery, but also her sexual availability. Indeed, there is a whiff of sexual impropriety swirling around her. In passus III, the king instructs a clerk to “maken here at ese” (C.III.4). She is taken into a private room (a “bourne”) where she meets with, among others, her beadsman—her “bedman,” as the poem puts it (C.III.5-44).Such language hints at the sexually improper relationship confessors were reputed to have with their female penitents. Perhaps most damning of all, there is Conscience’s description of Lady Mede:

She is tikel of here tayl, talewys of tonge,
As comyn as þe cartway to knaues and to alle,
To monekes, to alle men, зe, musels in hegge;
Lyggeth by here when hem lust lered and lewed.

(She is ticklish of tail and blabbing of tongue
As common as the cartway to knaves and to all,
To monks, to all men, ye, lepers in hedges,
Lying by her when they lust, learned and lewd).

Lady Mede is “tikel of here tayle, talewys of tonge”—a slut and a talker. The indiscriminate manner in which Lady Mede bestows her sexual favors recalls the amorality of “ denier,” who purchases goods and honors for whoever possesses it. And just as money talks, so, too, does Lady Meed. These links might explain why the poem’s discussions of monetary improprieties so often slide into complaints about sexual and linguistic perversions (for example, C.11.90-96; C.11.97-104; C.111.55-67). In the late medieval and early modern period, this slide is gendered in particular ways. The sexually open body and mouth were associated with women and linked to their greedy “natures” (Stallybrass; Parker 1-35; Woodbridge; Boose; Paster 23-63; Harris). The Wife of Bath, for example, possesses both a “likerous” tongue and tail and is the figure in theCanterbury Taleswho declares that “al is for to selle” (III.D. 414). Langland can use this hackneyed stereotype as convenient shorthand for depicting all the excesses of the profit economy. Thus, Lady Mede’s gender, her status as one of the impressionable, debased sex, plays a crucial role in Langland’s economic theories.

[19] The poem not only warns the reader about the dangers of money, but also about the dangers of women. One reason Lady Mede unsettles many of the men around her is that she is not legally bound to a man, but rather is freely circulating. When the dream-narrator first encounters her, he is instantaneously “ravished” by her rich array and immediately asks Holy Church “Whos wyf she were and what was here name” (“Whose wife she was and what was her name”) (C.II.17). This is a question he does not ask of Holy Church, whose name he does not request until she has spoken some sixty lines. His question about Holy Church’s identity is motivated by the wisdom of her speech, not the beauty of her body. She is a lovely lady of “lere,” perhaps of face, but also of teaching. In contrast, Lady Mede’s prodigious sexuality produces a disempowering desire in the dream-narrator. He is ravished, a reaction that, as Clare Lees notes, he seeks to control by trying to incorporate Lady Mede into a socially sanctioned sexual relationship, such as marriage (123). The king has a similar response. He suggests Lady Mede marry Conscience, but if she refuses, promises to enclose her in a religious house where she will be an example so “That alle wantowen women shal be war be þe one / And bitterliche banne the and alle þat bereth thy name” (“That all wanton women shall beware by you / And bitterly curse you and all that bears your name”) (C.III.142-143). Mede serves as a warning to all “wanton” women, who might, like the Wife of Bath, choose to “wander by the weye” (I.A.467), as well as a reminder to the reader that women, like money, are likely to wander if they are not controlled by society.

[20] We find the same anxieties regarding women and money circulating in William Chestre’s Launfal, albeit in a less transparent fashion. Chestre closely follows the basic story as found in his two sources, Marie de France’s Anglo-Norman Lanval and the anonymous Middle English Landevale. The poem can be briefly summarized as follows. Launfal, a knight of the Round Table, is overlooked during the distribution of gifts at court and eventually ends up penniless (how he is overlooked, by whom and the cause of his poverty are slightly different in all three versions of the text, an issue I will take up in a moment). It is in this impoverished state that Launfal meets the mysterious and beautiful Tryamour who provides him with her love and a magical purse that will yield as much gold as he wants whenever he puts his hand in it. Tryamour’s only demand is that Launfal keep their love a secret. If he reveals their relationship, then she—and the purse—will disappear. Launfal returns to Arthur’s court rich and beloved. Guinevere attempts to seduce Launfal and when he rejects her advances she accuses him of not having a woman to love and therefore being “worþy forlore” (“worthy destroyed”), language that underscores the poem’s collapse of economic and social worth. Ashamed, Launfal retaliates by telling Guinevere that he possesses a lover whose least attractive maid is prettier then her. Enraged, Guinevere accuses Launfal of trying to seduce her, as well as insulting her by suggesting that a servant could be more beautiful than the queen. (Interestingly, it is this second accusation that seems to anger King Arthur the most, suggesting that he understands that his social “worth” depends on others viewing his wife as “worthy”). Launfal is brought to trial and his life threatened if he cannot prove the superior beauty of his lover. Distraught by Tryamour’s disappearance, Launfal welcomes death. At the trial a series of women appear, each more beautiful than the other. With each appearance Launfal’s fellow knights ask if the woman is Launfal’s lover, but he says no. Eventually, Tryamour appears and those at King Arthur’s court agree that, indeed, she is more beautiful than Guinevere. Tryamour leaves but not before Launfal jumps on the back of her horse and the two ride off to Avalon.

[21] In all three versions of the story, Tryamour is clearly linked with wealth although, as D. Vance Smith notes, Chestre’s poem lingers more on the visual display of wealth and the shame attached to the visible signs of poverty. There are frequent and lavish descriptions of luxury items and their value, particularly luxury items from distant places. Chestre tells the reader, for example, that Tryamour’s pavilion is made by Saracens and has crystal finials and a golden eagle on top with ruby eyes that are so valuable that not even Alexander the Great or Arthur himself could possess such a jewel (l. 265-276).

[22] The magic purse that Tryamour offers Launfal is also a luxurious item,

Ymad of sylk & of gold cler,
Wyth fayre ymages þre:
As oft þou puttest þe hond þerinne,
A mark of gold þou schalt wynne,
In wat place þat þou be.
Made of silk of clear gold
(With three fair images:
As often as you put your hand within
A mark of gold you shall win
In whatever place you are). (l. 320-324)

The bottomless purse that Tryamour gives Launfal completely changes his social status. He is transformed from a person embarrassed to attend church because of his ripped clothes, to a beloved knight who throws parties and pays others’ debts. Launfal’s change in fortune recalls the transformative power of money as described by “denier” in “ Du Denier et de la brebis.” Just as money can transform a hermit into a thief, or a wicked and hunched-backed man into someone beloved, Launfal goes from being “evyll” due to his poverty to becoming once again “large Launfal,” as he is described at the beginning of the poem.

[23] Tryamour offers both her love and the purse almost simultaneously and it is unclear which “gift” Launfal is more drawn to, especially when one considers his abject poverty. Tryamour is certainly beautiful, we are told, but the text provides very little physical description of her. We know more about the expensive clothes she wears and the luxury goods she possesses then we do about her appearance. Tryamour is, in this sense, much like Lady Mede, another woman dressed in “riche array” whose appearance is appealing but difficult to bring into focus. Launfal’s sexual access to Tryamour is collapsed with his access to the purse: he receives both when he pledges his love and loses both when he reveals that love. In Chestre’s poem we see once again a link between the libidinal and the economic, although in Tryamour it is with a focus on the fantasy-side of money—that idea of money as something that one can shape into whatever one wishes. Yet there is an arbitrariness to Tryamour’s love that recalls the seemingly indiscriminate manner in which Lady Mede selects her lovers. The poem never explains why Tryamour selects Launfal. She simply states that “Đer nys noman yn Cristenté / Đat y loue so moche as þe, / Kyng neyþer emperour!” (“There is no man in Christendom / That I love so much as you / Neither king nor emperor!”) (l.304-306). The inexplicability of her preferment recalls the irrationality associated with both money and women.

[24] If Tryamour embodies medieval fantasies about money, Guinevere embodies their darker side. Chestre’s most significant alterations to his sources is to increase the role that Guinevere plays and to change Arthur’s role at the beginning of the story. In the sources for Launfal, it is Arthur who, inexplicably, refuses to give Launfal his proper due, instigating his poverty. Chestre, however, makes Guinevere the one who distributes the “gold & sylver & precious stonys” (l. 68) to everyone except Launfal. Nor is Launfal ignored by King Arthur in Chestre’s poem. When Launfal makes up an excuse to leave the court, Arthur gives him “gret spending.” Smith suggests that by replacing Guinevere with Arthur, Chestre converts gift-giving into a social exchange, rather than one based on a private relationship (160). Although Guinevere’s reasons for overlooking Launfal are never explained, they might be very personal indeed. The poem makes it clear from the beginning that Arthur’s knights in general, and Launfal in particular, dislike Guinevere because she is an adulterer: “For þe lady bar los of swych word / Đat sche hadde lemmannys vnþer her lord / So fele þer has noon ende” (“Because the lady bore such a reputation / That she had lovers under her lord / So many that there was no end”) (l.46-47). These lines echo Langland’s description of Lady Mede, who is as “as comyn as þe cartway,” as well as Guido delle Colonne’s complaint that even after marriage a woman will not hold her imprint. We might also read in Chestre’s strategy an act of projection, in which Guinevere becomes responsible for the breakdown of traditional social values. Rather than Arthur serving as the fickle leader who inexplicably neglects his duty, Guinevere plays that role. Such a role is not only in keeping with the medieval view that women threaten homosocial bonds, but also with the medieval view that money threatens traditional social relations.

[25] Guinevere’s behavior is rendered all the more inexplicable when, upon Launfal’s return, she pursues him. Again, we see the idea of arbitrariness and fickleness linked to both women and money. It is worth considering too that while the poem’s continual comparison of Tryamour’s and Guinevere’s physical appearance suggests the two women are vastly different, the text also continually underscores their similarities: both women are powerful with a great deal of wealth at their disposal, both women can decide how to dispense that wealth and to whom, and both pursue Launfal aggressively. We might read these women as two sides of the same coin. Tryamour simultaneously embodies the power of money and the fantasy of the “perfect” woman: always at one’s beck and call, instantly providing whatever one desires, pleasurable, and able to increase a man’s social currency because of her value. Guinevere, on the other hand, represents the nightmare: she is arbitrary and changeable, able to alter a man’s status in an instant (recalling money’s ability to “make a king of a serf and a serf of a king”) and her prodigious sexuality is threatening rather than pleasurable.

[26] Both women are safely contained by the end of the poem. Tryamour rides back to Avalon with Launfal (who is never heard from again in Chestre’s version), taking her wealth out of circulation in the world of the poem. Guinevere’s fate is more ominous: she is blinded by Tryamour and disappears from the text. Like Lady Mede, both women are, in a sense, contained. Tryamour is sent to the fantasy world of Avalon and Guinevere is disabled. What remains, then, is a world of men, a homosocial network that Guinevere and Tryamour both threaten, albeit in different ways. The fact that Launfal disappears as well suggests that there is a tension, if not an incommensurability, between traditional male feudal bonds and the feminized money economy.

[27] As suggested by the epigrams at the beginning of this essay, both money and women are characterized by movement. Much like the other characteristics ascribed to women and money (changeability, exchangeability and impressionability), movement is necessary if women and money are to serve as items of exchange in the sexual and economic realms. While both money and gender are a kind of “nonsense,” a mere convention designed to facilitate exchange, naturalizing the characteristics attributed to money and women provides logic for their status as items of exchange. These texts suggest that women, like money, serve as items of exchange because of some aspect of their nature, rather than society’s construction of a system in which women are trafficked by men. Such exchange not only solidifies homosocial bonds, it also threatens to dissolve them. Locating responsibility for these threats in the nature of women and money, rather than in the system itself, is one way to distance society from these threats. The linkages between money and women in both misogynistic discourse and venality satire affirm the supposed nature—and danger—of both. Thus, the object being exchanged becomes responsible for its own inscription.

[28] Examining money and gender in concert is important for excavating the analogical logic operating behind these depictions and opens up new avenues of inquiry. We might ask why, to take one example, someone like the troubadour Guillaume IX of Aquitane depicts the profit economy as a vagina that enlarges with use. Is the image, as William Burgwinkle argues, “a challenge to traditional, uni-directional economic thinking” (357)? Or, is it yet another example of a writer making use of hackneyed stereotypes about women’s bodies and their monstrous appetites in order to depict the dangers of the profit economy? And regardless of how we read this image, why does Guillaume find it a productive one? That is, what makes this trope legible to a late medieval audience? We might also ask what the larger ramifications are when an author turns to the language of money in order to describe women. While many depictions of the profit economy draw on stereotypes about women’s supposedly grotesque bodies and appetites, discussions of value—economic as well as aesthetic–tend to take place quite literally on women’s bodies. For example, by describing the Miller’s daughter in the “The Reeve’s Tale” as a kind of counterfeit coin (l.90-92), is Chaucer mitigating her rape? That is, by establishing that she is already “debased” is he calling into question whether the rape really debases her in the way her father imagines? Women’s bodies, vulnerable and often violated, play key roles in medieval explorations of value. Medieval depictions of women tend to move between the passive feminine body, and the monstrous feminine body and these two registers play crucial roles in an understanding of money and value during this period.

[29] Such an exploration not only helps excavate the shadowy history of money, but also shines a light on our own assumptions about money and gender. While, as I have suggested in this essay, money is viewed quite differently in the Middle Ages, it is striking too how often modern discussions of money and women resonate with that earlier period. To cite just two examples, the obsession that Carrie onSex in the City has with high-end footwear and sexual pleasure sounds remarkably similar to the Wife of Bath’s consumptive practices. Nor could anything be more medieval than the conflation of economic and sexual anxieties traced by Susan Faludi in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Thus, exploring the links between money and women in the Middle Ages not only expands our knowledge of economics and gender during the medieval period, but also invites us to reconsider the construction of the Middle Ages as a space of alterity. Despite recent critical movements that call into question historical and literary periodization, the Middle Ages continue to serve as a convenient point of departure for heralding the beginning of the modern age. Our inheritance of certain articulations of women and money problematizes this construction and requires us to reconsider the modernity of the Middle Ages and the medievalism of our own.

Works Cited

  • “Above all thing thow arte a kyng.” Medieval English Political Poems. Ed. James M. Dean. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan U, 1996. 213-216.
  • Aers, David. “Class, Gender, Medieval Criticism, and Piers Plowman.”Class and Gender in Early English Literature. Eds. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1994. 59-75.
  • Alain de Lille. The Plaint of Nature. Trans. James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1980.
  • Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Trans. A.L. Peck. London: Harvard UP; William Heinemann Ltd., 1963.
  • Politics. Ed. H. Rackman. Cambridge; London: Harvard UP; William Heinemann Ltd., 1979.
  • Barker, Drucilla K. and Edith Kuiper, eds. Toward a Feminist Philosophy of Economics. London; New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Blamires, Alcuin. Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval TextsOxford: Clarendon P, 1992.
  • Bloch, Howard R. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love. Chicago; London: U of Chicago P, 1991.
  • Boose, Linda. “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213.
  • Burgwinkle, William. “For Love or Money: Uc de Saint Circ and the Rhetoric of Exchange.” Romanic Review84.4 (1993): 347-278.
  • Capellanus, Andreas. De amore et amoris remedio. Ed. and trans. P.G. Walsh. London: Duckworth, 1982.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton, 1987.
  • Chestre, Thomas. Sir Launfal. Ed. A.J. Bliss. London; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1960.
  • Cowell, Andrew. “The Fall of the Oral Economy: Writing Economics on the Dead Body.” Exemplaria 8.1 (1996): 143-167.
  • Ferber, Marianne A. and Julie A. Nelson, eds. Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics. Chicago; London: U of Chicago P, 1993.
  • Goux, Jean-Joseph. Symbolic Economies After Marx and Freud. Trans. Jennifer Curtiss Gage. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1990.
  • Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Trans. Frances Horgan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.
  • Harris, Jonathan Gil. “’This Is Not a Pipe: Water Supply, Incontinent Sources, and the Leaky Body Politic.”Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and Culture in Early Modern England . Eds. Richard Burt and John Michael Archer. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell UP, 1994. 203-228.
  • Jacquart, Danielle and Claude Thomasset. Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Trans. Matthew Adamson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.
  • Langland, William. Piers Plowman-C-text. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Exeter: U of Exeter P, 1994.
  • Lees, Clare A. “Gender and Exchange in Piers Plowman.” Class and Gender in Early English Literature. Eds. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1994. 112-130.
  • McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Murray, Alexander. Reason and Society in the Middle Ages . Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.
  • Parker, Patricia. Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender and Property. London; New York: Methuen, 1987.
  • Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993.
  • Smith, D. Vance. “’How fer schall al þys good?’ Sir Launfal and the Sumptuary World.” Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary. Minneapolis; London: U of Minnesota P, 2003. 154-187.
  • Spufford, Peter. Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge UP, 1998.
  • — Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed.”Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, et. al. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 123-142.
  • Vance, Eugene. Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages. Lincoln; London: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
  • Woodbridge, Linda. “Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33.3 (1991): 327-354.
  • Wright, Thomas, ed. The Latin Poems Commonly attributed to Walter Mapes. Thomas Wright Series 1.16. Johnson Reprint Corporation: 1968.
  • Yunck, John A. The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1963.