A Great, Ignored Transformation?

A page from La Vie de Saint Denys, an illuminated manuscript presented by Gilles de Pontoise, abbot of Saint-Denis, to King Philippe V in 1317. ‘Below large-scale representations of the saint’s preaching, trials, tortures, and death,’ Eamon Duffy writes, are ‘vivid vignettes of life along the Seine’: ‘diminutive townspeople shop or borrow from moneylenders, physicians inspect flasks of their patients’ urine, animals are driven to slaughter, millers stagger under sacks of corn, workmen trundle wheelbarrows, and boatmen row goods and passengers up and down the river.’
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
A page from La Vie de Saint Denys, an illuminated manuscript presented by Gilles de Pontoise, abbot of Saint-Denis, to King Philippe V in 1317. ‘Below large-scale representations of the saint’s preaching, trials, tortures, and death,’ Eamon Duffy writes, are ‘vivid vignettes of life along the Seine’: ‘diminutive townspeople shop or borrow from moneylenders, physicians inspect flasks of their patients’ urine, animals are driven to slaughter, millers stagger under sacks of corn, workmen trundle wheelbarrows, and boatmen row goods and passengers up and down the river.’

Joel Kaye’s first book, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange, and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (1998), was a revised version of his doctoral dissertation. Academic theses can make for dreary reading, but Kaye’s advanced a bold, sweeping, and closely argued theory, designed to explain a major shift in the thought of the later Middle Ages. In the dialectically structured thought-world of the late-thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century universities (Latin scholae or schools, hence the adjective “scholastic”), the understanding of nature and the practice of natural science underwent profound change. A universe governed by hierarchically fixed and absolute values, Kaye argued, gave way to one characterized by change and motion. Observation and measurement displaced abstract speculation as the ways to understand nature, and that shift from deduction to quantification laid the foundations for a modern understanding of science.

That much was conventional enough. Kaye’s originality lay in his claim that the cause of this radical shift in thinking about nature was to be found in thought-patterns derived from the rapidly changing world of economics and transferred to scientific inquiry. Late medieval economic thinking was dominated by Aristotle’s discussion of value in the fifth book of his Nichomachean Ethics, where money features as the medium that makes possible comparison, measurement, and exchange between apparently unrelated things: How many shoes are equal to a house? What is the right proportion between goods and the labor that produces them?

Aristotle’s intellectual preeminence, newly restored to Europe from Arab sources, was of course foundational for the scholastic intellectual enterprise. But the rediscovery of Aristotle was not the only impetus to new thinking. In the booming mercantile economies of the thirteenth-century cities, and with the spread of the use of money, concepts rooted in the realities of the market were rapidly evolving.

Money itself was increasingly…


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