Monday, 10 June 2013


We all live in fear of global warming (even those who don’t believe in it) and we are all concerned by ideas of sustainability and protection of the environment.  Many of these discussions centre on the notion of what is enough?  How do we define enough?

The concept of what is ‘enough’ or what is ‘sufficient’ is an extremely interesting one.  It isn’t an absolute.  After all, we all seem implicitly to acknowledge that what is ‘enough’ for a family in the slums in Mumbai would not be ‘enough’ for a family in Oxford – and most of us manage to live comfortably with such an assumption.

But we do worry about what is ‘enough’ and actually those worries seem to reach a peak of times of greatest affluence.  The thirteenth century is particularly interesting in this respect.  It’s widely perceived as an era of prosperity characterised by growing towns, increasingly complex and successful commercial economies and dramatic population increases.

But this very prosperity promoted anxiety about the sustainability of such a boom (rightly so as it turned out with famine and plague in the fourteenth century).  People talked about sufficiency in contrast to the material excess which they perceived around them.  Rapid growth made moralists uneasy and provoked worries about excess and greed which were seen not only as morally problematic, but as endangering the very fabric of these developments.

First, there was a dramatic rise in concern about the sin of avarice or greed as one of the seven deadly sins.  The historian Lester Little has demonstrated that, whereas, prior to the economic boom of the thirteenth century, the prime theme of sermons was pride, prosperity provoked a shift to avarice as the most dangerous sin.  Moral handbooks disseminated a similar message, ironically to those who could afford such texts – often the upper nobility.  Here is the personification of avarice, opposed to the allegorical figure of ‘misericorde’ – pity or charity – thus emphasising the selfishness of avarice.

Frere Laurent, 
Somme le Roy, British Library MS Add. 54180, fol. 122v
(French, end of 13th century). 

Second, anxiety about the excess of commercialisation stimulated economic thought about sufficiency and excess, and, in particular, worries about just price and usury.  This anxiety about excessive pricing reached a variety of audiences, with preachers again discussing the theme, popular oral stories such as the fabliaux showing those who tried to charge too much getting their come-uppance, and, most particularly, legislation, both canon law and secular law,  attempting to regulate prices.  Usury was also the subject both of sermons, and of legislation which meant that ‘excess’ could be prosecuted.  Lending at interest was a necessary adjunct of commercialisation, but, to many, it seemed to encapsulate economic excess, primarily because usurers seemed to be getting money without having to work for it.  In Dante’s Inferno from the 1300s, usurers are depicted obliged to sit for eternity on burning sands, whipped by savage winds.

Third, the rapidity of thirteenth-century expansion, the increasing density of population in towns, and the growing cultivation of the countryside, provoked anxiety about demographic saturation.  This was discussed primarily in a university context by figures such as William of Auvergne, but Peter Biller has convincingly demonstrated that such concerns shaped political discourse, and that concern about soil exhaustion was present amongst agricultural labourers – who, after all, were only too aware of the fragility of agricultural expansion. 

In all these discussions, the focus was upon moderation, a very Aristotelian concept.  Thirteenth-century men and women were concerned about excess in a moral, economic and demographic sense, because it was not moderate.  Moderation was the benchmark of virtue.  In Jehan de Meung’s Roman de la Rose, a late thirteenth-century popular allegorical text, he writes typically:

Ce sont deus extremités
Richeces et mendacités
Le moien a non souffisance,
La gist le vertu abondance (RR, 11273-76)

These are the two extremities: wealth and begging.  The mean is called sufficiency – therein lies the virtue of abundance.

The point is that it’s when we so clearly have too much that we start to worry about what is ‘enough’.  And yet it’s also at such moments we somehow manage to convince ourselves that we really do need all these things. 

If you’re interested in reading more, see Little, L.K., “Pride Goes before Avarice: Social Change and the Vices in Latin Christendom,”  American Historical Review, 76 (1971), pp. 16-49 and Biller, P., The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (OUP, Oxford, 2000).

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