4. In the Shadow of Moyse’s Hall: Jews, the City, and Commerce in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament
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135  Chapter 4 In the Shadow of Moyse’s Hall Jews, the City, and Commerce in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament Scholars have often understood the fifteenth century as a time of commercial decline in England.1 The truly decisive developments in trade and exchange, so the received historical account goes, occurred centuries earlier,in the 1200s.2 Then,in the wake of famine,plague, and other fourteenth-century crises, the English population decreased and “the whole economy shrank.”3 The next century witnessed further contraction , as money declined in supply and usage.4 However, such statistics hardly mean late medieval England was a commercial backwater. As Christopher Dyer stresses, the initial thirteenth-century commercial “sea-change” in England was profound and lasting.5 It created a market mentality and economic practices that “seeped into every corner of society, involving smallholders as well as the better off, and extended into every region.”6 A transformation that thorough could hardly be undone in subsequent centuries. And, despite setbacks, “the market maintained a high level of activity” during the late medieval period; for example, credit proved crucial for persons of all ranks,from the peasant to the Crown.7 Demographic changes prompted the growth of a “mature urban system” that “was developing in sophistication and adjusting to new economic influences.”8 One such development was the commons’increased consumption of clothing,housing,goods,and services,a change that resulted partly from increases in real wages and spending power.9 Concurrent with rising consumerism was a burgeoning mercantile estate. 136 CHAPTER 4 English merchants, in fact, formed such an important—if shifting—group, that they served as the greatest nonagrarian employer on the island.10 Contemporary literary texts reveal a variety of responses to the rise of commerce. For example, the notably jingoistic and colonialist poem The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye (1437) celebrates trade. Stressing the key role of English goods and English waters in a trade network encompassing Flanders , Spain, Portugal, Brittany, Prussia, Venice, Florence, and other locales, the Libelle advocates an expansionist policy based on national control over the channel, adjacent waters, and nearby territories like Ireland.11 While the Libelle trains its gaze on international trade,two coming-of-age poems, “The Merchant and His Son” and the closely related “The Childe of Bristowe,” endorse mercantilism by focusing on an individual boy’s actions.12 In each text, commerce proves so appealing as to prompt a gentle-born youth to renounce his own corrupt estate and assume a life of “marchandise” in the commercial hub and port town of Bristol.13 Of course,not all texts embraced commerce. “The Merchant and His Son” and “The Childe of Bristowe” respond to the long-standing idea, fostered by estates satire and other texts, that merchants are greedy, dishonest, proud, and ungodly.14 That such a critical view persisted emerges in the ballad “London Lickpenny,” which recounts a penniless rural man’s “nightmare visit” to London.15 While walking through Westminster into the City,past stalls and shops along Cheapside, Candlewick, Eastcheape, and Cornhill, the speaker finds London awash in buying and selling. Cooks, grocers, mercers, drapers, butchers, fishmongers, innkeepers, and other sellers call on the man to purchase goods and services, but, as the ballad’s refrain iterates, “for lacke of money” he may observe but never participate in urban trade.16 “Sore a-hungred,”the starved man returns to Kent through a journey that seems at once an exile from material plenitude and an escape from grasping consumerism.17 Like “London Lickpenny,” the text analyzed in this chapter, the East Anglian drama the Croxton Play of the Sacrament (hereafter Croxton), makes clear the ongoing status of commerce as a problem during the fifteenth century .18 Croxton survives in single copy, Dublin, Trinity College, MS F.4.20, fols. 338–56. Though the copy was made during the sixteenth century and bound up in TCD MS F.4.20 in the seventeenth century, internal evidence indicates that the play was written as early as 1461.19 Croxton explicitly concerns an antisemitic religious topic: the libel that Jews desecrate the Eucharist . But its interest in commerce is clear.20 While in the analogues of the play, a poor Christian woman, often a maid, sells the host to a Jew, in Croxton, a wealthy Christian merchant named Aristorius procures and sells the wafer to a Jew called Jonathas.21 Trade also frames Croxton. The play opens with IN THE SHADOW OF MOYSE’S...



Subject Headings

  • Jews in literature.
  • Antisemitism in literature.
  • English literature -- Old English, ca. 450-1100 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Antisemitism -- England -- History.
  • Jews -- England -- History.
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