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  • Gerard de Malynes and Edward Misselden: The Learned Library of the Seventeenth-Century Merchant
  • Andrea Finkelstein (bio)

The stereotypical view of the seventeenth-century merchant is likely that of Thomas Mun’s England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, posthumously published in 1664 but completed decades earlier. 1 The requisite “excellent qualities” enumerated by Mun grudgingly allowed the usefulness of an elementary knowledge of Latin, “although there be no necessity that such a Merchant should be a great Scholar” (ET 3). A knowledge of modern tongues and customs, of weights and measures, of bookkeeping and penmanship figured much more prominently in an educational program in which learning was subordinated to the art of making the best deal. Of such a program Gradgrind himself might be proud, but how accurate a portrait of his contemporaries and predecessors has Mun painted? This essay uses a neglected source—the economic literature of the period—along with wills and inventories to flesh out the mental library of the seventeenth-century merchant, which was more learned than we may have imagined.

There was a time when Mun’s characterization was not only taken as the norm for the merchant proper but extended by analogy to cover the entire “Middle Class.” That entity was ostensibly shaped by what Joseph Schumpeter called “the particular mental habits generated by the work in the business office,” or what R. H. Tawney called the “spirit of modern business” or Max Weber the “Capitalist Geist.” 2 A more nuanced but curiously homogenous view appeared in Louis B. Wright’s classic Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935). While admitting that the lines between the [End Page 1] three classes (aristocratic, middle, and peasant) were porous and that the learned professionals in the upper rank shared many values with the middle, Wright saw a central group composed of “merchants, tradesfolk, and skilled craftsmen” whose “thoughts and interests centered in business profits” and formed a distinct mentality rooted in the virtues of “thrift,” “sturdy independence,” “honesty,” and ambition for both economic and self-improvement. 3 He shows us a class enjoying classic literature as much as sensational plays, teaching itself ancient as well as modern languages, and endowing schools. 4 But there is still a deep utilitarian undercurrent in the constant emphasis on the skills apprentices need to become successful merchants. 5 And there is an assumption that all subgroups within this “Middle Class” had uniform tastes: the “class” model colors the reading of the evidence.

This schema has been challenged of late by an alternative revolving around the phrase “middling sort”—a phrase that at least has the advantage of being of the period, if not in common usage in a sociological sense until the 1620s. 6 While free of the ideological overtones of “Middle Class,” the phrase “middling sort” also tends to homogenize the great variety of lives encompassed therein. “Economically more fragmented that the poor or the landed elite,” as Jonathan Barry has noted, this was a disparate group—politically, economically, and religiously—with little in common except “the need to work for their income using skill and engaging in a trade or profession, rather than relying on rentier income or labouring in another’s employment.” 7

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, merchant was a term normally applied only to the import-export trader. Although not all merchants rose to the level of financial oligarches (even in the heyday of the joint stock companies), as a group they were the commercial elite, the closest thing the age offered to a “Capitalist.” Were they, then, possessed of a “Middle Class” Weltanschauung, or were they as various as their neighbors among the “middling sort”?

Among the records commonly used to reconstruct the lives and values of the “middling sort” are the wills and death-inventories they left behind. With their assorted bequests and lists of household furnishings, these provide valuable clues to family relationships and standards of living. They also impress upon us how literate this society was, at all but the lowest levels. That the local gentry, physician, lawyer, or clerk had books to bequeath is not surprising. But despite their relative expense, William Edwards of Pakenham left his books to...

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