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  • A Credible Debt: Dekker as Host to Chaucer’s Franklin
  • Natalie Hanna (bio)

The economy of early modern England relied on credit more so than cash, so to get ahead, and not to fall behind, a person had to be deemed creditworthy. And creditworthiness was determined as much through social as financial standing: through interpersonal relationships and reputation, but also, as Laura Kolb has shown, the ability to perform the part of someone in whom one could afford to invest one’s trust.1 This credit economy gave rise to increasing numbers of people in debt and, consequently, poverty. In response to a market economy that threatened, as Huey-ling Lee writes, “to rip apart the social fabric that binds society together,” writers and moralists looked back to the Middle Ages as a time of idealized, generous hospitality where debts were social and moral rather than financial obligations.2 In towns and among the guilds, the feudal practice of open hospitality among country lords was replicated through breakfasts, dinners, and ceremonial feasts. But in reality this urban hospitality did not exist in opposition to pecuniary credit culture. To be a good host was ultimately another means of demonstrating one’s creditworthiness—and even indebt others to that generosity, which led to new forms of social separation among the growing middle classes.3

One person who fell afoul of the pressures of debt was the pamphleteer and playwright Thomas Dekker. Concerns over credit and debt permeate Dekker’s plays and prose, much as they did his personal life. Finding himself repeatedly in debt, he wrote fervently to make money. And when doing so, he drew upon the works of Geoffrey Chaucer time and again for creative insight. One notable instance occurred in 1613, when, while languishing as a debtor in King’s Bench Prison, he reached for The Franklin’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales as an inspiration and intertext [End Page 380] for his pamphlet about the villainies of London’s economic world, A Strange Horse-Race.4 In the pamphlet, Dekker quotes twelve lines from The Franklin’s Tale to illustrate hospitality, and, drawing on the Franklin’s concerns with binding oaths, Dekker satirizes the relationship between writing, credit, and debt through a feast of paper, “Bondes,” “Bils,” and “Statutes” offered up by dishonest debtors at a banquet.5 This banquet reflects an earlier episode depicting allegorical races between virtues and vices, including Hospitality and Niggardliness. Both the race and the meal speak to A Strange Horse-Race’s overarching concern with debt and its generous forgiveness by the hospitable.

The vices of a mercenary and mercantile London are central also to city comedy. At a time when all the world was increasingly a stage for money-making, city comedy emerged from London’s commercial theatres, dramatizing and interrogating these concerns about credit, exchange, and the performance of trustworthiness within the metropolis.6 One of the texts that pioneered this mode was Dekker’s first solo-authored play, The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), which follows the rise of medieval shoemaker-turned-mayor Simon Eyre. And I’d like to propose in this article that Dekker drew on Chaucer’s Franklin for material about credit and debt for The Shoemaker’s Holiday, just as he would later in A Strange Horse-Race. More specifically I argue that Dekker’s indebtedness to Chaucer’s Franklin and his Tale is both more profound and more sustained than has hitherto been realized: Chaucer was a model for Dekker, not just as writer, but also as a debtor. While the medieval poet’s influence on the Renaissance playwright’s works has been recognized in prior scholarship, I show that there are multiple unacknowledged points of connection between Chaucer’s Franklin and Dekker’s most developed theatrical engagement with questions of debt and generosity, performance and credulity. These borrowings from the Franklin illuminate the systems of interchange that generated literary and financial indebtedness in Renaissance England.

Dekker’s Indebtedness to Chaucer

As Chi-fang Sophia Li has argued, Chaucer was Dekker’s “greatest literary source,” showing indebtedness to Chaucerian source material throughout his career.7 When Dekker first appears in Phillip Henslowe’s books...