Laura Caroline Stevenson
Praise and Paradox
The inspiration behind popular literature on merchants, clothiers and craftsmen, then, was not economic growth that generated a large middle class, but economic change that called older social assumptions into question. In one sense, change brought opportunity, if one could only take it—and the Winchcombes, Greshams and Whites who managed to bend economic trends to their own well-being gained the admiration of men and boys who came to towns in hopes of finding a prosperous alternative to rural poverty, even as they aroused the jealousy of other men in trade whose gilds and companies they dominated. If great merchants and clothiers aroused mixed feelings in the small, they aroused the hostility of the gentry, who had been brought up to think that manipulation of the economy was demeaning and that trade kept a man from joining the social elite, no matter how rich he might be. Thus, the success of the men who profited from changing economic conditions was upsetting in a society whose social hierarchy and industrial organizations were both founded in increasingly anachronistic medieval assumptions. The understandable temptation to admire business success and still cling to old values, thus reaching a psychological compromise between new and old, forced men to deny the social change that inevitably followed economic development and population growth. This was the problem the popular authors unwittingly confronted; they found themselves running into clashes between theory and reality time after time as their fiction explored economic and social ideas they could not quite articulate.
Why, if popular literature on merchants and craftsmen raised more problems than it solved, did Elizabethan authors try to write it at all? The easiest answer is simply that it sold well and was thus profitable to write. There was a place in Elizabethan culture for literature that appealed to civic traditions: as the religious and civic festivals that had been part of the yearly routine of medieval cities were suppressed in Elizabeth's reign, other, more-secular pageants replaced them. In London, for example, the Lord Mayor's Show, with its allegorical praise of monarch and city and its re-enactments of great episodes in London history, became the one great civic pageant of the year; after Elizabeth's death, when the popular literature about men of trade went out of date, some of its principal authors—Munday, Dekker and Heywood—wrote civic pageants that kept up the praise of London's great citizens.
There was more to the popular literature about merchants, clothiers, and craftsmen than there was to the civic pageants, however, and their substance accounts both for their popularity and for their demise. In addition to praising civic traditions, these works articulated men's desires to become prosperous in an age in which two-thirds of the population was poor. They expressed admiration for men who controlled economic developments that baffled their neighbours. Finally, they attacked (however obliquely) the problem of the inter-relationship of money and status; and this was a central problem that confronted all Elizabethans in a thousand daily episodes, a problem for which they needed some structure that organized their ideas. The popular authors failed to provide that structure; as the troubles they repeatedly encountered indicate, their social assumptions could not be stretched far enough to postulate the necessity of forming a new scheme of values on which social thinking should he based. But they came very close to seeing what was needed, and their conclusions, it seems, aroused the interest of a large and sympathetic audience.