Everywhere we turn in modern Western society, we run into the influence of economics. Our worldview, and our very language, is colored by it. We worry that politicians can be bought and sold. We give credit to those who can afford a comfortable retirement. We debate the price of a free society as police clash with protestors. The language of economics touches our deepest beliefs regarding honor, morality, and truth says Simone Pinet, Romance Studies. That’s because eight centuries ago, economics appropriated the language of the literary epic hero, and we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since.
Pinet is currently working on a book tracing the roots of the language of economics and capitalism in medieval Spanish literature from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. “It was a time when the merchant economy arose and began to invade every aspect of life,” she says. She has followed the evolution of the Spanish economy over those centuries, as evidenced in literature of the time—from the earlier medieval economy, based on gift-giving and moral honor to one based on money and profit-making through the manipulation of words.
From Prez to Price
Pinet is especially interested in the way economics takes moral meaning from the language of the epic. Take the word prez, which is related to the English word price. In the early thirteenth-century epic poem Poema de Mio Cid, which celebrates the life of the Spanish hero El Cid, prez still has its early meaning of a quality halfway between honor and fame. A great warrior like El Cid gained prez through his deeds. In the poem, El Cid is unjustly accused of misdeeds and exiled from the kingdom of Castile-León by King Alfonso VI. But El Cid is such an outstanding warrior that he conquers many other lands. As his prez increases, he sends more and more fabulous gifts to Alfonso. “Gift-giving is a way of structuring relationships in a community,” says Pinet. “It creates an indebtedness that has to do with honor. El Cid manipulates the moral economy of the gift in order to gain a moral profit. At some point, Alfonso has to reciprocate the gifts, and eventually his final gift is to forgive El Cid and allow him to return to the kingdom.”
Another thirteenth-century Spanish epic fiction, the Libro de Alexandre, shows a different economy beginning to emerge, Pinet says. This work focuses on the exploits of Alexander the Great, who was also a military conqueror and hero. At one point, Alexander realizes that the enemy has a much greater army than he does, but his men don’t know it. “Alexander tells them that the enemy’s men are weak and sickly,” Pinet explains. “He says, ‘One of you is worth ten of them.’ He is using what I call speculation. He has strategies of valuation and devaluation that work in his favor. Because he is such a great warrior, his men honor him and give his words credit. He’s manipulating this idea of speculation with words and profiting from them.”
Money, Coins, and Gifts
By the fourteenth century in Spain, money permeates society, and morality is intertwined with it. “Money has become the measure of everything,” says Pinet. She looks at a work of literature from this time, the Libro de buen amor. “In this work, the poet sees no way out of money becoming the measure of everything in his world, even the spiritual work of the church. Nothing remains outside the purview of money, and therefore the poet asks, how can you have access to grace and salvation?”
In the twenty-first century, we still wonder whether we have access to truth that is not mediated by money, and whether we realize it or not, the moral rhetoric that has been embedded in the language of economics still sways us.
Pinet also studies coinage as it relates to this rise of economics in language and literature. “In the Poema de Mio Cid you begin to see coins and money, but the transaction that would be monetary is not there yet,” she says. “The gift is still the main way of creating relationships. In the Libro de Alexandre coins are mentioned, but they are small change, of little worth. In later works in the fourteenth century, you see how greater worth is assessed by coins of greater value.”
As part of her interest in coinage, Pinet has studied how early coins were forged in Medieval Spain, reflecting, for instance, on the fact that coins were made in a manner similar to communion wafers. In both instances, a flat sheet was made, and then circular pieces were cut from the sheet and pressed with inscriptions. The similarities lead her to ponder the consequences. “The wafer is a wafer,” she says, “but it’s also something else, something greater: it’s the body of Christ. And the coins are made of silver, but they have the image of the king, so they are a sign of some higher authority. From that, you have associations created—that money and God are similar to each other.”
The Language of Epic and Today’s Language of Economics
The research in which Pinet is engaged has relevance for today, Pinet says, because the intertwined processes of language, economy, and moral value are not just relevant to the Middle Ages. In the twenty-first century, we still wonder whether we have access to truth that is not mediated by money, and whether we realize it or not, the moral rhetoric that has been embedded in the language of economics still sways us.
“If you look at how companies market retirement, for example, you can see how they use the language of epic,” Pinet explains. “They say, ‘You’ll be able to experience great adventure, go places you couldn’t go before, do things you’ve never done, because now you will have accumulated capital.’ It’s the opposite of the Middle Ages. Back then adventure brought fame, moral honor, and credit to the hero and his community. Now credit, and the honor that comes with it is what gives you adventure. This honor that is often associated with the language of capital was stolen from works of fiction, from a whole system of honor that had nothing to do with money or capital.”