Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Clerk Ther Was of Oxenford...

And, of course, the most well-known text about medieval literacy, scholarship, and universities:

Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

A CLERK ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.

Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy,
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

How do you read this passage differently if you focus on the fact that the Oxford clerk's "twenty books, clad in blak or reed" piled by his bed represent as large a share of society's wealth then as $300,000 would represent today?

Emaciated and underfed, yes. Ill-dressed, yes. Sponging off his friends, yes. But this is not a person who is poor in the sense of being without resources. He just uses his resources in peculiar ways.

What is the twenty-first century equivalent?

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