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Chaucer’s Gifts: Exchange and Value in the Canterbury Tales is available now in hardback, paperback, and e-book

An advantage of working at a relatively small university is that most of one’s daily interactions are interdisciplinary. Some years ago, I was having lunch at the campus cafeteria with David Crawford, an economic anthropologist. Taking a break from the usual faculty pastime of griping about the administration, David asked me what I was working on. I explained that I had been studying the Canterbury Tales through the lens of the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu. David knew Bourdieu’s work well; like Bourdieu, he had done fieldwork on North African Berber communities.

Bourdieu maintains that the motivation for human action – the ‘logic of practice’, as he calls it – is profit, and if individuals are not seeking material or financial profit, then they are seeking ‘symbolic profit’ in some other, non-economic ‘field’. As I told David, I was now trying to apply these theories to Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale. This should have been fairly easy. The Shipman’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s fabliaux, the comic, dirty stories that he is so famous for, and it is notorious for its brazen reduction of everything, including friendship, marriage and sex to money and profit. But I was frustrated, because the more I analysed the tale, the less the economics of it – the combination of symbolic and material capital – seemed to be working out according to Bourdieu’s predictions. David heard me out, and then casually said, ‘You should read Graeber.’

That remark led me to David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value, which then led me on an odyssey into gift theory, which tries to explain why people exchange things and, more precisely, what the logic of exchange is outside of the realm of commercial sale and purchase.[1] This field was founded by the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who in his 1925 ‘Essay on the Gift’ observes that every gift seems to contain within it an obligation to be returned with another gift. Bourdieu’s theories are to a large extent his own interpretation of Mauss’s work, and they are enormously influential in many fields, including literary studies. But Graeber’s book offered me an introduction to ‘neo-Maussian gift theory’. Contemporary anthropologists, most of them not well known in fields like mine, argue that non-commercial exchanges are intended not to generate profit – material or symbolic – but instead to generate relationships. The obligation to return a gift that Mauss first noted requires people to maintain social relations with each, and that is the purpose of gift exchange. An neo-Maussians sometimes put it: commodity exchange objectifies people; gift exchange personifies objects.[2] This gift theory seemed to offer a more comprehensive explanation of the actions of characters in texts like the Shipman’s Tale. Even in a context that this thoroughly, even comically, commercial, you find people treating their friends and lovers in ways that do not conform to the rules of market exchange, but instead follow a logic of mutual obligation as an end in itself.

At this point, I like to say that I am an anthropologist doing fieldwork in medieval English literature. (Interestingly, anthropologists do not like it when I say this – they seem to believe that interactions with actual, living people are essential to their profession.) In Chaucer’s Gifts I am seeking to respond to interpretations that claim to show that all exchanges are inherently profit-driven and thus essentially commercial, or that even those objects of exchange in the Canterbury Tales that seem to be gifts are in fact archaic commodities, because all exchange is inevitably commercial. Such analyses are often rooted in a presumed critique of commercial or capitalist social relations, but they have the effect of naturalising market relations by making all other forms of social relations impossible. Above all, therefore, this book intends to show that in different modes of exchange Chaucer dramatises the potential for different types of socially generated value than those presumed by market transactions. If we can learn to recognise them, then we can see that there are alternatives to commercialised social relations, in Chaucer’s world, and more importantly (since they are more doubted now than ever, and more threatened) in our own.

Robert Epstein is Professor of English at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He has published widely on Chaucer and late medieval English literature.


[1] David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

[2] See Christopher Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (London: Academic Press, 1982), p. 71; Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 134; Graeber, p. 36.