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Money and Markets in Camelot

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Detail of Edyrn with His Lady and Dwarf Journey to Arthur’s Court, 1867, by Gustave Doré. (Public Domain/Wikimedia) Charles Williams’s poem Taliessin Through Logres has a worthwhile lesson for readers.

The passages of poetry presented below are taken from Taliessin Through Logres. It’s a long narrative poem set in King Arthur’s Camelot and written by the brilliant but little-known Charles Williams, an English writer of the last century who derives what small portion of fame he still has from his friendship with C. S. Lewis.

Admittedly, a long and often impenetrable work of modernist Arthurian poetry is not a place where most would look for insights into the nature of money and the market, but I have still yet to come across a more profound passage of writing about the moral dimensions of economic activity than the few stanzas from Taliessin Through Logres that are quoted below.

Since these passages are taken from the middle of the poem, a short introduction is necessary. The titular figure, Taliessin, is the bard or minstrel at Camelot. With his lyre in hand, he sings songs and tells stories for the entertainment and edification of the court. The narrative is presented to the reader through his eyes. In the scene below, Taliessin and the king’s counsellors are gathered together to discuss the merits and drawbacks of minting a coined currency to replace the pre-existing feudal barter economy of Camelot. Kay, King Arthur’s steward, speaks first, and makes the case for the new Royal mint enthusiastically.

They laid the coins before the council.

Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:

‘Good; these cover the years and the miles

and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.

Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,

streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space

tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.

The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,

and events move now in a smoother control

than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.

Money is the medium of exchange.’

Money, as Kay

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