The “Common”

In a portion of Mandeville’s description of India, he goes to great lengths to discuss the “common” among some in Indian society. He writes that, among other things, “all the crops are held in common…nothing is locked away and each man is as rich as another” (79). Given Mandeville’s clear concern with the material culture / “goods” from the places

he visits, how might his idea of common ownership be problematic? More generally, what effect might descriptions of alternate political / societal systems have on a Medieval reader? Do you think Mandeville approves of such a system?

7 thoughts on “The “Common”

  1. This common life may seem problematic to some of the people that include his readership, because the majority of his visits include that of the extravagant, including gems, gold, and an abundance of fine foods etc. But he did add that he saw a sort of virtue in this way of living, which to me seemed to be a way of him respecting their simple way of living. In this book of extravagant living, especially in the final chapters, it seems that Mandeville is somewhat relieved to see a people that aren’t entirely concerned with the material wealth of the world, but rather the wealth of community and the beauty that comes with that. It could appear especially odd to him because of all of the power hungry, and ruthless tyrants he encounters, but like I said he seems to understand it on a spiritual level, because these are the folk that understand life is a short time and concerning themselves with worldly goods seems almost a sin to them. They find beauty in the people and community they are engrossed in, rather than the material wealth and individual selfish gains of the others Mandeville encounters.

  2. Mandeville’s extensive description of the “common” intrigued me, so I am very interested to see other readers’ responses to this, as well. As a unique characteristic in comparison to Mandeville’s other experiences, it proves to be a true portrayal of their culture, differentiating them from others. From Mandeville’s perspective, it possibly could seem problematic because it diminishes an inherit form of hierarchy. Even when other forms of ruling or government, like kings or presidents, serve to shape the social classes, wealth tends to still always play a role. When every person of a community considers one another equal though, any forms of wealth hierarchies become invalid. This alternative political or societal system could force a medieval reader to reconsider any hierarchical systems and acknowledge the immorality and inequality of it all.

  3. I agree with James, it is apparent that Mandeville finds these people to be simple in their lives, but at the same time he almost seems grateful to find people who are wholly unselfish and freely give and share all that they have with one another. This would have been a marked difference from England where the feudal caste system would have still been around. Much like today, the elite upper class would have all their needs filled, and those below would have to work and fight for whatever was left. This system would have been likely rejected by those in power at the top in England and other European countries, while it might have been a thing to look towards for those on the bottom. While I don’t think that Mandeville was out to be a force for change in the medieval caste system, the fact that he has suggested this and presented it in a positive way, it a bit telling.

  4. Lamuri, the land described on pages 78 and 79, strikes a balance between abject sensationalism and extreme piety that Mandeville and his readers were no doubt keenly interested in. Their classless, religious utopia shares land, crops, wealth, and spouses; Mandeville seems to recognize a utility and a reverence in this “common” practice, but any positive effects of this system might be undermined by their “one wicked habit: they eat human flesh more enthusiastically than anything else” (79). Compared to medieval England’s feudal system—as other have pointed out—the Lamurians’ way of life may have been an attractive alternative to Mandeville. Although he values the familiar hierarchies and displays of wealth that he encounters elsewhere in South Asia, the land of Lamuri provides a different perspective on economy and politics. Mandeville doesn’t condemn them for holding things in “common”, suggesting perhaps (as Paige points out) that it’s intended to draw readers’ attention to the inequality of the feudal system. However, Mandeville is equally objective in his later descriptions of lavish Indian kingdoms, indicating that government structure is less reflective of morality than religious belief.

  5. In a way, the answer to your question can go either way. Throughout the text, Mandeville calls a lot of things “common”. The word and it’s meaning (as denoted here) is distributed almost evenly throughout. As many before pointed out, it seems to be an objective way to classify and describe India, it’s practices, and the people. He seems to have some reverence towards them because of their simplicity and would see them as the next alternative to England, if necessary.

    However, pertaining to the focus you zero in on here, I actually had a different reaction to Mandeville’s focus on the “common”. Like Kelsey pointed out, he describes a Utopic Lamuri, but undermines their significance because they are cannibals. Throughout the language in this portion (as evidenced even in the entire text), Mandeville always goes back and pinpoints a negative in the peoples while also bringing up England as a mirror with it’s more civilized and sophisticated practices.

    I would also like to note, that in the translation I’m reading (an online version) the word “Common” does not appear too much when describing India. This could be a translation difference but nonetheless, it’s difficult truly know what Mandeville’s intentions were when describing India in this way.

  6. I think everyone has brought in the key juxtaposition at work in this passage, that of a lack of “property rights” and an even economic distribution of wealth versus stark cannibalism. It seems to suggest that although the Lamuri are somewhat more enlightened or better off because of their lack of strict property rights and wealth lines, this view on society is somehow tied with the consumption of human flesh. It is as if the social order of England by contrast would discourage or prevent this from happening, as if the hierarchical and property driven English view fostered a revenance for the human body. This may be more obvious in the sharing of wives, where the lack of “property” ethics in the society leads to one in the marriages, where the wife is not bound by an ownership prinicple of the husband. In conclusion, perhaps this radically different structuring of society is dangerous for John, it would necessarily shift the moral with the ethical.

  7. Mandeville seems to approve of the Lamuri’s practice of sharing things in common. They justify their several of their habits, like going without clothes and sharing spouses, by citing the Bible. This gives them authority, as Mandeville is quite clearly concerned with the religious affiliations of the people he encounters. Because they acknowledge God and his laws, the Lamuris are more palatable than they would be without religion. Even their tendency to eat human flesh is not demonized; Mandeville simply calls it a “wicked habit” and moves on (79). All of the preceding information about the Lamuris is framed fairly positively, so this statement establishes them as a complex people, not fully good but not fully bad either.

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