Thomas Piketty’s analysis of the way that neoliberal economists use false meritocracy to justify growing economic inequality invites historians to reconsider the representation of workers in the economic thought and administrative politics of preindustrial Western Europe. This renewed focus on those termed mercenarii in theological, economic, and legal texts, namely salaried workers, shows that since the thirteenth century the literate elites of Christian Europe have interpreted manual labor as the sign of a competence that was useful but also socially and politically devalorizing. The ancient Roman conception of wages as auctoramentum servitutis, or evidence of servitude, reemerges at the end of Middle Ages in the guise of a complex theological, legal, and governmental discourse about the intellectual incompetence and necessary political marginality of salaried workers as manual laborers. At the dawn of the early modern era, the representation of salaried labor as a social condition corresponding to a state of servitude and lack of intellect characterizes both literary works and the economic rationality embodied by the first “scientific” economists.
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