But must I needs want solidness, because
By metaphors I speak?John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)
The ‘solidness’ of what John Bunyan called ‘types, shadows and metaphors’ is too rarely contemplated by scholars attempting to understand the history of economic life. This is especially true of historians studying the early modern period, a time when everyone, irrespective of status or locale, was surrounded by moralised representations of work, markets, wealth, and other worldly affairs. These images and ideas circulated in a variety of forms, including daily conversation, written correspondence, cheap printed works, religious instruction, state proclamation, or any number of equally widespread ‘texts’. But whatever their shape, they framed the way in which men and women made sense of their world and thus structured much social interaction. So, if we hope to understand how most people, especially ‘the poorer sort’, dealt with the hard material realities of the early modern economy, we must explore the culture which gave these realities meaning. We need, in other words, a history of the material impact of immaterial ‘parables’ and ‘metaphors’.
Bunyan's best-selling allegorical narrative, The Pilgrim's Progress, provides an apt starting point as it exemplifies the degree to which later Stuart culture was suffused with direct and indirect commentary on social and economic relations. The text, which ran through dozens of editions during this period, was peopled with ungodly characters such as the hypocrite Talkative, who gladly defrauded his neighbours but refused to help widows and orphans, and Mr Money-love, who studiously practised ‘the art of getting, either by violence, cozenage, flattery, lying or putting on a guise of religion’.