Category Archives: Women

The Working Women of Piers Plowman

As I take another read through William Langland’s Piers Plowman, one particular passage caught my attention in a new way: the author’s portrait of impoverished women as the ‘deserving poor’ in Passus IX of the C-text. I have translated lines 70 to 87 below, doing my best to preserve both the sense and the style of Langland’s original:

Nobody knows, I believe, who is neediest of all
Except for the dearth of those who dwell near, who deserve our attention,
As penalized prisoners and the impoverished in slums,
Burdened with babies and bills of debt;
What they save from spinning, they spend on rent,
On milk and on meals, to make what they can
To feed their families who are faint from hunger.

And they likewise suffer from lack,
And woe in wintertime and waking up in the nights
To rise in their rooms and rock the cradle,
Both to card and to comb, to clean and to mend,
To scrape and to scrub, to scratch out a living,
It is heartbreaking to hear and hard to discuss
The woe of these women who wait in the slums,
And of their perennial peers with palpable sorrow,
Both starving and unsatisfied, to stay afloat.
Embarrassed to beg and busy concealing
At noon and at night what they need to get by.

[Woet no man, as Y wene, who is worthy to haue
Ac that most neden are oure neyhebores, and we nyme gode hede,
Ac prisones in puttes and pore folk in cotes,
Charged with childrene and chief lordes rent;
That they with spynnyng may spare, spenen hit on hous-huyre,
Both in mylke and in mele, to make with papelotes
To aglotye with here gurles that greden aftur fode.

And hemsulue also soffre muche hunger
And wo in wynter-tymes and wakynge on nyhtes
To rise to the reule to rokke the cradel,
Both to carde and to kembe, to cloute and to wasche,

To rybbe and to rele, rusches to pylie,
That reuthe is to rede or in ryme shewe
The wo of this wommen that wonyeth in cotes
And of monye other men that moche wo soffren,
Bothe afyngred and afurste, to turne the fayre outard
And ben abasched for to begge and wollen nat be aknowe
What hem nedeth at here neyhebores at noon and at eue.]

Even in translation, it is easy to detect the incredible pathos of Langland’s description of this group of women that is rarely discussed in such early verse. Doubly marginalized by their gender and their class, women coping with abject poverty are seldom considered worthy subjects of discussion for Middle English poetry. As Geoffrey A. Shepherd has noted, there is no earlier example of poetry that “conveys the felt and inner bitterness of poverty” (172).

Derek Pearsall’s explanation of the above passage in his annotated edition of the C-Text adds another layer to the destitution of these women, saying that the lines “describe the poverty of women, whether widows or otherwise left single to bring up a family by themselves” (l. 73-83 n.). Though the desperation of these women suggests that they may not have partners to share in the task of raising children, this is not necessarily the case. There is no need to assume that women who are engaged in a daily struggle for survival, in Langland’s time as now, would be in a significantly better position if they had husbands. The notion of a division between bread-winning and domestic roles within the family is more salient in a post-industrial world, especially within an economic group that cannot afford to observe normative ideas of social behaviour.

Whether or not this passage indeed describes the plight of single mothers or that of impoverished mothers in general, it is remarkable in that it passes a ‘Bechdel test’ of sorts, which is rare in Piers Plowman. The Bechdel test is a yardstick from feminist film criticism named for the author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which measures whether a film has at least two named female characters, and they have a conversation about something other than a man. The above passage from Passus IX does not pass the test as it is thus articulated – the women described have neither names nor voices. It does, however, distinguish itself in a similar sense. Though it involves the male narrator speaking about unnamed women, it involves a sustained passage that has nothing to do with men. This is the reason, I think, that Pearsall and others have identified these women as single mothers – it is so unusual to have such a passage in Langland’s work that many have read the absence of these women’s husbands in the text as a negative presence. If we turn away from the spectral presence of men in this passage and instead attend to Langland’s portrayal of women, we can see a new respect and heroism for women who may be wives, and thus otherwise given little consideration in fourteenth-century society.

It is often rather difficult to conduct a sustained reading of women in Piers Plowman, as most instances of gender contrast surround allegorical figures like Lady Meed and Holy Church. Though there is undoubtedly food for thought in those passages, they are less likely to give us insight into the lived experiences of women in the fourteenth century. This does not mean, however, that Piers Plowman does not lend itself to a textured exploration of women and gender in literary representation and reality. By looking at Langland’s affective response to the abject social conditions around him, we can begin to uncover greater complexity in his portrayal of women.

Works Cited

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008.

Shepherd, Geoffrey. “Poverty in Piers Plowman.” Social Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton. Ed. T.h. Aston, et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. 169-190.

 

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Filed under Alliterative Revival, Poetry, Translation, Women

Business or Busyness?: The Life of St. Cecelia in Chaucer and Bokenham

In her discussion of Osbern Bokenham’s The Legend of Holy Women as part of the corpus of grossly undervalued fifteenth-century literature, Sheila Delany adds “study in fifteenth-century Chaucer reception” (4) to its list of theological, aesthetic, and historical values. As the “first all-female legendary in English” (Delany 4), the text owes a debt to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and in the case of his treatment of St. Cecelia, The Second Nun’s Tale. Though Bokenham is explicit about his use of Jacobus of Voragine’s The Golden Legend as a source, and indeed his finished product shares much with Voragine’s text, it is clear that Bokenham was “an attentive reader of Chaucer” (25). Such a famous English predecessor could not be ignored when writing another version of the same saint’s life. The major differences between the two versions are thus brought into sharp relief, as Bokenham and his audience would have been keenly aware of any deviations the later translator of Voragine rejected or retained. The most significant of these is the two texts’ treatment of economic practices, as found in Bokenham’s exchange economy and Chaucer’s “bisynesse” (SNT 5).

As with so many elements of The Golden Legend, certain features of the legend of St. Cecelia might cause theological discomfort for its readers. In particular, Cecelia’s lecture to the emperor’s men about the mercantile exchange of her worldly life for an eternal one might strike some as contrary to Christian doctrine of God’s unconditional generosity, as Delany points out. While Chaucer removes this portion entirely, Bokenham amplifies the scene, and gives it plenty of space and monetary language such as where “Voragine is considerably terser” (Delany 100). Bokenham’s Cecilia compares this life and the next to a “penny” and a “shilling” (Bokenham 152), which Delany admits may “have been theologically suspect, for the commercial metaphor is at odds with one of the most basic Christian doctrines, the definition of grace as an absolutely free and unmerited gift of God” (Delany 100). She offers as a possible explanation for Chaucer’s omission of the speech that “such attention to finances struck some readers as repulsively materialistic” (100), but his frank treatment of such matters elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales and his other works makes this squeamishness seem unlikely. Rather than an attempt to avoid repulsing his readers, especially from a writer who elsewhere in The Summoner’s Tale includes a discussion of the best way to divide a fart between 12 friars, Chaucer’s differing treatment of the mercantile theme of the legend of St. Cecelia simply takes a different form in his prologue.

Though the omission of economic language in this section of Chaucer’s text is balanced out, or exchanged, in his prologue by a lengthy discussion of “bisynesse” (SNT 5). Though Voragine briefly mentions that Cecelia is “busy” (Voragine) in his prologue, Bokenham omits busyness entirely, which seems deliberate considering the amount of space devoted to it by Chaucer. The narrator of Chaucer’s prologue, presumably the Second Nun, starts out by warning her listeners that they must do everything they can to mindfully engage in busyness, lest the Fiend exchange their industry for idleness (SNT 7). Chaucer retains the concept of having to exchange something for one’s entry into Heaven, but figures the tokens of exchange more literally as “good werkynge” (116) or even the narrator’s “translacioun” (25) of Cecelia’s legend. Chaucer’s text’s treatment of industry and exchange ensure that this element is included in his text, but in a more exegetical manner that illuminates what Cecelia means when she uses these terms

Since Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale was a well known text in Bokenham’s era, he must have had a deliberate reason for rejecting the changes Chaucer made to the tale and indeed accentuating the parts of Voragine’s text that Chaucer rejected. Delany posits that this move is in support of the Augustinian doctrine that he was committed to by holy orders, as Augustine writes of salvation that “this marvelous exchange was made, these divine transactions accomplished” (qtd. in Delany 102). In addition to these reasons, however, I argue that Bokenham had further motivation for allowing St. Cecelia to make this speech instead of pushing it to a more straightforward prologue. Bokenham was politically controversial in his time because in an era when any preaching was expressly forbidden to women, he “gave voice to his female saints” (Bokenham 90) in a variety of contexts, preacherly and otherwise. This iteration of the legend gives the most verbal agency to Cecelia, allowing her to expound on a controversial doctrinal point in a controversial manner, and move beyond the safe and easy recitation of received wisdom. Though Voragine, Chaucer, and Bokenham all deal with the theme of spiritual economy in their retellings of the legend of St. Cecelia, Bokenham uses the occasion of his translation to be politically subversive and take a doctrinal stand on women’s preaching.

Bokenham, Osbern. A Legend of Holy Women. Trans. Sheila Delany. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1992. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987. 262-9.

Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend: Selections. Trans. Christopher Stace. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

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Translating “The Wife’s Lament”

I made this translation of “The Wife’s Lament” for a class in Translating Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was meant to be a poetic translation, so I took the musical and lamenting nature of the poem and turned it into a ballad.

“The Wife’s Lament” is one of the most enigmatic poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, a body of literature that is never transparent at the best of times. Each critic that approaches the poem highlights the disputation about its meaning, and Murray McGillivray admits that “because the number of actors in this sad drama is unknown … and because the current situation of the speaker is so mysterious … we are free to speculate about who the speaker is and what her situation entails” (162). Since the meaning of the source text is far from clear, a so-called ‘faithful’ translation has little chance of making sense to its translated text audience. In this translation, I have transposed the wife’s song into a popular ballad form, and accepted McGillivray’s invitation to speculate on the speaker’s situation. Following Stacy Klein’s notion of the lament as a critique of the restrictiveness of female claustration, I have imagined this song as the tale of a woman who is forced into a religious community when her husband leaves on a long sea journey, and is not recalled upon his return. She feels exiled and alone because she has been separated from her kin, and the religious life seems foreign to her. The final section of the text constitutes advice for others in her situation to cope with the monastic way of life.

The Wife’s Lament

I sadly sing this song of mine,
Of my journey of misery.
I tell the tale as I grow old
True now as will ever be.

My exile-journey is full of woe
Since my lord went out to the deep,
My dawn-cares have been full of him
And all I have done is weep.              (8)

A friendless wretch, I went to seek,
A household for my need.
But the man’s kin thought to part our ways,
And set out to do the deed.

They willed us to live hatefully
Spread far across the land,
And while I yearned to be with him,
They did as they had planned.                        (16)

My lord ordered them to cloister me,
Where I had no faithful friend,
My lonely thoughts consumed my heart,
My spirits did descend.

I found my suited man was sad,
And thinking of a crime,
In joy we said we’d part at death,
But that was a different time.             (24)

Near and far I must take heed
Of my dear one’s enmity,
He made me live in an earthen cave
Beneath an old oak tree.

This old earth-hall has saddened me,
Its locale is dark and dim:
The valleys, hills and brambles
Make this dwelling very grim.            (32)

My lord’s departure seizes me,
When I think on it each day;
I know out there are lovers,
But it is here that I must stay.

There I must sit the summer-long day,
There I may curse my ban;
I might not rest my thoughts and cares
From longing for my man.                  (40)

If anyone shares my sad lot
May he harden his heart and mind,
He needs a glad demeanor,
His breast-care for to bind.

If he takes joy in his worldly self
Or is wrenched from his native soil,
Then he will sit in sorrow,
His heart in deep turmoil.                   (48)

His roof will be a stormy slope
All full of frosted stone
In dreary hall mid waters,
My lord will stand alone.

He’ll be thinking of the Joyous House
And so much sorrow will bear,
All woeful is the lover,
Who abides his Love with care!         (56)

 

 

References:

Klein, Stacy S. “Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies.” A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes. Ed. Clare A Lees and Gillian R Overing. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 113-131. Print.

McGillivray, Murray. Old English Reader. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2011. Print.

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Filed under Monasticism, Old English, Poetry, Translation, Women