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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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A Vibrant, Variegated, and Vivacious Revival


I begin the official portion of my exam reading with a seminal book by a man whose name is one of the most magnificent in all of medieval studies: Thorlac Turville-Petre. His 1977 volume titled The Alliterative Revival aims to introduce the alliterative poetic movement of the fourteenth century as well as make it clear to his readers that there is one thing that this alliterative revival lacks – homogeneity. According to Turville-Petre, many readers have assumed for one reason or another that the poems of this period (including Langland’s Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain-Poet, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, and a number of other romances, histories, and moral poetry) are stylistically uniform. He goes as far to refer to an early twentieth century theory that many of these texts were written by the same man “one of the most absurd literary hypotheses of all time” (28), which fell out of vogue when “it was pointed out that none of the proofs adduced in favour of the hypothesis had any substance and that the poems, being written in a variety of styles, with different metrical patterns and different dialects, could hardly be the work of one man” (28). While Turville-Petre rejects this theory as utterly ridiculous, he is slightly more patient, but still in disagreement, with those that assume an unbroken oral connection between that alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon poets and the alliterative revival several centuries later. Overall, his argument depicts the poems of the alliterative revival as a movement of great creativity and diversity whose works resist any attempt to be reduced to derivatives of Anglo-Saxon poetry or one another.

One of the more intricate parts of Turville-Petre’s argument is his assertion that there is no good reason to believe that there was an unbroken line of oral alliterative tradition between the Anglo-Saxons and the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century. While there are many similarities between the poetry of the alliterative revival and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a closer examination of the English poetry of the intervening centuries, which has oft been neglected in literary studies (See Elaine Treharne’s Living Through Conquest), suggests that this sense of continuity may be misleading. Turville-Petre reasons that if such an oral tradition was in existence all along with no written trace, it would be difficult to reconcile this with the distinct and “loose” (8) style of Early Middle English alliterative works like Laȝamon’s Brut. Instead, he offers an alternative explanation for the most striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and that of the fourteenth-century – the fact that the standard pattern of lines is based on the alliteration of all stressed syllables except for the last of the line. Turville-Petre argues that the reason that two different (albeit related) traditions might land upon this same practice is that the alliteration is a functional element designed to mark out the stressed syllables, and that “the last stressed syllable of the line is very seldom in an ambiguous position” (17). In addition, maintaining a difference between the last stress and other stresses allows it to “signal[…] the completion of a metrical unit” (17). While the author makes a convincing case both for the lack of evidence for an invisible oral tradition and the logical functionality of the alliterative style, the reader is still required to make a leap of faith to assume that two heterogeneous groups of poets separated by centuries might independently realize the efficiency of such a pattern. It seems more prudent to posit a more moderate view that the fourteenth century poets managed to revive some distantly version of alliterative verse, without necessarily requiring a robust oral tradition.

After establishing diachronic heterogeneity between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century alliterative verse, Turville-Petre turns to celebrate the synchronic diversity of the later movement. His sentiments are echoed by Greg Delanty in the preface to the 2010 anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation titled The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, in which Delanty muses that “we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf” (Delanty xv). In reality, the poetry of both traditions is full of diversity and originality, as Turville-Petre notes in prose worth quoting in its entirety:

It is the flexibility of the alliterative line that makes it so valuable to a writer of a long and diverse narrative poem full of action, description, argument, reflection and any number of topics demanding variations of pace and emphasis. In Morte Arthure and The Wars of Alexander the form proves suitable for the excitement and turmoil of the careers of those two great heroes; in Piers Plowman and Wynnere and Wastoure it can accommodate the niceties of theological discussion and political debate; in Patience and Purity[1] it can re-vivify Old Testament history. Nothing is more mistaken than the belief that alliterative style is a homogenous one. (Turville-Petre 50)

Despite the richness of the tradition extolled by Turville-Petre and several others since, many poems of the alliterative revival have not reached the ‘mainstream’ of Middle English literary studies in the same way as the work named authors such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Turville-Petre ends his book by musing on the beauty and suitability of alliterative verse for a variety of topics, and ventures that “it may be time for a second alliterative revival” (128). Though it may be some time before contemporary poets take up the call to write in alliterative verse, it is certainly time for a revival of the study and teaching of this work.

[1] Purity is more commonly known today as Cleanness, the second poem in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. None of the poems in this manuscript have original titles, but have been given the names Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by modern editors. It was once pointed out to me by Dr. David Coley that if one retains the title of Purity, the four titles make up an alliterative line, with the first three titles alliterating and the fourth differing.

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