Transforming Work
eBook - ePub

Transforming Work

Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry

Katherine C. Little

  1. 272 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Transforming Work

Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry

Katherine C. Little

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents
Citations

About This Book

Pastoral poetry has long been considered a signature Renaissance mode: originating in late sixteenth-century England via a rediscovery of classical texts, it is concerned with self-fashioning and celebrating the court. But, as Katherine C. Little demonstrates in Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Medieval Poetry, the pastoral mode is in fact indebted to medieval representations of rural labor.

Little offers a new literary history for the pastoral, arguing that the authors of the first English pastorals used rural laborers familiar from medieval texts—plowmen and shepherds—to reflect on the social, economic, and religious disruptions of the sixteenth century. In medieval writing, these figures were particularly associated with the reform of the individual and the social world: their work also stood for the penance and good works required of Christians, the care of the flock required of priests, and the obligations of all people to work within their social class. By the sixteenth century, this reformism had taken on a dangerous set of associations—with radical Protestantism, peasants' revolts, and complaints about agrarian capitalism. Pastoral poetry rewrites and empties out this radical potential, making the countryside safe to write about again.

Moving from William Langland's Piers Plowman and the medieval shepherd plays, through the Piers Plowman –tradition, to Edmund Spenser's pastorals, Little's reconstructed literary genealogy discovers the "other" past of pastoral in the medieval and Reformation traditions of "writing rural labor."

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Transforming Work an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Transforming Work by Katherine C. Little in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Littérature & Poésie religieuse. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.

Information

Year
2013
ISBN
9780268085704
ONE
Medieval Traditions of Writing Rural Labor
Medieval literature has played a minor role in the literary history of the pastoral mode for an obvious reason: medieval English writers neither imitated Virgil’s Eclogues nor seemed particularly interested in writing about or in the guise of shepherds. This lack of enthusiasm for shepherds does not mean, however, that they are entirely absent. On the contrary, there are both the “real” shepherds in the shepherd plays of the mystery cycles and the figurative shepherds of ecclesiastical or biblical pastoral, that is, priests who are described in terms of shepherds. The question is whether or how these shepherds might fit in with the pastoral mode as it emerged and then flourished in the sixteenth century. For most scholars of pastoral, the answer has been that medieval shepherds do not fit, and they leave out the Middle Ages entirely in their literary histories. But if we take two of the most prominent theorists of pastoral, Paul Alpers and Louis Montrose, at their word—that it is the shepherds themselves, not the idyllic landscapes or any other elements, that constitute pastoral—then perhaps medieval literature should belong to the history of pastoral after all.1 No study of pastoral thus far has adequately accounted for the strange status of medieval literature. There are shepherds, to be sure, but nothing that looks like either classical or sixteenth-century pastoral: either what Patrick Cullen (and others) have described as Arcadian pastoral or, to use Alpers’s definition, an account of herdsmen and their lives that foregrounds otium or singing and wooing.2 Helen Cooper’s Pastoral: Mediaeval into Renaissance is the one study that attempts to place medieval shepherds in relation to later pastoral writing, but it does not do anything more than loosely group these texts together in a survey; it does not prove a continuity of influence or even of interest. In sum, all theorists of pastoral could be said to impose a literary history from without, by beginning with the pastoral mode as a given and then noting the few correspondences between medieval texts, on the one hand, and classical or early modern texts, on the other.
If we begin with the medieval texts themselves, however, we find a different story, a different literary tradition. The disparate medieval genres and forms in which literal and figurative shepherds appear—the estates satires, sermons, and plays—suggest that these writers did not understand the shepherd as associated with a particular literary mode or genre, unlike the writers of eclogues in the latter half of the sixteenth century. After all, ecclesiastical or biblical pastoral is an allegorical trope that can be (and is) deployed across a wide range of texts: the appearance of a priest described as a shepherd or shepherds who stand for priests tells us very little about either the form or the content of a piece of writing. Similarly, the shepherd plays are indebted to biblical narratives and do not, therefore, mark out a distinctive genre of their own. Medieval shepherds thus neither follow classical nor prefigure early modern pastoral. Instead, they belong to a tradition of “writing rural labor,” whose literary history certainly intersects with but is not the same as pastoral. As such, medieval pastoral shares with other texts in the tradition (most famously William Langland’s late-fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman) an interest in the labor of rural laborers. In exploring this tradition, this chapter will make two related arguments: First, labor alone, not leisure, recreation, singing, wooing, nor idyllic landscapes (in short, any of the characteristics used to categorize classical and early modern pastoral), is the defining characteristic of rural life in the Middle Ages. Second, to write rural labor was to appropriate an extremely flexible and complex set of meanings: medieval representations of labor carry with them a reformist, even potentially radical, significance. It is this medieval past, of labor and its meanings, that haunts the emergence of early modern pastoral.
Writing Rural Labor
It is worth beginning with the obvious: medieval texts that represent rural life are interested primarily in labor, whether that labor is imagined as literal or figurative. For scholars of medieval literature, such an observation may be unnecessary; there are many medieval texts about rural laborers and very few about rural life without labor. More importantly, the characteristics considered definitive of pastoral—the idyllic landscape, the otium, and the piping, singing, and wooing—are almost entirely absent in medieval texts.3 Such an observation is hardly surprising for the many texts that spring to mind with the phrase writing rural labor, such as the early fourteenth-century poem, Song of the Husbandman. This text is often considered a kind of ancestor of Langland’s poem and other plowman writings, and it puts labor at the center of the “song.”4 Broadly speaking, the medieval view of rural life could be described as follows: labor is the lot of the peasant, and leisure that of the nobleman. When the peasant does not labor he is not leisurely; he is lazy, greedy, or sinful.5 What is less noted, however, is that those texts that have long been assimilated into the pastoral mode, particularly the shepherd plays of the mystery cycles, are about laborers and their labor.6 These are less shepherds than rural laborers, indistinguishable from plowmen. Even the recreation they represent becomes a sign of their labor and is, therefore, entirely distinct from the otium or the freedom to sing and woo that is typically associated with the classical tradition as it was taken up in the sixteenth century.7 As Louis Montrose writes, “literary celebrations of pastoral otium conventionalize the relative ease of the shepherd’s labors. Compared to other agrarian tasks, sheep farming requires very little investment of human resources.”8 The whole point of Virgilian pastoral for Montrose and other theorists is that shepherds do not resemble husbandmen or plowmen. This is not the case for the literal and allegorical shepherds of medieval texts.
My discussion will focus on the shepherd play in the Chester cycle and the first shepherd play from the Towneley manuscript. Dating the cycle plays, especially the Towneley plays, which exist only in one manuscript, is notoriously difficult, but both belong to what Martin Stevens considers the “second generation” of mystery cycles, written most likely in the fifteenth century.9 For my argument, precise dates are unnecessary; what matters is that the plays were composed in the late medieval period and that they are, to a certain degree, exemplary of late medieval thinking about shepherds, both biblical and “real.” The similarities between the shepherd plays in the surviving cycles—York, Chester, Towneley, and N-Town—suggest that writers did indeed draw on a shared tradition if not a shared text; Towneley, for example, seems to copy some plays from the York cycle.10 Chester and Towneley are particularly suitable for discussing medieval pastoral because both include a kind of “first act” that explores the shepherds as shepherds before they move on to the central material of all the shepherd plays: the Annunciation and Adoration.
Both Chester and Towneley are clearly interested in the shepherds as characters: each play begins with a long speech by one of the shepherds. These opening speeches locate the shepherds in the audience’s contemporary world through a discussion of labor, particularly the struggle with sheep rot.11 Chester, for example, describes the hard work of the shepherd:
On wouldes have I walked wylde
under buskes my bowre to bylde,
from styffe stormes my sheepe to shilde,
my seemely wedders to save.
From comlye Conway unto Clyde
under tyldes them to hyde,
a better shepperd on no syde
noe yearthlye man may have.
For with walkynge werye I have mee rought;
besydes the suche my sheepe I sought.
My taytfull tuppes are in my thought,
them to save and heale
from the shrewde scabbe yt sought,
or the rotte, yf yt were wrought.
(Shepherds’ Play, 1–14)12
This shepherd is both physically and mentally exhausted—from walking around and from his anxiety about his sheep. In Towneley the interest in the “realism” of shepherd life is perhaps more pronounced: shepherding is an occupation, part of the economy of the countryside. When the first shepherd enters, he laments his “vnceyll [misery]” because all of his sheep are dead of the rot, and he has no money to pay his manorial rent:
All my shepe ar gone,
I am not left oone,
The rott has theym slone;
Now beg I and borow.
My handys may I wryng
And mowrnyng make,
Bot if good will spryng,
The countré forsake;
Fermes thyk ar coming,
My purs is bot wake,
I haue nerehand nothyng
To pay nor to take.
(First Shepherds’ Play, 5, 35–46)13
This passage is less interested in the labor itself than in establishing the shepherd as part of the laboring classes in terms recognizable to the audience: the shepherd must pay “fermes” (his manorial rent). Both plays suggest what a shepherd life meant to the medieval audience: a difficult life characterized by hard labor and poverty.
The feasting and wrestling, what we might consider recreation, are further indications that this is a hard job. The shepherdly activities appear as a necessary break from labor. Only after the shepherds introduce themselves as working men do they sit down together to eat and drink. As the first shepherd in the Towneley play states, “Sytt we downe all thre, / And drynk shall we then” (First Shepherds’ Play, 276–77). Although the shepherds certainly enjoy themselves, the feasts—where they come together and share their food—function primarily as moments of community, a community that prefigures the kind of Christian community that will be established once Jesus is born. This Christian meaning is made explicit in the Towneley play, in which the shepherds decide to give the remnants of their feast to the poor. The first shepherd states,
Then wold I we fest,
This mete who shall
Into panyere kest.
(First Shepherds’ Play, 405–7)
And the third shepherd replies, “For oure saules lett vs do / Poore men gyf it to” (409–10). In other words, even the break from work, the feasting, results in a kind of “work”: feeding the hungry is one of the seven works of mercy.
The particular dependence of recreation on labor can be seen in the term used to describe it in the Chester play. The second shepherd turns to one of his fellows and asks, “Tudd, will we shape us to some solace?” (Shepherds’ Play, 100). “Solace” in Middle English can mean joy and entertainment—a meaning that potentially underlines its similarity to the piping and singing of the pastoral tradition—but it can also mean comfort or consolation. This second meaning reveals the centrality of labor to any representation of leisure or enjoyment: labor is what comes first, and the hardships of labor must be alleviated in life through the comfort of eating and drinking with companions.
The strong, even inextricable, link between rural life and labor in medieval texts is perhaps made most apparent by the absence of depictions of a labor-free or leisurely rural life. Indeed, it seems that medieval writers have difficulty imagining rural life without labor, even when the context is the mythological Golden Age and not contemporary society, as it is in the shepherd plays.14 Chaucer’s “Former Age” offers one of the few medieval accounts of the Golden Age and, therefore, one of the few medieval instances where one might argue for a kind of Virgilian pastoral. Indeed, in his brief account of the poem in the Oxford Guide to the Shorter Poems, V. J. Scattergood describes the poem as offering a “pastoral simplicity.”15 Chaucer is not following Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue directly; he is following primarily Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and, to a lesser degree, the Roman de la Rose.16 Nevertheless, Chaucer expands the Boethian text concerning how people will be fed without the cultivation of land, how the natural world will serve them, in a manner that brings his version closer to Virgil’s poem than his source. Boethius dismisses cultivation quite quickly: “Blisful was the firste age of men. They heelden hem apayed with the metes that the trewe feeldes broughten forth.”17 Chaucer follows Boethius in the first stanza, but the second stanza introduces a focus on plowing (or the lack thereof): “Yit nas the ground nat wounded with the plough, / But corn up-sprong, unsowe of mannes hond.”18 Similarly, Virgil writes in his Fourth Eclogue: “But first, as little gifts for you, child, Earth untilled / Will pour the straying ivy rife, and baccaris” and “soft spikes of grain will gradually gild the fields.”19 Perhaps more interestingly, Chaucer describes the people in “The Former Age” as “lambish” (50), thus introducing a kind of pastoralism into his source. This odd term, which A. V. C. Schmidt thought was coined by Chaucer, certainly refers to the people’s innocence, but in doing so it also invokes the wo...

Table of contents

  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Contents
  4. Acknowledgments
  5. Introduction
  6. 1. Medieval Traditions of Writing Rural Labor
  7. 2. The Invention of the English Eclogue
  8. 3. The Pastoral Mode and Agrarian Capitalism
  9. 4. Transforming Work: The Reformation and the Piers Plowman Tradition
  10. 5. Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender and a Poetry of Rural Labor
  11. 6. Reading Pastoral in Book 6 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene
  12. Afterword: The Secret History of Pastoral
  13. Notes
  14. Works Cited