Langland and the (un)deserving poor.

One of the many joys of having a number of ‘spaces’ on the interweb is that you can decide where certain whimsies ought to be placed. There is currently a kind of master plan to incorporate all things Middle English into arduity as an example of poetry that might be difficult at first but which rewards serious attention tenfold. Unfortunately Other Things are filling up my arduity time at the moment so I’ve decided to share one of my more recent ME encounters here.

I’m reading the ‘C’ text of ‘Piers the Plowman’ and alternating this with the genius that is Thomas Hoccleve in order to get to grips with the language and to better understand the world at the end of the 14th century. In Another Guise I’ve been professionally implicated with the problem of the great unwashed for many years and have been of the view that the underclass has served a specific purpose since the early modern period or thereabouts.

Passus VIII of ‘Piers’ contains a dialogue between our hero and Hunger who he calls in to deal with the wastours (lovely term) who won’t work for their food. It would be crass to point out that our current governmental dismalities have a similar visceral need to punish those who won’t abide by the rules but this doesn’t stop me from pointing out in some detail what this might be about. At the heart of this particular anxiety is deception, the notion that some of the poor are faking some disadvantage in order to get a free ride on the backs of others.

This has particular resonance in the UK with the recent Tory claim to represent “hard working people” with the implication that the rest of us are somehow beyond redemption. Passus VIII recounts how Piers needs to plough his field before he sets off on pilgrimage and requests some help from his companions. In order to set the scene, we’ll start with the late feudal ‘deal’:

   'Sikerliche, sire Knyhte.' sayde Peris thenne  (indeed)
'Y shal swynke and swete and sowe for vs bothe     (work)
And labory for tho thowe louest al my lyf-time
In couenant that thow kepe holy kirke and mysulue
Fro wastores and fro wikkid men that this world struyen  (idlers)
And go hunte hardelyche to hares and to foxes            (boldly)
To bores and to bokkes that breketh adoune myn hegges     (bucks, hedges)
And afayte thy faucones wild foules to culle
For the cometh to my croft my corn to diffoule.'         (spoil)    

Incidentally, I’m using Derek Pearsall’s version of the ‘C’ text. I’ve used some of his glosses and one or two of mine.

So, by the time of writing (1380 ish) the above describes a relationship that was undergoing some changes and this notion of reciprocity was under more than a little strain. It does however set out what people may perhaps have felt nostalgic for, that the peasantry should feed the nobility in return for protection and some degree of pest control. In Langland’s present however the knight fails to protect against the first wastores that he comes across:

   Courteisliche the knyhte then, as his kynde wolde,
Warned Wastour and wissed him betere
'Or I shal bete thee by the lawe and bring the in stokkes.'
    'I was nat woned to worche,' quod Wastour, 'and now will I nat bygynne!' (accustomed)
And lete lyhte of the lawe and lasse of the knyhte
And sette Peres at a pes to playne whare he wolde.

Not only is the Knight ineffectual, the hard working paragon is himself treated with contempt- the last line being a challenge to go and complain anywhere he wishes but the recalcitrant wastoou is going to carry on with his idle ways. There’s also a bit of double edging going on, of course members of the nobility would be courteous as part of their code of behaviour but this is totally ineffective in getting these terrible people to change their ways. This is all too redolent of our current debate about welfare with both parties agreeing that there does need to be some coercion (sanctions, workfare, more sanctions) and only disagreeing on the most effective ways to be punitive. The bad old days of the welfare state are blamed, like the knight is here, for being far too soft on the poor.

My eye was also caught by Piers’ specification for the deserving poor:


But yf he be blinde or broke-legged or bolted with yren      (iron)
Suche pore' quod Peres 'shal parte with my godes,
Bothe of my corn and of my cloth to kepe hem fram defaute

All I can say is that this fierce 14th century social critic is more lenient in his outlook on disability than either of our political parties.

Before proceeding to Piers’ solution I think I need to point out that I’m usually of the view that the past is a very strange place indeed and comparisons between then and now are reasonably meaningless and this increasingly applies as the time gap increases. However, I’m also of the view that the underclass have always been with us and will always be with us regardless of any attempts at modification. The undeserving poor ( ie the generationally unemployed living on the edges of criminality and moving from one boisterous relationship to another) are the eternal moral panic and they perform a really important function- they keep the rest of us in place, playing by the rules of the game because we don’t want to be like them. I fully accept that Langland’s ire was also focused on certain groups of friars who sustained themselves by begging but it’s nice to see that the concerns of Hard Working People, the fear that someone else might be getting something for nothing, have remained fairly constant. I also think it’s telling that the wastores come before the wikkid men. Confronted by the failure of the Old Order Piers calls up Hunger (aka famine) to bring these idlers to their senses:


    Hunger in haste tho hente Wastour by the mawe
And wronge him so by the wombe that al watrede his yes.  (stomach, watered)
A boffated the Bretoner aboute the chekes                 (a Breton)
That a lokede like a lanterne al his life aftur,
And beet hem so bothe he barste ner her gottes           (nearly burst his guts)
Ne hadde Peres with a pese-loof preyed him bileye.
Haue mercy on hem, Hunger.' quod Peres, 'and lat me yeue hem benes,   (give them beans)
And that was bake for bayard hit may be here bote'                    (bay horse)
    Tho were faytours afered and flowen into Piers bernes
And flapton on with flayles fro morwen til euen          (threshed)
for a pot full of potage that Peres wyf made

So, extreme measures are called for to get these shirkers into the mainstream with the rest of us Hard Working types. First of all you starve them and then you hit them about the face and head before nearly killing them with blows to the stomach. Of course, dealing with the underclass doesn’t require the ‘normal’ set of principles because they just aren’t like us, at all….. It also helps if at least one of these idlers is a foreign idler- from Brittany in 1380 and from Romania / Bulgaria now.

Without getting into a lit crit tussle about the differences between the ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts, we know that Langland’s work was well-received and the figure of Piers was taken up by the leaders of the Peasants’ revolt. It would therefore appear that these quite brutal solutions tapped into a popular vein then pretty much as they still do now.

Of course it is still a mistake to over-identify with the past and ‘Piers’ drifts in and out of ‘reality’ enough to remind us that there is a lot that we don’t understand but it is remarkable how certain tunes do appear to echo down the centuries.

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4 responses to “Langland and the (un)deserving poor.

  1. Isn’t the C version the most conservative politically? I mean, Langland backed away from some of his positions in the A and B versions since C comes after the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt, and Langland wanted to distance himself. At least that is what George Economou told me … (he translated C …) So I would think it worthwhile to compare passages across versions to see if Langland is consistent on these issues … maybe you’ve already done so …

    • John,

      It is the most conservative (or least insurrectionary) of the three and I haven’t done the comparison on this particular issue. It is still incredibly and, for me, uncomfortably close to current concerns about the underclass that exist across the left/right spectrum in the UK. There’s also this quite complex genre-hopping that goes on that I should have mentioned in greater depth.
      Perhaps I should have said that the past is always a foreign country, except when it isn’t.

  2. I think Langland heartily enjoyed the punitive treatment of Wastoure but I also sense his rebellious sympathy with Wastoure’s derisive words. His views are quite conflicted, only the devotion to Christ is constant. In the larger structure of the poem Piers’ social experiment is a failure, he gives it up in disgust. (This is messed up in C). The poem goes in search of a more mystical apprehension of grace. At any rate that’s what I thought in 1987, when I wrote a thesis about it!
    http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/6812/1/6812_4116.PDF

    • Michael,

      Sorry it’s taken so long to reply, I’ve made a start on your fascinating thesis but haven’t finished it yet. The ‘mess’ is however a glorious mess and I clearly need to read ‘B’ to get a bit more context. More than anything, I think I’m struck by the vigour with which views are expressed and by the enjoyment that Langland clearly derives from this.

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