On Wifework, Piers Plowman, and the Dangers of Judging Books by their Covers


A while ago, I lent someone my copy of Susan Maushart’s book Wifework, which discusses the range of activities, typically labelled ‘economically unactive’ but necessary to running a household, that tend to be carried out more by women than by men. Maushart’s book isn’t perfect, but its strength is her persuasive argument that there’s an awful lot of work that we don’t define as work – we don’t even recognise it as taking up time and energy – and yet, overwhelmingly, it’s women who do it. Essentially, she’s talking about the cognitive dissonance that leads the men and women in her studies to be fairly sure they divide tasks ‘more or less 50/50’ while demonstrating, in their daily lives, that they didn’t. And one of the biggest ‘hidden tasks’ she mentions is that of planning and thinking. She means those seemingly inconsequential activities, like writing a shopping list so someone else can go shopping (the ‘real work’), or remembering that the children need PE kit on Wednesday, or meal planning for the week.

It’s a great book, but what I hadn’t really realized until I got a library copy with a different cover was how easily misinterpreted that title was. Suddenly, when I read this book in public, with its image of a neat 1950s wife busy ironing, people around me started assuming it must be a tract from the ‘submissive wife’ school of thought, a book all about how to please your husband with traditional wifely duties.

This irony got me thinking about bad cover art. At the moment, I’m working on the long Middle English poem called Piers Plowman. I first read this when I was an undergraduate, and I started to look at it again last year for my new project. And I started thinking back to the first (now very battered) copy of the poem I owned. The most basic copy of the poem you can buy is the modernised paraphrase version available in Penguin Classics. The front cover shows a classic medieval Christmas-card type picture: some beautiful lettering, an illuminated spray of leaves, and a medieval ploughman standing behind his plough:

The cover of William Langland's Piers Plowman, edited by J. F. Goodridge for Penguin Classics.

The cover of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, edited by J. F. Goodridge for Penguin Classics.

This cover image tends to make medievalists wince, because the plowman in the picture has very little to do with the actual poem. His image belongs in a Latin prayer book, made in about 1330 for the Lincolnshire landowner Geoffrey Luttrell. You can see the full page here. To add insult to injury, while Piers Plowman’s author, Langland, was fascinated by religious and social justice, Luttrell was, by all accounts, a bit of an entitled thug, who got himself into trouble for raiding the local monastery.

The literalism of this cover does make me roll my eyes (‘oh yes, a poem called Piers Plowman. It must be about farming. Pop it over there alongside that book by George Orwell’). The image of the plowman is your classic image of medieval peasantry. When we did Medieval Times at school, it was this image that illustrated the ‘peasants’ section of that classic diagram showing the division of medieval society into three estates. There were those who fought (knights), those who prayed (priests and monks), and those who worked (peasants, like the ploughman). It’s hardly a surprise, given this diagram has no place for the knight’s wife or the nun, that the image of the peasant should perpetuate the idea work – real work – can always be gendered masculine.

On first reading of Piers Plowman itself, you might think this is a typically medieval view. The poem is profoundly misogynistic, featuring a female anti-hero who is a perfect example of every  feminine fault, from lying and flirting to extreme vanity and pride. The poet, Langland, is full of diatribes against benefit claimants and beggars that would fit perfectly neatly into the pages of the Daily Mail, and of anti-semitic invective even the Mail would reject. So, a little barbaric, ‘medieval’ stereotyping of women’s work as worthless (I’m sorry, it’s an alliterative poem, I’m picking it up) would seem entirely in keeping.

But it’s not quite so simple.

So, the first time I read this poem, back in about 2002, certain descriptions of women and work glided over me. At one point, Langland describes the ‘deserving poor’. His poem is filled with stock figures and allegorical characters, each representing not individual, but a whole category of people. And the characters who represents poverty are described as:

“… charged with children and with their landlords’ rents,

Whatever they make by spinning, they spend it on household costs,

On milk and meal, to make gruel for children,

To satisfy their babies, who cry for food.

And they themselves suffer hunger too,

And distress during the cold winter. And they wake throught the nights,

To rise regularly, to rock the child’s cradle.”

(from Piers Plowman C. 9. 73-9. My translation).

How amazing is this, for a fourteenth century poet? If I’d translated that into prose and blogged it as the experience of a woman in 2014, it’s really only the spinning and the cradle (rather than, I guess, the breastfeeding which he doesn’t mention) that would mark it out as anachronistic.

When you start reading this description, there’s nothing to suggest that the human face of ‘poverty’ will be female. It’s only after this emotive passage that the poet actually says explicitly that he’s referring to women. This is radically different from what we might expect given the image of the ploughman on the cover of the Penguin edition. To Langland, at this moment, the person who works hardest and is least supported in that work, is not a man but a woman. Her experience of worrying about rent increases, and heating bills, and getting up in the night for the baby, rings disturbingly true today. And it’s also true that, today, as the UN points out, the great majority of people living in poverty are female.

Emily Steiner’s brilliant commentary on the poem makes the point that the poet chooses to use a woman’s experience to represent poverty and hard work for good reasons. The context of this passage is Langland’s argument that the people who need most support in life are those whose struggles are hidden – like the struggles of poor women who appear outwardly to be coping but who are internally hungry and worried, sleepless and cold. It sounds remarkably like Maushart’s description of unacknowledged ‘wifework’.

Langland’s use of a female figure to exemplify poverty has further significance for his readers: it requires that both women and men try to place themselves in the position of a woman, to imagine the detailed realities of her life. There’s a precedent for requiring medieval men to imagine the suffering of women, but that precedent is that of a saint: the Virgin Mary. In that case, the logic is that, while we can’t comprehend what it would be like to suffer as Christ, we can begin to imagine the pain of his mother, who lost her child. Mary becomes the example of sorrow and compassion. And the default image that says ‘loss’ to us in this tradition is the image of the Virgin weeping over her son’s body.

London, BL, MS King's 9, f. 153v. This is the prayerbook in which Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wrote notes to each other.

London, BL, MS King’s 9, f. 153v. This is the prayerbook in which Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII wrote notes to each other.

Langland’s image of a sad mother, ground down by the ordinary human tasks of running a household and bringing up children in poverty, is even more radical in its implications, because this unnamed, unknown mother is not saintly, but entirely human.

Obviously, I’m not planning to restructure my entire interpretation of Piers Plowman based on one passage that sounds startlingly modern and feministy, because on the whole, Langland isn’t those things and there’s no reason he should be. But I do think this passage should help us to reassess some assumptions about the history of devaluing women’s work. We’re inclined to believe ignorance is a defence, that it’s only so very recently that men started to recognise how hard what Maushart calls ‘wifework’ can be. Clearly, if a fourteenth-century poet not famed for his startlingly pro-female views can come up with a poignant and detailed description of that exact same experience, it’s not pure ignorance that is the problem, but something much, much less easily counteracted.


The edition of the C text of Piers Plowman is by Derek Pearsall, published at Berkeley and LA by the University of California press in 1982.

There’s a good commentary on Piers by Emily Steiner (which is the business, and which I’ve just noticed was edited by the lovely Marie Turner) is called Reading Piers Plowman (Cambridge: CUP, 2013). She makes the point that “By acknowledging women’s work in the household, says the poet, a person comes to recognize [the needs of] all of his neighbours, male and female”.

There’s a great article by Michael Camille, discussing the ways images from medieval manuscripts are taken out of context. It’s titled ‘Labouring for the Lord: The Ploughman and the Social Order in the Luttrell Psalter,’ Art History 10 (1987): 423-454.

Patriarchy and the Establishment of ‘Objective Facts’: The Narrative is Already Gendered

'The Fall of Icarus,' c. 1560-70.

‘The Fall of Icarus,’ c. 1560-70.

Every now and again, because I don’t know any better, I end up engaging with my favourite brand of Idiot on the Internet, the intellectual mansplainer. You know the sort of thing: you mention you’re studying late-medieval women’s reading, and they start to explain to you how Derrida helped them understand why it’d be better to read Chaucer. Or Shakespeare. Or, you mention gendered violence and they explain – more in sorrow than in anger – that men have always fought wars while women stayed home raised the babies, and history really teaches us how bad men have always had it. If you’re lucky – and I’m sometimes very lucky, because writing like a dyslexic does have a delightful tendency to make people underestimate you – they’ll eventually offer to dazzle you with the beauty of their logic. Ingrained in this discourse will be terms like ‘playing devil’s advocate’ or ‘the inherent bias of women’s studies’ or ‘the importance of looking at things objectively,’ or ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’.

It’ll all sound terribly, terribly educated and impartial.

Except, you’ll have the sneaking sense it isn’t.

We’re encouraged to believe that education teaches us how to argue impartially, how to set aside personal bias, and find objective truths (or at the very least, falsify obviously biased and incomplete perceptions of truth). But I think we ignore a fundamental inequality before we even begin to debate.

The image at the top of this page is a painting, once attributed to Breugel, and the subject of a poem by Auden. Both painting and poem make the point that, while the Greek myth traditionally centres on Icarus, the rash boy who escaped prison in Crete on wings made of wax and then fell to his death because he flew too close to the sun, the tragedy is only personal. If you take the perspective of the ploughman in the foreground of the picture, or the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in the ocean, the object falling out of the sky and the pair of limbs just visible in the bottom right corner of the painting are unimportant.

This is – I would argue – a really blokey way of looking at myth, or narrative at all. For the painter, for Auden – for William Carlos Williams, who thought Auden’s poem was just so damn awesome he’d have a crack at it too – this perspective is novel and exciting. There is a strong sense of these men giving themselves a pat on the back for imagining the scene in such a new and unusual way, with the supposed ‘main character’ reduced to a speck in the corner.

Both history and fiction de-centre women’s views a lot of the time. Researching medieval women, you spend a lot of time looking at the negative space between men’s communications to get a sense of the position of women. Establishing a valid narrative often requires a lot of caveats, a lot of uncertainty, because the perspective that is so strikingly novel in the Icarus painting is just plain normal here. This de-centred position isn’t a rhetorical or logical posture, a debate-team tactic you can congratulate yourself for knowing – it’s the default place from which you have to begin.

But there’s something even more problematic about the way the narratives we’re used to hearing when we hear about women in the past shape the way we interpret those women. I’m reading a medieval romance at the moment, which is supposedly an exploration of how men and women uphold truth and justice. In theory, it’s a lovely story of how truth wins out over treachery. In reality, I think it’s a story of how female truth is constantly de-centred, never accepted as objective fact.

This romance is full to bursting with untrustworthy male characters. The best of them – the hero of the piece – has no qualms about impersonating a monk in order to extract a confession on false pretenses. This character, the Earl of Tolous, falls precipitously ‘in love’ with his enemy’s wife on the strength of a description of her physical charms. He even accepts a sworn oath of manly loyalty from one of his enemy’s prisoners because this man is willing to promise him a glimpse of the beloved (aka, stalking 101).

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

The meeting is set up for the woman’s chapel. She turns up, dressed in her most expensive clothes, while he comes disguised as a hermit so that her husband’s men won’t discover him. Keeping perfectly in-character, he begs her for alms, and she gives him a handful of coins and a gold ring. And then she leaves again.

This woman demonstrates over and over that she’s utterly true to her word: in fact, she has a totally objective view of the truth, insisting upon telling her villainous husband when he’s legally and morally wrong, and refusing to break a vow of secrecy even when it could save her life. This aspect of her character is repeatedly set to one side by the other characters – except two chillingly manipulative would-be rapists who set out to blackmail her into committing adultery and, when she refuses, frame her for adultery anyway. This is the point at which Our Noble Hero really shows his mettle … by completely failing to take her innocence on trust. Instead, he leans on the Old Boys’ network, and fixes things with the woman’s confessor so that he can diguise himself as a monk, sneak into the confessional, and interrogate the woman about her guilt or innocence in the guise of her confessor. It’s charming, isn’t it? And needless to say, the entire establishment who refused to believe the woman are perfectly convinced by the word of a man who’s just impersonated a monk.

Despite this cornucopia of male distrustworthiness, the narrative manipulates us to think much harder – and much more suspiciously – about the motives of the woman at the centre of the story. It’s a classic ‘yes, but what did she do to encourage him’ story. As you can imagine, the suspicion focuses on that scene in the chapel when she gives the man who loves her – her husband’s enemy – not only coins, but also a ring. In medieval England, the connotations of this donation are sufficiently ambiguous to make things interesting. In a society where people still do an awful lot of payment-in-kind, it’s not exactly unusual for rich ladies to give pieces of jewellery as alms. And rings do not necessarily symbolise love: they range in purpose, from romantic tokens engraved with mottos, to reliqueries designed to hold bits of dead saint, to the even more passion-killing administrative function of signet rings used to seal boring documents.

For example, check out how many rings this girl's mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

For example, check out how many rings this girl’s mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

The narrative manipulates us to focus much more energy on the ambiguities of this scene than we do on the straightforward – but, narratively less pivotal – evidence of the male characters’ failure to remain true to their words. After all, it’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine, the first opportunity for us to see whether the heroine will be tempted to betray her husband, or whether she’ll betray the man who loves her to her husband. So, it encourages us to second-guess her motives, to put the evidence of her truthfulness to the side for a moment and dig into the narrative ambiguity. In short, the romance reinforces the idea that women’s truth is to be de-centred and women are to be second-guessed.

This gendered pattern – this narrative structure we find again and again in paintings and fiction and historical narrative – forms the cultural context we all bring with us when we sit down to argue about ‘objective facts’ or to hammer out the ‘truth of the situation’ with the mansplainers. At best, we’re conditioned to expect we’ll have to reconstruct women’s experiences from the margins, from the negative spaces. At worst, we inherit narratives about women that are already prompting us to second-guess those women’s experiences, to categorise them as dubious, uncertain, and problematic.

When I argue with mansplainers about history, or feminism, I’m happy to argue objectively, to play by the rules. But I think we also need to realize that it’s rather easier to make a rhetorical posture of giving up your central position to explore the evidence if that’s something novel and strange to you. It would be too much to say that traditional narratives – in history and in fiction – gaslight us into disbelieving women, but we need to recognise that there is a hierarchy there. When we start to argue about how to establish of ‘objective facts,’ we need to recognise that the ground we’re arguing over is already uneven.