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:
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.
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.