I’m currently looking out onto a street full of election posters (mostly Labour, a couple of Lib Dem and a few Greens, if you’re interested – we wanted to put up a poster for the Suffragettes in our window, because we’re more or less opposite what used to be the Cambridge Women’s Liberation Group headquarters. A couple of hours ago, I was teaching in King’s (where they seem to be voting Labour) and discussing, among other things, the form and structure of Piers Plowman, a poem written in the second half of the fourteenth century.
The election posters and the medieval text (not to mention the Women’s Lib) have more in common than you might think. Piers locates itself slap bang in the middle of medieval debates about social order and unrest, about who should have what rights. It’s a political poem (as well as lots of other things), and a poem about disenfranchisement of all types. And the key symbol, in my view, both of these rights and of this problematic social order, is the poem’s image of a document, a pardon, granted by the Pope and delivered by Truth herself to Piers the Plowman.
This scene is a difficult one to interpret, and people disagree about what it means. Piers – who is supposedly a humble ploughman, an uneducated person – reads over the document, finding how each person is granted their rights under (divine) law. Just as he’s finished, a priest leans over his elbow and, patronizingly, declares that he will translate the text into English. Piers – for reasons unclear – is furious at his translation, and (breaking into perfect Latin to show he can read just fine, thank you very much), he tears the pardon to pieces, invalidating it.
The words used to describe what Piers does here – ‘pure tene’ in the Middle English – suggest utter fury, anger that’s absurd because it is coupled with such a petty at of destruction. The same words sprang to my mind when I came across this extract from a letter, written by the grandfather of Piers Plowman studies, Walter William Skeat, a Cambridge academic who edited the text in 1886. Writing to his colleague (and co-founder of Newnham College), he argues angrily against the suggestion that the women of that newly-founded college should be allowed to graduate with the degrees for which they were studying:
“If given the BA, they must next have the MA and that would carry with it voting and perhaps a place on the Electoral Roll … Even the BA would enable them to take five books out of the University Library, countersigned by ‘their tutor’. I am entirely opposed to the admission of women to ‘privileges of this character. And I honestly believe they are better off as they are.”
(Letter, June 1887, from W. W. Skeat to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham College Archives)
I adore the bonkers logic in this, which reveals a mixture of institutional self-importance (no, a MA – even a Cambridge MA – would not have ‘carried with it’ voting) and utter pettiness. Skeat is concerned about women voting, yes … after all, votes affect the running of the country … but what’s really nagging at him is the possibility of disorder, nay even the temporary alienation of actual books, in the hallowed corridors of the University Library. To a late-Victorian scholar, clearly, the one thing more annoying that finding an empty space on a library shelf, would be knowing that the book you wanted was bouncing around Cambridge in a bag on the back of a woman’s bike.
I’m mentioning this partly because I enjoy quoting Victorian misogynists getting their unmentionables in a twist over the liberation of women, and partly because I can entirely picture Skeat, in a fit of ‘pure tene’, scrunching up papers rather than letting the women of Newnham or Girton read them. But I also think that Skeat’s segue from serious political issues to petty objections about institutional library policies is depressingly representative of the kinds of obstructions people still do put in the way of changing things for the better.
If time travel is a possibility, there’s one person I really, really want to introduce to Professor Skeat:
A(nother) geek fact I found out while writing this, is that Hermione Granger’s much-mocked SPEW, which readers of popular culture more astute than I have speculated might be some kind of metaphor for feminist activism, shares its name with an actual example of feminist activism. In 1859, Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW), later the Society for Promoting the Training of Women. It still exists, and is now Futures for Women. I would love it if JKR knew this.