Hunger, Need, and the Politics of Poverty in Piers Plowman.
PPl contains both positive and negative images of poverty, but in contrast with much medieval discourse on poverty which envisions it as part of an ideal of ascetic discipline or a symbol of moral degradation, the poor in PPl “are defined in [terms of] concrete social circumstances.” The essay is part of a larger theoretical project which seeks to explore the “category of the political” in the Middle Ages and the way in which religious discourse has implications for “the way in which politics was managed.” Through an analysis of the “final and authoritative” C version the essay seeks to understand the “interplay of the political and the religious in the discourse of poverty and the treatment of poor people in PPl.” The first section summarizes the understanding of poverty in L scholarship (Pearsall, Aers, Scase). The second section engages with Augustinian social theology to find that L’s “theoretical engagement of the political” takes place in an essentially fallen world—a world in which politics is not designed to serve the marginalized group, or rather, politics is predicated upon a pattern of violation and control. Lucifer’s fall in passus 1 is “a creative rendering of Augustine’s discourse of angelic fall” and for Augustine, as for L, politics as a human endeavor “is both a force of fallen nature that needs to be checked . . . and paradoxically . . . a means of fighting fallen nature.” The final section concentrates on L’s attempts to connect needy people and politics and to explore the ways in which a “politics of poverty” is practiced, and as such focuses on the figures of Hunger and Need. Poverty is characterized as a righteous moral state and the needy—”beyond the taint of the fallen”—and L would seem to speak for the needy from a position of implicit “moral outrage.” Indeed, even the poet’s own identity blurs, at times, into his representation of the poor. Through Hunger L represents the poor as a “projection of dominant-class ideology” whereas Need is connected with the “politics of voluntary poverty” and proves to be a “rhetorically more certain [‘activist’] than Will.” Thus, they constitute “thought-experiments” on the political condition of the poor and reveal the ambiguity of L’s conscious understanding of relationship between poverty and politics that goes beyond any “insensitivity and ignorance” modern readers might impute to him.
YLS 16 (2002): 131–67.