Measurement and the ‘Feminine’ in Piers Plowman: A Response to Recent Studies of Langland and Gender.”
This essay argues that, contrary to received opinion, the feminine, both ideologically and as embodied in female characters, plays a major role in the poem, significantly furthering its pressing interest in the nature of “mesure.” The poem draws on and challenges prevalent gender codes by exploring and utilizing the “feminine”coded most often in the poem as “excess.”Feminine excess and dilatoriness as embodied in historically realistic characters (e.g., Rose the Regrator) or in personified abstractions (e.g. Gluttony, Meed) allow the poet to analyze the strength and limits of social formations in their legal, ecclesiastical and educational institutional manifestations as well as in the moral, theological and psychological structures that underpin those formations. This essay assesses two characteristic examples, Gluttony and Lady Meed. Although male, Gluttony is feminized in his grotesque body and in his excessive dilatory behavior. Through this representation, the poet thus utilizes received notions of the dangers of feminine excess to further his account of the nature of sin. Furthermore, Gluttony’s Kristevan abjection disrupts and comments on social hierarchies including that of gender itself. Lady Meed represents more fully the nature of measurement and the dangers of excess measure or reward and her representation ranges from the ideological to the historical in the questions it raises not only about the dangers and liberatory potential of excess, but also about the degree to which women on the fourteenth-century marriage market could exhibit agency. Equitable marriage is fundamental to the poem’s vision of a just society, and that within the historical context of fourteenth-century marriage practices, Lady Meed as marriageable (i.e., not legally constrained or defined by her husband) rather than married, has more agency than most feminist critics would like to grant her. Ideas of the feminine first raised through the character of Lady Meed and developed later in the poem permeate the poem’s exploration of the nature of God, both in its representation of a feminized Christ and in its celebration of God’s measureless rewards. Lady Meed’s indiscriminate generosity anticipates Mercy (God’s) feminine excess of a love that transcends justice and reason. Finally, the dilatory and the excessive, coded as dangerously feminine, are not only explored thematically, but are finally fundamental to the dilatory excesses of the poetics of the poem itself. [ER]
Hewett-Smith, Book of Essays . 167-92.