Title Background

<i>“Piers Plowman” and the Poor.</i>

“Piers Plowman” and the Poor.

The purpose of this study, primarily of the B-text, “is to examine the roles played by the concept of poverty and the actuality of poor people in Will’s search for personal salvation within the socio-economic environment of fourteenth century England” (13). The book stresses the contradictory nature of poverty as both liberating, when undertaken voluntarily in the imitation of Christ, and debilitating – the social marginalization of the indigent. The study is historicized with reference to modern historical research into poverty and poor relief in the late Middle Ages. Scott believes that poverty, and the way a society responds to it, is a “barometer” of both the moral and economic condition of a society. The second chapter highlights the importance of charity and reciprocity in both the Bible and in L’s poem. She makes a general case in her reading of PPl for a more equitable relationship between the labor of the lower classes and their share in the finished goods circulating in the economy. The third chapter of the book analyses in detail the roles of the mercantile and aristocratic classes. L outlines the means by which members of these estates can participate in poverty, thus understanding it, ensuring their own salvation, and, most importantly, participating in the alleviation of poverty in this world, by direct giving to the poor rather than religious charity. Chapter four focuses on Will as the “best” medieval example of a “poor” man, followed by a discussion of voluntary and involuntary poverty. The final chapter evaluates the needs of the poor beyond food and other tangible items and discusses further the idea of justice in the afterlife for the impoverished. Scott concludes that L did not necessarily desire a full-scale social revolution or a general redistribution of resources; rather, his poem argues for a self-imposed, religiously motivated, moral obligation to support the indigent in society. PPl does not advance mere religious consolation as a solution to the real and material problem of poverty, but rather stresses that the rights of the poor must be guaranteed by their fellow-Christians.

Rev. by:

  • Helen Barr, Medium Ævum, 74 (2005), 342–43;
  • Kate Crassons, YLS, 19 (2005), 236–40;
  • Stephen Medcalf, Times Literary Supplement, 5313 (28 January 2005), 12;
  • Helen Cooper, Common Knowledge 12 (2006), 313;
  • Lawrence Warner, Parergon, 23 (2006), 165-67.