Title Background

Poetic Work and Scribal Labor in Hoccleve and Langland

Poetic Work and Scribal Labor in Hoccleve and Langland

Following the work of recent theorists who have “revitalized . . . the problem of ‘Immaterial Labor’,” Knapp’s article focuses on the attempts made by L and Hoccleve in their poetry to construct a metaphorics of scribal “labor” (209). According to Knapp, Middle English poets frequently draw upon the language of labor to describe the manual aspects of scribal work while making transcendental claims for their poetry that would distinguish it as opus from labore. Knapp offers a detailed reading of Will’s apologia pro vita sua in C.5, beginning by outlining how agricultural labor is the normative model for the discussion of medieval labor to the point where this “figurative habit . . . threatens to obscure . . . the complexity and diversity of medieval social structures and forms of labor” (212). Knapp shows how L manipulates the usual, agriculturally derived metaphor for pastoral cure – the shepherd of souls – to construct the more ambiguous idea of Will’s labor as a “curate of books.” This complex image leads to a number of scribal re-writings, such as that in London, British Library, MS Harley 2376 (N), which Knapp discusses to illustrate how L’s new metaphor is at one and the same time familiar and destabilizing for medieval readers. Knapp concludes his reading of this passage by suggesting that L constructs this new metaphorics for clerical labor in Will’s response to Reason’s charge of vagrancy, a metaphor that “emphasizes . . . his own physicality . . . while also renewing the agricultural and rural roots of the allegory by offering the striking image of texts as sheep” (216), but one that does not actually offer a final solution, since this image of labor is soon dropped. The author also discusses some instances of Hoccleve’s negotiations of the medieval theories and metaphors of labor to write the scribal body in the Prologue to the Regiment of Princes and in the Marian miracle of “The Story of the Monk who Clad the Virgin.”


Robertson and Uebel, The Middle Ages at Work, 209-28.

Cross Reference



Knapp, Ethan