Title Background

Promising the Female Delivering the Male: Transformations of Gender in <i>Piers Plowman</i>., Delivering the Male: Transformations of Gender in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Promising the Female Delivering the Male: Transformations of Gender in Piers Plowman., Delivering the Male: Transformations of Gender in Piers Plowman.

This essay observes that, while PPl makes use of the convention of female personifications as engines for the poem’s plot, these figures gradually disappear, making way for a mostly male cast of characters. This slow but sure diminution of female presences through the course of the poem seems to be a deliberate move on the part of the author to push against the generic conventions so clearly established in works like Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, while acknowledging, by beginning with the figure of Holy Church, the primacy of that thoroughly canonical model. The article argues that the choices made about the gender of the poem’s personifications set up and ultimately displace a series of expectations about how gender and authority ‘work’, and that this displacement represents an important aspect of the cultural work performed by PPl. The article’s middle section, examining Will’s encounter with Kynde, shows how problematic it seems to the author we call L that all creatures are formed by one another, influenced by one another, mated with one another, and born of mothers. The relative sparseness of female personifications as the poem goes on responds to a persistent worry about the way in which sex, generation, and the exigencies of interdependence uncomfortably impact Will’s quest, specifically the part of it concerned with achieving a better understanding of himself. As it turns out, the mirror for the male self is not or at least ought not be a female person or personification, and this article observes the queerness of the ensuing exchange of knowledge between male figures. The article’s concluding section examines the shift between ‘Anima’ in the B text and ‘Liberum Arbitrium’ in the C text as an example of the C text’s more strongly posited insistence upon the necessity of a male double for Will. This reading of Liberum Arbitrium, that transformed and transformational figure, ultimately supports the argument that PPl marks a crisis in the figurations of abstract ideas as incarnate in female bodies (a tradition at least as old as Prudentius, if not Plato). Ultimately, the queerest thing about PPl is that gender does not actually function as the most crucial category of difference in the poem; rather, female figures stand in for the problematic nature of human interdependence, and allegorical gendering becomes, in L’s hands, a flexible tool for conceptualizing the nature of persons and for working through what it means, in the late fourteenth century, to know oneself.


YLS, 19 (2005), 81–105.


Raskolnikov, Masha