What is this woman? Langland on Women and Gender
This essay is part of a longer paper on L and Chaucer originally presented in 1995, here printed for the first time. Although there seems at first sight practically nothing about women and gender in PPl, in fact there is a great deal of interest. L’s personification allegory is where the most exciting material is to be found. L seems to erase gender as part of the literal level while he raises that very issue in other ways. Turning to the portrayal of ‘real’ women: L explicitly addresses the economic role of women in the division of labour on Piers’s half-acre, but focuses only on aristocratic women’s embroidery rather than other well-established roles of this class. The Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins offers a different take: here he acknowledges the pervasiveness of women’s economic activity, foregrounding their cloth-making and brewing. L also devotes much explicit attention to the institution of marriage. Marriage is an economic and political building block, not a romantic one. L is equally firm that in the economic sphere, a stable social order requires treating people in such a way as to allow them reasonable subsistence, decency, and such autonomy as their status permits. L sees a direct connection between minimal psychological and cognitive empowerment (inwit) and minimal economic empowerment. Gender as such does not disqualify a person from economic autonomy, though during a marriage the woman’s civil existence is erased. L is keenly aware of how impoverished or exploited women suffer as part of the constraints of normal life (C.9.71–87). PPl is marked by a comparative lack of religious misogyny. Meed is a useful crux to examine in this respect. That the abstract words L wanted to explore were no longer gender-marked enabled him to manipulate allegorical figures and the reader’s response to them by setting up ‘marriages’ between concepts. L, like Chaucer, doesn’t seem to be able to think about teaching and learning, religious institutions and religious authority, greed and justice, truth or falsehood, without thinking about gender. L studies are just beginning to address this dimension of PPl, which means extraordinarily rewarding work is waiting to be done, and that L’s text can be mesmerizing to students in ways our curriculum has not allowed it to be.
Piers Plowman: The Norton Critical Edition, ed. by Stephen H. A. Shepherd and Elizabeth A. Robertson (New York: Norton, 2006), pp. 616–26.
Kirk, Elizabeth D.