Winning and Wasting in Wynnere and Wastoure and Piers Plowman
Although PPl contains a number of verbal echoes of Wynnere and Wastoure, it has a very different attitude to winning and wasting. For L, ‘wasting is always bad and winning (almost) always good’ (p. 2), and PPl repeatedly affirms that wasters squander what winners produce through their labour. Yet, Wynnere and Wastoure allows that both winners and wasters might be at fault; as Thomas Bestul has shown, Wynnere and Wastoure personify the opposed vices of avarice and prodigality, as defined by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. While critics since Gollancz have been inclined to associate Wynnere with a mercantile ‘middle class’, Burrow argues that both Wynnere and Wastoure speak primarily as members of the landed gentry, and that their debate centres on issues ‘common to that class’ (p. 5). Thus, Wynnere accuses Wastoure of mismanaging his estate and his household, while Wastoure uses various arguments to defend himself. Bestul reads the last section of the poem, where the King finds roles for both Wynnere and Wastoure, as a satire on Edward III, but Burrow understands the poem to make the pragmatic, general point that royal policy might require winning and wasting on different occasions. Even though L did not draw on Wynnere and Wastoure in his own account of winning and wasting, Burrow argues that he may have learned from the earlier poem’s use of personification. ‘Here was a fellow alliterative poet who brought this potentially abstract and distant mode to bear, like a magnifying glass, upon the realities of his time. … When L makes poetry … out of the little details of contemporary life and behaviour, it may well be that he owes something to the example of Wynnere and Wastoure‘ (pp. 11-12).
Makers and Users of Medieval Books: Essays in Honour of A. S. G. Edwards, ed. by Carol M. Meale and Derek Pearsall (Cambridge: Brewer, 2014), pp. 1-12.
Burrow, J. A.