The Laborer’s Two Bodies

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

By 1350, the plague had left much of the English countryside depopulated, and workers were in short supply. The year before, in response to the first outbreaks of plague, the king’s council had passed the Ordinance of Laborers, a law that made it illegal for workers to take advantage of this situation, freezing wages at preplague rates and preventing workers from traveling in search of more lucrative work. Inevitably, tensions between agricultural workers and landowners ran high, and, despite the ordinance, some workers were able to negotiate better terms for themselves. In Oxfordshire, the Abbot of Eynsham was forced to make a new more favorable agreement with his few remaining tenants who had threatened to leave if their demands went unmet. Just a year later, however, conflict erupted again when justices who had assembled to hear violations against the labor ordinance were attacked near Eynsham Abbey. The attackers, behaving like “madmen and men possessed by an evil spirit,” besieged the presiding justice in the abbey and threatened to burn him alive if he failed to surrender all indictments and accusations in his possession.1 Shortly after this incident, the king dispatched William Shareshull, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, to Oxfordshire to investigate this so-called “rebellion” and punish its perpetrators. Unsurprisingly, when Shareshull opened parliament the following February (the first time parliament had met in three years due to outbreaks of plague), his speech denounced the two greatest problems facing the kingdom: failure to keep the peace and the severe disruption caused by laborers’ unwillingness to serve despite the 1349 ordinance.

Keywords

Corporal Punishment Labor Regulation Fourteenth Century Grammatical Metaphor Poetic Work 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    CPR, 1348–1350, vol. 8, p. 594. It is clear that villein services in this area were under significant strain from plague mortality as villeins renegotiated more favorable labor services with Eynsham Abbey in 1349; see Eynsham Cartulary, ed. H.E. Salter, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Historical Society, 1907–8), vol. 2, pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    RP, vol. 2, pp. 225–27. Bertha Putnam, The Place in Legal History of Sir William Shareshull, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, 1350–1361 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1950), speculates that the Oxford incident was “a factor in leading to the enactment of the more rigid statute of 1351” (p. 147).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the First Decade after the Black Plague (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908), p. 10, 12. On the need for the 1351 parliament, see RP, vol. 2, p. 225.Google Scholar
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    Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G.H. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 102–103. All subsequent references refer to this edition.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Knighton, pp. 120–21. Contemporary historians have been kinder to the statute. W.M. Ormrod, “The English Government and the Black Death of 1348–49,” in England in the Fourteenth Century, ed. W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1986), pp. 178–79, asserts that “the labour laws were a good deal more effective in the decade after the first outbreak of the Black Death than they came to be thereafter.”Google Scholar
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    For the wording of the 1349 ordinance, see SR, vol. 1, p. 307. On the precedent-setting nature of the ordinance, see John G. Bellamy, Criminal Law and Society in Late Medieval and Tudor England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984). Bellamy describes the radical and anomalous nature of this clause, explaining that “the role of witnesses in common criminal process received clear recognition in statutes only towards the end of the reign of Henry VII” (pp. 34–35). Bellamy speculates that the 1349 preference for two witnesses over the usual jury was due to the fact that the upper class of landowners may have been suspicious that presenting juries may have felt sympathy for the laborers and thus been less likely to report offenses (p. 9).Google Scholar
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  20. 22.
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  25. 28.
    This is the explanation offered by Joseph Dahmus, William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury 1381–1396 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), p. 223. On the controversy with the Bishop of Salisbury over rights of visitation, see Dahmus, p. 149. On Courtenay’s involvement (along with Arundel) in the dispute over the collection of a papal subsidy blocked by Richard II and Parliament, see Dahmus, p. 180.Google Scholar
  26. This episode seems even more unusual if compared with the types of entries found in a contemporary bishop’s register, The Register of John Waltham, Bishop of Salisbury, 1388–1395, ed. T.C.B. Timmins, Canterbury and York Society (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1994). Most of the offenses in Waltham’s register are social and moral ones: tithe-dodgers, suspected heretics, adulterers, polygamists, or incapable priests. The labor offense of Courtenay’s carters seems to be a different category of charge, one found less frequently in episcopal registers.Google Scholar
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    R.A.L. Smith, Canterbury Cathedral Priory: A Study in Monastic Administration (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1943), notes that “while many labor services (like ploughing or mowing) on Kentish manors in the fourteenth century could be commuted for money rents, the exception to this general rule was carrying services, however. This was seen to be an essential service since it brought food to the monks household and carried waste hence” (pp. 122–23).Google Scholar
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  30. 34.
    On labor obligations in Wingham, see F.R.H. Du Boulay, The Lordship of Canterbury: An Essay on Medieval Society (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1966), p. 159.Google Scholar
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    Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 87.Google Scholar
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  38. and in Categories of Medieval Culture, trans. G.L. Campbell (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 264–65. Paul Freedman compares Le Goff and Gurevich on this subject in Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 24–25.Google Scholar
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    The so-called “Three Orders” model of society was most commonly articulated as “those who pray, those who fight, and those who work.” Freedman argues that the Three Orders scheme relied on a model of mutuality and that “implicit within the idea of mutuality is the notion that labor has a merit at least comparable to that of spiritual and physical protection” though “labor never lost its lowly representation as ‘servile’” (Images, pp. 24–25). The foundational discussion of the Three Orders is found in Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). On the Three Orders as the result of the failure of the Cistercian ideal of monastic labor,Google Scholar
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    A recent discussion of immaterial labor can be found in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 28–30, 289–94.Google Scholar
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    See E.G. Kimball, Rolls of the Gloucestershire Sessions of the Peace, 1361–98, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 62 (1947), p. 12.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Rosemary Horrox, trans. and ed., The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 306–308. This constitution was originally issued in 1350 by Archbishop Islip; however, it was reissued verbatim in 1362 by Islip’s successor, Simon Sudbury. Similar concerns are found in a 1349 letter from Bishop of Rochester to one of his archdeacons (Horrox, p. 290). This concern that parsons and parish priests were leaving cure of souls also appears in the C-version of Piers Plowman, Prologue, 11. 81–94.Google Scholar
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    This anxiety emerges in the later poetry of both Chaucer and Langland where each stages himself as the object of a labor inquiry. It is no coincidence that both poets do this in or around 1388, the year that the most far-reaching revisions of the labor statutes were passed. For a discussion of Chaucer’s relation to the labor statutes, see chapter 3 below. On Langland, see below and Anne Middleton, “Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,” in Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, eds., Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 208–317.Google Scholar
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    The poem’s most recent editor has argued for a date of ca. 1352–70. For a summary of the dating arguments, see Wynnere and Wastoure, ed. Stephanie Trigg, EETS 297 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. xxii–xxvii. All references to the poem refer to this edition.Google Scholar
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    John Scattergood, “Winner and Waster and the Mid-fourteenth Century Economy,” in The Writer as Witness: Literature as Historical Evidence, ed. Tom Dunne (Cork: Cork University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 51–53.Google Scholar
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    On the 1358 incident, see KB 27/413, Rex m. 20; discussed in Putnam, Place in Legal History, p. 148. We have a record of a previous incident involving Shareshull in 1344: when Shareshull had finished investigating the death of a king’s servant in Ipswich and departed, some suspects in the case regrouped on the steps of the town hall and “caused proclamation to be made that William of Shareshull was to appear before them under penalty of a hundred pounds and William of Notton under penalty of forty pounds”; Shareshull was later to frame the 1349 ordinance and Notton to help him enforce it. See G.O. Sayles, ed., Select Cases in the Court of the King’s Bench under Edward III, vol. 6, Seiden Society 82 (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1965), pp. 37–38.Google Scholar
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    See, for instance, Thomas L. Reed, Middle English Debate Poetry and the Aesthetics of Irresolution (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1990), pp. 261–93, esp. p. 286. Similarly, Nicolas Jacobs sees the dream debate as opposing a rising mercantile ideology (embodied in Wynnere’s arguments) to “an old-fashioned, essentially feudal and rural social order” (embodied in Wastoure). Jacobs sees the prologue’s poetic problems as a direct result of Wastoure’s waning influence and therefore concludes that the poet is more sympathetic to Wastoure (“The Typology of Debate and the Interpretation of Wynnere and Wastoure,” Review of English Studies, n.s. 36 [1985]: 496 [481–500]). My argument, on the other hand, is more similar to Lois Roney’s which sees in the dream vision debate national (and even international) level economic policy rather than just household prescriptions for contemporary economic problems (Roney, pp. 1084–86).Google Scholar
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    Pierre Bourdieu, “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods,” in The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 74.Google Scholar
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    Derek Pearsall, Piers Plowman: An edition of the C-text, York Medieval Texts, 2nd ser. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), notes that, not only is more space given to this problem in the C-version but, “the hostility to ‘minstrels’ is throughout C more clear-cut than in AB” (p. 29, n. 1. 35). All citations from the poem refer to this edition.Google Scholar
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    The relevant passages in the C-version of Piers Plowman include 7. 82–119, 8. 48–52, 9. 128–33, 11. 31–35 and 15. 194–216. On the topic of poetry and minstrelsy, see E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet, Yale Studies in English 113 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), pp. 136–55. Ralph Hanna, “Will’s Work,” in Written Work (eds. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton), pp. 44–53, argues that Langland sees his own work as “God’s minstrelsy” (a very different attitude than that found in the Prologue to Wynnere and Wastoure).Google Scholar
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  78. Another consideration of Piers in relation to labor is Derek Pearsall’s “Piers Plowman and the Problem of Labour,” in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. James Bothwell et al. (York: York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 123–32.Google Scholar
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    The idea of seeing correct social order in syntax is not, of course, Langland’s innovation. As Ernst Curtius, James Murphy, and Martin Irvine (to name just a few) have shown, grammatical thinking was an important category for both classical and medieval thinkers. See Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York, 1963), pp. 436–45;Google Scholar
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    See D. Vance Smith, The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 159.Google Scholar
  83. According to John Alford, “The Grammatical Metaphor: A Survey of Its Use in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 57 (1982): 728–60, direct relation or grammatical rightness implies moral rightness in late antique grammarians such as Donatus and is continued by many medieval commentators including John of Salisbury and Alain de Lille (746–50).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Margaret Amassian and James Sadowsky, “A Study of the Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman C: IV: 335–409,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971): 457–76, argue that the metaphor under consideration shows Langland’s mature consideration of the nature of Meed “within a larger view of human affairs as they ought ideally to connect with God” (458). Anne Middleton, “Two infinites: Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman,” ELH 39 (1972): 169–88, sees in Langland’s use of grammatical metaphor in the Banquet scene as attempt “to make human language eschatologi-cally adequate, valid beyond the narrow base in the world and experience upon which the terms of its metaphors rest” (172).Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson 2006

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