The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England

By Mulvey, Thomas P. | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2012 | Go to article overview

The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England


Mulvey, Thomas P., Anglican and Episcopal History


The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England. By Kate Classons. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010, Pp. xi, 389. $40.00, paper.)

A central argument in Kate Crassons' study is that literature, rather than history, best reveals the most urgent concerns that characterized the debates on poverty in late medieval England (5). A historical approach, Crassons maintains, would likely reveal a somewhat steady hardening of cultural attitudes toward poverty. Such an approach would show that I here was a shift in cultural discourse away from viewing poverty as the fulfillment of Christian practice and piety (Franciscanism), toward viewing poverty as a violation of Christian practice and piety (antifraternalism). Crassons, however, is not interested in exploring that such a shift took place. Rather, she is interested in showing how such a shift can be seen across a range of generically diverse texts, texts that are unified only by the attention that they pay to the late medieval cultural discourses .uu\ debates about poverty (12, emphasis in the original).

Crassons recognizes that her study may seem unsatisfying to readers who seek "a clear trajectory or a single argument that neatly sums up the literature of poverty in late medieval England" (12). Her intent is "to resist the lure of such grand narratives and instead primarily focus on the subtle rhetorical maneuvers of such texts" (13). The medieval texts examined by Crassons include two poems (Piers Plowman, 1360-1387) and Pierre the Ploughman's Crede, ca. 1394), two WycliffUe sermons, an autobiography (The Book of Margery Kempe, 1436 ), and three theatrical pageants from the York Corpus Christi drama. In the epilogue she places the medieval texts in conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich 's contemporary work, Nickel and Dimed: Or (Not) Celling try in America (2001).

The notion of "claims" is the lens through which Crassons examines her chosen texts. Claims operate on two axes. On one axis are the claims that are made for or against poverty, especially voluntary poverty. Should voluntary poverty be viewed as a sign of sanctity or a sign of sinfulness? ( )n the other axis are the claims made upon others by poverty. What claims does poverty make upon those who are involuntarily poor? Who may claim to be poor? …

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