Isabel Davis

title.none: Masciandaro, Voice of the Hammer (Isabel Davis)

identifier.other: baj9928.0706.009 07.06.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Isabel Davis, Birkbeck College, University of London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Masciandaro, Nicola. The Voice of the Hammer: The Meaning of Work in Middle English Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 209. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-03498-6; ISBN-10: 0-268-03498-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.06.09

Masciandaro, Nicola. The Voice of the Hammer: The Meaning of Work in Middle English Literature. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xii, 209. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-03498-6; ISBN-10: 0-268-03498-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Isabel Davis
Birkbeck College, University of London

Whilst literary scholars like Lee Patterson, Steven Justice, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Gregory Sadlek, Ethan Knapp, Kellie Robertson, Judith Ferster and Catherine Batt, amongst others, have been publishing on attitudes to labour in Middle English literature for some time, work is not always thought to be a very poetical subject. As such, there are still significant gaps in the literary investigations into labour in this period. And the subject is important: the lexicon of labour dominates the cultural imagination of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries; it is ubiquitous because of the experience of labour shortage in that same period, an experience which elicited both a drastic legislative and a rich literary response. The introduction to Nicola Masciandaro's Voice of the Hammer concurs, asserting the importance of work as a "significant category of experience" (1), stressing that this study "seeks to understand several ways Middle English literature made meaning out of work" (2). Masciandaro states his argument thus: "late medieval society, through its language and literature, conceptualized work as a distinct, problematical feature of life and that the work-related crises of the period effected corresponding needs to articulate and question work's meaning and value" (2).

The book is divided into three chapters. The first considers the Middle English words for work: werk, swink, travail, labour and craft, and what their introduction into the language and their meanings reveal about social attitudes in the period. This chapter finally settles on werk, in particular, as a cultural 'key word', which it carries into the discussion in the next two chapters. The second chapter considers the medieval histories of work and how they were written in (or indeed out) of contemporary accounts of human origin; its evidence is variously drawn from poetry by Gower and Chaucer, John Ball's sermon and a history of masonry contained in the Cooke MS (British Museum, Add. MS 23198). Masciandaro is interested in charting, for example, the medieval historiography of labour from John Gower's "progressive account of the history of work" to Chaucer's more "primitivist" approach in his poem The Former Age. The third chapter is concerned with questions of subjectivity in relation to labour and laziness. To this end Masciandaro uses Gower, again, and Langland's C-text Apologia pro vita sua. The majority of this chapter, though, discusses fragment VIII of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, arguing that it constitutes "Chaucer's deepest reflection on work as a requirement, not only of the conditions of life, but of human nature itself" (4). This book makes bold and exciting promises: to topple the fallacies about labour erected by grand historical narratives and to offer, in their place, a careful, class-conscious calibration of late medieval attitudes to work. In particular it alludes to the household and implies that it will look at medieval work in relation to the debates about the separation of "work from the life of the household".

There are some interesting discussions in The Voice of the Hammer. The consideration of the Cooke MS history of masonry and cultural memory is original and thoughtful. Some of the best close readings, on the Apologia pro vita sua in Passus V of the C- text of Piers Plowman are suggestive. It is better when it discusses something particular: a particular kind of work (masonry) or a particular figure (the dreamer in Piers Plowman). In contrast, in several places this kind of particularity is abandoned. For example, an analysis of John Ball's sermon theme concludes that: attests to the malleability of that history [of work], thefact that the history of work subsisted within medieval culture less as narrative than as a multitude of relatively discrete episodes and topoi that achieved significance within particular and diverse contexts. (65)

This kind of generality suffuses a book which regularly, in fact, ignores particularity and diversity. Indeed, my problem with this book grew as I read. A lot of time is spent justifying its approaches rather than analysing evidence. For example, Masciandaro's valid and not particularly controversial intention to use vocabulary as evidence takes up a great deal of the first chapter, leaving itself less room for conclusions which, when they come, are often somewhat bathetic as a result. I offer one example:

...the Middle English vocabulary of work, in its multiplicity,encompasses an array of forms of work, some of which are more'work' than others, yet links them all within a phenomenology oflabor in its most essential form. (55)

Disappointingly, despite raising the issue on the first page of chapter one, Masciandaro never again returns to the "life of the household" and doesn't engage with medievalists like Sarah Rees Jones and D. Vance Smith (for example) who are looking closely and critically at the complexion of that "life" and how it intersects with the idea and practice of work. Finally, although Masciandaro regularly asks interesting questions, he often reiterates them rather than supplying answers, not always managing to get deeply into the historical detail--the people, texts, places, times or objects (not even hammers)--in the process. For example, this book is rarely troubled by dates, leading to a number of fuzzy results, as when Masciandaro uses the sixteenth-century prologue appended by Henrician propagandists to the earlier debate poem, The Plowman's Tale, as if it were authentic evidence for Middle English lexical use (38).

Despite its purported interest--especially in the third chapter--with individuality and subjectivity, this book is also vague about people, unable to individuate them except in global statements about class difference. In particular, the word 'humanity' is used in relation to labour without any acknowledgement of its sexual division and the different cultural values assigned to, say, digging and childrearing. And 'man' is used unapologetically throughout to mean 'humanity'. I offer just one of many examples: "Work is not only a relation between man and nature but a relation between men, a social relation" (32). This does not, as one might expect, lead onto a discussion about homosociality with a reference to Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick's seminal book Between Men, because the terms 'man' and 'men' here mean 'people'. However, because so few would disagree with the conclusion that work is a social transaction, it hardly needs to be stated. In its flat and unnuanced argument about status, throughout which the kind of stylistic and conceptual wooliness evident in the sentence cited above is sustained, this book never considers other categories: race, age and / or gender. Whilst these issues of gender and language are dismissed by the popular conservative press as "political correctness", in the academy it is now accepted by scholars in all fields that such terms should be deployed with an accuracy which admits the achievements of feminism and its iconoclastic dismantling of restrictive patriarchal ideologies. This inattention to language is evident elsewhere in The Voice of the Hammer, which subjects a modern English translation of the French and Latin works of John Gower to close literary analysis, yet simultaneously frustrates beginning students by citing a much translated critic like Jacques le Goff in French, providing no English translation. However, in its linguistic imprecision and oversight, this book reveals a significant gendered lacuna.

In the first chapter Masciandaro elects to look at "the semantic structure of the vocabulary (associated with work) and its cultural significance" (2). However, this book demonstrates, I think, a disinclination to consider all the nuances of this vocabulary and, in particular, the discussion of travail and labour never considers, except in a cursory aside, the sense that both those terms carried in Middle English: of childbirth. This is an odd omission because the fact of childbirth is one which, more than any other, has dictated the economic rules to which both men's and women's labour is subject. This is the cursory aside:

Like travail, labour is strongly tied to effort andpain. Etymologically, labour has been compared to theverb labor, meaning to slip or fall--a homographiccoincidence that ties into one elegant knot the primorumparentum lapsus and the double labour imposed upon them. (16)

This passage illustrates perfectly the style of this book, a style which reproduces and reinforces medieval assumptions about labour. The "homographic coincidence" here is between the Latin noun labor--work, effort, fatigue, distress--and the Latin verb labor--to glide, slip, fall. This "homographic coincidence" leads Masciandaro into his next statement about labour, and its occurrence in the third chapter of Genesis. Given this, one might expect a bit more on the exact relationship between the two kinds of labour--digging and childbearing--with which Adam and Eve are differently cursed, which, although they were conflated in the medieval imagination, are two quite different things. There is an elliptical footnote about the sexual and reproductive meanings of labour, which affords us only the brief statement that "...both labour and travail may signify the labour of childbirth" (154, n. 43). This misprision leaves us wondering whether Masciandaro thinks that the two senses of labour--in food production and childbirth--are entirely different things misaligned in a "homographic coincidence", or so evidently the same thing and so indubitably "work" that they need not be distinguished.

This book argues that "[t]he medieval vocabulary of work comprises fundamental evidence of medieval attitudes to work, evidence that has its own story to tell and that should not simply be assigned a place within a pre-existing historical framework" (9). But at best this book displays a lack of curiosity about the lexical evidence, at worst it has systematically concealed the story presented by that evidence, writing out that evidence because it doesn't fit with its "pre- existing historical framework". Whilst, obviously, gender is not going to be the principal category of every book, one would nonetheless expect a gesture, a paragraph, a sentence in the main text, even a whole endnote, an acknowledgement of some kind that the category of gender has, more than any other, significantly altered the study of labour and become fully integrated into historical considerations of economic power differentials. Like its medieval sources this study presses different kinds of work into a single mould.

Whilst areas abound in which we might have expected this book to display some curiosity about people and the factors that individuate them (such as their gender), Masciandaro's silence persists. One glaring example is exposed by a small flash of a gendered interest in discussion of Chaucer's Second Nun when we are told that she desires "an authorship conventionally unavailable to women" (133). The word "conventionally" is politic, and does just enough to forestall a list of all the female authors of the Middle Ages who exploited the patriarchal fantasy of their illiteracy to authorise themselves and their work, deploying the kinds of rhetorical strategies which Chaucer parodies in the Prologue to The Second Nun's Tale. However, the brevity of this statement points up the problem. Women's creative work, in language or anything else, is dismissed by Masciandaro as being largely denied them. This is belied by the extensive debate on women's, and particularly nuns' literacy which has been taking place in the field. The Second Nun's preoccupation with "busyness" and "ydelnesse" in her Prologue is answered, Masciandaro argues, by her making her Tale look (like others of The Canterbury Tales, in fact) as if it is written rather than spoken. Surely, though, the Second Nun's search for productive labour in her Prologue is more obviously satisfied by the imagery of motherhood in the Tale. The language of conception clearly suggests St Cecelia's martyrdom as travail, through which she brings the early church into the world. Valerian, giving up his conjugal rites over Cecilia, prays to Christ, commending him as a "Sower of chaast counseil, hierde of us alle, / The fruyt of thilke seed of chastitee / That thou hast sowe in Cecilie" (192-4), in a motif which imagines Christ as a shepherd or agricultural workman who will effect a spiritual conception, and substitute for Valerian himself, producing masculine (re)production as a single project. Cecilia's death is miraculous because: "Thre dayes lyved sche in this torment, / And nevere cessed hem the faith to teche / That sche hadde fostred" (537-9). A study that was more interested in medieval words might have noted that the word fostred in Middle English has the very specific sense of "to nourish or feed", but can mean more broadly "to bring up a child with parental care". Her followers are, then, infantilized as children to a mother who never abandons, at great personal cost to herself, the labour of teaching them. The bequest of St Cecilia's household, along with her "moebles and hir thing", as a church to her followers, also suggests her as a mother who continues her work as a home maker even beyond death.

Finally, central to the study of work in late medieval England are historians like Judith M. Bennett, P.J.P. Goldberg, Caroline Barron and Barbara Hanawalt. The refusal to engage with any of their contributions or anything like them, to agree or disagree, has indicated only too clearly that their important work, which has implications far beyond a narrow study of gender, is viewed by Masciandaro as an irrelevant sideshow to some other main act. [1] Indeed, he is unable to discover anything more recent on women than Eileen Power's 1922 study Medieval English Nunneries and Shulamith Shahar's very general 1981 study, The Fourth Estate, which is neither particular to England nor is it a history of the late Middle Ages. If Masciandaro was disinclined to deal with the literature on women's work, childbirth and / or the household he could have explicitly acknowledged--even in passing--that his was a study of masculinity, in the way that D. Vance Smith does--and not just in passing--in his article "Body Doubles", which shares with The Voice of the Hammer interests in medieval labour, narratives of origin, and alchemy. [2] In offering a universal history of humanity and work in the Middle Ages, Masciandaro risks reinstating patriarchal values and employs far too blunt an instrument to define, in any significant detail, the power differentials that structure medieval labour ideologies. In conclusion, I couldn't recommend this book to a student except as a quintain at which she could tilt.


[1] Pamela Sharpe, "Continuity and Change: Women's History and Economic History in Britain," The Economic History Review 48 (1995): 353-69, p. 356.

[2] D. Vance Smith, "Body Doubles: Producing the Masculine Corpus," in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffery Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (New York: Garland, 1997), pp. 3-19.