Verena Postel

title.none: Robertson, Laborer's Two Bodies (Verena Postel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.015 07.04.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Verena Postel, University of Marburg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Robertson, Kellie. The Laborer's Two Bodies: Labor and the "Work" of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 288. $69.95 (hb) 1-4039-6516-1 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.15

Robertson, Kellie. The Laborer's Two Bodies: Labor and the "Work" of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350-1500. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Pp. 288. $69.95 (hb) 1-4039-6516-1 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Verena Postel
University of Marburg

The investigation of mental attitudes towards work is a neglected field of research on medieval culture, whereas studies in the history of technology, in economic history, in the history of the everyday working life of social groups such as craftsmen, artisans or merchants, in different regions and at different times, abound. [1] Marc Bloch, the archegete of this kind of research, had already opted for studies investigating the interrelationship of the religious, social and technical aspects of work. [2] Robertson's subject might therefore enrich our knowledge in this field. The author, director of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, sets out to describe how late medieval labor legislation in England after the plague changed mental attitudes towards labor. Workers were in short supply then and therefore had to be prevented from travelling around to negotiate better wages and working conditions. Local and national authorities tried to exercise control by fixing wages at a preplague level and limiting worker mobility. Corporal punishment in the form of penal branding was the usual way to mark rebel workers. This is said to have led to a "materialization" of labor, "since the labor laws made it necessary to embody labor (for surveillance and control) in a way that had not previously been necessary" (6). Robertson argues that the labor laws forced different layers of society "to define their work in increasingly material ways" (4). (I consciously refrain from using the author's term "classes".) Allegedly this also brought about a "novel conception of authorship as material work", "and this emerging poetics of labor was primarily a vernacular one" (3).

This new understanding of work is said to have contributed to "the laborer's two bodies" emerging in texts, analogous to the famous king's bodies described by Kantorowicz that bridged the gap between the sacred and the secular. "While the idea of the good laborer was extolled in certain types of theological discourse that proclaimed the laborer's necessity to the social whole, actual workers' bodies were legally regulated as if they were all potentially walking labor violations, continuously threatened with corporal punishment"(24 ff.). But is this story convincing? Firstly, the allegedly late-medieval materialization of work distorts historical proportions: since Late Antiquity monks had considered book writing and preaching as part of the "opus manuum", as equally salutary forms of work that fostered spiritual concentration, moral perfection, self-sufficiency and charity towards one's neighbours. Read for instance the Instituta and Collationes of John Cassian (ca. 360-430/5)! [3] Secondly, to compare her subject of investigation, the laborer, to Kantorowicz' interpretation of the role of kings is, to say the least, misleading. Robertson's arguments runs as follows: Penal branding with an "f" as one of the ways labor legislation was enforced made the body of the laborer also a symbol to be read. "Bodies effectively became texts" (15). Therefore in her view the laborer resembles the king as described by Kantorowicz, uniting a sacred, supernatural corpus mysticum with an earthly personality. I cannot follow this argument, because the king always was both at the same time, person and symbol. This was impossible for the laborer, who could either be depicted as good ploughman/Christian or idle laborer with a brand on his forehead.

There are several weaknesses of Robertson's method that must be noted. The evidence the author gives us to validate the statements made in her five chapters based on different kinds of source material is too sparse on which to build far-reaching theories. She never discusses the criteria according to which she selected her sources and she never explains how she integrated conclusions based on written and non-written sources like laws, manuscript illumination, poetry or sculpture. She does not interpret the theological texts herself but relies on the general judgements of Duby or Le Goff primarily based on French source material. (25 ff.) But the most striking deficiency is the lack of distance between her political convictions and historical interests: without an annotation or proof she states that the "materialization of manual labor through a visibility politics...allowed the first and second estates--the nobility and the clergy--to embody the labor of the third estate in ways that served the notion of an embodied commonwealth" (37).

It is certainly useful to put texts into their proper historical and social contexts, as the example of Quentin Skinner demonstrates, [4] but this should not lead to a determinism that annihilates the freedom of art, especially poetry, to affirm that "the labor ordinances necessarily [sic!] shaped the social imagery informing Chaucer's work at this period" (52). In her second chapter Robertson analyzes the Prologue of Chaucers Legend of Women and comes to the conclusion that the enforcement of the labor ordinances, in which Chaucer as a justice of peace (1385-9) took part, "necessarily [sic!] shaped the social imagery" (9). She stresses that "subject pressures...immaterial labor became materialized in the wake of the first national labor laws" (190). Robertson sees Chaucer's experience as a "matrix" (58) that shaped his literature. The same is said to be true for Langland: "the representations of poetic labor found in Chaucer and Langland" are interpreted as responses to the labor regulation (74).

In her third chapter, polemically labelled "The ideology of common profit", the author analyzes the usage of the bonum-commune concept in late medieval statutes, penitential manuals, economic treatises and poetic writings. This traditional formula is declared at once a "double-edged sword" (80) and a "plastic term" (82). In traditional theological discourse it was used to legitimize divisions of labor in society, as Robertson points out without reference to the history of the Aristotelian organic metaphor in ecclesiastical and political theory. In postplague legal and social contexts the bonum commune formula was occupied by different groups such as rebelling peasants, Lollard heretics and merchants to assert their respective usefulness for the body politic that tried to marginalize them.

But why is bonum commune stamped an ideology and translated by "common profit" instead of "common benefit"? Since antiquity this "tag phrase" (114) had a moral undertone, which vanishes when translated in a merely economic sense. I do not subscribe to the assumption that this alleged tag covered nothing more than material interests. It is discrediting the honest efforts of bishops to improve the morals of their flocks to reduce their preaching in the name of the common good to simple manipulation. The clergies of centuries using the term bonum commune were not exclusively occupied in "obscuring the link between actual profit and the extraction of the third estate's surplus value", as Robertson wants her audience to believe (87). She should have revealed her basic political bias, her materialist outlook on history, in the introduction of her study to avoid being accused of mixing scientific writing and political indoctrination. Ideas are not necessitated or determined by social situtations, they are able to influence them vice versa, as R. Koselleck has pointed out. [5]

The same holds true for her feminist convictions, which mislead the interpretations given in Chapter four dealing with an allegedly "Corporeal Style" found in epistolary collections of gentry housewives, like the Paston letters. The fact that women were subordinated to their husbands is, for instance, "proven" by a letter in which Margaret Paston asks her husband to choose the pattern and color of the cloth she is going to wear. "Margaret's requests demonstrate a kind of self-governance that is ultimately a show of submission to the lord of the household" (149). An alternative interpretation of the same letter might run as follows: "Margaret sends the sample of cloth to her husband to make him visualize how she is going to look wearing the new gown. He has to imagine her and this might incite his desire. So her intention might have been to urge him to come home." Interpretation of literature as well as historical analysis depend on the perspectives of the interpreter or historian. How can Robertson prove that Margery Kempe assumed Christ as her divine "yconomus" in order to "avoid the subordinate position of housewife"? (152) Why does religious devotion necessarily have to have an undertone of female emancipation? This may be the case, as has been shown for Late Antiquity by Evelyne Patlagean, [6] but not all the time. Examples of such prejudices might be multiplied; I just want to make the reader sensible and cautious so as not to be trapped by judgements based on bias instead of evidence.

In her fifth chapter Robertson interprets the morality play Mankind (ca. 1460), performed in East Anglia, as another response to the labor laws. The play puts forward the thesis that physical labor leads to salvation, whereas unregulated work and vagrancy are dangerous.

The summary again focusses on the relationship of "social pressures" and mentalities. The latter are seen as "subject" (190) to the social environment they evolve in - a thesis which is at least debatable. Robertson's book therefore has its merits as an incentive to a neglected field of medieval cultural history: it presents a broad range of source material measuring and evaluating "work" in late medieval Britain, it offers valuable insight when indicating the late medieval "shift from work as part of a larger, divinely sanctioned ethical system, to work seen as part of a nexus of earthly necessities" (160), but it should be read with a keen awareness of its bias.


[1] See the bibliography of the latest tour d'horizon: Robert Fossier, Le travail au moyen âge (Paris, 2000).

[2] Marc Bloch, "Le problème des regimes agraires," Bulletin de l'Institut francais de Sociologie (1932) 49-90.

[3] For high and late medieval monastic attitudes see: Klaus Schreiner, "'Brot der Mühsal'. Körperliche Arbeit im Mönchtum des hohen und späten Mittelalters," in Verena Postel, ed., Arbeit im Mittelalter (Berlin, 2006), pp. 133-170.

[4] Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," History and Theory 8 (1969): 3-53.

[5] R. Koselleck, "Begriffsgeschichte und Sozialgeschichte," in id., Vergangene Zukunft. Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt, 1979), pp. 107-129.

[6] "L'histoire de la femme déguisée en moine et l'évolution de la sainteté féminine à Byzance," Studi medievali, Ser. 3,17 (1976): 597-623.