The Medieval Review 10.05.16

Hazell, Dinah. Poverty in Late Middle English Literature: The Meene and the Riche. Dublin Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009. Pp. 233. $65 hb ISBN 978-1-84682155-4. .

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Harper
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Dinah Hazell's book is a broad treatment of poverty as depicted in a variety of Middle English literary works. As Hazell points out in the introduction, critics interested in this topic have generally gravitated to Piers Plowman and a few other related texts; Hazell's project is to locate the theme as depicted in other, lesser- known Middle English texts. Broadly speaking, the book is structured following the categories laid out by Michel Mollat in his influential The Poor in the Middle Ages, but Hazell also uses poverty as an entry-point into exploring a wider range of medieval English attitudes surrounding money and social status. Each chapter begins with an overview of the social and economic conditions relevant to its particular form of poverty, and then moves on to a close reading of several representative texts depicting it.

Chapter 1, "Aristocratic Poverty," examines the trajectory of romance heroes who experience poverty: Ywain (from Ywain and Gawain), Sir Amadace, Sir Cleges, Sir Launfal, and Sir Orfeo. She argues that poverty in these romances allows the romance hero, and by extension the sympathetic audience, to reassess his moral priorities. Typically the romance hero loses his wealth due to excessive spending, either on behalf of his dependents or in order to maintain his social state. His loss of wealth results in social isolation as he attempts to hide his predicament from others, and is sometimes even abandoned by those who previously benefited from his largesse. The protagonist experiences many adventures in adversity, and finally regains all, typically through supernatural means.

Chapter 2, "Urban Poverty," covers a wider range of genres, from the thirteenth-century romance Havelok to Chaucer's Prioress's Tale to the early fifteenth-century satire London Lickpenny and Thomas Hoccleve's autobiographical prologue to The Regiment of Princes. The centerpiece to this chapter is Hazell's treatment of the early fourteenth-century text The Simonie, which occasions a long digression on estates satire. Hazell suggests that certain sorts of abuse appear over and over in complaint literature not because they had become a literary topos, but because they never ceased to be a problem in the period. She similarly reminds readers of the difficulty and delicacy involved in distinguishing "the difference between characterization...for purposes of scrutiny as in social commentary, and those [characterizations] invented or manipulated for purposes of social control" (77).

Chapter 3, "Rural Poverty" focuses on the lives of poor country people as depicted in two of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Clerk's Tale and the Nun's Priest's Tale, and the Shepherds' Plays from the Towneley Manuscript. Hazell suggests that each of these texts accurately and realistically portrays the plight of peasants in the countryside.

Chapter 4, "Apostolic Poverty," looks at depictions of voluntary poverty, both within established religious orders and among holy individuals. The texts examined are a real miscellany: social criticism and satire ranging from The Land of Cokaygne to Gower's Vox Clamantis; lyrics; Fitzralph's anti-mendicant sermon Defensio Curatorum (apparently in its Middle English translation by Trevisa, though Hazell seems to treat the two as interchangeable); saints' lives; and the penitential romance Sir Gowther. The coherence of this chapter suffers from the variety of genres and topics summarized.

Chapter 5, "Solutions and Attitudes," concludes the book by reviewing the various ways in which charity might make its way to the impoverished: hospitals, doles from the tables of monasteries, parish poor relief, guilds, and individual generosity as expressed in bequests and the endowment of almshouses.

The main strength of Poverty in Late Middle English Literature is that it brings together a variety of different texts depicting poverty in disparate ways and with disparate rhetorical emphases. Hazell notes in her acknowledgments that she began this book during research on Piers Plowman, and the book does provide a much wider range of examples than is available in Langland. In that sense, it positions itself as a companion volume to Anne M. Scott's Piers Plowman and the Poor, also published by Four Courts Press. Many of these texts have never before been brought into conversation with each other, and Hazell's book succeeds in showing that such a conversation is possible.

However, the scope of the book is its downfall. It describes, rather than advances an argument about, depictions of poverty in late medieval English literature. It is neither a monograph nor a survey, lacking both the focused argument that characterizes the first and the overarching structure that characterizes the second. It tends to treat texts in isolation and out of chronological order, and as often as not merely highlights the presence of poverty in a text, rather than explaining its overall significance or relation to other depictions. And all too often the book's main thread disappears behind a digression: trouthe in chapter 1, for instance; the discussion of estates satire in chapter 2; or the oppressive taxes levied upon the English populace in chapter 6.

Particular textual readings can be very insightful. For instance, in chapter 3, Hazell's reading of the Clerk's Tale depicts Griselda as the victim of her own impoverished upbringing. Hazell examines the text from a psychological angle, concluding that Griselda's patient endurance of suffering as a child has inured her to pain until she can no longer tell the difference between circumstantial trials and intentional abuse. In other words, the effects of poverty linger long afterward. Hazell stops short of attributing these conclusions to Chaucer himself, but her reading makes vivid the ways in which Chaucer's Griselda is a victim not just of a cruel husband but of a crushing economic order.

The introduction to Poverty in Late Middle English Literature announces an ambitious project: to recover the multiple realities of late medieval English poverty through the voices of vernacular authors. This book provides many directions for further research in the primary texts, and creates unexpected and interesting juxtapositions between texts that normally are not read together. However, its structure and lack of a single central argument undercut its ultimate value to scholars researching this topic.