While most studies of pastoral trace a tradition from Theocritus and Vergil to the eclogues of the Renaissance, Katherine Little persuasively argues that English pastoral has more complex roots, mingling the continental import genre with earlier native writings about shepherds, plowmen, and rural labor. Her aim is not simply to multiply the streams of literary source, but to investigate through these writings the shifting attitudes towards real work by country laborers. Consequently, she considers also major economic, social and religious events in England that had an impact on these views. Literarary texts are seen as both a result of and a provocation for changing attitudes about work. Rather than looking back at medieval English literature from the perspective of sixteenth-century Vergilian and Mantuan pastoral, Little reverses perspective to imagine how the newly introduced mode might have appeared from the viewpoint of ongoing native traditions, and how writers might have tried to negotiate their contradictions. With a combination of historical specificity, close reading, and theoretical framing, Little lays out the remarkable transformation of English literature and society with regard to what she calls "the symbolic imagination around work" (10).
Because "The absence of a medieval pastoral that is continuous with the early modern period does not mean...the absence of any medieval influences on early modern pastoral" (3), the first section of the book examines the wide array of late medieval English writings about country life: shepherd plays, sermons, estates satires, and complaints; they emphasize its labors, whether realistically or allegorically. The allegories, or "ecclesiastical pastoral," include not only the shepherd as Christian pastor but also, drawing especially on the parable of the vineyard laborers in Matthew 20, the agricultural laborer's "work" as either good works or penance, garnering the reward of salvation. Idle shepherds are thus condemned. Moreover, shepherds are not a significantly separate category from other peasants, and even primarily religious texts often contain realistic descriptions or evocations of the hard life and poverty of rural labor. Piers Plowman obviously looms large in this landscape; indeed, "plowman" poetry becomes neatly distinct from the later shepherd poetry for its insistence on labor, both real and religious. The invocations of Piers Plowman by members of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 indicate the ease with which it could be read to refer to real labor and therefore as an appeal for reforming class relations. The ability of the laborer to signify clergy becomes, via rebellious reliteralization, the ability of the peasant to claim some knowledge and authority. Little emphasizes in this part of the book "my larger argument that all medieval representations of rural laborers, including, most importantly for this study, shepherds, belong to a tradition of writing rural labor that recognizes a reformist potential even if it does not embrace it" (38-39).
A central portion of the book examines two early sets of eclogues, by Barclay and Googe, often dismissed by literary historians as incoherent. It is this very incoherence that draws Little's attention as evidence of the struggle to combine native traditions with the newly imported continental form of pastoral. This moment corresponds significantly with the turmoil of enclosure, and its displacement of agricultural labor by idle shepherding. "The emergence of the pastoral mode has long been understood as a decisive moment in the history of literature but not, interestingly, as a decisive moment in the history of shepherds" (83). Little demonstrates, through close readings, how "the radical potential of rural laborers, in the tradition of Piers Plowman, haunts the emergence of pastoral" (52). In their clumsy efforts on the one hand to praise the moral superiority of country over town while on the other hand to close off any advocacy of social revolt, these eclogues begin the separation of plowman from shepherd; the shepherd has now switched his class affiliation from laborer to leisured class. The mystification of real rural life by pastoral poetry can be read as a "reponse to the polemic surrounding the enclosure controversy" (87) and the wrenching refiguration of social relations from the rights and mutual obligations of feudalism to capitalist private ownership. The history of pastoral must be seen, Little argues, in its connections with the history of ideological representations of labor.
Further complicating this picture is the religious Reformation with its rejection of the efficacy of works. Little asks, how did this theological change with regard to "works" affect the symbolic imagination of "work"? The answer, she argues, is a "devaluing of rural labor and a limiting of its symbolic range" (114). The final section of the book turns to Spenser, with a chapter each on the Shepheardes Calendar and Book Six of the Fairie Queene. Although readers have long noticed Spenser's combining of English and continental traditions, Little demonstrates through close readings that this merger is much rougher and more difficult than previously seen, and suggests that Spenser draws attention to the nature of that problem. With the shepherd now as poet, Little proposes that we read the May eclogue "less as what it tells us about Spenser's religious beliefs and more about what it tells us about pastoral" (146). In a close reading of the inset fable of the fox and kid, she observes that the "works" of Catholicism have become "commodities," just as faith has similarly become not something one does but something one has or does not have. Instead of Piers' communal labor, the fable leaves us more bleakly with an individual facing "a marketplace of choices after being abandoned by his mother" (155). Spenser, claims Little, marks a rupture that, while registering a sense of loss, ultimately sets aside and empties the signifying possibilities of the plowman tradition. Spenser's uneasiness at this shift manifests itself in the Fairie Queene's violent destruction of the pastoral world.
Transforming Work is a rich and important study which seeks effectively and persuasively to transform our understanding of English pastoral. It traces the complex interweaving of economic, religious, and literary changes through a focus on the significations of rural work, and demonstrates how writers who struggled with these issues contributed to the ideological transformation of English society. In the process, the study reveals also a sharp separation between English and continental literature in regard to the history of pastoral. Although the title, like so many in English studies, elides "English"- -so that at first I wanted to protest the leap from Vergil to Mantuan and the omission of important developments by Petrarch and Boccaccio-- ultimately the book justifies this omission by demonstrating the distinctness of the English experience.