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22.09.14 Kerby-Fulton, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry

22.09.14 Kerby-Fulton, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry

Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s most recent monograph advances an argument of such elegant explanatory power that it seems almost intuitive by the time you finish reading. At its heart is a straightforward account of a structural late-medieval labor crisis. There were always unbeneficed clerics in postconquest England, but their numbers grew markedly in the late fourteenth century. These well-educated and underemployed men found work in a variety of professional and bureaucratic roles, both secular and ecclesiastical, that rarely offered the stability and comfort of a benefice. Literate, ambitious, and insecure in their livelihoods, this “clerical proletariat” (the term is originally W. A. Pantin’s) also copied and composed a substantial portion of surviving Middle English verse. [1] They did so in search of patronage, to express themselves, and to advocate for structural change. Many of the distinctive features of the late-fourteenth-century efflorescence of English poetry--a broadly reformist outlook toward church and state, an “ambidextrous” (15 et passim) toggling between secular and religious concerns, a combination of status anxiety and social consciousness, and a distinctive narrative posture that mixes self-promotion with self-deprecation--can thus be traced back to the experience and outlook of this class of precarious workers. Clerical underemployment should not be left to social historians, Kerby-Fulton argues: the “poetics of vocational crisis” (xv et passim) is a central feature of Middle English literature, deserving of literary scholars’ attention.

After a substantive introduction that provides a helpful historical and terminological crash course on the medieval English church, the book falls into two complementary but distinct parts. Part I traces a long arc of poetic production by unbeneficed clergy from the thirteenth to mid-fifteenth century. It begins by establishing precedents for “proletarian” poetry in Early Middle English. So The Owl and the Nightingale’s cheeky promotion of Nicholas of Guildford “leave[s] no doubt that anxiety about career advancement underpins the text” (45), while Laȝamon’s subtler requests for patronage nevertheless betray his specific position between clerical training and secular employment. Wynnere and Wastoure, a satire by “a clerically trained careerist” (74) that betrays more specific knowledge of both secular administration and theology than is sometimes appreciated, fills the historical gap between those much older works and the Langlandian tradition to which Kerby-Fulton turns in the three remaining chapters of Part I.

This book’s version of the Langlandian tradition is capacious. In lieu of the anonymous alliterative satires usually understood as the “Piers Plowman tradition,” Kerby-Fulton marshals a more idiosyncratic set of touchstone texts: the Z text of Piers Plowman, John Tyckhill’s “A Bird of Bishopwood,” and the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve and John Audelay. Though the argument for Piers Plowman’s influence on these latter fifteenth-century poets is not entirely new, Kerby-Fulton offers as yet the most thorough account of their shared worldview and preoccupations. The three chapters that make up the bulk of Part I begin with an interpretation of the apologia that opens passus 5 of the C text of Piers Plowman. Drawing on the work of church historians, Kerby-Fulton shows how Langland precisely captures the expectations and resentments of a university-educated unbeneficed clerk. Langland’s Will lives by “liturgical ‘piece-work’” (80), singing for his supper, and is defensive about not performing the begging and manual labor expected of students; meanwhile, he inveighs against the ordination of bondsmen and bastards, speaking against simony in the voice of a class privilege established by regulation but circumvented in practice. The rest of Chapter Two traces echoes of these attitudes toward vocational crisis in a series of case studies of “proletarian” productions like the Z text, Hoccleve’s Series, and Tyckhill’s alliterative lyric. Chapter Three focuses on Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes and Remonstrance to Oldcastle, arguing that Hoccleve finds in Langland a model for dialogic representation of vocational crisis. The fourth chapter extends this argument in a compelling reading of Audelay’s oeuvre, which finds the chaplain’s vocational bitterness and ecclesiological critique leavened by his sincere devotion and sense of God-given purpose.

Part II turns to the English cathedral as a node of literary culture, examining “the literary culture created by those living in a liminal clerical status: the signing clerks, chantry priests, and other minor court officials of cathedrals and colleges,” which Kerby-Fulton collectively labels the “cathedral service class” (177). Three chapters illuminate this understudied institutional setting for Middle English literature. Chapter Five surveys a corpus of what Kerby-Fulton calls “cathedral lyrics”: largely anonymous poems--including Tyckhill’s “Bird” as well as better-known alliterative lyrics like “The Blacksmiths” and “Choristers’ Lament”--that were either copied for performance or show some concern with performance or music. These poems emerge out of a dialogue with liturgy, the core of the cathedral service class’s responsibilities, and reflect upon the vocation of their writers. The next chapter examines the writings of cathedral vicars choral, finding the members of this underpaid class striking positions of surprising controversy: satirizing consistory courts in a Harley lyric; mocking the episcopacy in the York Second Trial before Pilate;guiding Margery Kempe through York Minster; and memorializing Archbishop Richard Scrope, executed by Henry IV for treason. The seventh and final chapter argues that Saint Erkenwald was authored by a member of the lower clergy in the familia of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, ending the book with a sustained reading of a single poem in relation to what may have been its institutional origin.

Though a shared conceptual vocabulary and frequent cross-references knit this second part back to the first, its depth of learning and self-contained focus mean it could almost as easily have appeared as a standalone monograph. Kerby-Fulton’s account of cathedral literature is particularly enriched by her remarkable attention to the physical space of the English cathedral and its grounds. Saint Erkenwald, a fourteenth-century poem that narrates the seventh-century exhumation of a pre-Roman Briton, is usually treated as a poem about temporality. But Kerby-Fulton shows how the poem’s play with layers of time depends on its movement through the space of Old Saint Paul’s--in her hands, the poem’s big soteriological questions are necessarily inflected with a service worker’s intimate knowledge of his workplace and its routines.

Both halves of the book are shot through with this kind of fine-grained detail. Every chapter makes use of manuscript evidence down to letter-form and punctus. Each pays attention to the impressions that particular communities--London’s medieval “Latin Quarter,” the Bedern in York--leave upon the poetry that emerges from them. For Middle English scholars, the book will be pleasantly provocative in its general indifference to modern hierarchies of literary canonicity. Langlandenjoys something of a privileged position in Kerby-Fulton’s narrative, but Tyckhill is important too. Readings of The Owl and the Nightingale and Laȝamon are followed by a sensitive discussion of Arnold Fitz Thedmar’s thirteenth-century “Additions” to the London Cronica maiorum as well as “The Prisoner’s Lament,” the lyric copied alongside them. That is to say, Tyckhill and Thedmar do not simply dissolve into “context” for their more often anthologized counterparts, but are made equal partners in literary history. What emerges is a refreshingly new version of the oft-told story of “the resurgence of English poetry.” (177 et passim)

In the conclusion, Kerby-Fulton summarizes the book’s key findings. Middle English scholars would benefit from taking many of them to heart. She suggests that “clerical proletarians” (16) blur the boundary between secular and religious, for instance, and indeed the book provides a model for understanding late-medieval English culture that undoes such binaries, which are resilient despite their increasing unhelpfulness. (See also “lay/clerical” and “Chaucerian/Langlandian.”) In summarizing distinctive features of “proletarian” writing, Kerby-Fulton underlines the value of the category as novel framework for the study of Middle English poetry. Unlike courtly or monastic writers, unbeneficed clerics not only express compassion for, but also identify as, the poor. They conjure up poetic speakers that are “morally compromised but still morally arresting” (303), a lovely formula that captures the ambivalent claim that Langland or Hoccleve’s voice makes on a reader. Neither those identifications nor that quality of voice are necessarily exclusive to this class--the former can, for instance, be found in mendicant writing; the latter in the Psalms--but Kerby-Fulton’s argument that these stances taken together mark the outlook of a specific social position is entirely convincing. The claim that clerical proletarians offer particular “encouragement and counsel to women” is less so (301). Judging by the seven preceding chapters, the average unbeneficed cleric seems just as inclined toward expressions of misogyny and homosocial arrangements of power as any other late-medieval English man. Kerby-Fulton acknowledges that Hoccleve is one exception; the book does not touch on his ambiguous, agonistic role as translator of Christine de Pizan--one consequence of its impeccably multilingual but almost entirely insular focus.

Though the desire to recuperate the clerical proletarians’ gender politics might go too far, it proceeds from the book’s most laudable aim. Kerby-Fulton writes about unbeneficed clergy in an effort to provide the present with “a sense of history” congruent with its own crises, eschewing what she views as “arbitrary judgmentalism” while still honoring the ethical demands of our own moment (xviii). That desire accounts for the book’s intermittent but broadly sympathetic dialogue with Marxist thought (though a Marxist reader might quibble with Kerby-Fulton’s definition of “means of production” or “alienation”). But it also manifests in her dedication of the book to her graduate students, underlined in her preface’s frank confrontation with “what successive financial downturns, self-interested governments, and corporate models of the university have delivered” to “the young, underemployed intellectuals of our day” (xviii). That is to say, the book intends to speak to the academic jobs crisis, an admirably frank acknowledgment of the state of higher education that motivates what is otherwise a piece of pure research by a senior scholar.

The book is careful not to minimize the distress of her subjects. They enjoyed privileges of gender and education (as she is also careful to note) but genuinely suffered from their precarity. Kerby-Fulton ends by suggesting that the creativity of the clerical proletarians, which left “a legacy of major literature still appreciated today,” might be seen as a “paradise regained” after the “fortunate fall” of that suffering induced by underemployment (305). But as she acknowledges, any analogy across time is inevitably imperfect. The present precarity of educated people in rich countries will probably produce memorable new art. But it seems to be driving new forms of labor and political organization as well. Even there, though, the analogy might hold. When he coined the term “clerical proletariat,” Pantin named two examples of the class: William Langland, yes, but also John Ball.



1. W. A. Pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 28.