Walking at Night: Scribal Variants, Poverty, and Prostitution in a Piers Plowman Manuscript

In one of the most moving additions to the C-text of Piers Plowman, Langland highlights the plight of impoverished mothers, who are some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented figures of his society:

And hemsulue also soffre muche hunger
And wo in wynter-tymes and wakynge on nyhtes
To rise to the reule to rokke the cradel,
Bothe to carde and to kembe, to cloute and to wasche. [1] (77-80)

Mary of Egypt
Saint Mary of Egypt, a reformed prostitute saint, is depicted outside the church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris. Photo credit © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Though these lines form only a part of Langland’s snapshot of working-class women, they poignantly convey the life of a working mother as she sacrifices her own well-being to feed her children, obeys the regulation of an infant’s nocturnal feeding schedule, and takes in domestic labour to make ends meet.

The passage excerpted above has been passed down through the Pearsall edition of the C-Text, but a little digging into the scribal variants across different manuscripts opens up a realm of possibilities for additional layers of meaning that could be added to the text. The scribe of the Cambridge University Library Dd. 3. 13 manuscript invokes a particularly intriguing possibility when he writes that these women were not “wakynge on nyhtes,” but “walkynge on nyhtes.”

‘Walking at night’ was associated with all sorts of immorality in medieval England, summed up in Chester Mystery Cycle when Jesus declares that “whosoever walketh abowte in night, hee tresspasseth all agaynst the right.”[2] Night-walking is specifically associated with sexual immorality by the Wife of Bath when she excuses her own desire to walk at night by saying that she is doing so to see the “wenches”[3] that her husband sleeps with (III l.397-398). Religious and secular legal discourses indicate that there was little distinction made in medieval England between women of “loose morals” and those who were involved in prostitution.[4]

In the Cambridge manuscript, then, there is a possibility that at least one scribe allowed for a moving portrayal of women forced by economic necessity into prostitution, even if he retain associations of immorality. Canon law made no allowances for such a thing, as the church viewed extreme poverty as a condition that led a woman into a life of prostitution, but not a mitigating factor.[5] On the level of the particular scribe, however, the addition of a single letter pushes us to consider the possibility that at least some readers could understand shades of complexity in a practice that is otherwise condemned, even by Langland himself.

When it comes to a poem with such a complex and enigmatic textual tradition as Piers Plowman, each manuscript bears an important witness to the text. Each scribal variant might get us a little closer to an authorial reading, but it also might give us insight into the ways the text could be misread or misunderstood by scribes and readers. Even if the reading in the manuscript bears little or no resemblance to Langland’s poetry, it may be the product of a scribe “elucidating the sense and significance in a text according to the priorities of their own period and culture.”[6] Even when a misreading is simply an error on the scribe’s part, it provides an example of how some medieval readers might have encountered and interpreted the text in ways that complement or contradict the authorial sense of a passage.

Leanne MacDonald
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

References:

[1] William Langland, Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2008)

[2] “The Glovers Playe” from The Chester Mystery Cycle, ed. R.M. Lumiansky and David Mills (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 244.

[3] From The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987). Ruth Mazo Karras argues that though Alysoun is not a prostitute per se, she uses language of commerce to talk about her sexuality and the practicalities of marriage. See Karras, “Sex, Money, and Prostitution in Medieval English Culture” in Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler and Jacqueline Murray (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 202.

[4] Karras, “Sex, Money, and Prostitution,” 211.

[5] James Brundage, “Prostitution in the Medieval Canon Law,” Signs 1, no. 4 (1976): 836.

[6] M. B. Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes: A Closer Look at Scribes (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008), 68.

The Pearl in the Dragon’s Belly

St. Margaret, identifiable by her dragon in the lower left corner, otherwise resembles a fashionable lady of contemporary European courts, presenting her as an attractive model for the readers of this book of hours, among whom was numbered Anne Boleyn; book of hours, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500; BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v

Hagiography, or the biographies of saints, was one of the most popular genres in the Middle Ages. This was because saints could be valuable moral exemplars: models of virtuous behavior that ordinary people were called on to admire and emulate. But they were also popular because exciting stories of the struggle between good and evil – and the miracles that saints performed – made for rollicking good tales, and vivid illustrations to go along with them. Some of the colorful tales of saints, like Patrick, Christopher, and Catherine, have already found their way into this blog. Today, I’d like to put the spotlight on Margaret of Antioch, one of my personal favorites, both for the dramatic story of her martyrdom, and especially for the beautiful iconography that makes her one of the easiest saints to recognize and identify in medieval art.

Illuminated initial “A” showing Margaret, simultaneously being devoured by the dragon and bursting out unharmed; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Royal MS D. vi, f. 220r

Margaret, or Marguerite, is, as all Francophiles will know, the French word for “daisy.” In Old French, it could also mean “pearl,” making the name a popular spur to etymological and allegorical puns. The most famous of these in English literature may be the poem Pearl (by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), whose elegiac dream-vision about a dropped pearl is often read as a lament for the death of a young daughter probably named Margaret. And it is with this etymology – Margaret for pearl – that Jacob de Voraigne, the author of the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), one of the most widely read medieval collections of saints’ lives, began his life of St. Margaret.   Margaret is a “pearl” for her humility, recalling the diminutive size of the jewel, and even more for the whiteness of her virgin purity. She was one of the many virgin martyrs of early Christianity, and her story resembles many others in its general outline.

A servant, bringing Margaret food in prison; Tectino, Life of Margaret of Antioch in verse, Italy, 1st half of the 15th century; BL Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

She was raised by her nurse as a Christian, and grew into a remarkably beautiful young woman. But her beauty would be her downfall, as she caught the eye of the pagan prefect Olybrius. The lustful Roman wanted her for a wife or concubine, and ordered her brought to him. When he found she was a Christian, he demanded she convert, but she – refusing to betray her faith and wishing to maintain her virginity as part of her commitment to Christ – stood her ground. Olybrius ordered her tortured and thrown into prison to induce her to relent.

Margaret being tortured; Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320; Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 308v

It is while Margaret was in prison that the narrative takes a distinctive turn. The sort of psychological warfare waged by Olybrius is distressing to Margaret, and so she prays to God for a more tangible opponent in her struggles. He obliges, and a dragon appears in her cell, which devours her whole. Margaret, however, is not so easily defeated – either by lusty pagans or by dragons – and makes the sign of the cross. On this action, the dragon bursts open, and Margaret emerges from his belly, whole and unharmed. It is this violent victory over fanged and fearsome evil that gives rise to the most popular way of depicting Margaret, sometimes in the act of emerging from a dragon’s belly and sometimes more sedately trampling it under her feet or holding it, subdued, by a leash or chain. Interestingly, while the story was the aspect of her tale that most caught artists’ imaginations, it was one that met with skepticism in the Latin hagiographic tradition, and which Jacob de Voraigne himself dismisses as apocryphal. This did not, however, dent its popularity in the vernacular tradition (see Cazelles, 216-217).

Margaret bursts unharmed from the back of the dragon, while a scrap of her garment hangs from the mouth of the greedy beast, still in the process of devouring her; book of hours, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century; Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

Once Margaret emerges from the dragon, her ordeal is not over. A second demon appears, this one in the shape of a man, described in some versions as hideous and black. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, and asserts that he has come to avenge his brother, the dragon, whom she has just killed (see Cazelles, e.g. 224). But this new foe is no more successful than the last: Margaret seizes him by the hair, and tramples him underfoot, beating him and interrogating him, before banishing him back to hell. Margaret’s physical victory over these demonic foes renders tangible her spiritual victory over her pagan captors – but from these she does not physically escape. After a further round of torture – during which her fortitude and miraculous invulnerability earn thousands of additional converts to Christianity – she is finally beheaded by the frustrated Olybrius.

Three martyrs: above, Thomas Becket; below left, Margaret with both dragon and Beelzebub; below right, Catherine, another virgin saint known for trampling her enemies beneath her feet; Huth Psalter, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century; Add. MS 38116

While Margaret is a virgin saint, and indeed died to remain so, she is, somewhat incongruously, also the patron saint of pregnant women and women in childbirth. In her vita, this is presented as due to her dying prayer that those who invoke her aid might be healed and, specifically, that women who employ a copy of the book as a protective amulet during childbirth will be delivered of a healthy child. The explanation may also perhaps circle back to her association with the pearl, a gem Jacob de Voraigne asserts had medical use in staunching hemorrhaging blood, which could be a principal hazard during labor. Whatever the explanation for this connection, such powerful patronage no doubt contributed to her wide popularity.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

A midwife holds a swaddled infant, while its mother looks on from a bed following a successful delivery; Passion of Margaret, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 14th century; BL Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

Works Cited

Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady As Saint : A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Buried Alive?

Hall_AllSaintsKingsLynn
Late medieval anchorhold at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England; photo by Megan J. Hall.

Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.

This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).

Hall_Lansdowne451_f76v
A bishop blesses an anchorite as she enters her cell; Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 451, fol. 76v.

Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo [a book containing the rites, sacraments, and other liturgical offices of the Church] for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.

As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall
The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham, England: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window. Photo by Megan J. Hall.

There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English, University of Notre Dame


Sources

The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513

The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1

F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.

Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).