Educational training was the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and monastic life in the early medieval period, with the aim of producing knowledgeable clergy, who might then serve as spiritual and intellectual shepherds for their population. However, as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton explains in her recent monograph, The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry, because universities in the late Middle Ages were turning out more clergy than the church could hire in beneficed positions, many found themselves experiencing a crisis of vocation. Kerby-Fulton argues that this crisis produces a “clerical proletariat” many of whom ultimately become civil servants, secretaries in great households, writing office clerks, or casual liturgical laborers, especially in London. She shows how this crisis of mass underemployment is further exacerbated by pluralism (the unethical practice of hogging multiple benefices).
Beneficed priests were in a privileged position: they received both income from parish holdings and wealth from the church. Although medieval universities were producing highly educated clergy, there were more qualified candidates than ever before, while at the same time, beneficed priests were sometimes acquiring multiple benefices and then outsourcing the work of delivering the mass and managing the church operations to poorer paid vicars, chaplains and lesser church officials, while pocketing most of the money themselves.
Kerby-Fulton argues that this sharp increase in qualified clergy and decrease in beneficed positions, resulted not only in a vocational crisis and the creations of a clerical proletariat, but ultimately in a resurgence in Middle English poetry, as this class of clerks saw more opportunities for writing English because they were working for the laity, though many still worked with Latin (or French) documents all day long. Figures like Thomas Hoccleve, a late medieval poet-clerk, comment regularly on the financial struggles and tenuous existences of the unbeneficed clerical proletariat, observable in his poem “The Complaint” which states:
I oones fro Westminstir cam, Vexid ful grevously with thoughtful hete, Thus thoughte I: ‘A greet fool I am This pavyment a-daies thus to bete And in and oute laboure faste and swete, Wondringe and hevinesse to purchace, Sithen I stonde out of al favour and grace.
“When once I came from Westminster, very bitterly troubled with burning anxiety, I thought like this: ‘I am a great fool to beat these streets like this every day and to work doggedly and sweat indoors and outdoors, in order to earn nothing but restlessness and misery, since I am fallen out of all good fortune and grace.’” (Jenni Nuttall, 183-189). In this passage, we learn how Hoccleve is very upset with his vocational prospects (184), and he deems himself a greet fool “great fool” (185) for working endless and performing in and oute laboure faste and swete “firm and sweaty labor, indoors and outdoors” (187) with nothing to show for it but wondringe and hevinesse “wandering and hardship” (188).
Similarly, in his poem, The Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve laments how he initially pursued the priesthood but ultimately forgoes these dreams and instead marries. Hoccleve describes his vocational rollercoaster, emphasizing that at first he sought Aftir sum benefice “after some benefice” but states that whan noon cam, / By procees I me weddid atte laste, “when none came, in time, I did wed at last” (1452-53). Moreover, Hoccleve stresses that his initial reluctance to marry is specifically because he long held hopes of a career as a beneficed priest, explaining that I whilom thoghte / Han been a preest “for a while I thought I would have been a priest” (1447-48). In both poems, Hoccleve expresses his frustration with the vocational crisis of underemployment which produces the clerical proletariat that Kerby-Fulton examines in her book.
Members of the clerical proletariat loom large in Middle English literary culture, and various characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, including the Clerk of Oxenford, the hapless lover and parish clerk, Absolon (in the “Miller’s Tale“), and the noble Parson, who is perhaps the most virtuous figure on the pilgrimage. Similarly, William Langland (the author of Piers Plowman) was such a clerk, and likely so were the authors of the Owl and Nightingale and Laȝamon’s Brut. The University of Pennsylvania Press notes that “Taking in proletarian themes, including class, meritocracy, the abuse of children (“Choristers’ Lament”), the gig economy, precarity, and the breaking of intellectual elites (Book of Margery Kempe), The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry speaks to both past and present employment urgencies.”
Indeed, many modern untenured scholars (including myself), who work three or more academic jobs to pay the bills, will surely identify with the position Hoccleve voices in his complaint. As Kerby-Fulton insightfully observes in her book, the circumstances outlined in this late Middle English poem closely resemble the current crisis of vocation within modern academia, where well-paying tenured faculty positions are disappearing as the universities seek to outsource more and more of the work of education to adjunct professors, the modern equivalent of the late medieval clerical proletariat. Meanwhile, universities continue to produce an endless stream of highly skilled and qualified professionals, many of whom will sadly face chronic underemployment and even possible unemployment as a result of over-qualification and unethical practices now embedded in our private university system that is seemingly more concerned with profits than with the future of the academy.
Richard Fahey PhD in English University of Notre Dame
Further Reading& Selected Bibliography
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Harvard University: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2021.
On this day three years ago, my first contribution to the Medieval Studies Research Blog, in which I connected the Wife of Bath’s Tale with contemporary rape culture, was published. In December 2017, the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, and the survivors of sexual violence were thrust into the media spotlight. But while the public eye was focused on the victims who came forward in record numbers, Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student who was caught raping an unconscious 22-year-old woman in 2015, was attempting to have his multiple felony sexual assault convictions overturned. With “The Silence Breakers” taking center stage, we barely noticed when Turner was trying to sneak out the back door.
Witnessing how our collective gaze fixated on victims, I felt that the Wife of Bath’s Tale had something valuable to teach us about shifting our attention to the perpetrators of sexual violence and social reformation. I still do. So today, I return to the tale to consider how we can actively create a culture of consent. Rather than concentrating on violence, I want to highlight how the tale emphasizes education as a critical component of cultural reformation. After all, it is through education that the rapist knight is reformed in the tale.
As a refresher for those who have not recently read the Wife of Bath’s Taleor who may not be familiar with the Middle English poem from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the narrative begins with the protagonist knight’s rape of a maiden whom he meets in the woods. Called to the court of Camelot for his crimes, the knight escapes King Arthur’s condemnation to death only because the queen suggests an alternative: the knight will return to the court in a year and one day to provide an answer to the question, “What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren”?[i]
The task that the queen requires of the knight, in turn, requires that he receive an education – one through which he acquires information but also learns effective communication. In contrast to the knight’s singular concern with what he wants and the brutal assertion of his will over a young woman’s body, the endeavor upon which the knight embarks depends upon asking women what they want and listening to what they have to say. Over the course of the tale, the knight’s quest forces him to see that the answer to such a question is subjective. He discovers that women desire different things and, effectively, that women have wills of their own. His journey leads him to the only acceptable answer: above all things, women desire sovereignty. Returning to Arthur’s court, the knight acknowledges that women want autonomy. But his answer alone – the act of speaking the words aloud – does not suffice. Only after the knight puts his new knowledge into practice, specifically in a sexual context that compels communication with and respect for the woman in his bed, does he appear fully exonerated in the tale. In the end, the knight preserves his life and gains a wife with whom he lives happily ever after.
At this point, the fact that Chaucer may have committed rape himself deserves disclosure, since I’m striving to convey how a narrative penned by his hand that rewards a rapist can teach us about consent. But the Wife’s tale is fiction and the wife herself a fictional character; neither entity represents Chaucer the person nor reflects on his charges of raptusin 1380. It is paramount to understand that my interpretation of the tale and its teachings derive directly from the Wife’s wisdom as represented in her prologue and her tale. We should recall that the Wife is a survivor of sexual assault, and as I suggested three years back, if she has something valuable to teach us about combatting sexual violence, we must listen. According to Alisoun of Bath, education is the key to consent.
Without sexual education, we replicate the conditions in which rape culture thrives. Socially, we continue to idolize hegemonic masculinity, a paradigm that rewards attributes like virility, aggression, and dominance and, by extension, conflates sex with conquest, a combination that inherently undermines consent. At the same time, we generally shy away from conversations about what women want because sexuality, especially when it pertains to women’s pleasure, remains so stigmatized. The sexual education young people currently receive in the U.S. is inconsistent across the country and largely deficient in its emphases and omissions. On the one hand, public school curriculums traditionally highlight the dangers of sexual activity, attempting to frighten adolescents with pictures of disease and stories of unintended pregnancy. On the other hand, conservative states and institutions tend to employ an abstinence-only strategy, via which they articulate a particular set of values related to sexual behavior but do not necessarily provide information about sex. By instilling young people with fear and denying them information, these approaches to sexual education are antithetical to sexual health. Moreover, the absence of sexual education models silence where sexual activity is concerned. Consent, however, depends upon successful communication.
Comprehensive sexual education provides young people information about human bodies and sexual behavior that is pertinent to their everyday lives.[ii] It is crucial not only for their personal health but also for the health of others, particularly their romantic partners both present and future. Healthy relationships cannot happen without communication, and without engaging in intentional conversations about sex, students are prevented from practicing a skill essential to personal and communal sexual well-being.
Due to the deficits and overall incongruity of sexual education across the country, many young people enter their college campuses and their adult lives without the tools that enable them to make informed decisions and communicate effectively in sexual situations. During their first year of college, students should have access to a course on human sexuality that provides a comprehensive introduction previously unavailable to them and appropriate for them as adults. But not all colleges include sexuality studies in their course offerings. My own institution, for example, does not currently offer a course on human sexuality for its undergraduate population. Yet if students are not equipped with the information and skills necessary for fostering sexual health, it impairs our ability to develop a community in which consent becomes accepted as doctrine.
Comprehensive sexual education provides young people the information integral to navigating an omnipresent part of human experience, an aspect that affects us individually, as well as interpersonally. Conducting conversations about sex in an educational environment also establishes a visible and tangible connection between open communication and healthy sexuality. Communication, of course, cannot be separated from consent.
I want to be very clear: comprehensive sexual education need not eschew faith-based values, just as science need not exist apart from religion. Students can be taught the science surrounding sex alongside lessons about spiritual life. As Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world in which both can flourish.”
We all deserve to flourish. By foregrounding education, the Wife of Bath’s Tale begins to show us how.
Emily McLemore PhD Candidate in English University of Notre Dame
[i] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton, 1987, pp. 116-22, line 905.
When the pandemic strikes, and the trusted authorities are without a sure remedy, people extend their search for a cure, and in their desperation many resort to more unorthodox means of healing associated with alternative forms of authority and knowledge. Some of the most famous medieval tales are set in times of plague when folk fled to the countryside to avoid exposure to pestilence, as in Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s grim “Pardoner’s Tale” from his Canterbury Tales (which were themselves modeled on Boccaccio‘s collection of stories).
Medieval historian John Aberth writes of the plague known as Black Death, “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine [physic], or the art of astrology.” Aberth adds that although there were no medical solutions, those peddling in various cures could profit from a plague, and he argues that “To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false” (The Black Death, 37).
In the Middle Ages, whenever plagues hit, people’s fear of the disease quickly resulted in a lack of faith in traditional authorities, at times followed by scapegoating. The later phenomenon has been observed with respect to xenophobic conspiracy theories targeting marginalized groups, which alleged that Jews were poisoning wells (and sometimes gypsies and witches) in order to spread the Black Death during the later part of the medieval period. And, as Samuel K. Cohn observes, it was then, “Not until the late sixteenth century did authorities once again arrest people suspected of spreading the plague through poisons and tampering with food; these later waves of fear, however, did not target Jews as the principal suspects; instead, witches or hospital workers were now persecuted” (“The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” 27).
Of course, in the earlier medieval period, when plague descended and church authorities—with all their medical knowledge and spiritual wisdom—were without a cure, medieval people might understandably turn to the other major source of authority in their lives, their kings and secular rulers, for guidance. We see this phenomenon manifest in the medieval belief that French and English monarchs (including saint-kings such as Saint Louis IX and Edward the Confessor) possessed miraculous healing powers. In time of plague, this gesture served to legitimize royalty as divinely sanctioned and win favor with the people, who could understandably become more restless during times of epidemic and pandemic.
Although kings and queens were often unskilled with respect to medical knowledge, especially by comparison to the clergy and university doctors, this sort of magical thinking and desire to imbue a leader with supreme knowledge and boundless inherent wisdom (despite their often limited information and experience) presents a totalitarian image of a ruler, which relies on public ignorance in order to reinforce the notion of a divinely organized, rigidly hierarchical society. It is a form of hero worship which knows no bounds.
As J. N. Hays points out, “the healing touch was a product of political motives, at least in part. But it coincided with a widespread belief in kings as magicians, endowed with near-divine powers” (The Burden of Disease, 33). This political motive leveraged popular belief in the royal touch to solidifying the claim that monarchs were chosen by God and thus superior in both the spiritual and political realms.
If the king’s touch failed to heal, or one simply did not have access to a royal hand, there was always the other—unspoken and taboo—source of power: magic and witchcraft. As Catherine Jenkin notes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches” (“Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft,” 202). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and without any effective treatments available, everything was on the table.
Still, the Middle Ages suffers from a somewhat inaccurate reputation with respect to religious and learned views on the magic, which until the later period regarded folk healing and herbal remedies as mere superstitions, though throughout the period, “witchcraft was universally illegal under both sacred and secular law and even healing magic might be considered heretical” (Jenkins, 204). Nevertheless, folk traditions were generally considered relatively unthreatening by church authorities, especially compared to popular medieval heresies, which argued for unorthodox, though often quite learned, interpretations of Christianity, such as the Catharism & Lollardy, and heretical groups such as the Knights Templar, Hussites & beguines to name a few that drew special attention in the period prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation.
Richard Kieckhefer famously categorizes magic in the Middles Ages as either “natural” or “demonic” in orientation. Folk healers, and most so-called witches, (especially during the earlier period) are regarded by Kieckhefer as practitioners of the former, while seemingly more learned necromancers, who adapt and pervert Christian rituals, are considered practitioners of the later category of magic (and feature later in the period). Scholars such as Aberth, Kieckhefer, Jenkins, Brian Levak and others have each demonstrated a relationship between a rise in magic and the Black Death in Europe (Aberth, The Black Death; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials; Jenkins, “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft”; Levak, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe).
Desperate people might pursue illicit measures to procure a remedy for pestilence, and as a result interest in magic cures, protections, spell, talismans and wards increased alongside demand. Indeed, it is possible that this contributed to theories that witches poisoned wells and ultimately the hysteria surrounding early modern witch-hunts.
It is important to note that, while the church authorities generally maintained that magic was demonic illusion, the rise of universities gave way to a learned study of “natural magic” in the form of the pursuit to unlock the occult powers in the natural world [i.e. God’s creation]. Hayes observes how “Natural magic, which attempted to understand the hidden powers of nature, was bolstered by philosophy as well as by religion. These relations were clearest in the late Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance, when neo-Platonic doctrines gained wider currency among thinkers. Neo-Platonic beliefs insisted on the complete interrelation and mutual responsiveness of the different phenomena of the universe” (The Burdens of Disease, 81).
This approach became more widely acceptable leading up to and during the scientific revolution, especially the medical theories of the ancient physician Galen [130-210 CE], and so what Kieckhefer might categorize as natural magic in the later period bifurcates into two distinct subtypes—the highly learned, quasi-medical and folk traditional healing practices. Moreover, the university study of medicine rooted in classical theories of the four humors remained a medical authority, and one which generally held the approval of the church authorities and royal authorities alike. It is worth acknowledging that none of these authorities appear entirely “correct” by modern medical standards, and even the most learned methods involved practices that were toxic and harmful to the body.
Still, while some medieval and early modern medical practices were undeniably ineffective or even counterproductive, it’s worth pointing out that some practices were helpful, such as quarantine measures during plague. Even the spooky plague doctoroutfits from the early modern era—equipped with cloth masks and a leather suit for personal protection—reveal growing awareness with respect to contagion by contact (prior to germ theory), which overlapped with conventional medical theories that alleged the classical notion of miasma or “bad air” was polluting infected spaces with plague and pestilence.
Mark Earnest contends that “Despite its fearsome appearance, the plague doctor’s costume—the ‘personal protective equipment’ of the Middle Ages—had a noble purpose. It was intended to enable physicians to safely care for patients during the Black Death” (“On Becoming a Plague Doctor“). The plague doctors‘ cloth beak contained perfumed herbs to purify the miasma, their waxed robe were designed to shield the practitioner, and their cane allowed physicians a quick means by which to measure their proximity and maintain distance from sick patients during examinations and treatments. Although Earnest seems to regard plague doctors as a medieval phenomenon, historical evidence suggests that these practitioners were primarily a fixture of the early modern period.
Although there is ample evidence for widespread medieval belief in learned scientia “science” (often knowledge from classical sources or universities), many historians maintain the narrative that since the scientific revolution in the early modern era, there has been a gradual trend toward belief in science and medical professionals, and the public has generally come to accept doctors’ advice over the opinions of political leaders, when it comes to issues of health and medicine. However, even if one were to accept this notion of historical progress, today’s pandemic problematizes this grand narrative by demonstrating how similar medieval and modern people can be. Like so many established institutions and professional authorities in the age of (dis)information and the rise of Trumpism in America, medical professionals are under attack, and their recommendations and expert advice have become limited by the president of the United States.
As during some medieval and early modern monarchies, it seems that the political leader of the United States feels his position entitles him to an opinion on everything and bestows him with innate wisdom. And, like the royal touch, Trump is not afraid to offer his own unconventional and unsubstantiated remedies for the novel coronavirus which has resulted in an unprecedented global pandemic during his presidency. Despite no medical training or credentials, Trump has publicly sparred with NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) Director, Dr. Fauci, and with his own CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines and recommendations. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), known to slow the spread of this highly contagious and robust virus, has become politicized in the president’s attempt to deny the issue and deflect blame and responsibility by minimizing the perceived impact and threat of the disease.
There is no evidence for viral engineering, nor any “plandemic” orchestrated by Fauci, but nevertheless these modern conspiracy theories persists online and ultimately in the minds of those persuaded by their unsubstantiated claims.
The president’s second and more startling suggestion was that perhaps an “inside injection” of disinfectants, such as Lysol and other Bleach products, directly into the body might do the trick, considering these chemical we so effective at killing the virus (and also people who ingest them). Trump then pointed to his head, adding: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” As expected, the CDC and Poison Control (as well as manufacturers and eventually social media platforms) responded by contradicting the president’s objectively harmful recommendation, enthusiastically pushed by some of his more ardent supporters.
Even some at the conservative media outlet Fox News, often friendly to Trump and his agenda, in this instance challenged the president’s uninformed suggestion. Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto described Trump’s recommendations as “unsettling,” and the news anchor plainly acknowledged that “The president was not joking in his remarks yesterday when he discussed injecting people with disinfectant.” Cavuto also delivered a sober warning to his viewers: “From a lot of medical people with whom I chat, that was a dangerous, crossing-the-line kind of signal that worried them because people could die as a result.”
Indeed, when viewed in this light, Trump’s continued magical thinking with respect to covid-19 seems to mirror medieval responses to plague and the Black Death in certain ways, especially in the tendency to reach for unconventional remedies, from often unqualified authorities, in the search for a cure. But, as president Trump explains, if you’ve got the virus, already: “what do you have to lose?”