The Late Medieval Clerical Proletariat & the Vocational Crisis in Modern Academia

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:

Thomas Hoccleve’s Signature; Durham University Library MS Cosin V.III.9, f.95r.

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).

Thomas Hoccleve presents ‘The Regiment of Princes’ to King Henry V; British Library, MS Royal 17, D.vi f.40r.

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.”

Author portrait of Laȝamon in British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A.ix., f.3.

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.

Hoccleve, Thomas. The Regiment of Princes, ed. Charles R. Blyth. University of Rochester: TEAMS Middle English Text Series, 1999.

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. The Clerical Proletariat and the Resurgence of Medieval English Poetry. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Laȝamon. Laȝamon’s Brut. Western Michigan University: Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, 2019.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman, ed. Robert Adams, Patricia R. Bart, et. al. Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, 1994.

Nuttall, Jenni, trans. “Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’: An Open-Access Prose Translation.” International Hoccleve Society, 2015.

Varnam, Laura, trans. “The Complaint Paramount [The Superlative Complaint] by Thomas Hoccleve.” Dr Laura Varnam, 2019.

Chaucer and the Internet: Revisiting the House of Fame

internet—“a network of networks” (Wikipedia)

“network: anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections” (Dr. Johnson; johnsonsdictionaryonline.com)

Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as an innovator who made the first translation of one of his contemporary Petrarch’s sonnets into English, and who may have initiated the now-universal association of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love.  He may also, in his poetic dream vision The House of Fame, have given us a premonition of the staggering power and potential for misuse of the modern-day internet.  The narrator/protagonist of this poem, named Geoffrey, is taken to visit the goddess Fame by a giant eagle.  Her palace, which he visits first, is impressive but disappointing, as Geoffrey fails to find what he seeks there.  In the final 250 lines of the poem, he is taken to a nearby structure, which critics at least as far back as George Lyman Kittredge[i] have referred to as the House of Rumor. This is the section of the poem that forecasts the internet as we know it today.

Standard Symbol for the Internet and World Wide Web.

The eagle chides Geoffrey on their first meeting for his introverted habit of coming home every night to spend the evening like a hermit (or scholar during pandemic lockdown) with his books. What Geoffrey needs, and what the eagle has been sent by Jupiter to help him acquire, are “tidings” of what is happening in the world outside. The Middle English word “tidinges” is glossed as “news” in the Norton Chaucer.[ii]  The University of Michigan’s online Middle English Dictionary [iii] suggests a variety of other meanings, including “report,” “information” (both specific and general), “message,” “announcement,” “gossip,” and “rumor.”  All of these taken together seem to sum up the variety of things that people today search for on the internet.

The eagle tells Geoffrey that the House of Fame is located at a point equidistant from earth, sky, and sea, so that any spoken word from any of these locations must travel there. In the grand palace of Fame herself, however, Geoffrey does not find any of the “tidings” he seeks. He is then guided to another nearby structure, the so-called House of Rumor. Geoffrey labels it a “house,” and compares it to the labyrinth built by Daedalus in Greco-Roman mythology, but the term “House of Rumor” is never used in the poem. Critics have identified Chaucer’s source for this image with the house of fame described by Ovid in the 12th book of his Metamorphoses; although Ovid does say that thousands of rumors can be found there (“milia rumorum,” line 12:55), the goddess he places in charge is Fama (Fame), not Rumor.[iv]

 The structure itself is sixty miles long, made of twigs.  The twigs are woven together in a way that suggests baskets or cages to the narrator, and he notices thousands of holes throughout the weave. This presumably circular structure, formed of interlocking strands, is eerily like the visual depictions of the internet that are produced when it is imagined as a visible structure. The very name “internet” suggests such an interlocking construction to the mind. Today, we picture the strands in diagrams of the internet as the pathways along which our information travels, but for Chaucer, it is the holes in between the twigs that allow tidings to escape.

‘The House of Rumor’ as depicted by Edward Burne-Jones in The Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by
William Morris, 1896. Image acquired from ARTSTOR.

The entire structure of this house is constantly spinning, so fast that Geoffrey is unable to enter without the eagle’s assistance, and a loud noise issues from it. The noise the house makes as it spins is described first as resembling the sound of a stone flying from a catapult or that of a strong wind, but from inside come other sounds that Chaucer calls “gigges” and “chirkinges” (lines 1942-43), which Eleanor Parker in “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World” links to “tweets” and “Twitter”—after all, the entire house has already been compared to a bird cage.[v]  The twittering sounds are presumably made by the tidings themselves, which Chaucer does seem to imagine like birds in a cage.  In all, we are presented with a bewildering sense of speed and power associated with the house, coupled with the impression that the tidings, while they may be small, have a life and energy all their own.

The only way for Geoffrey to enter the structure is with the help of the eagle, who acts like a modern search engine. When he drops Geoffrey through a window, the structure stops spinning for a moment and allows his entrance. Inside, Geoffrey finds “tidings” of every sort—news about war and peace, work and leisure, life and death, loss and gain, and even about such things as weather and the prices of goods. All the tidings are being shared from person to person among a great crowd of figures that fills the space; Geoffrey had been told earlier by the eagle that these are embodied figures representing the people who first spoke the tidings down on earth. Like a game of “telephone,” the tidings are passed from ear to ear, growing with each repetition, until when each tiding reaches its full size, it flies through a window to spread itself freely—essentially “going viral.” 

Some of the tidings Geoffrey observes are true, and some are false. Both are being spread with equal enthusiasm. We are not told how Geoffrey is able to tell the difference, but within the dream vision, it is apparently obvious. He also notices that, as they try to escape through the spaces between the twigs, sometimes two tidings will become stuck as they squeeze through the same hole, so that he sees many instances in which a true tiding and a false tiding become stuck together and intermingled so that no one henceforth will be able to separate them again. All of this seems to be a very prescient depiction of the way that information both true and false is spread on today’s internet with incredible speed, growing and changing as it is repeated so that it is very difficult to tell whether much of it is true, false, or a blend of both.

Living and working in London as he does, Geoffrey would already be positioned to hear most of the tidings spreading through his world.  The intervention of Jupiter and his giant eagle seems unnecessary just to bring Geoffrey news, and in fact he never gains any concrete tidings within the confines of the poem. The true gift that he is being given may be this, even temporary, ability to discern the difference between true and false tidings, which those who encounter the tidings after they escape the House of Rumor clearly cannot do. Nor, unfortunately, can many users of the internet in our own day.

Chaucer’s poem, which he left unfinished, does not manage to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem.  As Geoffrey is walking around listening for tidings, his attention is drawn by a loud noise in the corner where love tidings are shared. Everyone in the structure rushes to this corner, pushing and straining to hear some important announcement. In the last lines of the poem as we have it, a figure appears that Geoffrey says he cannot identify, except that “he seemed for to be/ A man of gret auctoritee” (“great authority,” lines 2157-58). As soon as a “great authority” appears, someone whose word seems to represent true and reliable information, the entire structure of the House of Rumor apparently collapses—or at least, Chaucer has no more to say about it. For hundreds of years, readers have debated Chaucer’s intended identity of this “great authority.” Users of today’s internet likewise seem unable to identify yet still seek an authoritative source of information that would have the power to quell rumor and uncertainty. If our culture could find such a universally recognized source as an alternative to our current twittering, buzzing, rumor-laden communications, many of our cultural conflicts might even vanish, like a dream in a dream vision poem.

Angela Fulk, Ph.D.
Dept. of English
SUNY Buffalo State


[i] Kittredge, George Lyman. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard UP, 1915.

[ii] Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Norton Chaucer. Edited by David Lyman. Norton, 2019. All quotations from Chaucer are taken from this edition.

[iii] Middle English Dictionary. Ed. Robert E. Lewis, et al. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001. Online edition in Middle English Compendium. Ed. Frances McSparran, et al.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 2000-2018. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/>. Accessed 05 May 2021.

[iv] Ovid. Metamorphoses. The Latin Library. thelatinlibrary.com. Accessed 6 May 2021.

[v] Parker, Eleanor. “Chaucer’s Post-Truth World.” History Today. historytoday.com/out-margins/chaucers-post-truth-world. Accessed 6 May 2021.

Teaching Consent: More Lessons from the Wife of Bath

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.  

Mugshot of Brock Turner, taken by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office when he was arrested in January 2015. Turner was found guilty of three felony assault charges. Despite prosecutors’ recommendation that he be sentenced to six years in prison, Turner was sentenced to only six months in a county jail and then released after three.

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 Tale or 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]

Table of Contents for the Canterbury Tales included in the Ellesmere Chaucer, a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, MSS EL 26 C 9, fol. 72 r. The entry for the Wife of Bath’s Tale, listed in the sixth row descending, contains the description “Of what thyng [þat] women louen best” – or in modern English, “About the thing that women love most.”  

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 raptus in 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.

One of only two surviving medieval illuminations of the Wife of Bath, which appears in the Ellesmere Chaucer. The other appears in a fifteenth-century manuscript housed at the Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27.

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. 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.

The Center for Disease Control identifies education as an essential tool for preventing sexual violence

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.