Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
A New Medieval Marriage Ethic: Piers Plowman Clashes With St Paul
Isabel Davis, University of Warwick

This interdisciplinary paper looks at William Langland’s fraught engagement with Pauline and Augustinian sexual ethics and in particular the pre-eminence of virginity over conjugality in their writings. It finds the medieval poem to be torn between its theological understanding of sexuality and newer bourgeois ideologies about the social desirability of marriage. This ethical conflict is not one which is peculiar to Langland’s poem and I shall show how his struggles are also those of Post-Black Death England. In particular the conjugal household is a crucial institution for those medieval authorities involved in regulating a burgeoning wage economy and volatile labour market. The traditional preference for virginity began to look somewhat outmoded, and even disruptive, within a household economy that, like Langland’s poem, was systematically glamorising the option to marry in response to labour crisis.

Many have noted the way in which Langland excises much of his most biting social and political invective in the later C-text version of the poem. This paper will similarly track the changes between the different versions of Piers Plowman to show the way in which a radical theology of marriage in the B-text is sanitized in the later C-text, revealing the uncanonical and politically challenging nature of its early claims for the married state. It will show how these dilemmas are at the heart of the construction of the dreamer-narrator himself and, indeed, the late-medieval Christian subject, as social change brought about a reconsideration of some aspects of Christian doctrine on moral hygiene and especially married sexuality. Incidentally, this paper identifies previously unconsidered sources for significant sections of Piers Plowman; in particular it considers Langland’s engagement with Augustine’s anti-pelagian De nuptiis et concupiscentia and argues for a relationship between the three Dos in the poem – Do well, Do better and Do best – and 1 Corinthians 7. In this way it shows that many of the poem’s critical cruxes – for example those about justice, grace and salvation and the politics of social estate – are implicated in its discussions of marriage and sexuality.

While scholars have not always seen such supposedly ‘private’ issues as intellectually central, this paper argues that they are at the heart not only of the poem’s subjective drama but also its public politics. Such concerns are not, of course, peculiar to Piers Plowman, a poem that participated in a much wider cultural discussion about the value and meanings of conjugal affection and sexual love. Combining theological and social history with literary studies, this paper seeks to cross disciplinary boundaries in order to find the domestic values which stood at the heart of a society in flux. It offers both an important new reading of Langland’s poem and a statement about the transformation of domestic ethics in late medieval England.



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