Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Mike Rodman Jones, Radical Pastoral, 1381–1594
by Paul Joseph Zajac

Jones, Mike Rodman. Radical Pastoral, 1381–1594: Appropriation and the Writing of Religious Controversy. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011. xi + 192 pp. ISBN: 978-0754666943. $103.00 cloth.


In Radical Pastoral, Mike Rodman Jones deftly examines politicized representations of the rural laborer from 1381 to 1594. The author focuses especially (though by no means exclusively) on the reception of Langland’s Piers Plowman, as the text and its eponymous character were repeatedly appropriated to comment on subsequent political and religious controversies. Jones goes against a grain of rigid periodization, joining scholarship by James Simpson, Helen Cooper, and others who seek to bridge the gap between Medieval and Early Modern studies. In particular, Jones follows a tradition of “radical pastoral,” which he identifies as “polemical and satirical writing that depended on the efficacy of a language of rurality, and that was frequently characterized by a violently appropriative attitude to textuality and historicity” (2). Although scholars hoping for Jones to connect his discussion to criticism on pastoral literature as a genre or mode may be disappointed, the book valuably contributes to our understanding of an agrarian rhetoric used to engage contentious cultural issues for over two centuries of English history.

Jones begins Chapter 1 with an extended discussion of Langland’s Piers Plowman, which bequeathed to early modern authors a “particular imaginative preoccupation with the city” and a corresponding mode of anti-urban satire (14). More specifically, Jones focuses on Langland’s portrayal of “regratorie,” which comes to signify not only practices of forestalling the market, but several other forms of economic exploitation as well. The final section of this chapter examines issues of economic ethics and social satire in authors of the 1540s and 1550s, most importantly Robert Crowley. In addition to tracing specific literary debts, like the afterlife of Langland’s “Hunger” in Crowley’s Philargyrie of Greate Britayne (1551), Jones makes a compelling case for the widespread influence of Langland’s mode of anti-urban satire on Edwardian reformist writers. With Langland as a model, Crowley and his contemporaries condemn “a commercialism that transgresses basic Christian duties” and register the unfortunate disparity between Reformation promises of “spiritual rejuvenation” and the very real persistence of economic injustice (39, 37). Jones excavates a striking continuity between methods of social critique that persisted despite considerable changes in socioeconomic factors between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

While radical pastoral does not figure prominently in the first chapter, Jones makes polemical pastoralism central to his argument in Chapter 2, as he discusses how and why “early Protestant writers persistently, in some ways, imagined themselves as ploughmen” (52). Jones argues that the authors and groups treated in this chapter all fashion themselves as pastoral insofar as they embrace values of intellectual and material simplicity. In texts like Pierce Ploughman’s Crede, “a staunchly Wycliffite attack on the mendicant orders” (66), these virtues are explicitly linked to Langland’s figure of the agrarian laborer. These Lollard texts were then appropriated by sixteenth-century authors to produce “an icon of the ideal of Protestant identity” (62). Jones links the rhetoric of Lollard identity with that of Tudor Protestants, who frequently connected an idealized intellectual simplicity to the principle of sola scriptura. Jones here is less interested in asserting a theological genealogy extending from Wycliffites to Protestants than he is in uncovering a shared rhetoric of polemical pastoral identity, one that may have been quite far removed from “the historical reality of Lollardy as a social phenomenon” (68). Perhaps more provocatively, Jones identifies such rhetoric as a common ground between the Lollards and their Franciscan rivals, who are equally implicated in the writing of religious controversy. The chapter ends with a consideration of John Bale as a major author of Protestant polemical pastoralism.

Chapter 3 further develops the analysis of polemical pastoralism, with Jones surveying “ploughman texts” from the first half of the sixteenth century, including the pseudo-Chaucerian Plowman’s Tale and Crowley’s edition of Piers Plowman. According to Jones, the early Henrician period witnessed a cultural conflict over the significance of representing ploughmen, but the figure’s range of possible meaning narrowed as a result of the Protestant Reformation: “The ploughman becomes synonymous with the aggressive pursuit of reform as quickly as devotional practices and institutions such as monastic and mendicant houses could be culled by the Henrician government” (93). Linking these texts of the 1530s and 40s to religious politics, antiquarianism, and agrarian crises, Jones claims that the ploughman became “the agitational champion of Protestantism before Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1563) raised the Protestant martyr to a comparable status” (103). However, Jones is careful not to reduce his objects of study to their ideological content. In particular, Jones argues that Crowley’s edition of Langland celebrates the Medieval work as a literary artifact of considerable cultural value, rather than using it solely for propagandistic purposes, as scholars have sometimes assumed (116–27). Crowley’s edition stands out amidst Jones’s preceding examples as a self-conscious contribution to an Edwardian literary canon, with the editor’s antiquarian persona and marginal comments even serving, at times, “to constrain, not to invoke, polemical interpretation” (125).

In the fourth and final chapter, Jones studies several examples of radical pastoral from the Elizabethan period. Elizabethan authors resurrected the ploughman figure for a diverse array of religious and literary purposes. As Jones shows, different authors were able to mobilize the ploughman for very different ends: “Piers shifts … to a more complex religious context in which he must be more specifically the icon not of all Protestants but some forms of Protestantism amongst others” (141). Jones spends most of the chapter demonstrating this case with connection to the Marprelate controversy. A section on Pierce Penniless explains Thomas Nashe’s response to Martin Marprelate as a parody of radical pastoral, with the ploughman’s plainness converted into the hypocritical greed of “Dame Niggardize.” After several chapters that chart the valorization of the ploughman figure in his various incarnations, it is unexpected and refreshing to see this discussion of Nashe. The final section connects the presence of Piers Plowman in A Knack to Know a Knave with the work’s status as an early anti-Puritan play. Jones concludes, “Piers became, in the shadow of the Marprelate controversy, a figure who almost embodies religious controversy itself: a powerful icon for political and religious idealism and identity- formation which is necessarily combative and oppositional, and can be used with equal freedom and ingenuity by opposing sides of the same debate” (168).

A reader may be forgiven for wanting Jones’s book to engage further with other studies of pastoral literature or to articulate a fuller justification for the category “radical pastoral.” The book’s title seems to set up expectations that the author is very quick to defuse. Jones takes up the topic in the opening pages of his preface, explaining that he “view[s] the field of medieval and Tudor religious literature … as not benefitting from our division of it into generic categories which might exclude or elide important parts of it” (3). Apart from listing Helen Cooper (Pastoral: Mediaeval into Renaissance), Paul Alpers (What is Pastoral?), and Annabel Patterson (Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valery) in an early footnote, Jones entirely brackets considerations of genre and mode. Instead, he looks to William Empson as a precedent, specifically his expansion of the term from “an obviously Virgilian tradition” to other forms of “proletarian literature.” Rather than wrestling with Empson, whose definition of pastoral is as notoriously inclusive as it is widely influential, Jones bypasses “an extended defence” of his methodological and terminological choice (3). Jones is generally consistent about his application of the term “radical pastoral,” but one wonders if “pastoral” is really only a convenient placeholder here, one largely disconnected from the word’s primary meaning in literary criticism. Important voices like Patrick Cullen and Harry Berger Jr. are entirely absent, while Louis Montrose receives a single footnote within a brief discussion of Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender in the opening section of Chapter 4. Even David Norbrook, whose own discussion of political, Protestant pastoral in Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance is presumably an important predecessor to Jones’s “radical pastoral,” appears only briefly in a consideration of Edwardian poetics at the beginning of the final chapter.

Jones’s arguments are typically clear, complex, and persuasive, but sub-points are occasionally overstated or underdeveloped. For example, it is unclear why the “shared symbolic investment in ‘simplicity’” is the “most prominent aspect” in the rivalry between Wycliffites and Franciscans, as opposed to simply one important factor among many (70). The discussions of Crowley are interesting and intelligent in both Chapter 1 and Chapter 3, but Jones might have done a bit more to connect these two discussions of the Tudor polemicist and editor. The book ends abruptly, with Jones gesturing toward the seventeenth-century implications of his argument in a single paragraph, instead of in a formal conclusion.

Nevertheless, this smart and sophisticated study will be useful and important for a diverse audience of literary critics. Throughout the book, Jones skillfully balances considerations of literature, politics, economics, religion, and rhetoric as they commingle and compete. Radical Pastoral should be of considerable interest to scholars of literature and religion working in either the Medieval or Early Modern periods, and it is a must-read for those who study both together.


Paul Joseph Zajac
Pennsylvania State University


  • Spray Foam Of SoCal 4 months, 1 week ago

    Although scholars hoping for Jones to connect his discussion to criticism on pastoral literature as a genre or mode may be disappointed, the book valuably contributes to our understanding of an agrarian rhetoric used to engage contentious cultural issues for over two centuries of English history.

    Link / Reply

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Paul Joseph Zajac, "Mike Rodman Jones, Radical Pastoral, 1381–1594," Spenser Review 44.2.42 (Fall 2014). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
Not logged in or