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Katherine C. Little, Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry
by Nathan Szymanski

Little, Katherine C. Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry. 264 pp. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0268033873. $34.00 paper. 

Katherine Little’s book provides an analysis of Renaissance pastoral’s engagement with Medieval poetry about rural labor—particularly the labor depicted in the Piers Plowman tradition and to a lesser extent in the Medieval mystery plays and ecclesiastical pastoral. The book posits that the Medieval rural laborer was a figure associated with social and religious reform, and that the Renaissance pastoralists’ disavowal of actual agrarian concerns signals an active repression of the laborer and his reformist associations. Little outlines what she calls “a kind of secret history” (196) of the Renaissance pastoral whereby Medieval texts about rural labor (and rural laborers) “haunt” (17, 52, 145) the Renaissance eclogues of Alexander Barclay, Barnabe Googe, and Edmund Spenser. Ultimately, the shift in sixteenth-century literature from rural laborer to pastoral poet-shepherd reveals a sea change in the symbolic imagination around work, hence the title Transforming Work. Of particular importance for readers of this review, her conceptualization of the Medievalism haunting the eclogue form contrasts with the tendency of many Spenserian and / or Renaissance pastoral critics to bypass the Medieval in favour of classical antecedents. Many critics seem to take E.K. at his word that Spenser is the “new Poete” flying after Theocritus, Virgil, and their continental, pastoral inheritors. Perhaps equally important, Little’s work positions Spenser at the end of a more recent “native tradition” (81) by examining his work as a continuation of the discussion surrounding rural labor found in the “transitional” (81) pastorals of Alexander Barclay and Barnabe Googe. Spenser is the telos of her study because his version of pastoral details the uncomfortable, final break between the writing of Medieval rural labor and Renaissance pastoralism.

Little’s book is roughly chronological and the first chapter lays the foundation for how Medieval depictions of “writing rural labor” are reformist. The chapter moves deftly and briskly through the shepherd play in the Chester cycle, the first shepherd play from the Towneley manuscript, Chaucer’s “Former Age,” and William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Although each text brandishes its reformist plough or hook in varied ways, the underlying point is that the ambiguity of the figurative meaning of the shepherd / laborer transcends the strict boundaries of the Medieval three-estate model: “[i]f it is conventional to call a ‘real’ priest a shepherd, it is far more radical to call a ‘real’ shepherd a priest” (47). For Little, depictions of rural labor are never “disinterested” (25) and she follows Fredric Jameson in arguing that “the symbolic level is where ideology is located and contested” (25). This reader sometimes got lost in the nuance of Little’s various “levels” of representation—whether “symboli[c]” (25, 26, 39, 42), “figurative” (28, 30, 36, 37), “metaphorical” (32), “spiritual” (28, 29, 33), “‘real’” (28, 30, 36, 37), “literal” (28, 33, 37), or “‘simple’” (35, 42)—though she is persuasive in her larger claim that the shifting figurative meaning of rural labor provides “a kind of ideological ambiguity” (42) that often signals reform within a specific text’s historical context. 

In the second chapter, Little traces the movement from labor to otium, and she explains how the eclogues of Alexander Barclay and Barnabe Googe “reveal the ideological struggle that marks the emergence of the pastoral mode” (50). It is wonderful to see Barclay’s and Googe’s shepherds getting some time in the scholarly sun, though Little’s reading is professedly symptomatic (again she cites Jameson) and what were formerly “recognize[d]” (29, 39) and measured “ambiguities” in the Medieval texts become “contradictions and inconsistencies” (50, 68) in the hands of Barclay and Googe. Hence, Barclay “does not […] succeed entirely in erasing shepherdly labor” (60), and Googe exhibits “anxiety” (72) about rural laborers who emerge through repressive means (75, 79). Little’s reading of these authors, nonetheless, demonstrates that the transition from rural labor (in the Medieval texts) to otium (in the Renaissance pastoral) was not the clean break that it is often understood to be. Barclay, for example, continually raises the possibility of a laboring social reformism only to “close off” (62) such an option in his final eclogue, and Googe’s final eclogue works hard to distinguish the shepherd from other, lesser laborers. 

Chapter three is a real highlight: it provides a remarkably sustained and well-argued analysis of how pastoral provides a “specific response” (87) to the polemic surrounding the enclosure controversy in England. Little adds to Louis Montrose’s foundational studies on the pastoral, which follow and modify Raymond Williams’s pioneering The Country and the City. But, whereas these earlier critics focus on the omissions and occlusions of agrarian controversies within the pastoral, Little claims that the eclogue reveals a new emergence of a capitalistic breed of sheep keepers. Therefore, Little’s shepherd undergoes both a change of class status and a fragmentation: the laborers are still present but there emerges a shepherdly class that rules over these laborers. For Little, these elite, mercantile shepherds reinscribe their labor values onto the pastoral and effectively “disarm the critique of capitalism with which discussions of sheep keeping were so closely associated” (86). And, this emergent class heralds an ideology that opposes the communalism of the laborer (91), which is further signalled by so many shepherds owning their own sheep, in contrast not only with the Medieval laborers but also with the shepherds of Virgil and Theocritus. Little’s reading of Googe’s laboring “boys,” who wait at the periphery of the dialogue and who get repeatedly sent off to work (as in the first eclogue), is the most careful and nuanced reading of Googe’s poetry that I have encountered. For Little, pastoral’s independence from the socio-economic concerns requires a rewriting (in wholly positive terms) of the anxieties that fill contemporaneous anti-enclosure treatises.

Chapter four shifts the focus away from pastoral qua pastoral and toward the sixteenth-century Piers Plowman tradition. Little’s focus is on the post-Reformation iterations of writing labor in a Protestant context, and her basic claim is that “[d]espite their overt Protestantism, these texts [of the Plowman tradition] demonstrate the persistence of the ‘Medieval’ link between work and works” (125). Thus, Little suggests that the introduction of protestant beliefs—predestination, justification by faith alone—did not entirely replace the earlier, Medieval conceptions of labor that continued to “exert a kind of ‘Catholic’ pull” in the period (117). She begins the chapter by outlining various texts that limit the association between manual work and “works,” including texts by William Tyndale and Hugh Latimer. Following this, the bulk of her chapter considers the specters of “works equals faith” in texts such as Robert Crowley’s edition of Piers Plowman, the treatise “I playne Piers which cannot flatter,” and the ballad “Jack of the North.”

The last two chapters—roughly the final third of the book—focus on Spenser. Little’s penultimate chapter interrogates how The Shepheardes Calender incorporates and responds to the Piers Plowman tradition. Little reads two characters “drawn” (144) from the Medieval tradition, Piers and Diggon Davy, as disruptive forces (“a kind of historical unconscious” [145]) that haunt the prevailing, idealized conception of work within the social world of Spenser’s pastoral. The final chapter interrogates Calidore’s “reading” of pastoral in Book 6 of The Faerie Queene, in which the massacre of the shepherds reveals an underlying discomfort with how the rural laborer is abandoned in favour of the metaphorical poet-as-shepherd. These chapters provide important re-readings of oft-trod pastoral ground, and the rest of this review will provide a closer examination of how Little constructs her arguments.

In chapter five, “Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender and a Poetry of Rural Labor,” Little teases out the traces of Medievalism in The Shepheardes Calender that align the text with the ecclesiastical pastoral tradition and with the Piers Plowman tradition. She centers on two laborers in particular—Piers in the May and October eclogues and Diggon Davy in the September eclogue—and she suggests that these two laborers disrupt Arcadian otium, in which shepherds exist free of class antagonism and labor (145). The basis of her argument in “May” is that Spenser foregrounds a type of figurative instability regarding the shepherd’s role in this changing landscape. But while earlier shifts in the figurative meaning of the laborer (as outlined in the first chapter) signalled the text’s reformist tendencies, in Spenser the shift dulls the text’s reformist potential. For example, Spenser’s refiguring of Piers’s labor (from plowman to shepherd) becomes the first step in disassociating Piers from his work, and the eclogue culminates with Piers finally agreeing to allow others to watch the sheep while he tells the story about the Fox and the Kid. Instead of the laborer being associated with the reformer, then, the laborer becomes associated with the figure of the poet, and Little reads the Piers in “October” as a further exploration of the consequences of a poet “appropriating” rural labor (163). While the shepherd-poet link might seem so obvious as to preclude further analysis, Little rightly contrasts Spenser’s poet-shepherds with their counterparts in Barclay and Googe to demonstrate how, for these earlier poets, “rural labor is not the same as poetry, even figuratively” (164). Spenser’s “self-reflexivity” regarding labor’s relationship to the figure of the poet is new to the pastoral mode. 

With Diggon Davy in “September,” Spenser deploys another Medieval rural laborer to similar ends: “to invok[e] the prophetic (and reformist) voice of the rural laborer only to empty it of its power” (160). Little reads the name “Diggon Davy” as signalling a Piers Plowman character: the speaker of Thomas Churchyard’s “Davy Dycar’s Dreme.” In this view, Diggon represents a “lay, reformist voice” (159).  But Spenser alters the sincerity of this voice by rendering Diggon into someone motivated by the creed that he condemns. The important fact for Little is that Spenser’s Diggon is responsible for his own “penurie” (from E.K. in the Emblem), “in direct opposition” (160) to the interdependence of rich and poor in Churchyard. Consequently, Spenser hints that the solution or cure to Diggon’s woes is a psychological shift rather than a socioeconomic one. Thus Spenser maintains an anticlerical critique, suggesting that the greed of clergy and landlords has afflicted its laborers as well, while side-stepping the looming question of social reform.

In her final chapter, “Reading Pastoral in Book 6 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene,” Little focuses on Calidore’s reading of the pastoral to demonstrate how “the logical consequence of embracing the idealized pastoral is, paradoxically, the end of the ‘real’ pastoral world” (173–4). Little suggests that the voyeuristic Calidore (initially watching the hilltop pastoral scene from a hidden vantage point in the woods) is a “reader” of pastoral, and a remarkably ineffectual reader at that. First, Calidore misreads the shepherdly otium as a psychological freedom instead of being derived from adverse social conditions. Secondly, the exchange between Calidore and Meliboe in Canto 9 constitutes a series of miscommunications: whereas Calidore views the pastoral as a means of escape, Meliboe asserts “the intractability of labor, and consequently class” (179) in the world. For Little, Meliboe’s unsuccessful attempt at court contrasts with similar episodes in Barclay and Baptista Mantuanus (Mantuan), though Spenser highlights the unidirectionality of social movement, in which a courtier might succeed as a shepherd, but the shepherd is limited at court. Spenser, for Little, highlights Calidore’s class insensitivity and logical shortcomings in order to critique the naive view that pastoral provides freedom from social concern.

Little finishes the chapter by linking the brigands’ attack to Calidore’s “‘capture’” (183) of shepherd identity. Accordingly, she outlines passages that contain “perverse parallels” (183) between Calidore and the brigands, though most convincing is her reading of how both Calidore and the brigands deny shepherdly labor in their fantasies of otium. This is a major point: in contrast with arguments that highlight the political significance of shepherdly otium in Elizabeth’s court, Little posits that otium is figured as a threat in Book 6 of The Faerie Queene, one that is linked to the economics of slavery. Little historicizes this claim by relating the brigands and the “barbarous” Captain (VI.11.4.1) to actual Barbary pirates. She suggests that these pirates represent a non-Christian foreignness and she enumerates actual instances of Britons being captured by Barbary pirates. Little writes, “It is as if those non-Christian aspects of Arcadian pastoral that cannot be easily assimilated to Spenser’s own contemporary world—its imbrication with slavery, its parasitic desire for otium—have been excised from the episode and then imagined symbolically as a threat” (190). When all the shepherds, except Coridon and Pastorella, are killed, Calidore’s earlier ideas of a care-free, shepherdly lifestyle are revealed to be mistaken: unfortunately, it is only through destruction that Calidore is finally able to see the material realities of the pastoral fantasy (192).

While Little is not the first scholar to point out that otium emerges out of a material reality, and an unfavourable one at that, her careful reading of how various histories inform Spenserian pastoral is impressive. Her work might be considered alongside recent efforts by scholars such as Andrew King, who also provides crucial readings of Spenser’s response to an under-acknowledged Medieval tradition. Like King, and like pastoral critics such as Helen Cooper, Little helps to disrupt the Medieval / Renaissance divide that traditionally locates studies of the pastoral within the Renaissance. In doing so, Little provides new insight into both the lesser known shepherds of Barclay and Googe, but also into the canonical pastoral texts of Spenser. She gestures at the further applicability of her argument in her afterword, where she forays into drama to look briefly at Corin from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, who invokes both the language of anti-enclosure and of the reformation. In short, Katherine Little’s book is important reading for students and scholars interested in the literary and historical circumstances from which (and against which) the Renaissance pastoral emerged.

Nathan Szymanski
Simon Fraser University



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Cite as:

Nathan Szymanski, "Katherine C. Little, Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry," Spenser Review 45.2.41 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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