The Voice of the Hammer

The Meaning of Work in Middle English Literature

Nicola Masciandaro

Through an analysis of literary representations of work, Nicola Masciandaro explores how late medieval authors, influenced by the labor-related crises of the fourteenth century, sought to articulate the meaning of work in fresh and contrasting ways.

The cultural landscape of late medieval England was fertile territory for literary representations of work. This territory was shaped by the increasing commercialization of economic relations, the social agitation of the agricultural and artisan classes, and the growing formalization of consciousness of status. In The Voice of the Hammer, Masciandaro analyzes the Middle English terms to show how words for work were related to status and class attitudes, as well as demonstrating the broad awareness in late medieval society of work’s nature and processes and the deeper concern about the relationship between occupation and personal agency. Masciandaro offers close readings of specific texts—the history of masonry in the Cooke MS, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and Chaucer’s _Former Age_—which reveal that literary engagement with work, though rooted in biblical, classical, and earlier medieval traditions, constituted a significant form of discourse and debate on the status of labor in medieval English.

The Voice of the Hammer also explores how fourteenth-century literature, Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale and Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale especially, sought the meaning of work in the self, as personal fulfillment over and above the fulfillment of material and moral responsibility. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of the conceptualization of work as a distinct and problematic field of experience.

NICOLA MASCIANDARO is assistant professor of English at Brooklyn College.

“In The Voice of the Hammer, Nicola Masciandaro engagingly presents a large issue with elegance and capaciousness. His subtle and significant readings of all of the works he addresses support the ingenious topics and important ideas he has highlighted in the broad field of late medieval ideas of labor, at once so central to the concerns of later Middle English poetry and so widely disseminated in the culture from which that arose.” —Andrew Galloway, Cornell University


“As a study of the socio-cultural and historical conceptions of work, both manual and poetic, in the Middle Ages, The Voice of the Hammer is a book which is valuable for Middle English scholars and medievalists interested in the exchange between medieval literature and medieval economics. Its comprehensive scope is useful, and if provides a good survey of the field of economic history in Middle English literature.” — Comitatus

“Nicola Masciandaro makes it clear that this is about the literary representation of work in the poetry of late fourteenth-century England, and the role given to work in the construction of the self. A thought-provoking book with some very clever ideas, which are beautifully expressed.” — Journal of English and Germanic Philology

“This book of three chapters is a study ‘of work mentalities’ in the vein of that familiar school of criticism, the Annales School. . . . The Voice of the Hammer . . . will succeed in provoking thought on the meaning of work in medieval England.” — Speculum

The Voice of the Hammer is an extended essay in semantics, meticulously constructing a key period in the history of labor through the various words used in the medieval period for physical work. . . . The book has important implications for occupational and medieval folklore.” — Western Folklore