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Claims of Poverty

The Claims of Poverty

Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England

Kate Crassons

In The Claims of Poverty, Kate Crassons explores a widespread ideological crisis concerning poverty that emerged in the aftermath of the plague in late medieval England. She identifies poverty as a central preoccupation in texts ranging from Piers Plowman and Wycliffite writings to The Book of Margery Kempe and the York cycle plays. Crassons shows that these and other works form a complex body of writing in which poets, dramatists, and preachers anxiously wrestled with the status of poverty as a force that is at once a sacred imitation of Christ and a social stigma; a voluntary form of life and an unwelcome hardship; an economic reality and a spiritual disposition.

Crassons argues that literary texts significantly influenced the cultural conversation about poverty, deepening our understanding of its urgency as a social, economic, and religious issue. These texts not only record debates about the nature of poverty as a form of either vice or virtue, but explore epistemological and ethical aspects of the debates. When faced with a claim of poverty, people effectively become readers interpreting the signs of need in the body and speech of their fellow human beings. The literary and dramatic texts of late medieval England embodied the complexity of such interaction with particular acuteness, revealing the ethical stakes of interpretation as an act with direct material consequences. As The Claims of Poverty demonstrates, medieval literature shaped perceptions about who is defined as “poor,” and in so doing it emerged as a powerful cultural force that promoted competing models of community, sanctity, and justice.

“With The Claims of Poverty, Kate Crassons has written a far-ranging and important study of literary representations of poverty in the Middle Ages. She not only sensitively treats a wide variety of literary sources from allegory to dream vision to sermon to autobiography to drama, but she also carefully places them within significant historical contexts, from changing labor practices and legislation to antifraternalism to heretical movements. Crassons’s analysis of literary texts within the context of these crucially important developments in attitudes towards poverty—whose consequences still remain—demonstrates the profoundly difficult hermeneutic difficulties poverty poses then and now.” — Elizabeth A. Robertson, University of Colorado at Boulder

ISBN: 978-0-268-02302-7
400 pages
Publication Year: 2010

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Kate Crossons is associate professor of English at Lehigh University.

“Everyone interested in how literature represents bodily need and economic relations should read this probing study of the epistemology of poverty in English narratives, plays and reformist prose from the 1370s through the fifteenth century. The Claims of Poverty achieves so much as a literary and cultural study, in part, because Crassons astutely refuses to rehash the extensive scholarship on the late-medieval debates about poverty.” — The Review of English Studies

“Crassons’s debut text . . . is a lively and original survey of medieval accounts and understandings of poverty from the 1300s to the fifteenth century. Fascinatingly, the book is also contemporary in its emphasis. Crassons leaps into this theme, asserting from the outset that the ambiguity in both defining and judging poverty is as salient to medieval England as it is to the twentieth-first century.” — Parergon

“This is an important book both for its insights into the claims of poverty in fourteenth-century thought, and for its methodology which illuminates contemporary texts by close reading . . . . This is a deeply humane book whose epilogue points up the enduring attitudes to and representations of poverty still experienced in modern cultures. For those who think they know the medieval texts well, this book will provide refreshingly new insights. For those who might not think of reading them, the book makes the texts accessible even to those of limited experience in reading Middle English texts.” — Medium Aevum

“A central argument in Kate Crassons’ study is that literature, rather than history, best reveals the most urgent concerns that characterized the debates on poverty in late medieval England. A historical approach, Crassons maintains, would likely reveal a somewhat steady hardening of cultural attitudes toward poverty.” — Anglican and Episcopal History

“The Claims of Poverty offers an important and sensitive critique of the epistemological and ethical challenges posed by medieval and contemporary discourses about poverty. It is a valuable and well-written contribution to our understanding of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English culture as well as a necessary demonstration of the ongoing representational and ethical complexities of poverty and charity.” — Journal of English and Germanic Philology

“[This book] confronts readers with real issues: the matter of poverty, its claims, the obligations of the nonpoor, and the societal pressure to labor and the value of labor vis-à-vis the claims of poverty.” — Modern Philology

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The Claims of Poverty

Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England

Kate Crassons

The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England
Paper Edition

In The Claims of Poverty, Kate Crassons explores a widespread ideological crisis concerning poverty that emerged in the aftermath of the plague in late medieval England. She identifies poverty as a central preoccupation in texts ranging from Piers Plowman and Wycliffite writings to The Book of Margery Kempe and the York cycle plays. Crassons shows that these and other works form a complex body of writing in which poets, dramatists, and preachers anxiously wrestled with the status of poverty as a force that is at once a sacred imitation of Christ and a social stigma; a voluntary form of life and an unwelcome hardship; an economic reality and a spiritual disposition.

Crassons argues that literary texts significantly influenced the cultural conversation about poverty, deepening our understanding of its urgency as a social, economic, and religious issue. These texts not only record debates about the nature of poverty as a form of either vice or virtue, but explore epistemological and ethical aspects of the debates. When faced with a claim of poverty, people effectively become readers interpreting the signs of need in the body and speech of their fellow human beings. The literary and dramatic texts of late medieval England embodied the complexity of such interaction with particular acuteness, revealing the ethical stakes of interpretation as an act with direct material consequences. As The Claims of Poverty demonstrates, medieval literature shaped perceptions about who is defined as “poor,” and in so doing it emerged as a powerful cultural force that promoted competing models of community, sanctity, and justice.

“With The Claims of Poverty, Kate Crassons has written a far-ranging and important study of literary representations of poverty in the Middle Ages. She not only sensitively treats a wide variety of literary sources from allegory to dream vision to sermon to autobiography to drama, but she also carefully places them within significant historical contexts, from changing labor practices and legislation to antifraternalism to heretical movements. Crassons’s analysis of literary texts within the context of these crucially important developments in attitudes towards poverty—whose consequences still remain—demonstrates the profoundly difficult hermeneutic difficulties poverty poses then and now.” — Elizabeth A. Robertson, University of Colorado at Boulder

ISBN: 978-0-268-02302-7

400 pages

“Everyone interested in how literature represents bodily need and economic relations should read this probing study of the epistemology of poverty in English narratives, plays and reformist prose from the 1370s through the fifteenth century. The Claims of Poverty achieves so much as a literary and cultural study, in part, because Crassons astutely refuses to rehash the extensive scholarship on the late-medieval debates about poverty.” — The Review of English Studies

“Crassons’s debut text . . . is a lively and original survey of medieval accounts and understandings of poverty from the 1300s to the fifteenth century. Fascinatingly, the book is also contemporary in its emphasis. Crassons leaps into this theme, asserting from the outset that the ambiguity in both defining and judging poverty is as salient to medieval England as it is to the twentieth-first century.” — Parergon

“This is an important book both for its insights into the claims of poverty in fourteenth-century thought, and for its methodology which illuminates contemporary texts by close reading . . . . This is a deeply humane book whose epilogue points up the enduring attitudes to and representations of poverty still experienced in modern cultures. For those who think they know the medieval texts well, this book will provide refreshingly new insights. For those who might not think of reading them, the book makes the texts accessible even to those of limited experience in reading Middle English texts.” — Medium Aevum

“A central argument in Kate Crassons’ study is that literature, rather than history, best reveals the most urgent concerns that characterized the debates on poverty in late medieval England. A historical approach, Crassons maintains, would likely reveal a somewhat steady hardening of cultural attitudes toward poverty.” — Anglican and Episcopal History

“The Claims of Poverty offers an important and sensitive critique of the epistemological and ethical challenges posed by medieval and contemporary discourses about poverty. It is a valuable and well-written contribution to our understanding of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English culture as well as a necessary demonstration of the ongoing representational and ethical complexities of poverty and charity.” — Journal of English and Germanic Philology

“[This book] confronts readers with real issues: the matter of poverty, its claims, the obligations of the nonpoor, and the societal pressure to labor and the value of labor vis-à-vis the claims of poverty.” — Modern Philology