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The Claims of Poverty

Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England

Kate Crassons

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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p. vii

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pp. 1-20

In 1206 the man who would become St. Francis of Assisi was brought before the bishop to face punishment for his increasingly disruptive behavior. The stories of the saint’s life famously record how Francis’s father, a prosperous cloth merchant, sought legal recourse in response to his son’s actions...

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1. Forms of Need: The Allegorical Representation of Poverty in Piers Plowman

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pp. 21-88

The parable of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16 offers a haunting story about the failures of charity, the invisibility of the poor, and the divisions that fracture community. Describing how the rich man ignores the needy beggar at his gate, the gospel passage goes on to recount how Dives is damned while Lazarus finds respite enfolded in Abraham’s bosom...

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2. Poverty Exposed: The Evangelical and Epistemological Ideal of Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede

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pp. 89-137

The Wycliffite poem Pierce the Plougman’s Crede offers an enthusiastic response to the calls for ecclesiastical reform articulated in Piers Plowman. Written by an anonymous author sometime after 1393, the Crede self-consciously follows in the footsteps of Langland’s work, condemning...

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3. “Clamerous” Beggars and “Nedi” Knights: Poverty and Wycliffite Reform

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pp. 139-176

Posted on the doors of Parliament in 1395, the above statement proposing reforms for the institutional church begins with a striking declaration of authorial identity: “We pore men.”1 The proponents of what has come to be known as the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards claim a position of authority...

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4. The Costs of Sanctity: Margery Kempe and the Franciscan Imaginary

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pp. 177-220

Margery Kempe is perhaps best known for her seemingly eccentric spirituality, which entails extreme episodes of crying. Yet Kempe’s religious devotion is distinctive not simply for its emotional intensity. As she undertakes her own imitation of Christ in the world, Kempe forges a path...

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5. Communal Identities: Performing Poverty, Charity, and Labor in York’s Corpus Christi Theater

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pp. 221-273

York’s Corpus Christi drama, as it re-creates the whole of biblical history, explores theological material central to the late medieval debates about poverty, charity, and labor. Yet the York cycle is especially intriguing not simply for its discussion of such issues, but because the plays are immediately implicated in these issues...

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Epilogue: Nickel and Dimed: Poverty Polemic Medieval and Modern

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pp. 275-295

In late medieval England, writers interrogated the meaning of poverty with great urgency. In many ways, their dynamic and intricate writings reveal how increasing anxiety about poverty was a matter of historical specificity marked by a radically different post-plague economy, a flourishing ideology...


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pp. 296-356

Works Cited

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pp. 357-372


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pp. 373-389

E-ISBN-13: 9780268076870
E-ISBN-10: 0268076871
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268023027
Print-ISBN-10: 0268023026

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 694144526
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Claims of Poverty

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poverty -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History of doctrines -- Middle Ages, 600-1500.
  • Poverty in literature.
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Social conditions -- 1066-1485.
  • Poverty -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • Ideology in literature.
  • Civilization, Medieval, in literature.
  • Social problems in literature.
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