We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Transforming Work

Early Modern Pastoral and Late Medieval Poetry

Katherine C. Little

Publication Year: 2013

Pastoral poetry has long been considered a signature Renaissance mode: originating in late sixteenth-century England via a rediscovery of classical texts, it is concerned with self-fashioning and celebrating the court. But, as Katherine C. Little demonstrates in Transforming Work: Early Modern Pastoral and Medieval Poetry, the pastoral mode is in fact indebted to medieval representations of rural labor. Little offers a new literary history for the pastoral, arguing that the authors of the first English pastorals used rural laborers familiar from medieval texts—plowmen and shepherds—to reflect on the social, economic, and religious disruptions of the sixteenth century. In medieval writing, these figures were particularly associated with the reform of the individual and the social world: their work also stood for the penance and good works required of Christians, the care of the flock required of priests, and the obligations of all people to work within their social class. By the sixteenth century, this reformism had taken on a dangerous set of associations—with radical Protestantism, peasants' revolts, and complaints about agrarian capitalism. Pastoral poetry rewrites and empties out this radical potential, making the countryside safe to write about again. Moving from William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the medieval shepherd plays, through the Piers Plowman–tradition, to Edmund Spenser’s pastorals, Little’s reconstructed literary genealogy discovers the “other” past of pastoral in the medieval and Reformation traditions of “writing rural labor.”

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. i-iv


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. v-vi


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. vii-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-14

The divide between the medieval and the early modern (or Renaissance) periods is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in studies of the pastoral mode, in which the literature of the Middle Ages is often entirely absent. Either these studies begin with the sixteenthcentury pastoral of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender or William...

read more

Chapter One: Medieval Traditions of Writing Rural Labor

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 15-48

Medieval literature has played a minor role in the literary history of the pastoral mode for an obvious reason: medieval English writers neither imitated Virgil’s Eclogues nor seemed particularly interested in writing about or in the guise of shepherds. This lack of enthusiasm for shepherds does not mean, however, that they are entirely...

read more

Chapter Two: The Invention of the English Eclogue

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 49-82

Interest in the eclogue form and its shepherds seems to appear (or reappear) almost entirely out of nowhere in early sixteenthcentury England. Although Virgil’s works were certainly known to medieval authors, the Eclogues had very little influence on the development of vernacular literature in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century...

read more

Chapter Three: The Pastoral Mode and Agrarian Capitalism

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 83-110

The emergence of the pastoral mode has long been understood as a decisive moment in the history of literature but not, interestingly, as a decisive moment in the history of shepherds.1 Yet the rediscovery of Virgil’s Eclogues and the subsequent flourishing of literary imitations, a process that began in the early sixteenth century and continued...

read more

Chapter Four: Transforming Work

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 111-142

Thus far, this study has argued that the history of pastoral belongs properly to a history of “writing rural labor.” Such a history must take into account not only specific changes in how rural laborers might be represented—the distinguishing characteristics of shepherds, for example, which were discussed in chapters 2 and 3—but also shifts...

read more

Chapter Five: Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender and a Poetry of Rural Labor

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 143-170

The previous chapters have explored the way in which sixteenth-century pastoral emerged in relation to broader traditions of writing rural labor: the ecclesiastical pastoral, the polemic of the enclosure controversy, and the Piers Plowman tradition. Such a broad approach may seem well-suited for the poetry discussed thus far—the...

read more

Chapter Six: Reading Pastoral in Book 6 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 171-194

In book 6 of his Faerie Queene (1596) Spenser returns to the pastoral mode, but this is a far more self-consciously courtly version that seems to have little or nothing to do with the broader traditions of writing rural labor that helped to shape the Calender. Indeed, the defining feature of this pastoral episode is the life of ease, otium,...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 195-200

The Renaissance has long been understood as a beginning: of the individual, of historical consciousness, of new literary forms. Although medievalists have tried to modify this defining characteristic by pushing these beginnings back to the Middle Ages, it still remains to be seen whether the Renaissance can ever shake its associations with beginnings...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 201-236


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 237-248


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 249-256

About the Author, Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 257-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9780268085704
E-ISBN-10: 0268085706
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268033873
Print-ISBN-10: 0268033870

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 1 halftone
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 846551494
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Transforming Work

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Pastoral poetry, English -- History and criticism.
  • English poetry -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Literature, Medieval -- Influence.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access