The Displacement of Labor in Winner and Waster

  • Britton J. Harwood
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Winner and Waster both alludes to and displaces contemporary interclass conflict (including episodes of civic unrest in Chester as well as the controversial policies associated with William Shareshull).


Literary Production English Poetry Chief Justice Controversial Policy Early Steward 
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  1. 1.
    See esp. Thomas L. Reed, Jr., Middle English Debate Poetry and the Aesthetics of Irresolution (Columbia, MO, and London: University of Missouri Press, 1990). The poem was “largely written as a work of recreational irresolution” (269). Taking up the difference between the first fitt on the one hand and the second and third on the other, Thomas Bestul, author of the fullest commentary on the poem, makes the point in another way: “[t]he narrative scope of the poem, once narrowed, is never again broadened.” Satire and Allegory in Wynnere and Wastoure (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), p. 40.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ed., Stephanie Trigg, Wynnere and Wastoure, EETS o. s. 297 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. xlvii. In Satire and Allegory, Bestul points to “discontinuity,” because “each component of the poem is so starkly individuated…The parts are by no means homogeneous in nature” (99). By “parts,” however, Bestul is not referring to the three fitts.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Winner and Waster and the Parliament of the Three Ages,” American Notes and Queries 4 (1966): 101. There are, of course, opposing judgments of the poem’s literary quality. “The poem is a tour de force of rich and controlled skills…”: Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London, Henley, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), p. 160.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1966), tr. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 36. For a fuller statement and example of the critical procedures I am using here, see my “Plot of Piers Plowman and the Contradictions of Feudalism,” in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. A.J. Frantzen (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), pp. 91–112, 242–53.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Winner and Waster will be quoted throughout from Trigg’s edn. and line references given parenthetically in the text. While the dating of Winner and Waster is still a matter of dispute, I believe no one has put it later than Gawain. By wide agreement, the terminus a quo is 1350, when William Shareshull (see line 317) became chief justice of the King’s Bench, or 1352, when Edward III had reigned for twenty-five years (see line 206). That the terminus ad quem may be as late 1361, the year of Shareshull’s resignation as chief justice, or even 1366, the year of his last service on a commission of the peace, is not crucial to my argument. On the date, see esp. J.R. Hulbert, “The Problems of Authorship and Date of Wynnere and WastoureModern Philology 18 (1920): 31–40; J.M. Steadman, Jr., “The Date of Winnere and Wastoure,” Modern Philology 19 (1921): 211–19; and Elizabeth Salter, “The Timeliness of Wynnere and WastoureMedium Ævum 47 (1978): 40–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2nd edn., ed. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, rev. Norman Davis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 1. 20.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Thorlac Turville-Petre, “The Prologue of Wynnere and Wastoure:” Leeds Studies in English 18 (1987): 20.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone Press, 1975): 17–18, 49–50.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    The Piers Plowman Tradition, ed. Helen Barr (London: Dent; Rutland, VT: Charles Tuttle, 1993), ll. 123–26.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Nicholas Jacobs, “The Typology of Debate and the Interpretation of Wynnere and Wastour,” Review of English Studies n. s. 36 (1985): 488.Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    His portraits of the identifiable aristocrats are better than uncritical: Edward III is “[o]ne of the louelyeste ledis whoso loueth hym in hert/That euer segge vnder sonn sawe with his eghne” (89). The sandisman is probably a Wingfield (see Salter, “Timeliness,” pp. 52–53), with Sir John Wingfield (d. 1361)—partly, perhaps, for reasons I suggest below—the leading candidate. On this see Thorlac Turville-Petre, “Wynnere and Wastoure: When and Where?,” in Loyal Letters: Studies on Mediœval Alliterative Poetry and Prose, ed. L.A.J.R. Houwen and A.A. MacDonald (Groningen: Forsten, 1994), p. 161. The poet calls the sandisman “[o]ne of the ferlyeste frekes” who never failed the king (102). Moreover, as Salter remarks, the questions put by Waster to Winner—“Woldeste þou hafe lordis to lyfe as laddes on fote …?,” and “Schold not a ladde be in londe a lorde for to serue?” (375, 388)—should not be read simply as deliberate attempts to give us unfavorable insights into Wastoure’s ‘ethic’. They are orthodox elements in medieval social philosophy—harsh, hierarchical, but, for the period, ‘just’. (“Timeliness,” p. 44).Google Scholar
  12. 19.
    Macherey, Literary Production, p. 91. V.J. Scattergood has remarked “an unfortunate polarizing effect on responses to the poem. It has been treated either precisely as historical source material, or it has been assessed more generally in literary terms, but rarely as both.” (“Winner and Waster and the Mid-Fourteenth-Century Economy,” in The Writer As Witness: Literature As Historical Evidence, ed. Tom Dunne [Cork: Cork University Press, 1987], 41). Macherey’s critical procedures seem to make it possible exactly to do both.Google Scholar
  13. 23.
    Thorlac Turville-Petre, The Alliterative Revival (Cambridge: Brewer; Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977), p. 2.Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    See Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 164.Google Scholar
  15. 25.
    See Statutes of the Realm (1101–1713), ed. A. Luders, T.E. Tomlins, J. Raithby et al, 11 vols. (London, 1810–28), vol. 2, p. 57.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    C.W.C. Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages (1885), rev. and ed. John H. Beeler (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1953), pp. 116–37. The peasant population otherwise is represented only by its least militant elements, the most impoverished, the landless or cottars, perhaps, whom Waster mentions, “Thou scholdeste reme for rewthe in siche ryfe [quantity] bene the pore” (l.258) and who may, he says, get something from wasters by trick-ledown (ll. 294–98). Other mentions of the poor, however, have only to do with a landlord’s retainers (l. 382), aristocrats who have lived beyond their means (l. 393), and those who are voluntarily poor (ll. 420–22).Google Scholar
  17. 31.
    See J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (London: Butterworths, 1971), p. 16. Because the English king is not above the law, there had been speculation that, in extreme cases, “the earl of Chester as count of the palace [might]…have some coercive power over the king.” See Frederick Pollock and Frederic William Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898), 1: 182.Google Scholar
  18. 32.
    See Rotuli Parliamentorum, ed. J. Strachey, 6 vols. (London, 1767–77), 2: 259, 266.Google Scholar
  19. 33.
    See H.J. Hewitt, Medieval Cheshire (Mancheser: Manchester University Press, 1929), p. 7.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    See Henry Knighton, Chronicon, ed. J.R. Lumby, Rolls Series 92, 2 vols. (London, 1889–95), 2: 75.Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    I summarize here and below, of course, some of Bertha Haven Putnam’s work on Shareshull, both in The Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908), and The Place in Legal History of Sir William Shareshull (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950).Google Scholar
  22. 49.
    Anne Reiber De Windt and Edwin Brezette De Windt, Royal Justice and the Medieval English Countryside, 2 vols. (Toronto: PIMS, 1981), 1: 4–7; Pollock and Maitland, 2: 520–27.Google Scholar
  23. 52.
    Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G.H. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), p. 123: Cumque se crederent esse quietos et liberatos in toto, iusticiarii sederunt de nouo super Traylbastons, et leuauerunt pecuniam ultra mensuram, et multe terre et tenementa seisita in manus principis, et fines multas fecerunt quasi sine numero.Google Scholar
  24. 58.
    See T.F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Medieval England, 6 vols. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1920–33), 5: 387 n.6.Google Scholar
  25. 64.
    See M.M. Postan, “The Economic Foundations of Medieval Society” (1951), in Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 66.
    There were some seventy noble families in England at the time of the poem and some 1000 to 1500 knights at the beginning of the century. See Chris Given-Wilson, The English Nobility in the Late Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 1987), pp. 65–66, 70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 70.
    Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, comp. J.F. Niermeyer, 11 fascicles to date (Leiden: Brill, 1954-). On the eventual intermarriage of nobles and knights—those who had been simply armed ministeriales, ‘retainers,’ unrecognized in law as a distinct class—see Léopold Genicot, L’économie rurale namuroise au bas moyen âge, 2 vols. (Louvain: Centre belge d’histoire rurale, 1974–75), 2: 55, 77, 80, 83, 112, 129. On the place of generositas within another alliterative poem, see my “Gawain and the Gift,” PMLA 106 (1991): 483–99. On the possibility of the noble gift, see also now Jacques Derrida, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money (1991), trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Waster’s references to charity for the poor (ll. 255–62) and to the usefulness of gifts in binding the loyalty of retainers (l. 388) attempt to back away from, to sanitize, his radical self-destructiveness and the centrality of that as a class ethic.Google Scholar
  28. 76.
    See Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 9 (1959): 137–40. Nicholas Jacobs may be making something of a similar point when he suggests that the poet is idealizing “a distributive society” as against a new and “acquisitive” one. “Typology,” 496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 77.
    See Bestul, Satire and Allegory, pp. 13–18 et passim. David Starkey has brought Waster and Winner into relation with two Aristotelian virtues, megalopsychia or magnanimitas (in its Roman translation) and phronesis or prudence, and has written interestingly of their connection to the two separate compartments of the noble household, the chamberlain’s and the steward’s. See “The Age of the Household: Politics, Society, and the Arts, ca. 1350–ca. 1550,” in The Later Middle Ages, ed. Stephen Medcalf Stephen Medcalf, 1981), pp. 253–57.Google Scholar
  30. 79.
    Cf. John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London: Faber and Faber, 1957): “Winner and Waster could be aspects of the same person” (p. 289). Or Jacobs: “a balanced debate between two opposed tendencies.” “Typology,” 494.Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Britton J. Harwood

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