Souls That Matter: The Gendering of the Soul in Piers Plowman

  • Elizabeth Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


When medieval theologians discuss the nature of the soul, they generally assume it and its faculties to be gender neutral, despite the fact that the most influential commentator on the soul, Aristotle, asserted a distinction between the male and female soul. When we turn to the poetic representations of the soul found in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, we find that assumptions about gender crucially shape its protagonist Will’s developing understanding of the nature of the soul. Since Will urgently seeks guidance for the salvation of his soul, Langland’s understanding of its nature informs Will’s progress through the poem. His journey entails encounters with multiple figures who teach him about the soul, most of them personifications gendered either male or female (for example, Holy Church (f.), Wit (m.), Clergy (m.), Study, (f.), and so on). He also twice meets the soul itself as a personified figure. Although a number of Langland’s gendered personifications have received attention from critics, including Elizabeth Kirk, interested in how theories of gender and sexuality shape our understanding of the poem, almost no one has considered the gendering of the soul itself as it appears in Piers Plowman both as a personified figure and as an informing principle in the poem.1 In some senses, Will is the soul, or at least that aspect of the soul that desires God.


Naming Sequence Grammatical Gender Gender Marker Medieval Literature Theological Discussion 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Bonnie Wheeler 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Robertson

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