Hunger and the Clerical Canine: The Dog as Metaphor in Piers Plowman B
By Rosanne Gasse
Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest, Volume 20 (2016)
Introduction: Hunger in Piers Plowman B is a controversial and perplexing figure in passus 6, one that has garnered considerable and remarkably divergent critical attention over the years. Past studies of Hunger in Piers Plowman have split into those who favor the episode’s social critique of poverty and the greater labor issues which it implies—Derek Pearsall, for instance, who even phrases his discussion within the terms of a modern welfare state1—and those who, while they may acknowledge the literal aspect of physical hunger in the scene, prefer to emphasize its allegorical implications. D. W. Robertson, Jr. and Bernard Huppé, most famously, spend a mere eleven lines on the literal meaning of Hunger, but more than eight pages of analysis on their allegorical/tropological exegesis in which Hunger is revealed to be “the lack of spiritual food in forgetfulness of the creator.”
Certain scholars also have noted the profound instability of Hunger’s message as a character. David Aers points out the “wobble” between Hunger’s moral justification of solutions centered on hunger and forced labor on the one hand, and Hunger’s abandonment of the punitive surveillance involved in discriminatory and disciplinary charity on the other. C. David Benson likewise notes that Hunger sometimes speaks like a “pitiless Simon Legree” but then can suddenly switch his discourse to that of a caring “St. Francis.” Benson’s conclusion sums up neatly the confusion felt by the many critics who expect to find a single, straightforward meaning in B passus 6: “The Hunger episode provides no clear lesson—or rather too many. No single voice or position dominates for long, as Hunger is explored from multiple perspectives.”
This article will argue for a new and significant metaphorical approach to understanding the code-switching wobble evident in the figure of Hunger in B passus 6. It will posit that Hunger is meant to be recognized as Piers’s watchdog who comes running to the attack the instant his master calls. Shortly before Piers calls upon Hunger for help against Waster and the boastful Bretoner, wasters are declared to be “wolveskynnes.” This lupine metaphor segues into the canine one which follows, because having to deal with predatory wolves on the property is a farming situation which any medieval person would understand needed a dog to be present. The dog was—and is—an animal that would have been familiar to readers of the fourteenth century as a valuable working animal and that from truly ancient times had secured its position as man’s best friend, the animal always in human company. Indeed, the hound’s status itself is not unlike that of the specter of Hunger, which also is a constant companion, an ever present reality for the human condition throughout history.