In another Response to Eric Weiskott

On 30 July 2018, Eric Weiskott’s “The New Moralists” appeared online in Medium. In the article, Weiskott explicates the Rent Relief Act proposed by several Democratic US Senators and critiques it as a reflection of medieval three-estates ideology. After describing and offering a response to the proposed law (one that does not wholly endorse it), Weiskott notes the parallel to medieval social standards, using Piers Plowman as his example of medieval understandings of desired social dynamics. He points out that explicit or implicit work requirements for supportive programs are prevalent across centuries, although he notes that the author of Piers Plowman is, at least, more reflective than the 21st-century legislators that (unintentionally) echo him. After expressing the thought of supporting people regardless of work status, Weiskott concludes with the note that Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, who promotes such a position, won out over the proponent of a parallel to the Rent Relief Act.

One of the more notable depictions,
from MS Sloane 2435
and on the covers of many textbooks.
I’m told it’s a public domain image.

I’ve expressed my appreciation for Weiskott before, and some of what I’ve noted is applicable now. Weiskott remains a pleasure to read. Too, I’m happy to see another medievalist making comments accessible to a broad public, and I’m happy to see medieval literature being used to make a case relevant to current circumstances. Further, it’s always good to see the medievals presented as something other than the filthy idiots they are too commonly held to be–or those of us living now as uniformly more enlightened than they were. (There are ways, sure, but there are many things we retain, and there are some in which we may well be surpassed.) Too, I am glad to see the political comments made; I am not a proponent of the idea that the work scholars do is or should be apolitical. And for medieval studies to engage with such issues in the current cultural moment is particularly important, given some of the asinine shenanigans in which some are trying to employ it.

Related image
Not that three-estate life seems to have been good in any time.
Image borrowed from
My French is not good enough to let me read the related text.

There is something potentially troubling about what Weiskott points out, though. If the idea behind the Rent Relief Act is one that echoes and repeats a kind of feudal ideology on display in Piers Plowman, it is one that bespeaks a continued slide towards a broader and more prevalent feudalistic social structure. The robber barons of the twentieth century were not afforded the elemental French feudal title idly. Their counterparts in the early twenty-first might well be so styled as they accumulate wealth and influence, and the access to and command of resources they embody, while more people grow increasingly poor. And I know that I, as well as most of the people I know, are more likely to be in what reflects the traditional third estate than either the first or the second. (The traditional second, those who fight, are increasingly those who work, as well. What god commands those who pray is open to interpretation. I acknowledge that the echo is not without garbling.) This is not Weiskott’s fault, of course, and it needs pointing out–but that does not make it not a sad thing to see…

Virtuous alms?


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