The figure of the plowman achieved a certain popularity in mid-sixteenth-century England with the publication of William Langland's medieval poem, Piers Plowman, and in a number of treatises written in imitation of it such as I playne Piers which cannot flatter. This post-Reformation plowman has long been read as an uncomplicated spokesman for an anticlerical Protestantism. This article argues, in contrast, that these plowmen are evidence of a continuing interest in a medieval Catholic symbolic imagination centered on work–as physical labor and as spiritual labor, such as good deeds. In other words, the new Protestant deemphasis on spiritual works was understood at the time to threaten the reformist and even radical potential of discourses of rural labor. This popular figure of the plowman demonstrates, therefore, the conflict between residual and emergent meanings of labor.

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