Menu Close


Fruitless Labor

My current research (based on my dissertation, Hardly Working: Fruitless Labor in Premodern English Literature) claims that premodern authors turned to a range of alternative forms of labor as a strategy for navigating the status of authorship and the changing economy.  Why do premodern English texts depict or rely on the rhetoric of labor only to characterize such activity as impossible, fruitless, failed, or otherwise unsuccessful? Using these moment as my entry point, I argue that these texts manipulate the terms of labor in order to re-imagine what we define as labor in the first place.

My work bridges the medieval/early modern divide and thinks broadly across a continuous (but not homogenous) premodern England. Fruitless Labor begins in the mid fourteenth century, when the first bouts of labor legislation were enacted, and traces the engagement with variant forms of labor through the final decades of the sixteenth century, which were characterized by apprenticeship riots and an influx of idle, or unemployed, persons into the city of London. I emphasize variety—temporally, generically (pastoral, romance, epic, eclogue, comedy, tragedy), formally (long and lyric poetry, drama), contextually (courtly poems, patronage poems, popular drama and children’s theater), of authorship (anonymous poets and playwright(s), collaborative authors, canonical writers, and those whose contemporary fame has long since faded)—in order to both demonstrate the thoroughness with which these subverted forms of labor pervaded premodern society and to showcase the multitude of ways in which this manifested. 

Other Projects

I am currently working on an experimental article on the Harley 913  “Lullay Lullay littil child” that asks how our modern understanding of the lullaby genre can illuminate this medieval poem. Additionally, I am working on two articles on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: one argues for the Abraham and Isaac episode as a source text, the other examines the ways in which the poem’s economy of materiality engages with contemporary concerns surrounding the efficacy of coin and credit.

My second, still nascent, book project builds upon the idea of alternative economies that I lay out in Fruitless Labor and asks how the theoretical apparatuses of Queer Studies can further open up our understanding of the relationships between value, labor, productivity, and exchange. This project was inspired by the ways in which the “fruitless labor” of my first book pushes against a heteronormative understanding of (sexual) activity that is grounded in production, or issue. Just as queer productivity can reshape the way in which we understand the rhetoric of authorial parentage, I postulate, so can queer labor, queer exchange, and queer currency offer new perspectives on understanding literary systems of economy that may not initially read as such under our current paradigms.