James Kearney

in Cultural Reformations

Published in print June 2010 | ISBN: 9780199212484
Published online November 2015 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford 21st Century Approaches to Literature


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This essay examines the role that the specter of idleness played in the ongoing transformation of labor in England during the late medieval and early modern periods. It begins by tracing an historical shift in Christian conceptions of labor through a knotty genealogy of ideas about labor and idleness that extends from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. The essay then turns to an early sixteenth-century text that is not often considered in either medieval or early modern histories of Christian thought about labor: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). The essay contends that Utopia is fundamentally shaped by More’s meditation on labor and idleness and that that meditation opens the utopian text out toward a vexed history of ideas concerning human work that extends forward from the fourteenth century. With its idiosyncratic but historically resonant meditation on human labor, More’s Utopia represents a particularly useful vantage point from which to address the ongoing transformation of Christian conceptions of work in late medieval and early modern England.

Keywords: idleness; labor; England; Thomas More; Utopia; garden of Eden; “sturdy beggar; ” vagrancy; enclosure; black death; medieval; early modern

Article.  9440 words. 

Subjects: Literature ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)

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