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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Invisible Labor in the Medieval World


This thesis explores invisible labor, which is a contemporary term, as written in Old English literature. This thesis contends that invisible labor refers to labor that is ignored, underpaid, oftentimes spans across social hierarchies and is socially constructed. The first part of this thesis goes into the contemporary understanding of invisible labor, how this understanding leads to recognition of invisible labor in Old English literature and shows that this labor is not gender specific. The second part of this thesis goes into peace-weaving as invisible labor, which had been culturally considered women’s work and economically devalued, as depicted by the actions of Wealhtheow when she serves mead and speaks up for her sons in Beowulf and heroic actions of killing Holofernes by Judith in Judith. The third part of this thesis explores peacemaker as invisible labor, as depicted by Wiglaf serving “water” in Beowulf, Widsith taking Ealhhild to her new king in Widsith, Constantine taking advice from the Angel as depicted in Cynewulf’s Elene, the soldiers standing by King Athelstan and defeating the Scots in “The Battle of Brunburgh,” and the men being faithful to AEthelred against the Vikings in “The Battle of Maldon.” In analyzing invisible labor as depicted in Old English literature, what may be viewed in contemporary terms as “ordinary” work of service that is easily dismissed and unrecognized, will bring insight into how invisible labor was seen in Old English literature.

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