Scribal Hermeneutics and the Genres of Social Organization in Piers Plowman

  • Andrew Cole
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This essay argues that critics too often assume that William Langland’s allegorical practice is immaterial. On the contrary, Langland deploys allegorical models here that are thoroughly material—affiliated, as they are, with contemporary genres that memorialize, archive, and legislate labor in lists, guild ordinances, and statutes.


Fourteenth Century Creative Imagination Total View Medieval Literature Literate Perspective 
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    The fruits of such a close reading, one that continuously and cautiously mediates Langland’s images with their purported scriptural and exegetical significances, are clearly born out in David Aers’ Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975).Google Scholar
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    Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts: Report on the Manuscripts of the Corporation of Beverley (London: H.M. Stationery Office [Mackie], 1900), p. 65. A more extensive and slightly different example concerning Beverley as well is in the Calendar of Patent Rolls: Richard II, 1381–85 (London: PRO, 1897), 146; item dated June 16, 1382, which lists persons and their trades. For the contexts, see R.B. Dobson, “The Risings in York, Beverley, and Scarborough, 1380–81,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. Rodney Hilton and T.H. Aston (Cambridge, 1984). There is here, I should note, no escape from the material or urban such as that literally enacted by Petrarch: “Arise, come, hasten, let us abandon the city to merchants, attorneys, brokers, usurers, tax-gatherers, scriveners, doctors, perfumers, butchers, cooks, bakers and tailors, alchemists, fullers, artisans, weavers, architects, statuaries, painters, mimes, dancers, lute-players, quacks, panderers, thieves, criminals, adulterers, parasites, foreigners, swindlers and jesters, gluttons who with scent alert catch the odor of the marketplace, for whom that is their only bliss, where mouths are agape for that alone. For on the mountains there is no smell of cookery” (De Vita Solitaria, trans. Jacob Zeitlen, The Life of Solitude, 312. Cited and discussed by David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in Late Medieval England and Italy [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], pp. 272–73).Google Scholar
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    An example in passus 5 is conspicuous, where the list approaches the carnivalesque (See Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980]): Thanne goth Gloton in, and grete othes after. Cesse the Souteresse sat on the benche, Watte the Warner and his wife bothe, Tymme the Tynkere and tweyne of his [knav]es Hikke the Hakeneyman and Hugh the Nedlere, Clarice of Cokkeslane and the Clerk of the chirche Sire Piers of Pridie and Pernele of Flaundres, Dawe the Dykere, and a dozeyne othere—A Ribibour, a Ratoner, a Rakiere of Chepe, A Ropere, a Redyngkyng, and Rose the Dysshere, Godefray of Garlekhithe and Griffyn the Walshe, And [of] upholderes an heep, erly by the morwe, Geve Gloton with glad chere good ale to hanselle. Clement the Cobelere caste of his cloke, And at the newe feire nempned it to selle. Hikke the Hakeneyman hitte his hood after, And bad Bette the Bocher ben on his syde. (5.307–23)Google Scholar
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    Anne Middleton, “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers PlowmanThe Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1982), 91–122; and “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)—essays which propel forward Kane’s earlier assertions that the poem makes “false starts and changes of direction, frequent pauses, anxieties, hesitations, and impatience” (244). For a renewed and thoroughly thought-provoking inquiry into these actions of starting, see D. Vance Smith, The Book of the Incipit: Beginnings in the Fourteenth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).Google Scholar
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    For an example of itemized tasks and payments, see Book of London English, pp. 147–48, 152–56, 168–70, 173–77; Riley, Memorials, p. 265; of itemized presents, 314. For an extraordinary list of fines against “labourers, artificers, and servants,” see Calendar of Letter-Books … of the City of London: Letter-Book G, circa. 1352–1374, ed. Reginald R. Sharpe (London: John Edward Francis, 1905), pp. 115–18; for a list of donations, pp. 171–73.Google Scholar
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    Book of London English, p. 48; see also pp. 50, 54, 56. On the Cambridge Parliament of 1388, part of which was to reenforce the 1351 Statute of Laborers, see Anthony Tuck, “The Cambridge Parliament, 1388,” English Historical Review 84 (1969): 225–43. On this parliament’s attempt to control the potentially subversive associations of unrelated persons between and among guilds, see Strohm, “‘A Revelle!’: Chronicle Evidence and the Rebel Voice,” in Hochon’s Arrow, pp. 58–63. Let it be noted that the “hostility of the Commons was directed at fraternities which had a common livery and promoted ‘confederacy, maintenance [of judicial suits] and riots in hindrance of the law” (Barron, “London Middle English Guild Certificates,” 108). On how the Ricardian mandate bespeaks post-1381 fears about laborers’ conspiracies, see H.F Westlake, Parish Guilds of Medieval England (1919), pp. 36–37; May McKisack, The Fourteenth Century, 1307–1399 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 373. For a recent overview, see William R. Jones, “English Religious Brotherhoods and Medieval Lay Piety: The Inquiry of 1388–89,” The Historian 36 (1974): 646–79. The problem of holding “clandestine meetings” was, of course, longstanding; see George Unwin, The Guilds and Companies of London (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1938), pp. 41, 70. For examples of a guild whose ordinances deal with “oure bretheren that is rebell,” see Laura Wright, “The London Middle English Guild Certificates of 1388–9: II. The Texts,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 39 (1995): 127, 128, 135, 144; on authorized assembly times, see 136, 137, 139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Andrew Cole

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