Scribal Hermeneutics and the Genres of Social Organization in Piers Plowman

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Permeability Fatigue Europe Dition Pier 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    William Benzie, Frederick James Furnivall (1825–1910): Victorian Scholar Adventurer (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983), p. 52.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    On second and third traditions, see Ann W. Astell, “Response to Clopper’s ‘Langland and Allegory: A Proposition,’” Yearbook of Langland Studies 15 (2001): 43–46; on the fourth, see Morton Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly Sins (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1952; rpt. 1967).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    By passus and line, I cite The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Complete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A.V.C. Schmidt (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Elizabeth Salter, Piers Plowman: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (1962; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), pp. 71–72. I believe it’s right to see Salter’s study as a response to the kinds of criticism instanced not only by D.W. Robertson and Bernard F. Huppé, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), but also by Rosemary Woolf, “Some Non-medieval Qualities of Piers PlowmanEssays in Criticism 12 (1962); George Kane, “The Vision of Piers Plowman” in his Middle English Literature: A Critical Study of the Romances, the Religious Lyrics, Piers Plowman (London: Metheun, 1951); and Charles Muscatine, Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972), a book of lectures delivered in 1969, virtually coterminous with the second edition of Salter’s study.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Robert Worth Frank, Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Salvation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). Specifically, Salter’s point here is like Robert Worth Frank’s of “man working in this world toward eternal punishment or reward” (p. 19).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    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
  7. 8.
    Walter W. Skeat, ed. The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), C. Prol., 228. Cf. Piers Plowman by William Langland: An Edition of the C-text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), C. Prol. 230–31.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    E.T. Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    A.V.C. Schmidt, “Langland’s Visions and Revisions,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 (2000): 21–22; 16–17 [5–28]. My remarks on useless details are in dialogue with Roland Barthes’ wonderful essay, “The Reality Effect,” French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed. Tzvetan Todorov, trans. R. Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.), pp. 11–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 11.
    Cf. James Simpson, Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-text (London and New York: Longman, 1990), p. 21.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    See Charles Muscatine, Medieval Literature, Style, and Culture: Essays by Charles Muscatine (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 123.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Malcolm Godden, The Making of Piers Plowman (London: Longman, 1990), p. 32.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Hewett-Smith, “Allegory on the Half-Acre: The Demands of History,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 10 (1996): 4 [1–22]. See also Simpson, “Spirituality and Economics in Passus 1–7 of the B Text,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987): 99–102 [83–103].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 16.
    Citing here the title to chapter two, “Piers the Plowman and the Materiality of Allegory’s ‘Other’,” in Claire Marshall, William Langland, Piers Plowman (Horndon, Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House, 2001), pp. 49–79.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Hewett-Smith, “‘Nede ne hath no lawe’: Poverty and the De-stabilization of Allegory in the Final Visions of Piers Plowman,” in William Langland’s Piers Plowman: A Book of Essays, ed. Hewett-Smith (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 233–53.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    “Langland’s London,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), p. 186. The title to this section is taken from Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”: What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons? (Howl and Other Poems [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959])Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    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
  18. 21.
    See Caroline M. Barron, “The London Middle English Guild Certificates of 1388–9: I. Historical Introduction,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 39 (1995): 111. For a somewhat accessible example of this relatively and understandably unavailable sort of text, see The Register of the Freemen of the City of York from the City Records, vol. 1, 1272–1558. The Surtees Society 96 (1896) (Durham: Andrew’s and Co., 1897). More recently, see Parish Fraternity Register, Fraternity of the Holy Trinity and SS Fabian and Sebastian in the Parish of St Botolph without Aldersgate, ed. Patricia Basing, London Record Society (London, 1982); and Patricia Basing, Trades and Crafts in Medieval Manuscripts (New York: New Amsterdam, 1990). For an example of the overlap of these genres, see Riley, Memorials, p. 571.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 22.
    The Peasants’ Rising and the Lollards, ed. Edgar Powell and G.M. Trevelyan (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899), p. 27. Paul Strohm identifies this text as “a point-for-point recasting of (Thomas Usk’s) ‘Appeal’ into Latin.” See “The Textual Vicissitudes of Usk’s ‘Appeal,’” Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts, with an appendix by A.J. Prescott (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 154 [145–60]; Strohm refers to the PRO document itself, E163 5/28 number 12, and not to this edition. More on Usk below.Google Scholar
  20. 25.
    R.B. Dobson, ed., The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan Press, 1983), pp. 64–66. There are surrounding yet more localized ordinances of the same, regarding “masons, carpenters, plasterers, tilers, and all kind of laborers” who take more than is desired (see also Memorials of London and London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, A.D. 1276–1419, ed. H.T. Riley [London, 1868], pp. 253–58 [dated 1350]).Google Scholar
  21. 26.
    For examples and discussion on various kinds of lists and their purposes, see M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (London: Edward Arnold, 1979), pp. 31–32, 51, and plates 9, 10, and 15.Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    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
  23. 28.
    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
  24. 29.
    See, for instance, Chamber’s and Daunt’s introduction to “The Brewer’s First Book,” A Book of London English, 1384–1425, ed. R.W Chambers and Marjorie Daunt (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), pp. 138–40. See also Riley’s introduction, Memorials, pp. vii–viii.Google Scholar
  25. 30.
    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
  26. 32.
    See J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1982), p. 69.Google Scholar
  27. 34.
    See Dialogus de Scaccario: The Course of the Exchequer by Richard Fitz Nigel, ed. and trans. Charles Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983): “Cauendum autem est scriptori ne aliquid motu animi sui scribat in rotulo nisi quod thesaurario dictante didicerit. Quid si forte per negligentiam, uel alium quemlibet casum, contigerit eum errare in scriptura rotuli uel in nomine uel in numero uel in causa in quibus uis maior scripture consistit, non presumat abradere, set linea subtili subducta cancellet et scribat in serie quod oportet. Habet enim rotuli scriptura hoc commune cum cartis et aliis scriptis patentibus, quod abradi non debet et ob hoc cautum est ut de pellibus ouinis fiant, quia non facile nisi manifesto uito rasure cedunt” (p. 31); see also p. 28 See the crossed out membership list in English Guilds, ed. Joshua Toulmin. Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith, EETS o.s. 40 (1870; repr. London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 96.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    On memory and the archive, see Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record; specifically Clanchy’s useful breakdown of “memoranda kept by institutions,” pp. 70–82, which demonstrates the movability of the genre. See also Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Expostulating on another kind of forgetting, and reading (briefly) the end of the Prologue, Smith writes: “Yet, because the everyday emerges along with the forgetting of the exceptional, it tends to appear on the borders of the pathological. The close of [the Prologue]…, for instance, represents the everyday as a splitting-off (or a running out of bounds) of the representative and the pathological (although “ill” here probably doesn’t bear its modern somatic force)…The cacophony with which the [Prologue] ends suggests, also, that the everyday is intimately linked with pandemonium, with a lack of recursive structure” (“Irregular Histories: Forgetting Ourselves,” New Literary History 28.2 [1997]: 163 [161–84]). I shall, however, emphasize the recursiveness of these lines, their archival effects, and their anti-pathology. All told, however, Smith offers a compatible assessment of memory and forgetting in writing and historiography, see pp. 170–73, especially.Google Scholar
  29. 42.
    Morton Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1962), p. 32; J.J. Jusserand, Piers Plowman: A Contribution to the History of English Mysticism, trans. M.E.R. (New York: Russell and Russell, Inc, 1965; 1893), p. 113.Google Scholar
  30. 46.
    The Anonimalle Chronicle, 1333–1381, ed. V.H. Galbraith (London: Manchester University Press, 1927), p. 144: “the commons of the country and the commons of London assembled in fearful strength, to the number of a hundred thousand or more” (Dobson, Peasants’ Revolt, p. 160).Google Scholar
  31. 47.
    Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337–1396, ed. and trans. G.H. Martin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 209–11. See Dobson, Peasant’s Revolt, p. 273; Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, 2 vols., ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London: Longman et al., 1863–64), 1.471.Google Scholar
  32. 48.
    See Strohm, “‘A Revelle’: Chronicle Evidence and the Rebel Voice;” and Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  33. 54.
    The Westminster Chronicle, ed. and trans. L.C. Hector and Barbara F. Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pp. 356–57 (on guilds); pp. 355–69 (for the entire entry). Note that this entry is a summary of the petitions. The documents have been lost.Google Scholar
  34. 55.
    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
  35. 58.
    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. 39, 271 (Edward Ill’s proclamation against privy assemblies and rioters).Google Scholar
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    Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, vol. 1, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (New York: Verso, 1991), p. 103.Google Scholar
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    For accounts as to why the half-acre is set up for failure already, see Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination; Britton J. Harwood, “The Plot of Piers Plowman and the Contradictions of Feudalism,” in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (NY: SUNY Press, 1991), pp. 91–114; and Cole, “Trifunctionality and the Tree of Charity: Literary and Social Practice in Piers PlowmanEnglish Literary History 62 (1995): 1–27.Google Scholar
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    See also Rodney Hilton, “Peasant Movements in England Before 1381,” in Class Conflict and the Crises of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 49–65.Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson and Michael Uebel 2004

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  • Andrew Cole

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