The social trinity of Piers Plowman.
The resistance to speculative enquiry which treatment of the Trinity in Piers Plowman implies can be regarded as reflecting an attitude of the times about who should debate theology, and how far with profit. More than this, it is evidence of a general disposition in Langland to operate within inherited traditions, even when his poem's propelling quest for understanding sometimes raises radical and hotly contended issues.(5) His is a later fourteenth-century fides quaerens intellectum, a final subordination to an act of faith of the urge to understand: while debate is sure to arise from attempts to comprehend what faith requires to be believed and to engage this in social terms, in the last analysis faith is deposited with the faithful for custody and transmission rather than for interrogation.(6) Faith is, then, the unquestionable basis from which Langland's questioning proceeds. At the end of the day, the cardinal beliefs from which faith is constituted, like those constituting the timber from which Piers builds the house of Unity Holy Church towards the end of the poem,(7) make an effective fastness against Antichrist only while taken wholly on trust by the likeminded faithful. But this is also before those beliefs have been subjected to the questionings and compromises that are liable to follow once attempts are made, as necessarily they must be, to live those beliefs out in institutional forms. Consequently, Unity Holy Church is revealed as a pristine ideal, one which can offer the faithful, in practice, only the most temporary kind of refuge once an actual institution, even one generated by Holy Church herself in the hope of giving palpable shape to an ideal way of life, creeps in with all its institutionalized corruptions in the form of Sire Penetrans Domos. Langland's poem becomes the site of a debate, then, between faith and attempts at its praxis, or between what Aers has aptly called Langland's 'commitment to received ideologies and to the imagination's engagement with the present', which gives the poem momentum.(8) Even so, while Langland's dreamer actively questions the social constructs that faith gives rise to, exposing their shortcomings relative to the absolute perfection of the ideal from which they have in principle grown, the ideal itself transcends scrutiny and in doing so returns readers of the poem to a profound orthodoxy.
But to assert so much begs the question. The aim of this article will therefore be to argue it. Langland's depth of commitment to those received ideologies, and it is one particular social ideology that I shall be considering here, seems worth sounding, for rather than picturing a poet, as does Aers, who begins by heroically struggling to impose received ideology on the recalcitrant social actuality grasped by his imagination, and who ends by honestly admitting the ideology's defeat and abandoning it,(9) we might instead picture someone for whom that ideology, though doubtless under the strain of a questioning reality, is finally protected and affirmed, as I have claimed, by an act of transcendence, by being taken beyond problematic issues of praxis into the realm of faith. This theme will be resumed later, but first I shall return to the question of how this social ideology is characteristically articulated, and then to an estimation of the measure of Langland's commitment to it.
Since part of the Church's mission was to present (and hence to standardize) a view of how society might be best organized to manifest Christian belief, it necessarily followed that faith would find issue in some normative social concept, one accessible to most by virtue of its simplicity, yet which, like the very faith which informed it, was at once resistant to too close an examination. Such would be the terms for its acceptance exacted by a concept intended for wide consumption in a society far more complex in practice than the concept could usefully acknowledge.(10) It was, as it were, a pious fiction. Langland's contemporary, Robert Rypon, identified in one of his sermons the circumstances necessary for social cohesion when he observed that 'the unity of the state exists in the agreement of its minds'.(11) Rypon, in recognizing how valuable shared concepts were for stabilizing the status quo, signalled in his remark the attentiveness of the Church in general to the advantages of advancing such collective thinking. For Langland, as for many of his contemporaries, the concept in which social unanimity was enshrined, and to which society at large was beckoned by the Church to assent, became almost a credal orthodoxy in its own right and one which, in the manner of any tacit assumption, would in all likelihood be simply unavailable for negotiation. If the Trinity itself was beyond question, as clearly it was, why not also the ideal social concept which Truth, as we shall see, endorsed? While it might not be necessary to believe the concept in any literalistic, fundamentalist way--the fact that some of Langland's contemporaries were prepared to modify it to improve its descriptive relevance indicates this(12)--it nevertheless held itself up as an exemplary social paradigm in which 'lawe and lewte' functioned flawlessly and which people might therefore do well to cherish. It was part of the inevitable fabric of a Church-constructed world, and more than evidently well known to Langland, it was arguably the ground of his social thinking. Thus his ideal everyday Christian, as his Church would agree, was not only the fidelis simplex, the common man whose unquestioned Creed could be depended on for salvation more than could ever the quiddities of academic debate over matters of faith,(13) but also a man equipped with a common means of conceiving the ideal social system within which his faith might image its ideal practical expression. The fact that the concept was a pious fiction was not necessarily its weakness; as I shall also argue it might, on the contrary, prove its final strength.
It comes as no surprise to discover, then, that Langland's poem accords especial respect to the social Trinity of the three estates. This concept, already venerable by his day, which formulated society as a collaborative system of workers, fighters, and prayers, is too well known to need any extensive rehearsal here.(14) Indeed, since critics have already remarked on Langland's subscription to it, it might seem to hold out little prospect to anyone thinking to explore it again. But as I hope to show it is, like Langland's thinking on the Trinity itself, an assumption so deep seated as to be often unobtrusive, yet one whose authority over him is, in consequence, more far-reaching than has been owned.
Langland's esteem for three-estates thinking is apparent in several places in Piers Plowman, and one salient example may suffice to remind us of it before we go on to investigate its latency. Whatever the difficulties for modern critics that Truth's pardon raises, it is perfectly clear about the constituents of the society to which it is addressed. Its terms apply to Piers and his helpers, to the king and his knights, and to bishops.(15) In short, it applies in the first instance to traditional representatives of the three estates, on condition that they uphold the mutual social obligations that bond them, and hence the ideal society, together. Then there follow two other social groups on the pardon, merchants and lawyers. Both of these are parvenus to the system, and this is indicated by the crowding in the margin of the many years of pardon needed by merchants, perhaps indeed by a literal marginalization of the merchants on the pardon document itself,(16) and by the fact that along with the lawyers, they are the people to whom Truth's pardon is least amenable. Yet even though they are realities of Langland's society that must somehow be reckoned with and brought within the scope of the pardon's influence, on the pardon they have won at best a half-hearted acceptance, and have not really succeeded in penetrating the charmed estates circle.(17) Indeed, it is merchants and lawyers who stretch the pardon to (and perhaps beyond) its limits. Yet although its collapse in the tearing scene may ultimately confess the practical futility of its aim at inclusiveness, this could be interpreted as impugning those who perversely resist inclusion rather than the pardon's aspiration, unimpeachable in itself since it originates in transcendent Truth, to be inclusive.(18) Moreover, the sort of inclusiveness resisted is rather a matter of moral conversion and likemindedness than a simplistic one of trying to fuse merchants and lawyers into a three-estates system. As Baldwin notes of Langland generally, he cannot simply have sought to resurrect some defunct feudal social structure.(19) On the pardon, representatives of the ideal (the three estates) and of the intractably corrupt real (merchants and lawyers) are brought into impossible proximity, but the tension between them does not therefore necessarily resolve itself in an abandonment of faith in the ideal, nor indeed in a requirement that the middle classes be dissolved in order to actualize estates theory.
The treatment of society in an unpublished sermon in Hereford Cathedral Library for Easter Sunday, composed possibly in the early fifteenth century, makes an interesting comparison to Langland's treatment of society in the pardon because, while like Langland it too is much preoccupied with the three-estates ideal, again like him its author has some trouble accommodating the merchant and lawyer classes.(20) As with Langland, so also with the sermon author, the three estates constitute an idealized framework that nevertheless must somehow come to terms with representatives of a social reality more complex than the framework recognizes. Langland's pardon is finally attempting to be the more charitably inclusive, for the sermon author, conversely, simply leaves merchants and lawyers married off to two of the nine daughters begotten by the devil on Iniquity, the merchants to Miss Perjury and the lawyers to Miss Falseness:
Sextam filiam, scilicet, Periurium, maritat |diabolus~ istis mercatoribus, qui iurant cotidie false vt carius vendant . . . Octauam filiam, scilicet, Falcitatem, maritat istis aduocatis inplendours(21) et assysours qui pro pecunia de falso faciunt verum . . .(22)
Langland's difficulty with both groups appears to be more, therefore, than a simple reflex of estates satire, though both often feature in that tradition.(23) Nor is it simply a difficulty about how the middle classes should be situated within the traditional three-estates account of how society is structured, though that question had certainly exercised some of his contemporaries.(24) Neither need it necessarily be viewed as a sign of the imminent collapse of ideology under the weight of reality. Apart from all these, Langland's difficulty could equally be related to a difficulty familiarly aired in contemporary pulpit tradition and displayed, for example, in the Hereford manuscript cited here: there seems to have existed a perceived need to exemplify in these characteristic terms (no doubt, at least from the preachers' point of view, as a stimulus to conversion) the rootedly perverse resistance of the real to the moral demands of the ideal. Langland was evidently in touch with this need. But in the end whichever way the pardon is to be interpreted, it is sufficient for the purposes of this illustration that the three estates are acknowledged to be indisputably at the heart of it.
Conspicuous manifestations of estates theory, as in Truth's pardon, can be left to speak for themselves, however.(25) Unobtrusive, latent cases are more suggestive of how thoroughly Langland absorbed estates thinking, so let us now turn to the first one that I wish to investigate. At the opening of Passus VI in the B text, Piers engages the knight in a preceptive dialogue. Its strategy, proleptic in small of that adopted more extensively in Dives and Pauper a generation later, turns upon the instruction of a member of the upper classes by a member of the lower: the implication seems to be that the personal righteousness of the working-class ploughman justifies him in instructing his social superior.(26) (The role-reversal that this scene dramatizes may already have become something of a topos; an interesting antecedent features in Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne.(27)) The knight, a well-known representative of the estate of those who fight, is here fettled more firmly still within the traditional three-estates system by virtue of his dialogic association with a representative of the estate of labourers, Piers himself. The only estate omitted from their exchange is that of the Church, or so it would seem. Yet a reading that went no further than this would be superficial, for the presence of the Church is in fact implicit in the counsels Piers offers the knight on the nature of his social responsibilities, and in a very specific way. The knight recognizes Piers's authority, and in so doing ratifies his own, when he invites Piers to instruct him. Moreover, when he conceives Piers's discourse as developing a 'teme' on which 'trewly taughte was I neuere' (VI. 23), he imputes to the discourse authority of a particular kind and to Piers a capacity for talking upon a 'teme'. The common currency of the word 'teme' in the language of contemporary preaching, where it had a technical meaning of which Langland was well aware, would have denied its semantic limitation here to some single and exclusively neutral sense like 'topic' or 'subject'.(28) In fact in Passus VII a priest repeats a similar idea more emphatically: '"Were thow a preest, Piers," quod he, "thow myghtest preche where thow sholdest / As divinour in divinite, with Dixit insipiens to thi teme"'.(29) The discourse of a ploughman has been connected with the estate of the Church, or more specifically, with preaching, an office strictly reserved to those in the Holy Orders of priesthood.(30) Naturally, the knight's and the priest's words are not to be read to the exclusion of any touch of social irony, for it is remarkable that a ploughman should start to sound like a preacher: for example, another of Langland's contemporaries, Harry Bailly, is fully aware of what is socially appropriate and is quick to bring down an upstart preaching reeve in The Canterbury Tales.(31) But how much like a preacher Piers would have sounded to Langland's contemporaries has not been generally appreciated. Let us consider the Passus VI episode in a little more detail.
It is quite clear, of course, that Piers utters no pastiche sermon, and that any sermonic resonance in his discourse must be less a matter of structure than of content.(32) Nevertheless this content, generally redolent of the moral authority which is associated with the Church, becomes conspicuous where Piers advises the knight not to maltreat his bondmen ('mysbede noght thi bondemen'), and then goes on to remind him that death confounds all class distinctions:
For in charnel at chirche cherles ben yvel to knowe, Or a knyght from a knave there--knowe this in thyn herte.(33)
The matter of treating bondmen well is comparably dealt with by the preacher William Lichfield in the treatise attributed to him on the Five Senses, Omni custodia serva cor tuum:
The thryde maner of flaterer is the werst for he preiseth a man in his wikednes, as thay that say to a knyght that pileth his bondemen, 'A, sir, thou doest wele . . . ffor euery man shal pluke and pile the chorle ffor he fareth as doth the wy|is less than~th|is greater than~i(34) that springeth and speedeth the better that men croppen it oft.'(35)
But more remarkable still are the lines on the charnel house, parallels to which occur very extensively in contemporary sermon literature. Since they in fact constitute an established and widespread, though unrecognized, preaching commonplace,(36) it seems worth while to take a little time to demonstrate their characteristic province of usage in Langland's day and something of their pedigree.
A Middle English sermon, composed sometime between 1389 and 1404 and preserved in Worcester Cathedral Library, expresses the topos well:
For tak consideraciun, seith Seint Ambrose, & loke into the beryels o dede men, & ter the schalt wil perseyue that ter schal nawth leue o pi bodi but stynkyng dust & rotun bones. A say also ther, weither thu maist knowe who was pouere & who was riche, or who was lethi or who was strong, & truliche, seith this clerk, I dar wel seie the schalt nat perseyue ther any defference betwyx a begger & a kyng, nor betwyx a maister & his knaue.(37)
Though the Middle English paraphrases them somewhat, these lines are to be found in the De Nabuthe Jezraelita of Ambrose. Ambrose's words were to prove an important conduit to preachers contemporary with Langland of the idea that the tomb is the great leveller of social distinctions, a place into which if anyone gazes he will not be able to tell persons apart:
Nescit ergo natura discernere quando nascimur, nescit quando deficimus. Omnes similes creat, omnes similes gremio claudit sepulcri. Quis discernat species mortuorum? Redoperi terram, et si potes, divitem deprehende. Eruderato paulo post tumulum, et si cognoscis egentem, argue; nisi forte hoc solo quod cum divite plura pereunt.(38)
Another preacher who draws upon these lines, and this time with exacter source reference, is Thomas Wimbledon in his famous sermon on the theme Redde racionem villicacionis tue, preached at Paul's Cross, London, about 1388.(39) Compare the following with the extract from Ambrose just quoted:
Kynde maketh no difference bytwyn pore and riche in comyng hidre, neither in goynge hennes. Alle oon in a maner he bryngeth forth; alle oon in a manere he closeth in the graue. Whoso maketh difference of pore and riche abide al for to they haue leye a litel wile in the graue, and thanne opene, and loke among dede bones who was riche and who was pore, but ghif it be with this: that moo clothes roteth with the riche than with the pore.(40)
The De Nabuthe Jezraelita, though evidently influential, was nevertheless not the only available patristic source for the late-medieval preachers' commonplace about the equality of rich and poor in the tomb. The idea seems to have been generally current amongst the Fathers of the fourth and early fifth centuries.(41) Augustine too, an associate of Ambrose, expresses it, even if not quite as directly, in at least two different places, in a sermon on Matthew 7: 7-11, and again in a sermon on the Nativity of John the Baptist. When tombs are opened up, 'ossa divitum agnoscantur'.(42) Augustine's importance throughout the Middle Ages would have ensured that many a preacher encountered the commonplace, or something quite close to it, through him. Indeed, one instance of the commonplace, as close in its terms to Langland as was that in Ambrose, masquerades as the work of Augustine in the early fourteenth-century preachers' handbook known as the Fasciculus Morum. Its section on Avarice retails 'Augustine' as follows: 'Respice ergo sepulcra eorum et vide quis dominus, quis servus, quis pauper, quis dives; discerne, si poteris, vinctum a rege, fortem a debili, pulcrum a deformi.'(43) They are in fact the words of Prosper of Aquitaine, Augustine's pupil, at the end of his Liber sententiarum.(44)
How Langland may have become acquainted with the commonplace is immaterial, and doubtless unknowable. More interesting is the fact of who is using it. Though eventually destined for secular favours in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in Langland's day it was typically being used by preachers.(45) For him to have put so characteristic a pulpit sentiment into the mouth of a working-class ploughman is therefore suggestive of how some medieval readers may have regarded Piers from his earliest appearances in the poem: his ostensible presentation as a ploughman may from the start have seemed only a sensus litteralis, as it were, a foundation readied to support an edifice of interpretative possibility.(46) Granted, the idea of equality in death might be a commonplace in the fullest sense of the word: when, for example, Thomas Brinton, bishop of Rochester, observed in a sermon, preached possibly in 1377, that 'Ita eciam in morte sunt similes diuites et pauperes . . . ', he gave no source reference whatsoever; the idea is truly common property in not being laid at the door of any particular auctoritas. It is also somewhat generalized, having lost the specificity of the challenge to gaze into the tomb and there tell apart rich from poor that characterizes Langland and the analogues earlier discussed. But again it is in a sermon that it is characteristically heard.(47) A final, comparably generalized case, this time from Chaucer and, as with Brinton, unascribed, deserves notice. Churls and lords spring from the same seed, and 'the same deeth that taketh the cherl, swich deeth taketh the lord'. Predictably, the text that yields this sentiment is The Parson's Tale.(48) As Piers too begins to sound a little like a medieval preacher through his use of this aphorism, so something of the authority of the estate of the Church rubs off on him, and draws into this exchange between him and the knight, between the representatives of those who labour and those who fight, the moral presence of those who pray. As social differences are lost in the communality of the grave, so each of the three estates, when working ideally, tends to lose its distinctive social outline, its sensus litteralis, in a communality of authority. (This, incidentally, is another reason for viewing Langland's treatment of the three-estates concept as more important for moral exemplariness than descriptive adequacy.) Hence a knight may as much take instruction from a ploughman as vice versa.
Piers's protean changes often occur, therefore, in terms of elisions between the three estates, and the way he is presented in one of the earliest of his appearances, as in Passus VI where Piers the Ploughman, via a preacher's discourse, foreshadows Piers the Priest, is already anticipating the more famous, because to the modern mind more startling, collapses of the ploughman persona that occur later in the poem, chiefly in Passus XVIII and XIX. When, as early as Passus VI, Piers broaches the priestly prerogative of preaching, his epiphanies are already under way.(49) His presentation, then, connects with the indivisibility and transcendence of the Trinity itself, for just as the Trinity's persons are triune, each person implying the other, so the triune aspect of the estates concept is to be understood in Langland's palimpsest ploughman. It is pertinent to make a comparison here with the way in which, in the first of her showings, Julian of Norwich carefully describes how she sees the Son, the Second Person in Trinity: 'where Iesus appereith the blissid Trinite is understond, as to my sight.'(50) The notable difference between her and Langland is that she tells us how she sees, while the dreamer shows us what he sees. In other ways, however, the inscription of one identity upon another, whether of the Trinity, spoken of by Julian, or of the estates, shown happening by Langland, is quite comparable.
Before turning to my second example of the latent authority of estates theory in Piers Plowman, I should first observe that in respect of what I have just been illustrating, Langland's technique is very much of its time, and finds interesting analogues again in the late fourteenth-century vernacular sermon. Here, knights, priests, and ploughmen are categories that may blur under the eye of moral interpretation. Not only may the priest be a ploughman:
Cristen brether|en~ and frendis, God almyghty, the Fader of heuen, is an erth tilier, as witnesith his owne son in the gospel of John, worching alwey and tilying the feithe of the euangelie in Cristen mennus soulis; in whose teme alle Cristen men shulden draw as oxen, vnder the softe and light ghocke of loue; of whiche teme tho that han taken the office of presthod shulden be the dryuers, with the crie of her mouthis withoute cesying of true preching of the word of God, as Y say the prophete seithe: Clama ne cesses, also with biting |of~ sharpe sentensis, as with a pricke in a gode, shulde stire bysily the peple to drawe rightlye withoute balkis of synne in this blessid tilthe. Of whiche dryuers I oon, al thow I be vnworthi, am set here at this tyme to dryue this worthi teme, and of alle the sentensis that I can fynde in Scripture moste sharply pricking to moue ghow to drawe spedily and euen, I haue put in my goode now at this tyme, seying the wordis that I toke to my teme: Memorare nouissima tua, etc.(51)
The priest may also be one of 'God's knights'. When Langland so styles priests in XI. 312, a line which for Schmidt 'strikingly fuses the image of knighting . . . with that of ordination',(52) his presentation should not, however, be thought of as unparalleled. It finds echoes elsewhere:
For right as God sitteth realli in heuene in his trone, so the wisdoom of the Fadir, that is God the Sone, sitteth realli in iuste mennes saules thorou grace. The vertues of these heuenes ben hardi, and mightti knyghtes of God, that ben true prechouris of his lawe, seynge suche wrecchednesse of synnes regninge in alle astatis, knowynge therbi in her soules that the Doom is nyghhur, schullen thanne be meued to preche scharpli aghens hem, and boldeli, with Baptist and Heli, reproue bothe grete and smale of here synful lyf.(53)
True preachers of God's law, necessarily priests by virtue of the office of preaching, are 'mightti knyghtes of God', which is precisely Langland's conceit. Similarly, Christ can be a knight, a presentation thoroughly canvassed in Woolf's study,(54) just as he can be a ploughman labourer, as in the sermon quoted above.(55) That he is also presented as a priest needs no illustration.(56) Thus we find here in a field of texts parallel to Langland most of the terms for the sort of transformations that he puts in train in Passus XVIII. As their sermon analogues suggest, these transformations may in fact express familiar medieval habits of thought, notwithstanding Langland's extraordinary orchestration of them.
We may now turn to the later passus and consider their latent implication of estates theory. Passus XVIII prepares for the Good Friday jousting, as:
Oon semblable to the Samaritan, and somdeel to Piers the Plowman, Barefoot on an asse bak bootles cam prikye, Withouten spores other spere; spakliche he loked, As is the kynde of a knyght that cometh to be dubbed, To geten hym gilte spores on galoches ycouped.(57)
And when the dreamer asks Faith to interpret what is going on--'Is Piers in this place?'--he receives the reply:
This Jesus of his gentries wol juste in Piers armes, In his helm and in his haubergeon--humana natura.(58)
The dreamer's bewilderment at the compound and dynamic image which he beholds prompts his question. His answer is furnished by Faith. We might notice the terms of the image's composition: in one economical line, Jesus, the archetypal priest of the New Law, will joust like a knight and wear the arms of a labourer ploughman. Similarly in Passus XIX, after the Crucifixion and Harrowing, the dreamer seeks interpretation again, when he dreams:
That Piers the Plowman was peynted al blody, And com in with a cros bifore the comune peple, And right lik in alle lymes to Oure Lord Jesu.(59)
This time he asks Conscience to interpret:
'Is this Jesus the justere,' quod I 'that Jewes dide to dethe? Or is it Piers the Plowman! Who peynted hym so rede?'(60)
Conscience's reply preserves the tension that the dreamer's either/or question has tried to resolve: it is Christ, in the chivalric colours and coat armour of the ploughman. The image may bewilder and tease the mind towards acts of interpretation, like the Trinity itself, but like the Trinity too it insists upon its indivisibility and, finally, unquestioning acceptance. Disturbance of the rationale of everyday logic and representation, which throughout Piers Plowman tends to cause the dreamer so much confusion, is also, of course, the stuff of traditional exegesis, and it would be fair to say that Langland has drafted here a typical medieval mode of perceiving.(61) Less attended to is the fact that there are parameters to Piers's changes in these the most crucial theological moments of the poem when the Atonement is achieved and salvation becomes a reality. Essentially, his changes between priest, knight, and labourer orbit within the sphere of traditional estates theory. Thus it would seem that the theory is formidably authorized: hypostatically united with Christ in Passus XVIII and XIX, it enters the heart of redemption and finds a teleological end. It has gained the status of a social Trinity. As one fourteenth-century estates theorist put it, 'omnes iste tres partes debent esse unum corpus ecclesie, currens hilariter in amore ad beatitudinem patrie consequendam';(62) in Langland, too, the estates seem comparably sacralized. If so, it should cause little surprise, as Langland would only be showing once more how much in tune he was with his age. Indeed, my frequent association of the estates with the Trinity, by which I have implied the common transcendence of both, is not merely a personal rhetorical strategy or an association made because the analogy is convenient; it has medieval precedents. In the year 1401, 'les Communes viendrent devaunt le Roi et les Seigneurs en Parlement, et la monstrerent, coment les Estates du Roialme purroient bien estre resemblez a une Trinite, c'est assavoir la persone du Roy, les Seigneurs Espirituelx et Temporelx, et les Communes.'(63) The sacrosanctity of both concepts, of Trinity and three estates, is implicit, in the commons' view, in the nature of their comparison. Nor was the equation made only in the minds of the orthodox in society. Writing perhaps around the same time, the radical, heterodox author of Jack Upland shared a similar view. At the very beginning of his diatribe, he makes his eponymous hero Jack declare how God created 'lordis to represente the power of the Fadir; preestis the wisdom of the Sone; and the comouns to presente the good lastinge wille of the Holi Goost'.(64)
Let me finally summarize where my illustrations have led, and consider some of their implications. Idealized triune society, a received ideology profoundly constitutive of Langland's thought, faces insurmountable difficulty in replicating itself in real social terms. Late fourteenth-century English society was simply too complex to allow it. Yet such simplistic replication seems not to have been the point, or not Langland's point at any rate. Any social reality in the three estates, if there had ever been one, had long since passed, nor can Langland simply have sought to reinstate it. After all, the divisiones graciarum of Passus XIX, where various parts of a righteous society are enumerated, happily include lawyers and merchants among the traditional estates staple of priests and labourers, as well as more exotic crafts, like practitioners of astronomy.(65) Langland's estates theory, in confrontation with reality (a confrontation brought into focus on the pardon document, for example), necessarily retreated into a final unreachability; a revered facon de parler it may have been, but it was morally authoritative for all that. No doubt to some of the medievals who encountered it it must have seemed remote, prone to being perceived, and perhaps dismissed, as a typical pulpit piety. What would a late fourteenth-century civil lawyer or merchant, for example, have made of a system which sometimes begrudged, indeed sometimes refused, his incorporation?(66) It is hardly surprising that the legal (and perhaps too the merchant) profession should resort to ways of its own for imaging its relation to society and for asserting its status.(67) Such classes might largely ignore the estates system. Conversely, they might even infiltrate it, turning it to their advantage.(68) Far from being homogeneous, then, Langland's society (in this respect not so unlike our own) was inhabited by alternative social concepts, even if the alternatives were not voiced as distinctly as official estates theory was.(69) This theory, the concept Langland cleaved to, guarded largely by the Church and largely an effect of the Church's promulgation, would in the end demand an act of faith from him too. If it did not finally pretend to depict social reality, let alone to require its own literalistic implementation, the qualities of social duty and obedience, the lineaments of Dowel,(70) were nevertheless worth struggling for in the lived world of Langland's day; with the help of grace they were not, in principle, beyond the bounds of achievability, however temporary. This, if any, was the potential reality that Langland's estates theory celebrated.
That the poem should finish with the search for Piers on again is, therefore, only to be expected. Its close that declines closure, its ending which is at once a beginning or, to construe it fashionably, a deferral of the possibility of ever alighting on settled meaning, might surprise and frustrate only reading tastes, medieval as well as modern, educated to expect packaged conclusions from texts. The inevitable invasions of institutional corruption into the praxis of the ideal, at the end of the poem in the guise of the insinuation of Sire Penetrans Domos into Unity Holy Church, may justly cry out for attempts at systemic reform, but will finally be coped with only by acts of faith. A complete and settled achievement in worldly terms of what the three estates ideally represented had to be ever deferred, ever elsewhere. Only in transcendence might the ideal urge believers continually onwards in its pursuit. Consequently, by the end of the poem Christ, who was perfect knight, priest, and labourer, had passed into the heavens, taking the estates with him. Only there, perhaps, could they command so unswerving a respect from the author and solicit an unquestioning assent. For Langland, the most radical steps that could be taken towards a just society lay along a path of personal conversion that was paved with faith not only in an undisputed Creed, but also in the possibility of an ideal society that the three estates expressed.(71) It may have weighed heavily upon him, but he too, like every other fidelis simplex, was entrusted with the duty of suspending any disbelief, of finally keeping faith in the transcendent promise of his social Trinity.
1 William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London, 1978), 200, l. 63. All subsequent references are to this edn. of the B text.
2 x. 51-7.
3 C. Brown (ed.), Religious Lyrics of the Fourteenth Century, 2nd edn. rev. G. V. Smithers (Oxford, 1952), 163, ll. 95-6.
4 This debate had been reinvigorated, certainly by the time Langland was writing the C text, by Lollardy in particular. Of course, to return specifically to the question of lay exposure to Trinitarian doctrine, advice to clerics to instruct only secundum quod convenit laicis was already established (as e.g. in the 1224 synodal statutes of Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester; see F. M. Powicke and C. R. Cheney (edd.), Councils and Synods with Other Documents relating to the English Church. II A.D. 1205-1313 (Oxford, 1964), part I, 134).
5 For Langland's acquaintance with radical Church thought, and with Lollardy, see P. Gradon, 'Langland and the Ideology of Dissent', Proceedings of the British Academy, 66 (1980), 179-205.
6 I take the concept fides quaerens intellectum from the prologue of the Proslogion of St. Anselm (M. J. Charlesworth (ed.), St. Anselm's Proslogion (Oxford, 1965), 104). The period between the 1360s and 1380s in which Langland wrote saw a radical questioning of orthodox belief and social practice which, though most vocal in the Lollard controversy, was not solely confined to that quarter. The troubling of traditional theological boundaries and definitions stimulated the Church to exhort the laity to preserve simplicity in matters of faith (and see further on this, n. 13 below).
7 XIX. 321-30. The house is built of Christ's baptism and passion; its roof is of Scripture.
8 D. Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (London, 1980), 30.
9 This is the basic position of Aers, ibid. In a critique of Aers's argument, A. V. C. Schmidt, 'Dominant Ideology', Essays in Criticism, 33 (1983), 240, pertinently asks 'why should not Langland's engagement form part of his commitment to the received ideology instead of being something separate or separable from that ideology?' Schmidt also wonders, 'why should we not attribute to Langland an ideology capable of containing an awareness of failure, paradox and lapses from the ideal?' (ibid. 241).
10 R. Hilton, 'Ideology and Social Order in Late Medieval England', in his Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism (London, 1985), 246-52.
11 BL MS Harley 4894, fo. 182: 'nam vnitas ciuitatis nedum est in domibus aut in vicis sed vt omnes philosophi testantur, est in consensu animorum' (in a sermon for the feast of Mary Magdalene, on the theme 'Mulier erat in ciuitate peccatrix'). Rypon (a sub-prior of Durham priory, fl. c. 1400) has left one known work, the Sermones dominicales preserved in this unique MS.
12 See A. J. Fletcher, '"The Unity of the State Exists in the Agreement of its Minds": A Fifteenth-Century Sermon on the Three Estates', Leeds Studies in English, NS 22 (1991), 103-37.
13 Cf. e.g. the attitude of the anonymous author of an unpublished sermon on the theme 'Abijt trans mare' (Oxford, Bodl. Library MS Bodley 649, fo. |64.sup.v~): 'Si vis saluari corpore et anima, tene te in secura parte, serua doctrinam ecclesie in qua tui patres tenuerunt se, in qua sancti mortui sunt. Crede sicut ecclesia credit. Wade no depper, row no ferther. Cape tuum Credo et tene te ad illud.' (On this MS, see P. J. Hornet, 'Benedictines and Preaching in Fifteenth-Century England', Revue Benedictine, 99 (1989), 313-32; 'Abijt trans mare' may have been composed early in the first quarter of the 15th century.) Cf. also the idealized true simple man of x. 245-8 and x. 450-65. On such idealization, see A. J. Fletcher, 'The Faith of a Simple Man: Carpenter John's Creed in The Miller's Tale', MAE 61 (1992), 96-105.
14 See R. Mohl, The Three Estates in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York, 1933), 97-139; also, G. Duby, Les Trois Ordres ou l'imaginaire de feodalisme (Paris, 1978). The estates are ancient, appearing in vernacular English writing as early as the reign of Alfred the Great.
15 See the pardon scene, VII. 1-63.
16 The line 'Marchaunts in the margyne hadde manye yeres' (VII. 18) is ambiguous, and capable of such interpretation if the prepositional phrase 'in the margyne' be regarded as modifying 'Marchaunts' rather than 'manye yeres'.
17 M. W. Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, 1962), 103, says that in most three-estates theory, merchants and professional men are classed with peasants, but this risks oversimplification. While this may sometimes have been the case (e.g. Sir Gilbert Hay, in his version of Ramon Lull on chivalry, refers to 'merchandis in thair merchandice, and othir craftis' as if he would place merchants among the estate of labourers; see A. T. P. Byles (ed.), The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, EETS OS 168 (London, 1926), p. xxxix), it was not the inevitable practice in English sources (e.g. Bishop Stafford's parliamentary sermon of 1433 classes merchants with the knights when he signifies 'per montes, prelati, proceres et magnates; per colles, milites, armigeri et mercatores; et in populo, cultores, artifices et vulgares'; see Rotuli Parliamentorum, ut et Petitiones, et Placita in Parliamento, iv. 419). The accommodation of the urban middle classes within the theory was evidently presenting problems (see Fletcher, 'Unity of the State', 104-6).
18 Aers, Creative Imagination, 23, regards the tearing differently, as exploding the 'ideological reconciliations |Langland's~ peculiar poetic integrity drove him to reject'.
19 See Anna P. Baldwin, 'The Historical Context', in J. A. Alford (ed.), A Companion to Piers Plowman (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1988), 70.
20 And with the bourgeoisie in general. See Hereford Cathedral Library MS O.3.V, fos. 90, col. b-93, col. b, an Easter Day sermon on the theme 'Alleluia'. The estates are not treated as if they are beyond reproach, however.
21 Sic MS; its reading is possibly corrupt. It looks like the Latin gerund implendum inexplicably conflated with the word playdours, a word which appears with the word assyssours a little later (on fo. 92, col. b).
22 Hereford Cathedral Library MS O.3.V, fo. 92, cols. a-b.
23 For a survey of estates satire see J. Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge, 1973). Note, too, that merchants and lawyers are a staple of ad status preaching (as identified e.g. by Jack Upland in the preaching of the friars: 'ghe wolen opinli preche aghen the defautis of prelatis, of prestis, lordis, lawiers and marchauntis and comouns'; see P. L. Heyworth (ed.), Jack Upland and Friar Daw's Reply and Upland's Rejoinder (Oxford, 1968), 65, ll. 251-3.
24 See Fletcher, 'Unity of the State', 104-6. About 500 years later, Miss Thorne's fetechampetre anxieties show the longevity of such problems, even if now their moral urgency is displaced by lighter delicacies of social etiquette: 'It is in such definitions that the whole difficulty of society consists. . . . To seat the bishop on an armchair on the lawn and place farmer Greenacre at the end of a long table in the paddock is easy enough; but where will you put Mrs. Lookaloft, whose husband, though a tenant on the estate, hunts in a red coat, whose daughters go to a fashionable seminary in Barchester, who calls her farmhouse Rosebank, and who has a pianoforte in her drawing room?' (A. Trollope, Barchester Towers, ed. R. Gilmour (Harmondsworth, 1987), 331).
25 More conspicuous instances are the following: Prologue 116-20; II. 57-8; III. 38-42, 163-5, 212-27, 309-18; V. 41-9; VI. 28; XIII. 436-48; XV. 331-4, 552-4; XIX. 183-91, 469-75.
26 Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 66-8, ll. 21-77. For Dives and Pauper, see Dives and Pauper, ed. P. H. Barnum, EETS OS 275 and 280 (Oxford, 1976 and 1980); this work was written between c. 1405 and 1410. Langland gives literary shape to an ethic whose political application was being promoted by Wyclif and his followers, namely, that entitlement to office should derive solely from personal righteousness. For other Langlandian themes earning Lollard approval, see Gradon, 'Ideology of Dissent' and R. Adams, 'Langland's Theology', in Alford, Companion to Piers Plowman, 109-11.
27 I. Sullens (ed.), Robert Mannyng of Brunne: Handlyng Synne (Binghamton, New York, 1983), 217-18, ll. 8669-714. Note esp. ll. 8697-704: 'The bond man answerd and seyde / Wrdes ful weyl to gedyr leyde: / "The lord that made of erthe erles, / Of that same erthe made he cherles. / Erles myght and lordes stut, / As cherles shal yn erthe be put. / Erles, cherles, al at ones, / Shal none knowe ghoure fro oure bones."' This story of the Norfolk bondman is not in Mannyng's chief source, the Manuel des Pechiez. It is the earliest appearance in English verse of the sermon commonplace, discussed below, of which I am aware.
28 D. Aers, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory (London, 1975), 115, notes that 'In VI.23 there may be a pun on "teme" (theme, lesson, and also team of oxen)'. Cf. Piers Plowman, ed. D. Pearsall (London, 1978), 147, l. 20n. Neither specifically notes the preachers' usage.
29 Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 83, ll. 135-6.
30 On the background to the office of preaching, see A. J. Minnis, 'Chaucer's Pardoner and the "Office of Preacher"', in P. Boitani and A. Torti (edd.), Intellectuals and Writers in Fourteenth-Century Europe (Tubingen and Cambridge, 1984), 88-119. Preaching and priesthood are collocated in Piers Plowman itself, XIX. 232 (and commonly are in other contemporary theological writings).
31 L. D. Benson (ed.), The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987), 78, ll. 3901-3. Note the due limitation of the officium predicatoris that the lines imply.
32 The structure of late medieval sermons is widely discussed, but see notably R. H. and M. A. Rouse, Preaching, Florilegia and Sermons: Studies on the 'Manipulus florum' of Thomas of Ireland (Toronto, 1979), 65-90, for an account based on actual sermon practice. See also J. J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1974), 269-342 and D. L. d'Avray, 'The Transformation of the Medieval Sermon' (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1976), 92-110. H. L. Spencer, 'English Vernacular Sunday Preaching in the Late Fourteenth Century and Fifteenth Century, with Illustrative Texts' (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1982), i. 189-294, is a useful account of the modern form with particular reference to English vernacular sermons.
33 Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 67, ll. 48-9. The related notion of the equality in Christ of earls and beggars surfaces in XI. 198ff.
34 In the manuscript (BL MS Royal 8.C.i, fo. |126.sup.v~), the third letter of this word is badly formed. (Two letters, subsequently inked over, which follow the word are not noted in my edited extract.)
35 There are small transcription errors in this passage as it appears in A. C. Baugh (ed.), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle, EETS OS 232 (Oxford, 1956), 12, ll. 24-9. I have edited afresh from the manuscript.
36 T. P. Dunning, Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of the A Text, 2nd rev. edn. by T. P. Dolan (Oxford, 1980), 100, rightly, but vaguely, observes that B VI. 21-56 (and A VII. 23-51) 'may be paralleled many times from sermons and other contemporary writings', and cites in support G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, 2nd rev. edn. (Oxford, 1961), ch. 9. Yet Owst, doubtless pursuing larger concerns, does not connect B VI. 50-1 with any preaching commonplace. Furthermore, the lines do not occur in the A (or Z) versions, but only in B and C (Pearsall's comparison of them, Piers Plowman, 148, ll. 45-6, with The Parson's Tale, ll. 761-4, is general, not exact, and see further on this below).
37 D. M. Grisdale (ed.), Three Middle English Sermons from the Worcester Chapter Manuscript F. 10 (Leeds, 1939), 56, ll. 193-9; I have modernized her punctuation and capitalization.
38 Patrologia Latina, 14, cols. 731-2.
39 See I. K. Knight (ed.), Wimbledon's Sermon Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue: A Middle English Sermon of the Fourteenth Century (Pittsburgh, 1967); also, N. H. Owen, 'Thomas Wimbledon's Sermon: "Redde racionem villicacionis tue"', Mediaeval Studies, 28 (1966), 176-97 (Owen, unlike Knight, accurately located the source).
40 Knight, Wimbledon's Sermon, 94-5, ll. 528-36.
41 They may, in turn, be diverting to Christian ends a pagan commonplace. Cf. e.g. the second-century author Marcus Aurelius: ('Alexander the Great and his stable boy were levelled in death . . .') (A. S. L. Farquharson (ed.), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus (Oxford, 1944; repr. 1968), i. 106-7). A similar sentiment is earlier found in Seneca too, and see n. 48 below.
42 Patrologia Latina, 38, col. 412: 'Pariant simul dives et pauper, pariant simul mulier dives et mulier pauper: non attendant quod pariunt, discedant paululum, redeant et agnoscant . . . Quod dixi de natis, hic dico de mortuis. Certe quando aliquo casu vetera sepulcra franguntur, ossa divitis agnoscantur' ('Supposing that the rich and the poor give birth together, the rich woman and the poor woman give birth together: supposing that they pay no attention to what they give birth to, go away for a while, come back again, and let them try to recognize what they have given birth to. . . . What I have said about those who are born, I say here about those who are dead. Certainly, when by some chance old tombs are broken up, try to recognize the rich man's bones') (sermon on Matt. 7: 7-11); also, ibid., col. 1312: 'Nativitas pauperis et divitis aequalis est nuditas . . . Postremo sepulcra inspiciantur, et ossa divitum agnoscantur' ('The birth of the poor man and of the rich man is equal in its nakedness . . . Supposing in the end their tombs are investigated, try to recognize the bones of the rich men') (sermon on the Nativity of John the Baptist).
43 S. Wenzel (ed.), Fasciculus Morum: A Fourteenth-Century Preacher's Handbook (University Park, Pa., 1989), 384, ll. 39-41.
44 The Corpus Christianorum editors suggest Prosper may be translating Basil here. See Prosperi Aqvitani Opera Pars 2 (Turnhout, 1972), 364-5.
45 A well-known 17th-century case is in James Shirley's Death the Leveller: 'Sceptre and Crown / Must tumble down, / And in the dust be equal made / With the poor crooked scythe and spade.'
46 Some of those possibilities will become more dramatically apparent later in the poem as Piers becomes variously Pope, Samaritan, Christ, knight.
47 M. A. Devlin (ed.), The Sermons of Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester (1373-1389), Camden 3rd ser. 85 (London, 1954), i. 196.
48 Benson, Riverside Chaucer, 314, ll. 760-1. Though Seneca's Epistulae Morales, 47. 10, 11, and 17, have been thought the inspiration behind Chaucer's lines (Benson, Riverside Chaucer, 962), quite possibly he derived the lines not from Seneca directly, but from whatever Christian source he may have been using at this point. If so, the Christian source may already have assimilated the Senecan original.
49 Arguably they are under way from his first appearance, when he expounds the Decalogue allegorically (Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 62, ll. 566ff.). Piers Plowman, ed. J. A. W. Bennett (Oxford, 1972), 190, says of this passage that 'A pious labourer would be expected to know his Decalogue'. Apparently he took Piers's exposition as a naturalistic touch. But this can be viewed differently. Exposition of the Decalogue to the laity had been enjoined on every curatus at least since the Lambeth Decrees of 1281. Piers's exposition would therefore have sounded reminiscent of instruction that every priest was expected to give.
50 Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love, ed. M. Glasscoe (Exeter, 1976), 4.
51 G. Cigman (ed.), Lollard Sermons, EETS OS 294 (Oxford, 1989), 211, ll. 134-49. The ploughman/priest/preacher image is ancient; see S. A. Burney, 'The Plowshare of the Tongue: The Progress of a Symbol from the Bible to Piers Plowman', Mediaeval Studies, 35 (1973), 261-93; esp. pp. 287-9.
52 Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 336, l. 312 n.
53 Cigman, Sermons, 27-8, ll. 607-16. To date, outside Piers Plowman I have noticed the collocation 'God's knights' only in ME texts showing some Lollard affiliation. See e.g. C. Lindberg (ed.), English Wyclif Tracts 1-3, Studia Anglistica Norvegica 5 (Oslo, 1991), 30, l. 15 (in the tract De Officio Pastorali); ibid. 144, l. 22 (in the tract Of the Church and Her Members); T. Arnold (ed.), Select English Works of John Wyclif (Oxford, 1869-71), iii. 130, ll. 19-20 (in a tract on the Seven Deadly Sins, where priests are called 'gostly knyghtis'); Trinity College Dublin MS 245, fo. 124 (in the tract Of Antichrist and his meynee); Cambridge, Sidney Sussex College MS 74, fo. 206 (in a sermon on the theme Ememus panes).
54 R. Woolf, 'The Theme of Christ the Lover-Knight in Medieval English Literature', RES NS 13 (1962), 1-16; also, R. A. Waldron, 'Langland's Originality: The Christ-Knight and the Harrowing of Hell', in G. Kratzmann and J. Simpson (edd.), Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G. H. Russell (Cambridge, 1986), 66-81.
55 On the image of Christ the labourer, see B. Raw, 'Piers and the Image of God in Man', in S. S. Hussey (ed.), Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches (London, 1969), 143-79.
56 Indeed the Lollard Lanterne of Light, though composed a little later (c. 1409-15), brings Christ and the three estates together. The four gospel writers, says this text, 'prechiden Crist. The whiche is man. knight. prest. & God' (L. M. Swinburn (ed.), The Lanterne of Light, EETS OS 151 (London, 1917), 24, l. 22).
57 Piers Plowman, ed. Schmidt, 220, ll. 10-14.
58 Ibid. 220, ll. 21, 22-3.
59 Ibid. 235, ll. 6-8; the entry of the bloody Piers with a cross suggests the passion earlier undergone, but also perhaps the (episcopal) authority of one fit to preach. Compare the entry of (the bishop) Reason earlier with a cross, v. 11-12. (For an illustration of a cross borne at an episcopal sermon, see BL MS Harley 1319, fo. 12; here Archbishop Thomas Arundel is shown preaching in the cause of King Henry V.)
60 Ibid. 235, ll. 10-11.
61 See H. W. Troyer, 'Who is Piers Plowman?', PMLA 47 (1932), 368-84, and Aers, Christian Allegory, passim. As L. Griffiths, Personification in Piers Plowman (Cambridge, 1985), 99, notes: 'Throughout Piers Plowman glossing disturbs the narrative, undermining the autonomy of the image and event.'
62 ('Each of these three parts |i.e. the three estates~ must be one body of the Church, joyfully running in love to win the blessedness of the homeland'); A. W. Pollard (ed.), Iohannis Wycliffe Dialogus sive Speculum Ecclesie Militantis (London, 1886), 3, ll. 11-13. (Wyclif characteristically thought of the ecclesia militans in terms of the three estates.) Cf. also Cigman, Sermons, 137, ll. 207-8, where Holy Church consists of the three estates, as in Wyclif's quotation given here.
63 See Rotuli Parliamentorum, iii. 459 (I have expanded the French without notice). That the composition of the estates is different has no bearing upon the essential comparison.
64 See Heyworth, Jack Upland, 54, ll. 7-10; on the date of Jack Upland, see ibid. 17-18. Cf. also the Lanterne of Light, 33-4. Closer to Langland's time, the equation appears also in Wyclif's De Cristo et suo adversario Anticristo (c. 1383-4): 'Et in armonia ista trium parcium |i.e. of the three estates~ ad imitacionem trinitatis increate consistit sanitas corporis istius ecclesie militantis' (R. Buddensieg (ed.), John Wyclif's Polemical Works in Latin (London, 1883), ii. 654, ll. 10-12).
65 For the divisiones graciarum, see XIX. 226-63. Also, note that the traditional estates figure Piers himself tries to work upon society as he finds it, not replace it with an estates society. In an unpublished paper, James Simpson has argued that the model of the righteous society presented in the divisiones graciarum passage is distinguished by its prevailing egalitarianism from the hierarchically based social models that appear earlier in the text. He suggests that Langland may have had in mind the ideal of egalitarian harmony which the organization of the contemporary parish guild or fraternity enshrined and that by extension, he conceived such harmony as the context in which social rivalries might be reconciled. I am grateful to Dr Simpson for access to his paper.
66 A sermon exemplum from an early 14th-century MS, for example, declares that the three estates are God's handiwork, but that the devil has to take credit for the bourgeoisie (BL MS Harley 268, fo. 29).
67 Sir John Fortescue's description of the self-sufficient educational system of the legal profession, independent of the universities, and of the profession's rituals, as e.g. those at the creation of a serjeant-at-law, conveys the impression of a coterie that could call upon established modes of visual display by which its power and separateness were asserted (see Sir John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Anglie, ed. S. B. Chrimes (Cambridge, 1949), 120-6). Though Fortescue wrote in the 15th century, the point holds good for the 14th too, esp. by Langland's time (see J. H. Baker, The Order of Serjants at Law, Selden Society Supp. ser. 5 (London, 1984), 16-21).
68 The upward mobility of the merchant classes, for example, might easily lead to confusion about where they should be located on the traditional model, whether with the knights or the labourers (cf. S. L. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Chicago, 1948), 294; see also n. 17 above). A good example of the confusion wrought by social mobility is found in Oxford, Bodl. Library MS Bodley 649. Here, in a sermon predicated upon a three-estates social paradigm, Ezechiel's wheel is made a metaphor for such mobility: 'Gape upward ful fast. Quidam ar qwirlid up subito super illam rotam et fiunt de pore gentilmen grete astates and gret lordis' (printed in R. M. Haines, '"Our Master Mariner, Our Sovereign Lord": A Contemporary Preacher's View of King Henry V', Mediaeval Studies, 38 (1976), 85-96; see p. 89 for this quotation). Infiltration of merchant interests into the estates paradigm is perhaps apparent in the N. Town play of Mary's Conception, where the Virgin's parents, Joachim and Anne, consort with the two other groups, clerics and labourers, not as members of the knightly class, but rather as representatives of the wealthy bourgeoisie. As Gail McMurray Gibson, The Theater of Devotion: East Anglian Drama and Society in the Late Middle Ages (Chicago, 1989), 83-4, has shown, the couple seem to have been domesticated in the interests of middle-class piety and social aspiration; they became 'a merchant's saints par excellence'.
69 On the radical concepts fuelling the Peasants' Revolt, see R. Hilton, 'Social Concepts in the English Rising of 1381', in his Class Conflict, 216-26. The use of 'Piers Plowman' as rallying cry is well known--was his name appropriated to give some conceptual focus to the alternative social aspirations of the rebels?
70 As Ymaginatif describes it (see XII. 32 ff.). Cf. also Cigman, Sermons, 62, ll. 350-4, for the implication that doing one's job well is a precondition of grace.
71 See also Anna P. Baldwin, 'The Triumph of Patience in Julian of Norwich and Langland', in Helen Phillips (ed.), Langland, the Mystics, and the Medieval English Religious Tradition (Cambridge, 1990), 71-83. Baldwin illustrates the poem's faith in the socially transformative power of adherence to Christian virtue, in this instance, to patience.
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|Author:||Fletcher, Alan J.|
|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1993|
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