Chaucer, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Literary History 1409444929, 9781409444923

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Chaucer, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Literary History
 1409444929, 9781409444923

Table of contents :
Cover
Series Page
Title Page
Copyright Page
Table of Contents
Acknowledgments
Publications of Anne Middleton
Introduction
I: The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II
II: Chaucer’s “New Men” and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales
III: The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: “Ensamples Mo than Ten” as a Method in the Canterbury Tales
IV: The Clerk and his Tale: Some Literary Contexts
V: Playing the Plowman: Legends of Fourteenth-Century Authorship
VI: Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman
VII: Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman
VIII: William Langland’s “Kynde Name”: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England
IX: Life in the Margins, or, What’s an Annotator to Do?

Citation preview

Also in the Variorum Collected Studies Series:

John A. Burrow

English Poets in the Late Middle Ages Chaucer, Langland and Others

Roger Scott

Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century

Martin Camargo Essays on Medieval Rhetoric

M.B. Parkes

Pages from the Past Medieval Writing Skills and Manuscript Books

Nigel Wilkins

Words and Music in Medieval Europe

Henry Ansgar Kelly

Law and Religion in Chaucer’s England

Anne Hudson

Studies in the Transmission of Wyclif ’s Writings

Richard Newhauser

Sin: Essays on the Moral Tradition in the Western Middle Ages

Rodney M. Thomson

England and the Twelfth-Century Renaissance

Helmut Gneuss

Language and History in Early England

Helmut Gneuss

Books and Libraries in Early England

Michael W. Herren

Latin Letters in Early Christian Ireland

Mario Esposito

Irish Books and Learning in Medieval Europe

VARIORUM COLLECTED STUDIES SERIES

Chaucer, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Literary History

Anne Middleton

Anne Middleton

Chaucer, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Literary History Edited by Steven Justice

First published 2013 by Ashgate Publishing Published 2016 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business This edition © 2013 by Anne Middleton Anne Middleton has asserted her moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Notice .. Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Middleton, Anne. Chaucer, Langland, and fourteenth-century literary history. – (Variorum collected studies series ; CS1022) 1. English poetry – Middle English, 1100–1500 – History and criticism. 2. Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400 – Criticism and interpretation. 3. Langland, William, 1330?–1400? – Criticism and interpretation. I. Title II. Series III. Justice, Steven, 1957– 821.1'09–dc23

ISBN 9781409444923 (hbk)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2012946087

variorum collected studies series cs1022

CONTENTS Acknowledgments 

vi

Publications of Anne Middleton 

vii

Introduction (by Steven Justice) 

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I

The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II 

1

II

Chaucer’s “New Men” and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales 

27

III The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: “Ensamples Mo than Ten” as a Method in the Canterbury Tales 

61

IV

The Clerk and his Tale: Some Literary Contexts 

85

V

Playing the Plowman: Legends of Fourteenth-Century Authorship 

113

VI

Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman 

143

VII

Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman 

173

VIII William Langland’s “Kynde Name”: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England  199 IX

Life in the Margins, or, What’s an Annotator to Do? 

263

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Grateful acknowledgment is tendered for permission to reprint these essays: “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” from Speculum 53 (1978): 94–114. Reprinted by permission of the Cambridge University Press. “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales,” from Literature and Society, ed. Edward Said (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 15–56. Reprinted by permission of The English Institute. “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo than Ten’ as a Method in the Canterbury Tales,” from The Chaucer Review 8.1 (1973): 9–32. Copyright © 1973 by the Pennsylvania State University Press. Reprinted by permission of the Pennsylvania State University Press. “The Clerk and his Tale: Some Literary Contexts,” from Studies in the Age of Chaucer 2 (1980): 121–50. Reprinted by permission of the University of Notre Dame Press. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman,” from The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, eds Larry D. Benson, and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982), 91–122. Reprinted by permission of The Medieval Institute. “Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman,” from Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, eds Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1988), 243–66. Reprinted by permission of Boydell & Brewer. “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England,” from Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 15–82. Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press. “Life in the Margins, or, What’s an Annotator to Do?,” from The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 20 (1990): 167–83. Reprinted by permission of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

Publications of Anne Middleton “The Modern Art of Fortifying: Palamon and Arcite as Epicurean Epic,” Chaucer Review 3 (1968): 124–43. “Aelfric’s Answerable Style: The Rhetoric of the Alliterative Prose,” Studies in Medieval Culture 4 (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1973, for 1968), 83–91. “Two Infinites: Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman,” ELH 39 (1972): 169–88. “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo than Ten’ as a Method in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 8 (1973): 9–32. “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” Speculum 53 (1978): 94–114. Reprinted in Medieval English Poetry, ed. Stephanie Trigg (London: Longmans, 1993), 24–46. “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales,” in Literature and Society (English Institute Essays, 1978), ed. Edward Said (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 15–56. “The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 2 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), 121–50. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman,” in The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays on Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, eds Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982), 91–122, 280–83. “MAPping the Field: Piers Plowman at Claremont,” Chronica 30 (Spring, 1982): 2–10 (Chronica is the newsletter of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, MAP). “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background, ed. David A. Lawton (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Totowa, NJ: Boydell and Brewer, 1982), 101–23, 147–54. “War by Other Means: Marriage and Chivalry in Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Proceedings No. 1, 1984: Reconstructing Chaucer, eds Paul Strohm and Thomas J. Heffernan (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 119–33. “Piers Plowman.” Chapter XVIII in A Manual of Writings in Middle English, Vol. VII, general editor Albert Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986), 2211–34 (Commentary), 2419–48

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(Bibliography). [Under the general editorship of John Edwin Wells, the Manual was first published in 1916 by the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences for the Middle English section of the MLA, and was designed to be a definitive work of reference for Middle English literary studies, updated periodically by planned supplemental volumes (1919–1951). In its last iteration (1967–2005) it spanned 10 volumes, but as a hardcover publication the work is now largely superseded by more specialized annual bibliographies and various electronic resources.] “The Passion of Seint Averoys [Piers Plowman B.13.91]: ‘Deuynyng’ and Divinity in the Banquet Scene,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987): 31–40. “Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman,” in Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, eds Edward D. Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph Wittig (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 1988), 243–66. “Introduction: The Critical Heritage,” in A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 1–25. “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth Century England,” in Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 15–82. [Awarded Beatrice White Prize, 1994, by UK English Association]. Reprinted 1999, by author’s permission, in Chaucer to Spenser: A Critical Reader, ed. Derek Pearsall (Blackwell Critical Readers in Literature). Oxford and Malden MA: Blackwell, 1999, 206–45. Excerpt reprinted 2006, by publisher’s permission, in Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation (A Norton Critical Edition), eds Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd (London & New York: Norton, 2006), 572–84. “Life in the Margins, or, What’s an Annotator to Do?” The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 20, no. 1/2 (1990), 167–83. “Langland’s Lives: Reflections on Late-Medieval Literary and Religious Vocabulary,” in The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays on Chaucer and Medieval Culture in Honor of Donald R. Howard, ed. James M. Dean and Christian K. Zacher (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992), 227–42. “Medieval Studies,” in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, eds Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (New York: Modern Language Association, 1992), 12–40. “Acts of Vagrancy: The C-Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor and Authorship, eds Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 208–317.

Publications of Anne Middleton

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“Thomas Usk’s ‘Perdurable Letters’: The Testament of Love from Script to Print,” Studies in Bibliography 51 (1998): 63–116. Reprinted 2005, by author’s permission, with updated bibliographical Afterword and revised and corrected display diagrams, in a reference collection of essential articles on authors from classical antiquity through the 14th century, Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism 76 (series publisher: Thomson Gale): 319–351. “Editing Terminable and Interminable,” Huntington Library Quarterly 64 (2001): 161–87. “Commentary on an Unacknowledged Text: Chaucer’s Debt to Langland”, YLS 24 (2010): 113–37. “Dowel, the Proverbial and the Vernacular: Some Versions of Pastoralia,” in Medieval Poetics and Social Practice: Responses to the Work of Penn R. Szittya, ed. Seeta Chaganti (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 143–69, 231–38.

INTRODUCTION No body of essays in the field of medieval English literature has had as deep and varied effect there as Anne Middleton’s. She has stubbornly and in principle kept herself independent of (though not aloof from) the wash and backwash of its fashions. Perhaps this is why her work has had such influence, why it remains fresh when so many others’ has staled, and why a younger generation has taken it up as eagerly as mine did. And it is why for years colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic have clamored to see those essays collected. In 2004 she worked out a plan for a collection which stalled because she found herself less interested in revisiting work done than in doing more – the third volume of the Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, along with the several parerga spun off along its way. But it was bound to happen, because the perfect occasion for it was bound to come. For Middleton is the most energetically collegial of scholars; as one mutual acquaintance said, conversing with her feels like suddenly coming by an intellectual life one didn’t know one had. Many of us have watched tentative drafts suddenly reveal their shape after her reading: give her a typescript of any length, and within hours it returns to you, its real stakes discovered, articulated, and refined, objections formulated and resolved, whitespace covered with a cascade of dialogue that makes arguing fun again. So it went without saying there would be a Festschrift, and the preparation of one (edited by Andrew Galloway and Frank Grady) renewed the idea of an essay-collection. I offered to prepare this volume if she would approve my selection, supply one of her unpublished pieces for inclusion, and vet my introduction once complete. Of course the same magnificent bustle of ideation that has led so many colleagues and students to want this volume has made selecting its contents difficult. Encountering one or another of her essays has been a milestone for many of us; each has its partisans. Worse, though there are recursions in her work, there is almost no repetition, and so there is almost nothing that could be set aside as superseded. Some constraints came easily enough. A few essays were out of keeping with the volume’s scale or character because of their length, like “Acts of Vagrancy” (at 110 tightly printed pages), or their format, like the chapter of the Manual of Writing in Middle English that instantly reset the state of the question in Piers Plowman criticism. Among remaining candidates,

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it seemed best to prefer those essays that are now hardest to obtain, the ones that appeared in Festschriften and essay collections and minor journals. But those constraints still left hard choices. Making them intelligently required clarifying the shape of her scholarly project, a task that has produced its own light. In the end, I concentrated almost exclusively on essays produced in what I’ll call her “long 1980s” over those that are more recent (and, incidentally, generally easier to acquire), because these earlier efforts decisively shaped not only Middle English studies, but Middleton’s own later work: the prospect from which the corpus of her scholarship looks – the angle of regard and the most important perspectives opened by it – was discovered over the course of these years. These pieces not only struck the field with their own force when they appeared, but now they lay open to inspection the development and constitution of a body of work that has already enjoyed a shelf-life longer than most of us can hope for. Middleton’s scholarship has most been marked most distinctively by that joyful activity she describes as “crux-busting.” It is an activity that wears the look of “old philology,” adducing as it frequently does contexts of elaborately specified pertinence to help explain passages that hitherto have proven resistant to accounting. These typically are passages so knotted in seeming confusion that scholarship has been tempted to embrace the desperate explanation of failure – failure of the poet to achieve meaning, failure of the scribe to transmit what was written, failure of the modern mind to understand medieval habits of thought, failure of ideology to contain its expressions – and then been tempted to correct, or to lecture upon, the failure it too hastily supposed. But a crux, as busted by her, is neither a mistake to be emended out of existence nor an accidental obscurity to be illuminated by contextual lore. These passages are cryptic and resistant because in them the poem takes its own most informed view of itself: confronts its ambitions or enabling terms of thought so directly, or realizes some element of its design so abruptly, that the abundance of sense swamps its clarity. This expressive and conceptual density emerges when the poem tries to see the properties of its intellectual and imaginative design justly and in a single view, and elucidating it can therefore throw light on the work’s larger problems as well: picking apart what looks like the debris of high-impact collisions in poetic composition reruns, as if in slow motion, the choices that led to them. The crux thus clarified shows the poet in the act of making sense, deriving thought into compact imaginative form, and it offers the student an opportunity therefore to catch sense in the act of being made. Where scribal error or authorial inattention plays a role in the elucidation, it is useful in tracing not its efficient but its formal and material causes. What can be interpreted is

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what has been composed, while what has merely befallen the text can only be explained; but explanation can return as evidence for interpretation. The making of sense out of its various materials – composition, as both act and product – has always led the thinking in Middleton’s essays, and a determination to make both act and process emerge in full complexity and full lucidity seems to be at the root of the taut dialectic that pulled and stretched the fabric of her essays more and more tightly. The prose of her earliest publications combined prompt lucidity with cultivated restraint; as her career progressed the lucidity remained while the conceptual promptness accelerated to break-neck speed, and the more restrained elegance (still the mode of the earliest essay here reprinted, “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo Than Ten,’” 1973) gave way to an urgent, disciplined ranginess of intellection and utterance. As the pace quickened, the scope of her attention expanded, lighting not only on the work and its sources, but also on its text and increasingly on its world, so that the poetry would be pulled into sudden focus in its material and political environs. The trenchancy and interpretative efficacy of her attentions to social and political history made made it seem to some (to myself at one point, for instance) that she had signed up for the Foucauldian/Geertzian historicism briefly associated with her Berkeley department in the 1980s. This was the moment when literary critics frequently made a feint of disenchanted humility, dissolving the category of the literary as one contingent and constructed, in order to engross for literary interpretation anything it wanted. Though the manner of Middleton’s work changed during these years, it never relinquished its serene, rationally articulated understanding of the literary as an expression of the practical reason realizing itself (and founding the conditions of its realization) in history. To the assertion that literature was a category socially constructed, her work in effect shrugged its shoulders as at a truism. (Of course it is socially constructed; but if constructedness makes a category unreal, then no category is available to thought.) The institution of literature in Ricardian England was no less saliently literary for being a production of Ricardian England. And the ability of the literary to make itself look like a permanent feature of thought, like a category perennial to human nature, becomes in Middleton’s work a measure of the fullness of its address to the world. Indeed, her ventures into territory elsewhere claimed by the “new historicism” – in essays like “War by Other Means: Marriage and Chivalry in Chaucer” (1984), “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’” (1988, included here), and “Acts of Vagrancy: The C-Text ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of Laborers” (1997) – came not from forsaking or substantially revising the classical and rhetorical principles of her

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earlier criticism, but from apprehending their reach and power with growing clarity. Her attention thus could turn to institutions, laws, and other means of regulating and regularizing political society because these too are things made, whose principles of construction can therefore be precipitated out for analysis. “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales” (1980), for instance, turns to social formation (and the social styles by which it marked itself) to characterize Chaucerian fiction-making – not because there is anything primary about social formations, but because, as formations, they also are structures composed by human enterprise. They establish social styles – manners of self-presentation, but also the shared sense of how selves might live and to what ends – which also are assembled through the constructive work of the practical reason. To these and to the designs they embody the styles and devices of literary work may be usefully analogized: “the literary” as a category is no more timeless than “the polite,” but the timely devices of both furnish tools to fourteenth-century articulacy. The lively and profitable relations Middleton maintained with both “theorists” and “historicists” (as we understood both, back in the day) rested on the capacity of this intellectual scheme to understand and be persuaded by questions that theoretical and historical discussions raised, and also to answer them; she eagerly sensed their stakes, as well as their interest and complexity, and saw that they posed questions of substance to literary history. The independence she preserved from all of them rested on an apparent determination not to lose precisions successfully achieved. True distinctions take long to become the habit of a discipline’s thinking, while flattening them is the work of a moment; and Middleton resisted the pressure to plane down any difference between explanation and interpretation, and between the kinds of objects that might be subjected to them. Against the slang of new criticism, nouvelle critique, and new historicism alike, for example, she maintained the distinction between text and work as a necessity of thought. This distinction, long employed, she pulled into explicit consideration in “Life in the Margins” (1990, included here), an early reflection on what would become the Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, of which Middleton was a founding contributor. The essay makes the point that thinking of Piers Plowman at all tacitly assumes the distinction; trying to ignore or evade it only mystifies. As she often remarked in print, and claimed most explicitly in “Medieval Studies” (1994), the confused deployment of “text” as a term to cover all aspects of the written utterance could only have emerged in fields that could bury the challenges of editorial practice under polite fictions, and especially in those later periods in which the mechanisms of print could give the “text” an illusion of self-

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evidence. (Jerome McGann, Hershel Parker, and others would soon do their part to disrupt this illusion in those fields.) Criticism, even when trying hardest to continue rejecting the idea of the “work” as an intentional object, cannot avoid assuming the category in defining and organizing its own sense of the text; the design or idea or “foreconceit” of the whole is a conceptual necessity called out by the nature of the object. And by an entirely logical irony, criticism that loses track of this distinction cannot afford either to acknowledge the deep instability of the “text” (properly so called) or to engage the intellectual complexity and the evidentiary power of textual mechanisms that lay bare the “work” as object and the work, the labor, that produces it. In “Thomas Usk’s ‘Perdurable Letters’: The Testament of Love from Script to Print” (1998), she took on a crux of a sort hitherto unbusted, using the error that had disarranged the sections in Thynne’s print to reconstruct the impagination and quiring of the manuscript from which the compositor worked, the only impagination that could possibly have yielded that error; used this mise en page to demonstrate Usk’s program of decoration; used that program to specify the lucid and local expressive lexicon around which Usk organized his work; and showed how fragile the understanding of that lexicon was. The result is that Usk’s work now seems less mad and willful than everyone has made it out to be; what seems mad is rather how quickly and how easily scribes and readers can accept the pulverized and deranged debris of such a design as its natural state. (This essay, not reprinted here, should be read in its corrected and supplemented 2005 reprint, listed, like all these essays, in the Publications list that precedes this introduction). Middleton’s thinking about design and composition, classical in its dispositions and trained in a milieu friendly to those dispositions (Harvard in the early 1960s, where she was supervised by Bloomfield and deeply influenced by Reuben Brower), was nevertheless particularly ready to absorb and respond to the challenges that subsequent decades threw before these emphases. During that time, the discipline of literary studies became increasingly concerned with what the literary utterance cannot make fully present to itself, with what remains unsaid and unrealized in poetic performance. But it often lost track of the different properties that remain unthought and the reasons why they would remain so. As scholarhip’s attention sat fixed on the repressed and unavowable, a weary convention evolved of melodramas of avoidance, or of pert disclosures of what others preferred to avoid. That authors and works could need to forget what would be too scandalous to know goes without saying: the sleep of the practical reason, like that of the speculative, can produce monsters, and some of these figure among the dramatis personae

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of Middleton’s essays. But it is interesting that the theorist of ideology she finds most useful is Macherey, whose “theory of literary production” is (presumably despite his best efforts) easily reformulated in liberal terms as the cunning of reason, and the “unconscious of the work” not a historical doom beyond its ken, but as the first principles partly invisible to the thought they enable. What goes unsaid may as easily be presupposition as repression, may be the condition required for thought or fantasy to transpire and be formed into utterance. Once her scholarship begins inquiring after unavowed principles, its distinctive voice begins clearly to emerge. “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II” (1978) is placed first in this volume, though it is not the earliest essay included, because it is the first in which she ventured a systematic account, compendiously expressed, of this literature in the form that would continue to govern her inquiries. It drew the literature of Chaucer’s generation into a single view, and inspired my generation of medievalists with possibilities that most of us had not seen before. (Among these was the possibility that “the literature of Chaucer’s generation” might not be the best descriptor of it.) It accomplished what it did by precipitating from the variety of “Ricardian” poetry a common bearing – something that was not a deliberate “project” but not ideology either, neither an undertaking advertently devised nor an inadvertent encoding of interests, but an enabling and rational orientation to the felt needs and opportunities of its moment. The “middle” style she describes and analyzes is a specifically literary accomplishment, but one by which the poets who practiced it comported themselves before the worldly responsibilities of their calling and from which they drew a literary discourse answerable to, but also irreducible to, the conditions that evoked it. The Ricardian “public voice” is a literary fiction that permits construction of an active and political poetic subject. It is, as she observes, the product of a particular form of commercial society, but it is an achievement, not an index or a symptom, of the society’s commercial orientation. The fictive devices have their own integrity and are built with some of the same materials, and some of the same principles, that inform the construction of the medieval professional self – which is to say that both are complex systems of rational imaginative enterprise reckoning with the shared world. “Worldly” is one of Middleton’s favorite terms of meliorative description; it signifies enterprise on a human scale, with a realistically modest sense of how deeds are conditioned and constrained before they even can begin. By this emphasis on the secular and worldly character of even “clergial” poetry, its comfort within views taken from a middle distance and its ethical (as distinct from theological or devotional) seriousness, Middleton staked out ground:

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she declared her conviction that the learnedness and high moral seriousness of medieval poetry was best explained as alert and reasoned response to its worldly experience, not as ascetic distance from it. The preference for the this-worldly is a fundamental disposition, not a point she argues, and the specifically literary manifestations of the ethical hold center stage. By attending to how the conditions that frame thoughts, styles, and fictions can be rationally coherent and expressive without being anyone’s especial project, Middleton establishes terms for thinking about the place and resources that literary making brings to the business of ordering public life. She is thus able without embarrassment or apology to consider topics that criticism in the 1970s and 1980s tiptoed primly around, like pathos and delight, which she takes to be properties as explicable, and as rich with conceptual consequence, as any others; “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo Than Ten’” and “The Clerk and his Tale” (1980, both included here) show her at these tasks. Style appears as an aspect of “habit,” which she explores in its richest multivocal expression, as in “Chaucer’s ‘New Men,’” and pursues with more intensity in consideration of the “life” as a unit of thought and composition, in “Langland’s Lives” (1992) and “Playing the Plowman” (printed here for the first time). This topic, poetry’s answerable worldliness, Middleton first approached in connection with Chaucer, whose enabling fiction is the comic unworldliness of incompetence and “unlikelinesse.” The developments already noted in her maturing scholarship – the increasing complexity of her interpretative ambitions, breadth of political and historical reflection, and dense rapidity of prose – emerge with the major shift of attention by which she became identified as a scholar of Piers Plowman, indeed as the scholar responsible for the importance that Piers acquired in the field. The programs of investigation opened in the earlier essays – authorship as a selfhood itself composed in history; the literary as a condition that is real because (like everything we know in the world) it is historically contingent; the life as a narrative and conceptual unit – recur with new intensity as she turns definitely and finally to Langland. Again, it was “The Idea of Public Poetry,” a pendant to the early essays on Chaucer, that marks the change. This essay made what was, at the time, the drastic and revolutionary move of treating Langland simply as a brilliant participant, full and conversant, of London’s cosmopolitan literary culture, rather than as an inspired and learned eccentric. Once that move was made, everything else looked different. With Langland firmly installed as the object of study, Middleton returned to topics inventively broached in her earlier essays – the audience as a socially specified but imaginatively

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constitutive entity (“The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” 1982), the relation of literary form and argument (“Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman,” 1982, included here), the narrated “life” (“Langland’s Lives: Reflections on Late-Medieval Religious and Literary Vocabulary,” 1992), the imaginative construction of authorial selfhood (“Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman,” 1988, reprinted here) and its relation to social and legal selfhood (“William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’” and “Acts of Vagrancy”). In each case the topic has grown edgier and pushier, more insistent and peculiar, for two reasons. First, looking squarely at Piers Plowman not only elucidates the poem but reframes the literary history of which it is part. And second, Langland has, as one of his talents of thought and exposition, an ability to voice in reflexive thought those shared presuppositions hardest to isolate and examine. That is, Langland proves to be not merely a virtuoso practitioner, but a severely witty theorist, of the Ricardian “making” of persons, polities, and poems. The drive to bust a crux, to find the order in what has seemed mere derangement, found its fulfillment in Langland and in Langland studies. Langland has been admired (as well as dismissed) as a writer beyond or above mere coherence or mere design. Nearly everyone now agrees in finding his poetry interesting; Middleton goes much further, finding it deliberate, controlled, and managed with increasing confidence and precision. The impression of digressive, unregulated indignation is, she has shown, an effect the poem achieves rather than an authorial quirk that explains it; so is the haunting sense that, just beyond the horizon, the poem conceals some discoverable principle of unity. “Narration and the Invention of Experience” shows that the poem’s intemperate and aggressive distractability does not interrupt the realization of its design but embodies and enables it. “Making a Good End” shows that those who have wished to think that Piers aims at conventional discursive and conceptual models but either falls short of or transcends them are descendants of John But, self-chosen concluder of the A-version. The particular interest in the hash he makes of Langland’s poem is that one can detect it as hash and watch its making: the poem’s principles of formal and conceptual design, however absent its unruly surface likes to imply they are, still can be elicited precisely by understanding what But does not. The theoretical or programmatic reflections on the terms of literary and critical knowledge, and the minute historical investigations, all come as solutions to queries that emerge in the run of concretely interpretative endeavors more often than for their own sakes. I think it is true to say that in her published scholarship Middleton has only ever been interested in

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illuminating authors and works, and that its moments of intense theorization serve chiefly to push through conceptual clogs obstructing such illumination. Probably this is why her theoretical and historical observations remain interesting. By that same token, it would falsify her aims not to bring the focus back to the poems that prompt them, and especially to Piers. The increasingly venturesome thought that characterizes Middleton’s work from the later 1980s on took place, I have already mentioned, as Langland displaced Chaucer as her focus of engagement. Increasingly her work explores the scale and source of Langland’s originality in Piers Plowman, which (as she puts it elsewhere) acts like a long poem written by someone who had never read one. As the “deep philology” with which she has painstakingly reconstructed Langland’s enterprise has emerged into a compendious view of it, there has emerged also the recognition that his originality was the condition of Chaucer’s – that the literary undertakings of Ricardian England happened against the background of their alarming “Edwardian” predecessor, the poet who set terms of vernacular authorship that no one, Chaucer emphatically included, could evade; “Playing the Plowman,” appearing here for the first time, adumbrates her argument. It suggests what the history of Ricardian poetry will look like when Langland is understood as being also its prehistory, and gives some sense of what her next work will look like. The essays republished here are unrevised, except for the correction of typos and other minor errors. University of California, Berkeley July 2012

SteVen Justice

I

The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II “Ricardian” poetry is a term that has entered our critical vocabulary only recently, since the admirable study by J.A. Burrow.1 He uses it in order to further the kind of critical thought which has for some time comfortably referred to “Elizabethan” or “Edwardian” poetry. The term implies a willingness to seek broad connections between social and literary history, rather than the “influence” of one writer upon another. Unlike the earlier phrase, “the age of Chaucer,” the notion of a “Ricardian period” in literature enables Burrow to identify some common themes and features of style as characteristic of the era, without subordinating other writers’ achievements to either the stylistic preferences or the idiosyncrasies of personal development of its crowning genius. The shift in perspective that follows this simple change of names has already been salutary for Chaucer criticism, as well as for the understanding of his major contemporaries, each of whom can be seen to have a coherent sense of his purpose, his audience and his world. In this same spirit I attempt here to identify and describe a kind of poetry, and an ideal of literary eloquence implicit in it, that makes its first appearance in the Ricardian period, but is only indirectly and intermittently represented in the work of Chaucer. The social and literary values that found expression in the mode I call “public poetry” are presented in Chaucerian fiction only, as it were, in indirect discourse, assigned in various ways to several characters in the Canterbury fiction – and thereby greatly qualified.2 The impassioned direct J.A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry (New Haven, 1971). The materials of the literary synthesis described here were all fully available to Chaucer; he simply made a quite different use of them in his fiction than any of his contemporaries. The Man of Law and the Franklin, public men of a social station closely comparable to that of Chaucer and several of his literary associates, embody in dramatic form several of the social and literary values I describe below. In their acute awareness of the social standing of their own literary tastes and their concern to enhance their public virtue through the tales they tell, they present in a highly condensed, and possibly satirical, form the social origins, affinities, and emotional appeal of the ethos of Ricardian “public poetry.” Chaucer the pilgrim, offering the irreproachable Tale of Melibee as a more edifying replacement for the aborted “drasty rime” of Sir Thopas, may perhaps be similarly understood. But precisely because of the fictional 1 2

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Chaucer, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Literary History

address that was the characteristic voice of public poetry among Chaucer’s contemporaries was, however, a considerable expressive achievement in its own right, and it is in its simpler form that it will be described here. The general social dispositions of its most effective spokesmen have been noted by historians. These attitudes, which constitute the foundations of a secular and civic piety, are attended in the poetry by explicit and coherent notions about the nature of poetry, about poetry’s worldly place and purpose. In brief terms, poetry was to be a “common voice” to serve the “common good.” The realized presence of the poetic speaker in this literature became a stylistic means of expressing that purpose, and it produced a new kind of experientially based didactic poetry, tonally vivid and often structurally unstable. Public poetry is a mode quite distinct from the homiletic or satirical poetry often grouped with it as “complaint” or “verse on contemporary conditions”; indeed, the strength and consistency of its “voice” frequently strain against the formal frameworks that it adopted from earlier didactic genres. It will be the task of this paper to note such distinctions and to describe the characteristics of this new form of vernacular eloquence. A brief survey of an important part of Ricardian literature cannot, of course, supply an interpretation or complete reading of any of the poems in the tradition, particularly of those two “baggy monsters,” the Confessio Amantis and Piers Plowman, that provide my chief illustrations. It can perhaps suggest what is new in the social and literary imagination informing both works and show what influence this had on their successors writing on public ethical themes. The public poetry of the Ricardian period is best understood not as poetry “about” contemporary events and abuses, whether viewed concretely or at a distance, from the vantage point of a universal scheme of ideal order3 – it is rarely occasional or topical, and it is indifferent on the whole to comprehensive rational systems of thought or of poetic structure. Rather it is poetry defined by a constant relation of speaker to audience within an ideally conceived worldly community, a relation which has become the poetic subject. In describing their mode of address, the poets most often refer to the general or common voice, and the ideal of human nature that sustains this indirection and complexity with which Chaucer reflects upon a literary situation he shares with his contemporaries, I must exclude consideration of those reflections from this paper, and treat the matter separately at greater length. For a brief general description of this technique in the Canterbury Tales, see my article, “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo than Ten’ as a Method in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 8 (1973), 9–32; and Derek Brewer, “Towards a Chaucerian Poetic,” Proceedings of the British Academy 60 (1974), 219–52. 3 See Appendix.

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voice assigns new importance to secular life, the civic virtues, and communal service. The voice of public poetry is neither courtly, nor spiritual, nor popular. It is pious, but its central pieties are worldly felicity and peaceful, harmonious communal existence. It speaks for bourgeois moderation, a course between the rigorous absolutes of religious rule on the one hand,4 and, on the other, the rhetorical hyperboles and emotional vanities of the courtly style, whether that style is conceived in its narrower sense of a distinctive manner of speech or as the mode of living and personal values associated with the noble estate.5 This poetic voice is vernacular, practical, worldly, plain, public-spirited, and peace-loving6 – in a word, “common,” rather than courtly or clerical, in its professed values and social allegiances. Sir John Clanvowe, one of the “Lollard knights” associated with Chaucer’s circle, wrote a moral treatise in English called The Two Ways (ed. V.J. Scattergood, English Philological Studies 10 [1967], 33–56), which contrasts the “broode wey of helle” with the “streit wey to hevene” in the traditional manner, but recommends as a rule of life a “meene” between instances of these two ways – between, for example, abstinence and gluttony, between “mistruste yn the mercy of god” and overconfidence in that mercy. Clanvowe is hardly an original thinker, but perhaps precisely for that reason he affords an interesting testimony to the mental habit of defining the middle way as the course of virtue, even where, as here, it somewhat interferes with the two-fold conceptual scheme by which the exposition is organized. See also K.B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights (Oxford, 1972). 5 The relation between style as a linguistic category – as the characteristic mode of verbal expression of an individual work or writer, capable of being described by noting features of diction, syntactic patterns, and the like – and style in its broader sense, an array of forms of social behavior referred to within a work, expressing the shared attitudes of a group, has been a controverted question in medieval literary studies generally for some time. That there is an essential continuity between verbal and social style has been – properly, I think – a fundamental assumption of the most illuminating modern studies of Chaucer. See, for example, Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (Berkeley, 1957), and Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley, 1976). The theoretical complexities of this position are not germane to the present purpose. 6 The assigning of paramount value to peace, rather than to the glory conferred by chivalric conquest, is utterly consistent with what I take to be the ultimate social origins of this complex of social and literary values – the civic order required by the commercial state, and the social ethos, expressed in civic humanism, most appropriate to it. Marsilio of Padua insists that the “sufficient life” rather than a crusading or transcendent mission is the goal of secular societies (Defensor Pacis, tr. and ed. Alan Gewirth [New York, 1956], ch. 4). Nearly 200 years later, Machiavelli still finds it necessary to argue that the virtues of a chivalric leader have become disruptive and dysfunctional in an urban commercial state (The Prince, tr. and ed. T.G. Bergin [Northbrook, Ill., 1947], ch. 16). The literature on the infusion of the earlier vocabulary with changed meaning, appropriate to a shift in social fact and social values, is vast; Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York, 1954) is only one among many large general treatments of a phenomenon that took very different forms in different countries. 4

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Such values are certainly audible in Chaucer’s Franklin, but they are equally clear in the lives and literary interests of the so-called Lollard Knights, that distinguished group of pious laymen who, like Chaucer and Gower, with whom some of them were closely associated, were highly literate and conscientious public servants in both military and diplomatic capacities. They exemplify an ideal of communal responsibility founded not primarily in an estates conception of one’s duties, but in an altruistic and outward-turning form of love that might be called “common love” to emphasize its symmetry and contrast with that singular passion which expresses itself in literature in the inward self-cultivation sometimes called “courtly love.” “Common love,” for these men, was an emotion as fully natural and universal as eros, but it defined man as a social being, and, unlike its private counterpart, was turned outward to public expression. This kind of love is non-transcendent, practical, active; it issues in acts of social amelioration rather than in the refinement of inwardness. It manifests itself in mutual “suffraunce” – toleration, compromise, forgiveness – and in public service. It is this love that prompts Thomas Usk to direct his confession of misery to Lady Love, in imitation of Boethius’s initial complaint to Lady Philosophy. He is prompted to model his Testament of Love on the Consolation of Philosophy not only by reverence for a literary prototype, but also by the close parallel between Boethius’s situation and his own. He is a civil servant who considers himself wrongly accused and betrayed by his devotion to public office and to London, not unlike the imprisoned Boethius who found himself in need of Philosophy’s support.7 (Usk met, in fact, a similar fate: he was executed, along with the mayor Nicholas Brembre, in 1388.)8 His destiny as public man, not the cruelties of an indifferent mistress, informs his somewhat clumsy The value these poems assign to peace and peace-making has more concrete resonances, closer to home. It is consonant as well with two tendencies in English political life and society frequently remarked by historians: the consistent opposition of the Commons to continued foreign military exploits, expressed concretely in their repeated refusal to grant the taxes necessary to support them requested by the Crown; and a growing strain of pacifism as a religious ideal within Wycliffite thought generally, expressed with particular complexity in the life patterns of the “Lollard knights,” whose largely military and diplomatic careers seem nevertheless to have been remarkably detached from any glorification of valor in their literary interests or productions. See McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings, pp. 177–85; and Anthony Tuck, Richard II and the English Nobility (London, 1973). 7 Thomas Usk, The Testament of Love 1.6, in The Complete Works of Chaucer, 7, ed. W.W. Skeat (Oxford, 1897), pp. 27–9. 8 DNB, “Thomas Usk”; also John H. Fisher, John Gower, Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York, 1964), p. 62 and n.

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effort to be a vernacular philosopher of love. Likewise Gower’s long devotion as a moral poet to civic virtue and social accord occasions the confessional dialogue between the Lover and the Priest of Venus that he evidently considered his own “testament of love”; within the Confessio Amantis, Venus bids Gower return to the world to “gret wel Chaucer” and urge him to make a testament of his own. In both cases love as communal and historical bond, not as transcendental force or as erotic servitude, is the impetus to literary creation. Usk explains to his instructress that she has always been his motive for undertaking public service – the “office of commen doinge” as he calls it: “For you, Lady, I have desired such cure” – that is, for love, not for fame.9 “That,” the Lady replies, “is a thing that may draw many hertes of noble and voice of commune into glory.” This interesting formulation – “hearts of noble and voice of common” – is thematic in the poetic and social values I am describing. The “hearts of noble” are incited by love to intense selfcultivation; the “common,” however, shows its heart in its voice, enlisted in the furtherance of virtue in “commen doinge.” The love that issues in worldly action is a central conception in Ricardian public poetry, where it is treated as an emotional and ethical force no less powerful and fundamental to human life than its more familiar counterpart in courtly literature. The literary eloquence best suited to expressing that conception will itself be an instance of such public work, inspired by communal love rather than by anger or indignation. Its rhetorical strategy attributes to the audience a ready reserve of good will toward secular harmony, despite diversity of “craftes.” These social values, and the notion of the place and purpose of secular literature that follows from them, are deeply characteristic of both the Confessio Amantis and Piers Plowman. Some common features of these two long poems offer the best possible conditions for examining this essentially public notion of literature. Both poets are essentially “one-poem” writers (Gower clearly saw his entire output as one continuous effort).10 Both are inveterate revisers, and in both cases their revisions seem largely dictated not by formal considerations, but by matters of social fact and currercy. Gower, whose alterations in the Confessio have incurred the suspicion of political trimming, has been defended against this charge by Fisher, who points out that his changes have an internal and principled political coherence; they consistently display “the sentiments Usk, Testament 1.8, p. 36. See Fisher, John Gower, pp. 115, 135.

9

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6

of a London citizen,” rather than a narrowly expedient shift from Richard to Henry of Lancaster.11 Similarly, Donaldson has argued that fullness and clarity, not changes in political allegiance or personal beliefs, determine the C-revisions of Piers.12 (I would add that the Rising of 1381 probably gave a good deal of urgency to his effort to mend ambiguities.) What is significant, though, is that what the poet alters, what in his view most needs improving, is the poem’s adequacy to his world, not only as a representation of it, but, even more important, as an address to it. Their poetry, and Ricardian public poetry generally, speaks “as if ” to the entire community – as a whole, and all at once rather than severally – rather than “as if ” to a coterie or patron. By its mode of address and diction it implies that the community is heterogeneous, diverse, made up of many having separate “singular” interests. It envisions a society composed of members whose differing stations, functions, and ways of life yield different perspectives on the common world, which it is the aim of the speaker to respect, to bring to mutual awareness, and to resolve into common understanding. What common understanding – that is, “we,” each of us in the presence of the others – can see about our common condition, the world we share as a people, becomes the poetic subject. The style, which is distilled out of all the disparate special languages of society’s parts, will be offered as the “common voice” – the “comun worldes speche,” to use one of Gower’s several variants of the notion. It will be a plain style, by choice and on principle, and will justify itself as both socially and psychologically well suited to the presentation of lay morality and large experiential truths. What distinguishes public poetry among the genres that are mimetic of direct speech is,13 first, the imagined character of the participants in this transaction, the “I” and the “you,” and, second, the effort at comprehensiveness derived from that perception. “Your” experience gives each of you a partial, but solidly based, view, to be completed by attention to the views – similarly based in worldly experience – of others. Here the Canterbury pilgrims’ strong but comically disparate views of what the burning issue of their day really is exemplify this sense of the world, a model of public poetry’s sense of its audience; Jill Mann has argued that it is precisely this that Chaucer learned

Fisher, John Gower, pp. 116–24. E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet, Yale Studies in English 113 (New Haven, 1949; repr. Hamden, Ct., 1966), esp. chs. 3 and 4. 13 See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957; repr. New York, 1967), pp. 248–50. 11 12

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from Langland.14 Chaucer, however, gives a different fictional form to that sense of his audience, addressing them as an empathetic familiar, much as Chaucer the pilgrim reacts, in “close-up,” to each of his traveling companions. The “I” of public poetry presents himself as, like his audience, a layman of good will, one worker among others, with a talent to be used for the common good. It is his task to find the common voice and to speak for all, but to claim no privileged position, no special revelation from God or the Muses, no transcendent status for the result, and little in the way of special gifts beyond a good ear. The “I” is otherwise like “you” and includes himself and his poetic endeavor in the world’s work. As a “character” he makes himself nearly invisible, but not in the chameleon-like manner of Chaucer the pilgrim, who takes his color, his moral partialities, from whatever hobbyhorse his fellow travelers happen to be riding. Rather he occupies the whole field of moral vision spanned by the several views of all those who make up the “commune,” by stretching himself, as it were, to the point of transparency. In this mode there is little room for speculation or epistemological selfdoubt; however partial the view of each may be, it is complemented by the view of others to form a firm fabric of worldly experience shared by all, and thereby reliable. Corresponding to this faith in worldly experience is a high degree of confidence in – even insistence upon – ordinary language, not learned or refined speech. It is often quite pointedly contrasted with the insulated jargon of the professions, of advanced learning, or of high rhetorical poetry, as on the whole the best medium for keeping moral knowledge active and heartfelt. It avoids mistakes precisely by being the language of the whole, “common,” not “special.” In partial corroboration of this distinction, the divergence of Chaucer’s fortunes as a poetic influence from those of our two major examples is instructive. Despite the obvious fact that Chaucer’s diction is to us as lucid, “plain,” and in places colloquial, as that of either of these contemporaries, he became to his aureate imitators a paradigm of refined style, justifying any amount of inkhorn inventiveness. Gower and Langland, though in other ways subjected to different critical fortunes, share a common later estimate of their style: both are seen as masters of “plainness.” For Ben Jonson, Gower is the model of English plain style; and Churchyard’s comment (1568) that

Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge, Eng., 1973), pp. 207–12.

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8

Peers Plowman was full plaine and Chausers spreet was great,15

neatly summarizes both Langland’s critical reputation in the Renaissance and after, and the felt distance between his kind of achievement and that of Chaucer. It is apparent from these remarks that by “style” these later readers must mean something more than diction or verbal and visual texture. As Churchyard’s reference to “spreet” (spirit) suggests, style implies something much broader: a set of social, moral, rhetorical, even political attitudes which together constitute a characteristic kind of perception, a mode of selfpresentation, and a manner of speaking. In this broader sense, these readers are right to see a kinship between the two in their “plain style.” What they are remarking on is the characteristic “voice” and basic effect of what I have called public poetry: the sense it gives of offering “common truth” in “common speech.” The notion of the “common” or “commune” is central to this poetic mode, and essential for understanding Gower’s and Langland’s use of the speaker in their English fictions. Like “plain” in the instances I have cited, “common” seems to denote a “style” broadly considered. Its resonance in fourteenth-century usage is at once social and moral, political and rhetorical – and, on the whole, evidently positive. “Common profit” is the usual translation of res publica, and its range of meanings in English is well described by Cicero’s account of res publica res populi: “the public good, or commonwealth, is the people’s affair, in the sense that ‘people’ are considered not as a herd, assembled in any sort of way, but as a people, bound by agreement as to law and rights, and associated for mutual benefit or expediency.”16 “Common,” in other words, can denote the commonwealth as a whole, a community or fellowship, the populace or citizenry, as well as the “common people,” a class distinguished from either nobility or clergy or both as the “third estate.” What is noteworthy in all uses of the term is its uniformly non-abstract, non-speculative cast. The “commune,” like the “public” for Cicero, is not a theoretical or logical construct, derived from postulates about human nature; T. Churchyard, The Works of John Skelton, ed. A. Dyce (London, 1843), 1:lxxvii; cited by Marie Jacobus Hertzig, “The Early Recension and Continuity of Certain Middle English Texts in the Sixteenth Century,” unpub. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1973, p. 252. 99 16 Cicero, De Re Publica 1.25.39, Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1928). The translation is mine, expanded to emphasize the relevant distinction. The definition follows upon Africanus’s remark that his inquiry into the commonwealth will not pursue the subject to its first elements, “as the schoolmaster does,” but that he will proceed as if speaking to intelligent men of practical affairs, experienced in public service “both in the wars and at home.” 15

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it is an association neither ideal nor fully voluntary, but evolved, historical, and customary, a creature of time, place, event, and language. It is society regarded experientially, an immanent rather than a transcendent notion. The same aura of worldliness and experiential solidity clings to the wide range of adjectival uses of the term: “public” (as opposed to private), “lay” (as opposed to clerical), “popular” (as opposed to learned), “vernacular” (as opposed to Latin), “general” (as opposed to special); also “shared,” “usual,” “customary,” “familiar” or “widely known” – and, it seems, therefore true: “this proverbe is ful soth and ful commune” – it means all of these things as well as “non-noble.”17 And the same benign, even approving, attitude toward this array of qualities emerges from the Middle English Dictionary’s several illustrations of them, examples thickly clustered around the Ricardian period. True, phrases such as “common criminal” and “common whore” exist and have survived, but there is little to suggest that “common” is usually a pejorative term in relation to its associated opposite; in fact, quite the reverse. There is on the whole less testimony to the negative senses of the term familiar to us in Modern English: “low,” “mean,” “coarse,” “ignoble.” The range of meaning of the word, its field-of-play, delineates a coherent, and on the whole positive, cultural “idea,” suggesting that such phrases as “common soth” and “common voice” stand within a stylistic norm, for living and for speaking, that has gained some currency and distinctness, a special force and luminosity, in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Dictionary citations are not by themselves a sufficient base upon which to posit a cultural ideal. There is, however, ample literary testimony to the perceived ethical and stylistic coherence of these qualities, taken as justifying a homegrown eloquence, an elected plainness of expression, associated with active commitment to worldly service. In the literature of the Ricardian period each sense of the term seems to call up the others with a consistency that suggests an established locus of value. This complex of social and rhetorical values is accompanied in all of the major Ricardian poets by a good deal of explicit speculation on the place of poetry-making as an activity in the world. Gower, Langland, and Chaucer incorporate into their long poems a considerable amount of “thinking out loud” about this matter, and, despite their vast differences in artistic temperament, they are in striking agreement: for all of them, poetry is a mediating activity. This notion of the poetic enterprise reinforces the social

OED, s.v. “common”; Middle English Dictionary, ed. Hans Kurath and Sherman M. Kuhn (Ann Arbor, 1954), s.v. “commune.” 17

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ideals I have described and contributes along with them to the forming of a tonally felicitous middle style that was consciously chosen as appropriate to a particular expressive purpose. All three of these London poets have a vivid sense of poetry’s medial position in almost all the schemes they use for talking about it. Typically, the poet’s enterprise – or some aspect of it – is described as “between this and that.” The Canterbury Tales move, in the narrator’s terms, back and forth between “sentence and solas,” though it is to be some ideal marriage of the two that will take the prize for the best story. Narrative tone oscillates between “ernest and game.” The terms seem to correspond to polarities in the speaker’s own attitude in the earlier poetry, particularly the Troilus, where the narrator strives for both the serene cosmic perspective of the historian and bibliophile, and the interested sympathy of the man of simple feeling; a version of this contrast becomes the Canterbury dialogue between experience and authority. These Chaucerian dualities have, of course, been in the critical spotlight for some time; Gower’s and Langland’s terms are, however, remarkably similar in structure. For Gower, who has a great deal to say on what he is about, poetry is made “between work and leisure” (inter labores et ocia)18; in the Confessio, where he acknowledges that for his last long poem he has taken a new approach to his lifelong concern with virtue and vice in the realm, he proposes to speak “sumwhat of lust, sumwhat of loore,” writing a book “betwen the tweie,” that may be “wisdom to the wise, and pley to hem that lust to pleye.”19 This medial course implies a moderate reach, a perspective less exclusively detached and cosmic, more implicated in, and circumscribed by, the mortal world: I may not strecche up to the hevene Min hond, ne setten al on evene This world, which evere is in balance. (Conf. Am. 1, 1–3)

As if to embody this axiom, he uses for the first time an invention characteristic of Ricardian poetry, an implicated speaking presence. In the Confessio, his voice is no longer that of the prophet, satirist, or moral historian, but that of a lover, and his style is conscientiously pitched to take a “middel 18 The English Works of John Gower, ed. G.C. Macaulay, EETS, ES 81–2 (Oxford, 1900–1901; repr. 1957), 2:479. For an account of the three extant versions of this colophon, see Fisher, John Gower, pp. 88–91. 19 Confessio Amantis Prol. *84–5, Works, ed. Macaulay.

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weie” between earnest and game. Gower’s matter, too, is compounded of two sources: what old books have given us, “whereof the world ensaumpled is,” and “the world which neweth everi dai.” More is implied by this mixture than the familiar trick of enlivening ancient lore with newsworthy “modern instances,” the dubious pedagogical practice of Chaucer’s Eagle. For Gower, the meeting of old and new matter in poetry is entailed in its very nature as a social art. The whole poetic enterprise is a “middle weie” between past and future, between truth and our need for it. As we are “ensaumpled” by fine old books, it behooves us to write “of newe som matiere” that will, When we ben dede and elleswhere Beleve to the worldes eere In tyme comende after this. (Conf. Am. Prol., 9–11)

“Lore” lives to posterity, not by the transcendence of the contemporary and immediate, but only as it is validated by and intermingled with our own experience, which acts both as a witness to events and as testimony to our investment of feeling in what we need to know. An implicated narrator, far from a rhetorical trick, becomes a nearly inevitable part of Gower’s poetic program, as he finally comes to explain it, entailed by his moral sense of the poet’s role and of the equivocal nature of poetry itself. Care for the human future implies the speaker’s willing acceptance of involvement in its present course, its daily work. Few have articulated this sense of personal moral responsibility as clearly as Gower: “Because anything should be shared with others in proportion as one receives it from God,” Gower writes in the Latin colophon to the Confessio,20 he means, as he puts it – here echoing the scriptural text of Wimbledon’s famous 1388 Paul’s Cross sermon on the duties of the estates21 – to “give an account of his stewardship” (villicacionis sue racionem), and this stewardship turns out to be the production of his three large and, as some might say, “tediously instructive” books in verse. The view that poetic composition “for the notice/knowledge of others” (ad aliorum noticiam) is a fully legitimate way of doing his share of the world’s work, the activity which binds him to the “commune,” lends Works, ed. Macaulay, 2:479; Fisher, John Gower, p. 89. Wimbledon’s Sermon: Redde rationem villicationis tue, ed. Ione Kemp Knight (Pittsburgh, 1967). Langland also uses this text, and possibly alludes to the sermon. See Piers the Plowman, in Three Parallel Texts, C.X, line 274, ed. W.W. Skeat (Oxford, 1886); and Morton Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, N.J., 1962), p. 87. 20 21

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surprising confidence and dignity to the otherwise fairly modest claim that poetry itself is of mixed birth, neither wholly “lore” nor wholly “lust.” The same form – a way between paired extremes – for thinking about poetry and the poet’s role haunts Piers Plowman as well, but more in the way of a bad dream than an achieved synthesis. There the terms are largely implicit in the general account of “doing well.” What the speaker is doing in and for the world is addressed as a subclass of this larger category, and though his mode of life is on occasion both a model and a test case for the adequacy of the broader moral terms, the speaker does not within his work differentiate himself from his literary offspring – his “book” or “making” – in order to ask questions about the “good” of it, as Chaucer and Gower do. He does not speak of his work as a product, a “book” to leave for posterity, a nowautonomous creature with a life of its own among humankind, but as if “making” itself were a never-ending process (a view perhaps exemplified in the author’s nearly continuous tinkering with his poem), a continuous action rather than a finite production, which as a mode of life must be justified before God and man. The familiar paired terms, work and play, lore and lust, define the range and shape of his thought on the subject – as they shape his fictive treatment of the commune’s alternating approach to, and falling away from, truth – but they manifest themselves in endless ambivalences: they are the upper and nether millstones between which the one work of a lifetime is ground out, and ground increasingly fine. That Langland means his utterance to be taken completely seriously by his hearers is apparent, but what the task of “making” is – whether work or a form of play – for its “maker” is left ambiguous. Committed with an even greater vehemence than Gower to a view of the world which prescribes that “everi man his oghne werkes shal bere,” he is hard pressed to find for poetry a “middle weie” in the world, a legitimate place between the idle entertainments of minstrelcy (“lust”) and the serious, systematic and learned enterprise of instruction in the faith (significantly called “clergye” a good deal of the time rather than a more general term like “lore” or “wisdom”), which he can only see as properly belonging to the ordained cleric. Disdaining the former and excluded from the latter, both by circumstance and by a temperamental disaffection with book-lore as it is husbanded by its traditional guardians, he remains an anomaly among the workers on the field.22 Though the speaker, Will, is twice asked by his instructors to confront the problem of his “making,” 22 Donaldson’s chapter, “The C-Reviser and the Occupations of the Folk on the Field,” in Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet, pp. 121–55, remains the best account of Langland’s view of the “maker” in society.

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to justify its meaning and worth, the results are very hard to interpret. In one, the Imaginatyf episode in the B-text,23 “making” appears at best a harmless solace until full knowledge somehow comes by other means. It is not, in other words, itself a way to truth, a distinct mode of knowing, either for the maker or for his hearers. In the other episode, Will is invited by Reason and Conscience, who seem about to charge him under the Statutes of Labor as an “idle man,” to account for his stewardship. Somewhat surprisingly, he is released upon his resolution to begin to “turn his time to profit.”24 But if the activity he intends is “making,” its nature, subject, and place among other human crafts and estates are left maddeningly unclear, though some analogy between poetry and prophecy is several times suggested. Between minstrelcy and “clergie,” it seems, there remain to the ordinary layman only prayer and psalm-singing by which he can enlist the human voice and its eloquence as tools with which to share the burden of the world’s work. Secular poetry is never completely justified within the poem, except minimally, as it is the mode of life of the poet. The nature and form of literature’s perpetuation in the world once out of its creator’s reach, its status as a work conducing somehow to human enlightenment or comfort, is not resolved. The kind of resolution desired, however, is quite clear: a poetry which would have the moral authority and scope of vision of “clergial” systematic learning, and the immediate common appeal of popular tales. The stylistic synthesis expressive of this aim is achieved only sporadically in the poem, most notably in the Easter Passus, which survives the stylistic Scylla and Charybdis of the two extremes, pedantry and plain garrulousness, that constantly threaten it. The reprieve Will wins from his interrogators does not win for the speaker the consistent assurance of tone his ideal demands, but the poet and the reader remain confident that they know what that “treasure” is, and how to recognize it. What is striking, though, especially in the face of the widely differing success each poet has in dealing with this question of the nature and place of poetry as a worldly activity, is the structural uniformity in the way it is posed. Both – indeed all three – writers are conscious of the “middle state” of the lay and vernacular poet of serious moral intentions, and believe that poetry Piers B.XII; see esp. lines 16–52, which are omitted in C. Piers C.VI, lines 1–108. A detailed account of this scene – its relation to labor and vagrancy laws (particularly the Statute of 1388), and to Langland’s theories of poetry – will appear in my forthcoming paper, “Piers Plowman and the Statutes of Labor,” presented in abbreviated form to the Middle English Section of the Modern Language Association in December, 1973. 23 24

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justifies itself within society, or ought to, as a moral force, in essentially public terms. Further, they seem to see its role and effects as potentially mediating and meliorative. Their terms for exploring these matters are essentially social rather than epistemological or metaphysical, transactive and relational rather than absolute. While they are not equally at ease within the confines of these paired terms – Langland certainly the least of the three – they are in general agreement as to the shape in which the matter presents itself to thought. What is even more remarkable is the fact that they all think at length about it in their poems for the first time in English literature. The positive value attached to secular communal life, and the “middle way” assigned to the poet’s enterprise within it, entail for these writers the choice of specific dictional and formal means explicitly justified in the poetry itself as proper to their intentions. In his Prologue to the Testament, Usk explains that for rude wordes and boystous percen the herte of the herer to the innerest point, and planten there the sentence of thinges, . . . this book, that nothing hath of the great flode of wit ne of semeliche colours, is dolven [engraved] with rude wordes and boystous.25

He goes on, altogether in the manner of the Wife of Bath defending barley bread, to uphold the utility of such drawing in “coles and chalke,” to excite men to “thilke thinges that been necessarie.” Usk’s defense of his simple style is not simply another instance of the old modesty topos, which is usually a profession of unworthiness – of person or skill or both – pure and simple. It argues, rather, the fitness of plain means for an end seen as wholly consonant with the life of a good citizen. In a similar way, the Franklin’s self-deprecation about his lack of “Scitheronian” eloquence becomes in his tale a consistent undertone of skepticism about the grievous power of illusion wielded by such eloquence and implicit in the extravagant rhetoric of romantic love. In the Prologue to the Confessio, Gower explicitly associates the middle style of his poem with his moral and social vantage point as a recorder of the “common world’s” truth. “I take to record [i.e., as witness] . . . the common vois, which mai not lie” (Prol. 124). Though the common sees that division is rife, its healing begins in attending to this voice. To assent to what it says is to reaffirm common grounds for understanding, to begin to will the restoration of mutual peace and concern for the common profit.

Usk, Testament, Prol. (Skeat, Oxford Chaucer, 7:1).

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To him that wolde resoun seche After the comun worldes speche It is to wondre of thilke werre ... (Conf. Am. Prol., 173–5)

War is the very antithesis of community, the pursuit of singular profit. Gower takes this same line not only in his admirable short poem In Praise of Peace,26 but also as Amans within the Lover’s confession, in opposition to the Priest’s counsel that war confers glory which wins love. That this “fictive person” as Gower calls him in the Latin gloss in the poem, the authorial voice, and that of the colophon are to all purposes identical in the very foundations of their ethical and social style, ought to be registered; I will consider its significance in a moment. The reliability of what the “common” see, the solidity of the general view, is axiomatic in public poetry generally. What validates experience is not its particular intensity, but its “commonness.” Gower repeatedly declines to catalogue specific abuses in the manner of a satirist, for It nedeth noght to specifie The thing so open ys at eye. (Conf. Am. Prol., 33–4)

A similar refusal to descend to a bill of complaint, an insistence that the general view is truer, more rhetorically effective, and ultimately more humane than an anatomy of abuse, appears repeatedly in poetry of social criticism from about 1400 on, whereas there is no trace of such self-conscious and principled restraint in earlier political poems, which tend to be occasional or topical. In an otherwise fairly undistinguished poem from Digby MS 102 – which also contains a copy of Piers Plowman – on “What Profits a Kingdom” (dated by Robbins 1401), the speaker, who reminds us of the duty to speak truth and assures us that he does not wish to be a mere tale-teller, says that he will not speak “in speciale” but “hool in general.”27 In the alliterative poem Crowned King, dated 1415, and clearly influenced by Piers, a truth-telling cleric presents himself before the king, who has just asked his “commons” for a subsidy for a war. The cleric offers the king a larger view of his duty, to Works, ed. Macaulay, 2:481–92. Historical Poems of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, ed. Rossell Hope Robbins (New York, 1959), No. 13, lines 49–52. 26 27

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“shewe you my sentence in singular noumbre; / To peynte it with pluralites my prose wolde faile.”28 A similar sense of stylistic pressure to maintain the common view is evident in Richard the Redeless, though more in the breach than in the observance. The speaking voice, which has been rehearsing Richard’s misdeeds at merciless length, is interrupted by Reason, who reminds him of the loftier view of his task of correction. The speaker seems to accept this, but the reminder of the sense of community he ought to feel with all, including the king, only maddens him the more: he soon loses himself again in Richard’s past sins, admitting that he is unable even to attribute generous if misguided motives to them: ʒif that was ʒoure purpos it passeth my wittis To deme discrecioun of ʒoure well-doynge!29

The other fragment of this poem has as its subject the practical problem of giving truthful counsel.30 What is striking in all these poetic remains after 1400 is the clear sense they all show of a “right way” to talk about public matters, an already established decorum of language, social posture, and voice. They are, I think, testimony to an ideal of the “common voice” established largely by the complex experiments of Langland and Gower, and not derived from earlier Latin satire or pulpit oratory, to which they are sometimes compared. The examples I have mentioned so far are of poetic speech ostensibly addressed to the king, rather than to the “comune” directly. This is true, too, of Gower’s Confessio, at least in its earliest form. It is later changed in two separate stages of revision, first from a book “for King Richardes sake” – said to have been written at Richard’s express request – to a “bok for Engelondes sake,” and later commended in general terms to Henry of Lancaster.31 That this change requires little other adjustment perhaps proves my point: the mode of address I am describing is not a matter of deferential politeness to a ruler, but of rising to sufficient largeness of mind and of reference for a public occasion, and a broad common appeal. The king is not the main imagined audience, but an occasion for gathering and formulating what is on the common mind. (Gower’s cancellation in the final revision of the famous reference to Chaucer may have been dictated by the same consideration, namely, that coterie references were out of place in a work now explicitly Robbins, Historical Poems, No. 95, lines 46–7 Richard the Redeless in Skeat, Piers Plowman,1:612, lines 109–10. 30 Mum and the Sothsegger, ed. Mabel Day and R. Steele, EETS 119 (London, 1946) 31 Fisher, John Gower, pp. 116–24. 28 29

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meant for the “comune” at large.)32 Gower’s In Praise of Peace, evidently his last poem, addressed to Henry the Fourth, and Hoccleve’s commemorative poem on the interment of Richard II in Westminster in 1413 33 use “I” and “we” respectively with a luminous generality and self-respect that speaks for an active and well-disposed citizenry, not for “subjects.” Taken together they make the point: a dead king will do as well as a living one as an occasion for the common voice to reassert, and remind itself of, the highest view of its own responsibilities. No such occasion, real or imaginary, offers itself for Piers Plowman, but it is apparent that the poetic voice is similarly grounded in worldly experience, a commitment to active well-doing, and to “common wit” rather than more learned routes to truth. (As a corollary to this, poetry itself is seen as action, not as a treasury of wisdom.) The poet might have had less difficulty in maintaining tonal consistency had he been able to imagine concretely an occasion such as might have placed him in the royal presence or on a public platform – had he, in other words, been able to attribute a more secure social standing to his poetic aspirations. Here his ambivalence about poetry as a human activity undermines his belief in his own ability to instill “wellwilliness” toward the common good in his audience, and the assured tone of the ideal public voice deserts him. On such occasions – almost always those involving the intrusion into communal harmony of some form of willful “speciality,” such as learnedness, greed, wasting and the like – Will becomes aggressively erudite, authoritarian. The speaker does not explicitly identify his presence as “common,” but his impassioned sense of advocacy on the common world’s behalf never leaves him, and it is always portrayed by the process of the fiction as superior to the imposition of corrective authority from above. His emotional allegiances are all on the side of the experiential idea of common truth: Dowel is at one point defined as a “comun lyf ”; Christ redeeming mankind comes “to drinke of common coppes all Christen soules.” Throughout the poem, the right to speak to one’s fellow man comes from conscience and imagination, not “clergye.” I could – anyone could – multiply examples from Piers to illustrate the presence of such sympathies and the coherence of all senses of “common” in a substantial vision of the world, though it has become embarrassingly oldfashioned, even “sentimental,” to do so. But the central critical question is – and in one way or another has always been, since first the rebels of 1381, then 32 For a similar view, see Paul M. Clogan, “From Complaint to Satire: The Art of the Confessio Amantis,” Medievalia et Humanistica 4 (1973), 219. 33 Robbins, Historical Poems, No. 40.

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the Protestant reformers, took up the poem in their cause – whose sympathies are they, and what follows from them? For Langland, like Gower, it has been argued, does not speak in his own person, but quasi in persona aliorum. As Gower puts it in his Latin marginal gloss on the Confessio, fingens se auctor esse amantem – “the author presents himself fictionally as a lover; feigns himself to be a lover.”34 And Will, it is said, the would-be cleric, painfully conscious of the morally equivocal, even fraudulent, character of his own mode of life, expresses opinions, and reveals himself in acts, that ultimately betray his own worldliness and impatience, which it is the goal of the process depicted in the fiction to overcome.35 In that overcoming lies the “meaning” of the poem. Much ink has been spilled over the issue of the persona in all the major poems of this period – Chaucer-the-pilgrim, Gower-the-lover, Will-thetruthseeker – and I do not wish to sully the same premises further. These premises are encompassed in the question: are the views expressed those of a fictive character and therefore dramatically circumscribed as are the opinions of a character in a play, or are they those of the author? Chambers argues that such a distinction is at best anachronistic,36 and Kane contends that the distance or identity between the two is by design indeterminable: these voices are those, he says, of “speculative lives, without historical necessity,”37 a formulation I could not hope to improve upon. But the literary issue is what we do with this demande besides puzzle over it. Its bearing on the meaning of the work is not whether we take this presence, these views, as those of the author, but whether we take them seriously: what are the consequences of our entertaining, not only with sympathy but with assent, this voice’s sense of the world? Framed in this way the question turns around to face the questioner and becomes: what reason is there for not taking Will or the Lover seriously? An answer to this question would take us deeper into the intellectual history of twentieth-century criticism than fourteenth-century literature. I can only suggest in passing that in bending over backward to avoid imposing Works, ed. Macaulay, 1:37; the comment refers to Conf. Am. 1.60. Though perhaps somewhat overstated, this is essentially the premise of such otherwise diverse critical studies as John Lawlor, Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism (London, 1962), p. 88 and passim, and D.W. Robertson, Jr., and Bernard F. Huppé, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (Princeton, 1951; repr. New York, 1969), p. 106. Whether Will is seen as a dramatic entity or an abstract of human moral faults, this view implies that he is a created or hypothetical character, and skirts the question of authorial voice as a presence in the poem. 36 R.W. Chambers, “Robert or William Langland?” London Medieval Studies 1 (1948, for 1939), 430–62. 37 George Kane, The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies, Chambers Memorial Lecture, 1965 (London, 1965). 34 35

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modern values on medieval works in the cause of historical fidelity, criticism has committed a kind of emotional infidelity to them. Belief that the only medieval loci of serious literary values and styles are either courtly or “clergial” has led to the perception (correct as far as it goes) that the poetic voice in these poems does not fit either system. From that it has been concluded that we are asked to see the values these speakers express as weighed in the balance in the course of their instruction, and found wanting. I do not think such a conclusion is necessary, nor is it any more historically rigorous or justifiable than the one I am proposing. What I hope this exercise suggests is that the problem of the persona virtually disappears if we take these voices seriously, as expressions not only of feelings, principles, and sympathies we happen to be tempted to indulge because they are ours as flawed human beings, but of the social and ethical ideals of the work itself. The “voice” presented by these poets is offered not as the realization of an individual identity, but as the realization of the human condition. Furthermore, this characteristic voice provides a tonally secure center of reference for allegorical structures that have gone weak in the philosophical foundations, and become spectral and over-subtle as pedagogic devices. What Will and Amans represent is not only “speculative lives, without historical necessity,” but a “common life,” a rhetorical embodiment of their audience’s best and most actively responsible selves as members of the human community. It is a voice neither “universal” nor “personal,” to use John Peter’s terms for the speaker’s stance characteristic of “complaint” and “satire” respectively. The universal voice is the one Gower explicitly renounces for his long English work. Rather the voice in both of these poems is “between the tweye,” a middle way, embodied in worldly experience, to be sure, but also inviting us to share this common vantage point, the only one we can bring to the instruction the speakers undergo in the course of the poem. They are implicated speakers, but the suggestion they offer is that we shall never be otherwise while the world lasts; yet in that time much remains to be understood. The question they ask on our behalf, with an earnestness we are, I think, meant to take very seriously, is: what in the world shall we do and say? While this world endures, how shall we live? Their effort as participants in allegorical fictions is to attain universal reach by a distinctly mortal grasp. It is a heroic effort, and not satirically treated. I think we are meant, as readers, to stand with both Will and Amans to the end, and not to regret having done so. True, these speakers reveal their worldliness. As I have indicated, I do not think it follows that we are meant to see them as fundamentally in error. True, they also reveal some impatience with their instructors. As well they might:

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much of what they offer is distraction itself. In both poems, the instructors – who are, after all, the creations of a writer’s free imagination working in a long tradition of wonderfully wise personified abstractions – are on the whole a remarkably inept lot and not especially well disposed to help the seeker. Gower’s Genius is fundamentally muddled about the ethical terms of his priesthood – ultimately, with the reappearance of Venus, somewhat embarrassed by them – and the lover is not so far gone in erotic self-absorption that he fails to notice it. Study scolds her husband Wit for “casting pearls before swine” in offering to teach Will, and Scripture scorns him, sending him into despair.38 It is not that Will and Amans do not hear their instructors: they do, and are understandably puzzled. It is rather that their instructors don’t hear them, and their questions are serious and worth asking. It is true that some of Will’s instructors are kinder, and that Genius is benevolent. Much of what they say is true and orthodox. They even say it beautifully. But somehow what is said doesn’t help much; it is what happens to these dreamers that makes all the difference. A vision of the Redemption takes Will in his own experience downward into darkness, and back into the common light of Easter morning in Cornhill. Amans is cast out of Venus’s “comune,” his suit for favor refused; love, though unrequited, is not renounced, and certainly not repudiated, but transformed to a labor of love in another form: the making of books for the “common profit.” In both poems, the events reflect back upon, if not the authority, certainly the practical adequacy, of the instructors’ catechism. What shines through the worldliness and impatience of these voices is their ardor, an “embarrassing purity” of motive which endures in some form to the last in both poems and constitutes their exalted and truly memorable “story.” A result of the interest and consistency of the voice, as the most reliable one in the poem, is a secondary effect of some importance: the voice, and the human story to which it testifies, rivals the pedagogical progress, which in both cases forms the “plot,” as a locus of meaning. The voice of worldly experience and need acts as a critique of the encyclopedic mode of instruction – its unresponsiveness (striking in both poems) to the seekers’ earnestness of purpose, their genuine and on the whole fairly high-minded yearning to “do well.” This is something new in didactic allegory: it is as if all the good songs had been given to Boethius. A consequence, in turn, of these two incommensurable centers of interest and meaning in both poems is a fundamental problem of poetic closure. Piers B.X, lines 1–10 (cf. C.XII, 1–8); B.XI, lines 1–10 (cf. C.XII, 163–72).

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It is fairly easy to create an end to a pedagogic-progress plot: present your speaker with an ultimate vision or revelation which will make intellectual and emotional coherence of all that has led to it; the model for this is of course the Divine Comedy. But what end is there to a worldly voice, except death, either of the speaker or of the world itself ? (It is significant that in both poems the speaker is an old man, of failing powers, at the end.) There can be no end to the human voice’s testimony to its own experience before the end of time. And it is that testimony which in both poems comes to interest us as a “story.” The structure is more closely analogous to that of Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, with its impassioned plowman, nature’s nobleman, in his exalted and touching care for human bonds, locked in irresolvable rhetorical warfare with scurrilous Death. That debate can only be ended by the direct intervention of God as Judge, who, incidentally, allows merit to both sides of the case.39 In both the Confessio and Piers the ending is intensely problematic – indeed, equivocal endings seem to be deeply characteristic of major Ricardian poetry. But in these two cases, the question that presents itself is: why do both poems go on past two of the most ravishing, most emotionally satisfying, possible endings in all of medieval literature: namely, Gower’s banishment from Venus’s train and the Easter Passus? In both cases, the poem continues past this visionary climax, and ends not in world-transcendence, but in some form of return to the world. Will dreams past Christ’s triumph to the ravaging of the world by Antichrist; the last action of the poem before Will’s last dream ends in Conscience’s renewed search through the world for Piers Plowman, to restore Unity. Amans is not “cured” of his love, but is told to turn his time to making a last testament to the power of love as the common bond. It is noteworthy that the famous lovers of the world’s history who dance in Venus’s company plead in vain, on Gower’s behalf, for Venus’s favor; their plea perhaps expresses a recognition that their stories rest in his hands. It is he who will make the power of their loves – of “courtly love” – intelligible to the common world and, through the power of pathos, a force for good within it. Venus’s refusal is a judgment of her cult, not of Gower – as Chaucer, in the Legend (which Fisher believes is the product of the same royal request)40 similarly, if more indirectly, judges the God of Love by assigning him a literary sensibility as narrow as the Man of Law’s.41 It repudiates, not earthly 39 Der Ackermann aus Böhmen, ed. Alois Bernt and Konrad Burdach, in Vom Mittelalter zur Reformation, ed. Konrad Burdach (Berlin, 1917), 3:1. 40 Fisher, John Gower, p. 235. 41 See Alfred David, “The Man of Law vs. Chaucer: A Case in Poetics,” PMLA 82 (1967), 217–25; and my article, “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs,” n. 2 above.

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love, passionate commitment, or the world’s variety, but the formalizing of passionate devotion into a game, the reducing of law to mere rules. From love as the obsession of the noble heart, Gower is cast back on love as the expression of the common voice, in the furtherance of peace. For if the natural expression of the noble heart is pity – the grand result to which all courtly self-cultivation tends, and all its rhetoric is designed to bring about – these two poems imply that the “common voice’s” highest expression, the end of all its labors, is peace. As pity “runs” in the gentle heart, peace flows from the common tongue. Peace is virtually the highest good in these public poems. The Digby poem I have mentioned interprets the Pearl of Great Price as Peace. The Langlandian millennium is when “Love and Peace be maistres” (Langland, though a great advocate of compassion, empathy, fellow-feeling, is singularly uncomfortable with pity, which he often portrays as an interruption in the process of justice, and always seems to him halfway to lawlessness). Gower argues before Henry IV that the highest goal of rule is not conquest or display of power, but Peace. They are related – pity and peace, the goals of “courtly” and “common” virtues – as the Franklin knows well. The noble axiom “pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” has its more pragmatic bourgeois counterpart – the same “sentence” at bottom, but framed as if taught by experience of the world: since “on every wrong a man mai nat be wreken,” Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon, Ye shul it lerne, wher so ye wol or noon.42

“Suffraunce” in the Franklin’s world of love is not the grand passion of self-immolation, but mutual tolerance, compromise, forgiveness. As Hannah Arendt reminds us, these are the great beginners of action in the world, and they, too, confer glory.43 If there is a “bourgeois style” in late fourteenth-century literature, it lies, I believe, somewhere within the territory I have been describing, not in the literature of fabliau, jest, or minstrelcy.44 And if it can be called a style, it is not in the narrower sense of a characteristic verbal or visual décor, but in the broader social sense we have been using: a coherent set of ethical attitudes 42 Franklin’s Tale, V (F), lines 777–8; in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1957). 43 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1958), esp. pp. 236–47. 44 For discussion of “bourgeois realism” see Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, ch. 3; and D.W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1962), ch. 3.

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toward the world – experientially based, vernacular, simple, pious but practical, active – and the poetry that gives expression to this essentially high-minded secularism. Its most characteristic concern is the turning of worldly time, that essential middle-class commodity, to “common profit.” Will promises to “turn all times of my time to profit”; Amans regrets, not his passion, but “only that I hadde lore my tyme...” Its values are meant to be taken seriously among those whose lives make it necessary to ask “How shall the world be served?” I leave it to others to speculate, beyond these brief suggestions, as to the causes, both in social fact and social myth, that made the last quarter of the fourteenth century especially congenial to the development of a poetic “common voice,” the flowering of an English vulgar eloquence. The high hopes entertained for the boy king Richard, which soon turned to the pious fiction of a king in need of counsel, may have provided reason for this outpouring of large-minded, paternal, and heartfelt guidance. Perhaps, as Jusserand suggested, the petitioning voice of the commons had something to do with the development of the common voice of Piers.45 The social station of the major poets – commoners to a man – in relation to the traditional audience for literary recreation may have dictated the wisdom of a broader view that embraced both as a “public” for the first time and appealed to common experience rather than to abstract, and now largely non-functioning, chivalric literary ideals as grounds for accord. But when all this is said, it is still true that public poetry is, as a literary mode, simply an extention of the incipient realism in these Ricardian writers’ views of what poetry is: like man himself “a creature of a middle state,” and serving its highest function as a peacemaker, and as an interpreter of the common world. APPENDIX The voices of both Langland and Gower as presences in their poems have been called “universal,” similar to those of the Old Testament prophets. For this quality, both have been invidiously compared to Chaucer, who is said to have mastered the more “individualized” approach of satire, which works in the “concrete particularities of real life” rather than in the “conceptual,” “impersonal” mode of “complaint.” The comparison, the notion that medieval literature of social correction speaks with a “universal” voice, and J.J. Jusserand, Piers Plowman: A Contribution to the History of English Mysticism, trans. M.E.R., rev. ed. (London, 1894; repr. New York, 1965), p. 71. 45

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this definition of the terms “complaint” and “satire” are those of John Peter (Complaint and Satire in Early English Literature [Oxford, 1956], passim). John Hurt Fisher adopts them essentially without question in his study of Gower. It will be apparent that “public poetry” as I define it coincides in some ways with what Peter calls “complaint,” chiefly in that Peter emphasizes, as I do, the universal and systematic scope of the social criticism in “complaint” and its corrective aims, contrasting them with satire’s punitive tone and focus on concrete abuses. However, he evidently values those qualities by which he defines “complaint” less than the concreteness and scornful indignation which characterize satire, and he implies a kind of evolutionary development in the literature of social criticism in which satire – a kind which, like the term for it, did not emerge in literary usage until the Renaissance – is as it were a more highly developed form of literary life, higher on the phylogenetic ladder, and more “sophisticated.” He is certainly right to distinguish universal scope as a defining feature in medieval literature of social criticism, and to try to respect the medieval term “complaint,” but it would have been still more accurate to have noted the connection between the two – between the term and the ideal of universal reach, which is in fact implicit in it. Complaint, or planctus, is not merely a protest or acknowledgment of a wrong but a lament, and by its very nature delivered only by someone implicated in, affected by, the grievance regretted. It implies, as satiric scorn need not, a sense of something lost, yet at least in principle retrievable, if only by an act of the imagination. A complaint – often, interestingly enough, associated in medieval philosophical fictions with a scene of confession – suggests, as does confession itself, an acknowledgment of deviation from the right or true, accompanied by a wish or hope that this act itself be restorative, instrumental in making things right again. It aspires to have this effect, not through the application of the lash, but by an appeal to a reawakened vision of former and still possible integrity. Satire may indeed be the favored and therefore more highly developed mode of social criticism in later literary periods – in part, one suspects, because by then writers have given up hope for universal coherence, striving instead to correct by means of individual embarrassed recognitions – but in Middle English it is the effort to attain morally compelling universal vision that receives the most serious attention from major writers, and with more interesting and sophisticated results; the verse addressed to particular abuses is on the whole far cruder in structure and tone. In other words, in the Middle Ages it is what Peter labels “complaint” that is the more developed form, as it will be again in any literary era with the values and aims that “complaint” or lament implies. It could be argued that Romantic social criticism aspires to

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the condition and effects of complaint rather than satire, for example. There is no single ladder of development according to which a step away from the conceptual and universal to the telling concrete detail, an interest in the offender rather than the nature of the offense, is necessarily a step upward. It depends on the effect desired, and its commensurability with the rhetorical means of achieving it. The rhetorical effect of complaint is, broadly speaking, to keep our attention on the total harmony which gives reason to all particular recommendations. Public poetry’s chief effect is to make the quality of that attention, which amounts to a kind of social self-awareness, the cutting edge of reform. The means of achieving it is implicit in the voice. Does attention to the whole necessarily require what Fisher calls, in Gower, the “universal voice”? If the only imaginable antonym for that is the voice of a particular and fully characterized fictional “personality,” as Peter suggests – something like Chaucer-the-pilgrim – perhaps yes, but the poverty of his contrasted terms for describing what either Gower or Langland is doing is nowhere more evident than here, for neither Fisher’s “universal” nor Peter’s “impersonal” adequately describes the characteristic embodied voice of Ricardian public poetry. As Peter uses them, the opposed terms “universal” and “personal” refer not to the speaker’s relation to his audience and the grounds for his interaction with his hearers, but to the amount of particularity or concrete detail used to present the personality of the speaker. These two things are not the same: a writer may mention any number of idiosyncrasies and historical details, either in his subject or himself, without thereby establishing the basis of his rhetorical appeal to his audience, the terms within which he proposes to have an effect on them. Peter’s terms denote a style of self-reference, but they do not consider the mode of selfpresentation intrinsic to the author’s voice and effect. His terms, in other words, are not interactive, but those used by the Middle English poets themselves are – intensely so. What both Gower and Langland develop in their long English works is a voice neither universal nor personal, but – and here I adopt their way of looking at it – a “middel wei” between the two, a common voice, implicated in the ills it describes, yet capable of entertaining cosmopolitan complexities and a vision of communal harmony. Its social tone with respect to us is that of an observant and enlightened citizen among peers.

II

Chaucer’s “New Men” and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales The good of literature for Chaucer resides in its worldliness and its moral function. Chaucer had explored various ways of making and understanding this claim in every long poem of his career, but he presents it in its most complex and indirect form in the Canterbury Tales. He examines its meaning through the professed literary tastes and aspirations of a small group of especially self-conscious literary performers among the pilgrims – a heterogeneous and somewhat arbitrarily selected group that I have, perhaps still more arbitrarily, chosen to call Chaucer’s “new men.” There is some warrant in recent studies of Chaucer’s audience for applying the term “new men” to fourteenth-century figures,1 but it is perhaps more familiarly used in Tudor social and literary history, where it refers to those lower gentry and civil and legal professionals who attained office and privilege in significant numbers under the Tudors; by extension, it connotes as well a characteristic set of educational, literary, social, and civil ideals that seems to have attained cultural prominence with them. In borrowing the term, however, I am chiefly interested in its extended sense, rather than in its primary reference to the career patterns or typical ambitions of members of certain social estates. Chaucer’s new men do not all belong to ascendant classes, groups, or estates: some quite the reverse. Considered from the perspective of the social historian, they are an oddly mixed group: two ambitious laymen, predictably enough – the Franklin and the Man of Law – but also two clerics, the Monk and the Clerk; and the Squire, a member of the gentry.2 But as Canterbury 1 See Paul Strohm, “Chaucer’s Audience,” Literature and History 5 (1977): 26–41. Strohm notes (p. 40) that the phrase was originated by Orderic Vitalis to describe men brought into positions of authority by Henry I. On Chaucer as a “new man,” see D.S. Brewer, “Class Distinction in Chaucer,” Speculum 43 (1968): 290–305; Donald Howard, “Chaucer the Man,” PMLA 80 (1965): 337–43, reprinted in Chaucer’s Mind and Art, ed. A.C. Cawley (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1969), pp. 31–45. For an opposing view, see D.W. Robertson, Jr., “Some Disputed Chaucerian Terminology,” Speculum 52 (1977): 571–81. 2 On the political and social fortunes of the lower gentry in the fourteenth century, see Strohm, “Chaucer’s Audience,” p. 28; also N. Denholm·Young, The Country Gentry in the

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performers, these men share a common kind of self-consciousness: they preface and interlace their tales with profuse instructions on how to take them, and in doing so present some shared assumptions about the place of literature in the world, and the means by which it achieves its good effects. In brief, they agree that the pleasure and the use of literature are one thing, and are realized in worldly performance. The good of a story lies not only in the exemplary virtues it depicts, the kernel of content, but in the virtues required to derive pleasure from it: the capacity for wonder, sympathy, and thoughtful speculation – in short, in sensitivity to style and its expressive values. Their views represent literary theories and ideals that had had little coherent vernacular expression in England before Chaucer, but closely resemble central ideals of early Renaissance literary culture. In these figures, Chaucer presents not only satiric portraits of social types as they act in the common world, but speculative portraits, the most complex of his career, of the literary values of his most devoted audience. If justification is needed for my kidnapping of the term “new men” for a group I define chiefly through literary conduct rather than objective social status, I derive mine from one of their own most cherished and distinctive practices: they “kidnap” terms, genres, and modes of idealization that traditionally support cultic values, whether those of a class or of a professed religion, into idealizing fictions of their own that shift the traditional uses for these terms and cultic objects.3 “Gentilesse,” “chivalry,” “suffraunce,” “patience,” for example, are stretched and recombined in fictions whose most characteristic effect is to call our attention to the process of fictional idealization itself, and the process of telling, reading, or hearing a story so as to sustain its practical life in the world. In a similar spirit, I use the term new men as freely and advisedly as the new men used their kidnapped fictions: as an instrument of speculation rather than exclusion. By examining the literary conduct and assumptions of a group of pilgrims who, taken together, closely reflect Chaucer’s principal “point of attachment” to an actual audience,4 I Fourteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969); F.W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England (1908; reprint ed., Cambridge: At the University Press, 1955), pp. 23–39; K.B. McFarlane, The Nobility of Later Medieval England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 8–15. 3 See Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1976), chap. 1, esp. p. 29. On the cultic value of a work of art in an established tradition, see Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 220–24. 4 See Strohm, “Chaucer’s Audience,” pp. 30–34; Arnold Hauser, Philosophy of Art History (1958; reprint ed., New York: Meridian Books, 1963), p. 230.

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hope to define an ideal of vernacular eloquence common to them, which may have been close to Chaucer’s own. The Man of Law and the Franklin might seem like the most obvious examples of new men on the pilgrimage. Their evident ambition, as individuals perhaps typifying ascendant groups, and their consequent efforts to appear worthy in public, have been remarked in their tales by much modern criticism.5 In these two figures, manifest social identity and literary performance have seemed to be somehow complementary, though there is widespread disagreement as to how the tale reveals the social or moral identity of the teller, or how an understanding of the teller’s position enhances an understanding of the form or rhetoric of a tale. This relationship is generally – and, I think, by design – problematic in the Canterbury Tales, but perhaps especially so in such instances as these. The most effective and consistent expression of values in men whose social prospects are charged with possibility will not, for this very reason, be openly argumentative or assertive in rhetorical form. The newness of a new man’s ethos will be disguised and diffuse in his story, characteristically – and paradoxically – appearing as an earnest and insistent honoring of old ways and the received high culture, for it is these to which he wishes to show himself accustomed and entitled. He will surround crucial terms and forms for expressing these traditional values in narrative with special conditions, attributing their operation in his story to an exceptional infusion of unaccustomed grace, not readily found or capable of being imitated under modern conditions. The Franklin’s tale, for example, shows a far more acute consciousness than the Knight’s of the unique and precarious conditions that circumscribe the operation of the “gentil” deeds in his story: for him, chivalric manners and mores not only provide a vocabulary for idealization, but in addition belong to “olde dayes” and are themselves, as terms, problematic, subject to change, decay, transformation. What in “olde dayes” was magic is in our day “supersticious cursednesse.” For the Franklin, the “gentillesse” of chivalry is an idyll, as well as an ideal. Yet it is the See, for example, D.W. Robertson, Jr., “Chaucer’s Franklin and His Tale,” Costerus 1 (1974): 1–26; Roy J. Pearcy, “Chaucer’s Franklin and the Literary Vavasour,” Chaucer Review 8 (1973): 33–59; Alan Gaylord, “The Promises in the Franklin’s Tale,” ELH 31 (1964): 331–65; R.M. Lumiansky, “The Character and Performance of Chaucer’s Franklin,” University of Toronto Quarterly 20 (1951): 344–56; for a recent analysis of the criticism, see Gertrude M. White, “The Franklin’s Tale: Chaucer and the Critics,” PMLA 89 (1974): 454–62. On the Man of Law, see Alfred David, “The Man of Law vs. Chaucer: A Case of Poetics,” PMLA 82 (1967): 217–25; Marie P. Hamilton, “The Dramatic Suitability of the Man of Law’s Tale,” in Studies in Language and Literature in Honour of Margaret Schlauch, ed. M. Brahmer, S. Helsztynski, and J. Krzyzanowski (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1966), pp. 153–63. 5

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Franklin’s diffuse altruism and geniality, his light touch in recommending this conduct to his audience’s wonderment, rather than the Wife’s combativeness in recommending her “doctrine” for emulation, that best characterizes a new man’s rhetorical strategy as narrator in acknowledging the complex ethical relations between the “then” of his story and the “now” of this world. There is thus nothing inevitably direct or easily interpretable about the way a member of a socially emergent group will express emergent ideals in literature or about literature, precisely because of the complex and necessarily disguised part that literary performance may play in social ascent.6 For the Franklin and the Man of Law, a literary performance is a social performance; what links these two to the other new men for the present purpose, however, is their diffuse ethical interest in old stories, not as the repository of doctrine or cultic example, but as the locus for narrative of general ethical idealization, meant for modern worthies to admire, and thereby to display the virtues of the civilized man. If these two ambitious laymen seem obvious instances of new men in both senses, the other three do not: they do not belong to clearly ascendant groups or vocations. Two, the Clerk and the Monk, are clerics, neither of them in secular positions; the other, the Squire, insofar as he belongs historically to the military-feudal social order, has seemed to many readers to represent the opposite phenomenon in social and literary history, the “waning of the middle ages,” and to embody, despite his youth, a dying rather than a new order and ideal.7 His eager love-service, and his purely decorative chivalry – like the Monk’s unexpected fund of Boethian tragedies instead of the robust manly fare Harry Bailly anticipates from a religious who has so emphatically professed his modernity and worldliness – would seem, like the very categories under which they are introduced, to portray ‘obsolescent’ For an interesting parallel to this nonassertive and flexible rhetorical strategy in studies of the evolution of “altruistic” behavior patterns in animal societies, see John Maynard Smith, “The Evolution of Behavior,” Scientific American, September 1978, pp. 176–92. Smith applies the term bourgeois strategy to the tactics that serve to “settle real contests conventionally,” noting that this is “the only evolutionarily stable strategy for the game” (p. 189). 7 It should be remembered that a class ideal or ethos may be seen as “in decline” while – and perhaps because – certain individuals or groups professing it, or believing they exemplify it, are socially in the ascendant. It is their ascent under that banner that changes the content of the older terms. See Michael Stroud, “Chivalric Terminology in Late Medieval Literature,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 323–34. On the Squire’s military service, see Alan Gaylord, “Chaucer’s Squire and the Glorious Campaign,” Publications of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 45 (1960): 341–61. On the “obsolescence” of the cultural traditions espoused by both Squire and Franklin, see Pearcy, “Chaucer’s Franklin and the Literary Vavasour,” pp. 50–51. 6

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rather than ‘emergent’ figures. Like many of the Canterbury pilgrims, however, these two display traits and hopes of both kinds. What marks them as new men for our purposes, however, is their high self-consciousness about precisely this aspect of themselves, and their prominent inclusion of it in their performances. Both the Monk and the Squire, like the other three, are preoccupied with the proper style and rhetorical means for recommending a “noble” story to modern and high-minded lay listeners. Their performances emphasize the wonder and pathos of the events they narrate, not their kernel of doctrinal significance. One might also take exception on the basis of his social location to the Clerk as a new man. This lean and ascetic figure does not look much like a portrait of either ambition or modernity, and he is often regarded by modern clerks as an ideal portrayal of the selfless man of learning. He is not “so worldly for to have office,” and has “unto logyk longe ygo” – a discipline that scarcely fits one for anything but further university study, and was, of all the artes in the medieval curriculum, to be the chief target of humanist scorn for its remoteness from the arts of civil life.8 The relation of the Clerk’s loves and aims to this “studye” are obscure; he would gladly learn and teach, but we do not know what he professes. The study that shows its imprint most clearly to his fellow-pilgrims is not logic but eloquence: his speech is “sownynge in moral vertu.” This odd phrase may refer to either the subject or the manner of his discourse (see Oxford English Dictionary, s. v. sound, v.l, 1.5, 6), but it is his manner of speaking that receives the narrator’s fullest praise: whatever he said was spoken in forme and reverence, And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence.9

While the Clerk has evidently, like Faustus, longed to “live and die in Aristotle’s works,” he presents himself among the pilgrims as a professed devotee of Petrarch’s “wordes and werk.” It is the character of that devotion, as well as 8 See, for example, Petrarch, “On Dialectic,” tr. Hans Nachod, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. E. Cassirer, P.O. Kristeller, and J.H. Randall, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1948), pp. 134–9. On the general humanist reorientation of study from the service of contemplation and abstract reasoning to that of action and facility, with a downgrading of logic to a “serving science” attendant upon eloquence, see G.K. Hunter, “Humanism and Courtship,” in Elizabethan Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Paul J. Alpers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 3–40. 9 General Prologue 305–306. All citations of Chaucer are to The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

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its subject – paradoxically a very modern way of loving what is to be found in old books – that marks him as a new man, though he lives his life in an austerely medieval calling, and is to Harry Bailly an old and familiar type, the impoverished perpetual student. His “hy sentence,” however, like that of all the new men, does not work directly to recommend exemplary conduct or belief to his contemporaries. His performance, in fact, foils utterly and thereby satirizes the audience’s implicit demand that a story provide useful exempla. For him, as for all of them, sententiousness is a feature of style that sustains an interesting distinction between “then” and “now,” and makes the thoughtful understanding of that distinction a virtue in the performer and hearer. It is a common array of narrative and rhetorical strategies, and a set of ethical assumptions about literature these imply, that unites this group and defines their modernity. Of all the pilgrims, they have the most to say about style and manner: it seems to be where they locate the human use and value, as well as the pleasure, of their stories. For these men, to perform well as a teller or hearer of a story is to display as well as to inculcate virtue: the ethical claims of literature are for them inseparable from its status as a mode of social performance. In what follows, I shall trace this conception of the social place and ‘good’ of literature in Chaucer’s earlier work and literary milieu, in order to show how he uses these men to exemplify one way of understanding the Canterbury Tales as a structure. Chaucer makes his pilgrims appear before us, not moving among the “labors of their bodies and the works of their hands” in whatever daily lives we attribute to them, but acting, playing for each other in a play version of worldly striving. True, they are travelers, but the journey is not the burden of their speech, and speech is what they are made of. The action they perform before us, and the social context in which they act, is the wholly gratuitous common enterprise they have agreed upon, the contest that will discover and honor (“at oure aller coste”) the story “of best sentence and moost solaas.” The game, insofar as it is a search for the best story, as well as a contest to determine a winner, is a playful vernacular form of the philosopher’s quest, the search for the good and the beautiful. The new men act into this aspect of the situation with particular force and clarity; they explicitly play the game as quest rather than contest. They are eager to tell, and to be seen in the company of, good and high-minded literature, not just diverting stories: they want to show who they are chiefly through their relation to the high forms of literary entertainment. They do not announce the “matere” of their stories, but specify instead what sort of ethical atmosphere they wish to create. In

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this they are pointedly contrasted with several other kinds of narrators on the pilgrimage. Fabliau narrators are content to make strong, punctual impressions on us by their performances. Each announces that his tale is “of ” or “about” a certain person, whom he identifies with respect to his worldly occupation (“a carpenter”), and the concrete action the story will report (“how that a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe”). For the fabliau storytellers, the narrative subject is not a theme or virtue (“gentillesse,” “patience”), but a brief and circumscribed act, and they imply that the act of telling the tale is its verbal counterpart, the equivalent of a rude and playful buffet, which has little persuasive design upon the reader or hearer. True, such a blow – like such a story and the kind of event it presents – is sometimes colloquially said to “teach him a lesson,” but that lesson has no paraphraseable content or general wisdom to offer. The performance character of the fabliau is that of an interlude – an irruption or interposition into some other process. In the literal rather than pejorative sense they divert rather than entertain – a subject, a theme, or the constant idea of a hearer. In contrast to these players of the Canterbury game, the new men tell stories that entertain by calling a good deal of conscious attention to the rhetorical process itself as it sustains its theme; in this aspect, they imply, lies the good of their stories. The new men are distinguished on the other hand from explicitly didactic or confessional narrators, whose stories strive to offer axioms for conduct or belief that are referred directly to the audience’s moral life, or to the speaker’s own “secte”: the Parson furnishes an instance of the one, the Wife of Bath the other. Unlike these, the new men do not insist that their themes generate a distinct, sententious kernel of general moral truth, a “message” that the story is to prove or convey. Their narrations are full of sententiousness, but it is largely free-floating, tending to give the whole story a general air of significance, the sense that “more is meant than meets the ear.” For them, “sentence” is a feature of style, not an assertion of doctrine. This diffusion of argument and assertion in their stories contrasts their performances with those of the two pilgrims modeled in part upon Jean de Meun’s confessional figures in the Roman de la Rose – the Wife and the Pardoner – and a similar figure drawn from Deschamps, the Merchant. Those pilgrims’ stories, too, are pervasively sententious, but there the rhetorical appeal of the story is blended in almost indeterminable proportions with what seems like an appeal for vindication by the narrator directly to the hearer, across the story, as it were. The animus raised by those three speakers’ narrative rhetoric seems to be enlisted to some degree on behalf of the teller as well as his theme. The

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new men’s sententiousness, however, is generally in the service of speculation and admiration, not “pref.” While they, too, may be seen as displaying facets of their public identities in their performances – and in ways that I have no space to describe here they all do – they are not confessing their opinions or personal dilemmas, or professing doctrine. They offer themes for consideration, human qualities examined in more altruistic and idealized forms than the confessional characters use. Whatever argument lurks in their stories is largely invested in the style itself, in a generally convincing accession to the social spirit of edifying recreation. It is this willing accession to the enterprise of high play that most pervasively characterizes what being men of consequence means to them. They all explicitly make this accession aloud: they are eager to be seen as magnanimously free from immediate egocentric pressures and specialist or sectarian attributes – to set aside necessity, care, and “possessioun,” and be entertaining. Their tales, too, all of them drawn from the rich late-medieval fund of secular ideal romantic story, display the wonderful changes brought about in worldly relations generally by a striking display of individual nature or feeling, of virtù. These tales, like the obliging gestures with which their narrators offer them, celebrate the generative power of a free act. The new men both live and tell myths about virtuosity.10 Festivity, the capacity to play, is an apparently gratuitous facet of human culture; it seems to have no obvious or direct relation to biological or economic survival. Whatever benefits play and pleasure confer on civilization evidently lie precisely in their being experienced as unnecessary, as free activity. For that reason, a willingness to entertain – like hospitality, personal ornament, the giving of gifts, the support of the performing arts, and philosophical speculation – is, and historically has always been, a recognized way of asserting one’s free condition in the world. In this respect, the new men’s agreement to be entertaining may be seen as a self-serving social gesture. But what this selfreference says about the social ambitions of fourteenth-century people is not finally the point; what Chaucer does by showing it to us is. In these figures, he shows a desire to expand the significance of this traditional social gesture. All of these men recognize what the chief high-secular subjects are: they are all one form or another of chivalric love and the suffering that attends it. All of them strive in their performance to alter the decorous and ethical limitations of that “matere” and its social uses as they are currently understood. In doing

See Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Viking, 1968), pp. 153–4; and The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 175–99. 10

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so, they offer several versions of Chaucer, who has been doing just that for his entire career. Chaucer assigns to his new men much of the same genial deference and willingness to obey a request to be entertaining, as well as many of the same speculations about the vernacular poet’s enterprise and ideal mode of address, he had associated with himself as speaker and actor in his earlier work. Through these figures, Chaucer opens for us again, in the most precisely differentiated terms of his career, a matter he had considered explicitly in his poems from the first: the vernacular poet’s place, and the nature of what he does, in the human community – the ‘good’ of literature. The pilgrims are all within their “pley” both performers and critics; through the most acutely self-conscious of these players, Chaucer presents a “theory of poetry,” in Curtius’s sense of the term,11 and describes the ideal of vernacular eloquence that seems to correspond to its conditions. Briefly, that mode of eloquence was what Chaucer called “enditing.” It is a term Chaucer uses in the Canterbury Tales chiefly in association with these performers; he seems to mean by it an art of celebrating the human world as if it mattered, and as if the act of celebration were itself virtuous. And by the world, he meant the common world of appearance, in which people now alive appear to each other in their deeds.12 “Enditing” in Chaucer’s sense is an ideal secular high rhetoric. Its angle of vision on the world is always from a point of reference within it (as a courtly maker’s rhetorical perspective, though it may include many moods, is always that of a member of courtly society). The Boethian perspective of world transcendence yields nothing Chaucer calls literature or “enditing”; insofar as there is “enditing” in the Consolation it is

Ernst R. Curtius. European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1953), pp. 468–75. 12 “Reality, humanly and politically speaking, is the same as appearance” (Arendt, Human Condition, p. 199). She includes a related suggestion, which I cannot pursue here, that complements these remarks, that “the human condition of work is worldliness” (p. 7). That the multiplicity of perspectives on the common world afforded by work-life is a structural principle of the Canterbury Tales has been argued by Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1973). 11

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that which momentarily celebrates the “ravysshyng swegh” of some humanly comprehensible beauty as it touches mortal minds.13 13 Endite (indite) in all its forms means in its most basic sense “to compose”; it renders L. dictare, “to dictate for writing” and, by extension, “to compose in writing” (Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879], s.v. dictare, II). In most of Chaucer’s uses of the term, however, it seems to connote rhetorical composition, usually in a serious manner or elevated style, and often has slightly honorific overtones. It can be rendered accurately most often in Modern English by “compose rhetorically,” “declaim,” “declare,” or even “celebrate.” It implies in Chaucer’s usage not only composition in writing, but an intensified and augmented form of that activity. It is distinguished from the physical act of writing, and from writing as record or simple communication, in several instances:

She (Philomela) coude eek rede, and wel ynow endyte, But with a penne coude she nat wryte.

(Legend of Good Women 2356–7) “For trewely I nyl no lettre write.” “No? than wol I,” quod he, “so ye endite.”

(Troilus II.1161–2) I dar nat, ther I am, wel lettres make, Ne nevere yet ne koude I wel endite.

(Troilus V.1627–8) Towchyng thi lettre, thou art wys ynough. I woot thow nylt it dygneliche endite, As make it with thise argumentes tough; Ne scryvenyssh or craftily thow it write. (Troilus II.1023–6) And if thow haddest connyng for t’endite, I shall the shewe mater of to wryte. (Parlement of Foules 167–8)

Enditing in these examples seems to mean that aspect of composing concerned with its propriety of expression, its adequacy both to the subject and the tone of the occasion. It is distinct from the finding of “matere,” and from the simple telling or conveying of it. It denotes the activity of realizing the expressive rather than the communicative power of the “matere”: hence it constitutes the gift of the Muses to the writer. They help the writer achieve a propriety of manner sustaining the meaning in an act of narration, conferring on it its power to move. For lo! rendying Muses of poetes enditen to me thynges to ben writen. (Ecce mihi lacerae dictant scribenda Camenae) (Boece I. m.1, 4–5) And ye me to endite and ryme Helpeth, that on Parnaso duelle. (House of Fame 520–21)

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Thesiphone, thow help me for t’endite This woful vers, that wepen as I write. (Troilus I.6–7)

The last two examples illustrate a further point: Chaucer’s “enditing” is not identified with, or confined to, verse composition. And they ben versified communely Of six feet, which men clepen exametron. In prose eek ben endited many oon. (Monk’s Tale B2 1978–80) So yif me myght to ryme and ek endyte. (Parlement of Foules 119)

As the activity is distinguished from simple recording or communicating, the quality it confers is distinguished from the aural beauty of good versification, or the ornamentation of sense provided by figures of speech. While in practice “enditing” often seems to involve amplification, the drawing-out of a matter at length, What that she (Dido) wrot er that she dyde; And nere hyt to long to endyte, By God, I wolde hyt here write. (House of Fame 280–82) It nedeth nat al day thus for to endite. (Legend of Good Women G 310) What sholde I alday of his wo endyte? (Knight’s Tale A 1380)

the verb itself does not denote any particular choice of rhetorical figure: it is the effort to achieve decorous rather than decorated composition. To choose ornaments for the occasion in a merely formulaic or automatic way is “scryvenyssh.” Pandarus’ counsel recalls that rules for epistolary decorum are provided in the handbooks of the ars dictaminis. “Enditing,” in Chaucer’s usage, however, is not to confer a particular style upon a matter, but to infuse it with style itself – an intentional design that conveys meaning. Its propriety emanates not from the social character of the participants in the rhetorical transaction, but from the ethical and emotional importance of the matter itself to the human community at large. Though the term denotes composition in an appropriate style, Chaucer does not use it to refer to the stylistic propriety of low characters or light maners. When the verb takes an object specifying the topic of discourse, the narrative content “endited,” the “matere” belongs to the narrative and tonal repertory of noble rather than churlish story: “batailles” (Troilus V. 1767; Knight’s Tale A 2741), “wo” (Knight’s Tale A 1380), “love” (Hous of Fame 634), “traitorie” (Man of Law’s Tale B1 781); not that of “japes” or “harlotrie.” The “matere” for “enditing” seems to be the rhetor’s “sovereyn notabilitees” (Nun’s Priest’s Tale B2 4397), matter of awesome and universal human significance: a “case” (Franklin’s Tale F 1550), a “storie” (Anelida 9; Second Nun’s Tale G 80).

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For Chaucer, the idea of “enditing” was one that reconciled two contrasted aspects of literature and the writer’s role he had considered repeatedly in his earlier work: on the one hand, the mode of existence of the “maker” as participant-entertainer and celebrant of the cult values of love,14 and, on thc In the Canterbury Tales the verb is used only in or for the more consciously rhetorical performers – the Knight (A 1209, 1380, 1872, 2741), Squire (General Prologue 95), Man of Law (General Prologue 325, B1 781), Monk (B2 3170, 3838), Nun’s Priest (B2 4397), Clerk (E 17, 41, 933, 1148), Franklin (F 1550), Second Nun (G 32, 80) – in short, all those figures whose performances include a great deal of preliminary and interspersed comment that refers attention to their manner of speech. The reference of the term slightly overlaps that of making in Chaucer’s usage (some instances are discussed in what follows), but there are important differences in connotation and context, and it is these, rather than mutually exclusive meanings, that are significant for the present purpose. 14 Chaucer uses the verb to make hundreds of times, and in dozens of instances to refer to verbal composition – of “vers,” “bokes,” “complaints,” “minstralcies,” “lays,” “dytees,” “songs,” “balades,” and the like – a list with a strong preponderance of performance rather than “textual” modes. See J.S.P. Tatlock and Arthur G. Kennedy, A Concordance to the Complete Works of Chaucer (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1927), s.v. made, make, maker, making. Even books, when conceived as “made,” seem to be seen as at least potentially presentation pieces rather than texts for private study or contemplation. Chaucer uses the verb to refer to his own literary activity and that of his contemporaries; he rarely, however (with the important exceptions discussed herein), uses it absolutely, without specifying an object, to mean “to compose (pleasurable) verse”; a rare instance of this common French usage is Complaint of Venus 82. He uses the noun making for literary composition generally. It does not denote any specific form or genre, but it more often refers to contemporary than ancient composition, and more often to literary activity with a recreative rather than instructive content or rhetorical aim. He does not often use the noun maker to refer to any writer, however; nearly all of his uses of the word refer to God the Creator. One exception is Boece III. 6, 745–50, “makere of dytees that highten tragedies,” glossing “tragedien” (L. tragicus); the other, discussed herein (Troilus V. 1787), refers to Chaucer himself. For an excellent account of Chaucer’s conception of “making,” its differences from “poetry,” and the relation of his use of the term to the vernacular poetics of his French contemporaries, see Glending Olson, “Deschamps’ Art de Dictier and Chaucer’s Literary Environment,” Speculum 48 (1973): 714–23; and idem, “Making and Poetry in the Age of Chaucer,” forthcoming in Comparative Literature; also Robert O. Payne, The Key of Remembrance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 55–6. In two instances Chaucer has paired “making” and “enditing”: General Prologue 95 (Squire) and 325 (Man of Law); see note 22. They are not wholly distinct activities; “making” however, seems to connote pleasurable social composition for the court or any group considered as a coterie or cult; “enditing” suggests composition for an unspecified group or audience, emphasizing matter of more general worldly significance. On the multiple functions served by the late-medieval rhetor, which might include the creation of public displays as well as the household entertainments for the ruling house, see Gordon Kipling, The Triumph of Honour (Leiden: Brill, 1977). On “courtly makers” and the game of love, see John Stevens, Music and

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other, that of the “poete,” who was absent in his own person from the world of the living, but endured as it were in petrified form, through books.15 The problematic absence of those he called “poetes” from the world of social performance and public action troubled him repeatedly, as his most notable metaphors for their status suggest. They are the soil of “olde feldes,” the pillars that bear up chivalry; their substance is the icy rock on which Fame has built: the implicit challenge these figures present to the living seems to be to work these intractable substances, in order to shape or “make” something of present human use and fruitfulness. To be “in bokes,” either in the sense that Vergil was for Chaucer, or is to us – or as Chaucer is himself “in bokes” while reading Vergil, and therefore for the duration not present among “loves folk” – seemed to be somehow to lose the name of action.16 To understand the life of “poetrie” in the world of the living was a major preoccupation of both Troilus and the Canterbury Tales. In reconciling “making” and “poetry,” “enditing” offered a middle way through which vernacular writing could attain both high style and broad public rather than coterie standing. Both the form of the problem as Chaucer conceives it, and his solution, closely parallel those achieved, though with simpler formal means, by his two London contemporaries, Gower and

Poetry in the Early Tudor Court (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), esp. pp. 164, 206, 212. 15 Chaucer does not refer to any living writer, including himself, as a “poet.” He applies the term to the ancients, such as “Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace” (Troilus V. 1792), Martianus Capella (Merchant’s Tale E 1732), and to Orpheus (Boece III. m. 12, 1115–20), where it renders L vates. Among the “moderns” he uses it only for Dante (Monk’s Tale B2 2650; Wife of Bath’s Tale D 1125), and Petrarch (Clerk’s Tale E 31). Poetry is used for the work of these writers seen as a treasury of myths and fables, and for the cultural authority it wields. “Poetry” is a repository of “sentence,” of morally substantial beauty; it is seen as a fund of classical moral and philosophical lore, as well as narrative matters, and may provide figures, fables, and wisdom to the “maker,” whose activity is seen as that of giving it pleasing and available form. See Olson, “Making and Poetry”; on the different status of Boccaccio in this scheme from that Chaucer accords Dante and Petrarch, see Thomas J. Garbáty, “Troilus V. 1786–92 and V. 1807– 27: An Example of Poetic Process,” Chaucer Review 11 (1977): 299–305; and Donald McGrady, “Chaucer and the Decameron Reconsidered,” Chaucer Review 12 (1977): 1–26 16 The position of the reader I am describing here, as out of the world of common wisdom and mutual appearance while he is reading, corresponds to that by which Walter Benjamin characterizes the reader of a novel as distinguished from the hearer or teller of traditional stories. See “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, esp. pp. 86–7; his remarks on the isolation of the novelist, who in his work “gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living” but “is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others,” seems an apt description of the Clerk’s performance, as the following discussion will suggest.

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Langland.17 And that it is for him an ideal of eloquence – an organizing principle of artistic thought, rather than a peripheral feature of a highly sophisticated literary vocabulary – is shown by the precision and consistency with which “enditing” is defined in use, and by the honorific purposes to which the term is put by those many speakers in the poetry who use it to locate themselves ethically and socially and stylistically in the world. The users of the word in the Canterbury Tales include the same group who, in their performances, manifest a high emphasis on style in their presentation of worldly virtù. It is around the extended group of new men that we hear most about “enditing” and the proprieties of the high style. They act as several different hypothetical versions of the literary performer, through which Chaucer considers the pleasure of art, and its use. Chaucer had already raised the issue of vulgar eloquence repeatedly in his earlier long poems. In order to see how he arrived at an idea of “enditing,” it is instructive to notice the form in which this matter first presented itself to thought. Twice he made the search for the ideal matter and manner of vernacular poetry the explicit subject that generates debate: it is what the voices talk about in the Hous of Fame and again in the Legend of Good Women. In both of these poems “Geffrey” is called to account for some aspects of his devotion to literature. In the earlier poem it is primarily as a reader of “olde bokes,” and a sometime maker of love poetry, that he is confronted and urged to “newe thynges” by the Eagle, an instructor who considers himself well qualified by his plainness of speech for the task of directing Chaucer’s attention to “ought elles that God made.” In the Legend, Chaucer is challenged as a writer. As he disports himself amid familiar scenes of courtly pleasure, professing to be no partisan in the poetic game of the flower and the leaf, but merely a grateful gleaner in the fields of its rhetoric, he meets the God of Love, who is not amused. He charges Chaucer with having ventured too far beyond the bounds of courtly making, and thereby strayed into “heresy,” violating the cult’s most honored subject, the praise of worthy ladies.18 Chaucer’s assigned penance is to “make” a legend of Cupid’s saints, in the execution of which the narrator is, in fact, always pointedly reining in his theme to preserve his orthodoxy. As he tells his short tales of wronged women, Chaucer again and again curtails their embarrassing tendency to interest us, and him, in the greater action of which they are a part (for example, the story of Troy and Rome as the context of Dido’s woe), or in the general ethical themes they present (Pyramus’ truth 17 See my article “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” Speculum 53 (1978): 94–114. 18 See Olson, “Deschamps’ Art de Dictier,” p. 717; Stevens, Music and Poetry, pp. 154–202.

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in love is equal to Thisbe’s; Tereus’ and Tarquin’s crimes are hardly those of faithless lovers; Hypermnestra is more gravely betrayed by her father than by her husband; and so on). Yet while he circumscribes the narrative expansion of his assigned “matere,” he also avoids emotional intensification. While there are moments of pathos in speech and gesture (Dido’s unavailing plea to Aeneas, for example), these remain isolated, and are not successfully incorporated into the narrator’s single large gesture that defines the shape and common purpose of these stories, namely, to reinstate himself in the graces of the God of Love by telling them. He muffles the traditional climax of this kind of narrative, the aria of complaint by the abandoned lady herself, the display piece of pathetic rhetoric for which the brief story of betrayal usually only provides the occasion and stage. For this kind of poetic pleasure, Chaucer sends us elsewhere – to Ovid, who can “wel endyte in vers.” Chaucer’s subdued and tonally uncertain treatment of these arias is a consequence of their dual rhetorical purpose. Ovid’s heroines must complain to their lovers so as to enlist our sympathies, and convince us of the human justice of their cause against their cruel lovers. That we know they did not succeed in so moving the men to whom their “epistles” are nominally addressed only intensifies their pathetic appeal to us. The speech of Chaucer’s ladies, however, bears a second burden of decorum. Within the frame story, his heroines are love’s martyrs, and it is the quality and intensity of love service, not their articulateness in appealing their rightful sense of loss and betrayal, that constitutes their virtue as saintly sisters.19 The difference is that between Anelida and St Cecilia: since saintly torments are validating triumphs of the faith, not pathetic worldly pain pleading for remedy where there is none, the speech of a martyr of love ought to consist of ecstasy and rejoicing rather than complaint. The martyr-heroine’s suffering must therefore be “endited” by someone other than herself: the second, cultic, context of these legends requires, as Ovid’s do not, a mediating narrative voice to interpret this pathetic “matere” to us, to celebrate to the faithful the cultic significance of this passion.20 This task would seem to demand high rhetoric of Chaucer 19 See my essay “The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo than Ten’ as a Method in the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 8 (1973): 9–32. 20 The Second Nun’s prologue to her tale invokes the Virgin as, in effect, the Muse of this performance, to

do me endite Thy maydens deeth, that wan thurgh her merite The eterneel lyf, and of the feend victorie. (G 32–4)

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himself, to praise the lady’s constancy in her devout service and condemn the wicked callousness of the faithless lover. The problem here, however, was not the figure of the saint but that of the infidel. A hagiographer can authoritatively heap scorn on the pagan oppressor: his audience knows the saint’s tormentor will be damned in the life to come. But what of the infidels of love, many of whom in the Legends are also the heroes of epic and historical narrative – Jason, Theseus, Aeneas? To condemn these at length would require Chaucer to betray the “matere” of long narrative for the sake of making an act of devotion. And what of outright moral monsters like Tereus? To make Philomela a secular saint required Chaucer to make her a martyr for “hire sustres love” – hardly the kind of service the God of Love had in mind in the Prologue. Besides providing serious structural obstacles to narrative, the assigned rhetorical task of cultic service imposed a tonal restriction. The humility and modesty proper to the manner of a penitential act, and proper, as well, to an ingratiating “ladies’ friend” (Legend of Good Women 2561) who contrasts himself with the false lovers he condemns, evidently forbade a strongly assertive interpreting and celebrating voice in the narrator. The hagiographer’s rhetorical authority is not available to Chaucer as speaker here, for his lord is not “a god whose temper-tantrums are moral.” The God of Love’s will is seen as arbitrary and capricious, his gifts and exactions in no way concerned with “intente.” The complexities of Chaucer’s position as performer in the Legend call attention to some fundamental conflicts within his conception of his enterprise. The God of Love, it seems, keeps his devoted servants on a rather short tether: placating him requires the writer to renounce epic subjects and their complex narrative sweep, and the broadly human rather than cultic ethical questions that attend them. It also entails suppressing the full use of the rhetoric of complaint, a traditional form whose forensic qualities Chaucer had tended in his lyrics to heighten, and extend to general philosophic speculation, largely free of specific occasion. Without free access to such themes, modes, and manners of poetry as these, “Chaucer” in the Legend is confined to being merely chivalrous on behalf of his heroines, making small skirmishes rather than a “gret emprise” in the service of love. The only thing he can do for his ladies as a writer is to trounce the offending gentlemen into oblivion with a pen: “Have at thee, Jason!” he bravely exclaims. In this game of poetic soldiering for love, the poet’s speech is a weapon of gallantry, and his enterprise a form of honoring one subject by forcibly making another one disappear.

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It is this “gallant” Chaucer that the Man of Law grudgingly praises in the Prologue to his own tale. For him, Chaucer is the poet of the Legend, a harmless and undeniably industrious “maker” of tales of lovers, whose chief merit (since “he kan but lewedly / On metres and on rymyng craftily”) is that they do not offend morally. Though the Man of Law is here chiefly flourishing the currency of his literary cultivation, rather than, like the God of Love, indicting Chaucer for his errors, his critical terms and values complement those of the Legend to round out a working definition of the “maker” and his literary setting as Chaucer understood it. A few points of agreement with the God of Love are striking, and essential to the definition. For one thing, he, too, judges Chaucer on the moral acceptability of the content of the story – the behavior depicted in it, not its rhetorical “intente” – though the two critics differ about which morality he ought to display, and between them leave him almost no acceptable narrative matter at all. The God of Love would have Chaucer affirm the moral imperatives of his cult; the Man of Law insists on general standards of social irreproachability: one should not murder children or commit incest, and therefore should not present those acts in stories.21 But though they each have a different notion of the community whose ‘community standards’ Chaucer ought not to offend, neither doubts that his “making” – an enterprise that, we should notice, seems to include in a single activity the composing and circulating of his work – is a social performance; the scene into which the maker acts is contemporary, stylish, and polite. Second, telling these stories is efficacious chiefly for the teller rather than the hearer. It is a way of reaffirming one’s possession of the tastes and qualities that assure one’s membership in polite society; their force is therefore simply cumulative. For the God of Love, they are like the recitation of a long litany, a renewed profession of faith; for the Man of Law, they work like one’s familiarity with legal precedent, and Chaucer has simply run through all the variant cases of that particular principle:

21 The possibility that the Man of Law’s preface is either a satirical dig at “moral Gower,” or part of a standing joke Chaucer shares with his fellow poet, does not preclude this reading, nor is it precluded by it. See Alfred David, “Man of Law”; John H. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York: New York University Press, 1964), pp. 285–92. Whether aimed at Gower or not, the Man of Law’s assessment of the moral value in this kind of poetry is a comic portrait of a believable contemporary sensibility, one opinionated member of a possible audience for both poets. Chaucer implies that any notion of moral art that cannot explain what is lacking in the Man of Law’s view is not yet adequate.

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And if he have noght seyd hem, leve brother, In o book, he hath seyd hem in another .... What sholde I tellen hem, syn they ben tolde? (B1 51–6)

The power of these tales to generate fresh ‘makings’ evidently does not extend far beyond Cupid’s court; the Man of Law turns away from the games and rituals of that court; he finds among merchants, those “fadres of tidynges and tales,” plainer fare befitting his busy public self. Finally, and perhaps most significant, the God of Love and the Man of Law are virtually our only witnesses in Chaucer’s work for this specialized poetic use of the term to make. Though Chaucer shares some genres and lyric forms with the French faiseur, and refers occasionally to himself and some contemporary writers as “makers,” he rarely uses the verb to make without specifying an object, metonymically to mean “to compose verse.” He often uses the verb for literary activity, but specifies the product: “balade,” “lay,” “song,” “vers,” “mistralcies,” and the like. His praise of his contemporary, “Graunson, flour of hem that make in Fraunce,” in the Complaint of Venus is one of very few occurrences in his work of the French metonymic usage. Nearly all the rest cluster around the Man of Law and the God of Love. The Man of Law begins his capsule critical survey “in youthe he made of Ceys and Alcione”; the God of Love is even more insistent and belittling. He uses the verb several times in listing Chaucer’s earlier compositions, both with an object (“boke,” “lyf,” “lay,” even, ignominiously, “thyng,” an idiom used elsewhere in Chaucer only for the Man of Law’s “writyng”22) and without: 22 In the General Prologue portrait of the Man of Law, Chaucer associates “making” and “enditing” as if they were similar skills: “Therto he koude endite and make a thyng” (325). While both terms may refer to literary composition, the context – a list of the Man of Law’s skills as a lawyer – introduces at least some ambiguity, suggesting that both may refer to the writing of legal instruments or documents: the making of a charge or accusation (OED s.v. indict1) or a proclamation (†indict 2 ); and the writing of a legal process, bringing a charge, pleading a cause, making a transaction (OED s.v. thing I.2, 3, 4, 5). The OED offers this line (s.v, thing II.13) as its first citation to illustrate the meaning: “an individual work of literature or art, a composition; a writing, piece of music, etc.”; I am not convinced that this sense can be drawn unambiguously from the line. The ambiguity of reference to both legal and literary writing strikes me as both intentional and comic, supporting exactly what Chaucer does with the Man of Law as performer generally: namely, to suggest that the power of legal instruments to “indict” and of literary instruments to “endite” have very different practical force and use in the world, a difference the lawyer himself does not entirely grasp. He evidently sees literary “enditing” as advocating the conduct it refers to, and he is for this reason pompously pleased to find recorded in Chaucer’s “sermons” no “unkynde abhominacions.” The Man of Law’s entire performance provides

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“He shal maken as ye wol devise,” “Suffiseth me thou make in this manere.”23 Chaucer the dreamer also uses the term metonymically in the Legend, but not for his own work: he refers to “Ye loveris that kan make of sentement,” but he declines to compete with them in their game. Queen Alceste, however, Chaucer’s advocate, diverges from these terms in her defense of him: she refers to his heretical works as “enditing,” shifting the ground of appeal from “matere” to intent. Or elles, sire, for that this man is nyce, He may translate a thyng in no malyce, But for he useth bokes for to make, And taketh non hed of what matere he take, Therfore he wrot the Rose and ek Crisseyde Of innocence, and nyste what he seyde. Or hym was baden make thilke tweye Of som persone, and durste it not withseye; For he hath write many a bok er this. He ne hath not don so grevously amys To translate that olde clerkes wryte, As thogh that he of maleys wolde endyte Despit of love, and hadde hymself ywrought. (Legend, G 340–52)

“Making” in this passage implies an exercise of craftsmanship for the social pleasure and refreshment of others; “enditing” suggests the infusion of “matere” with an intention, a meaning and design upon the audience for which the “enditer” assumes some responsibility and authority. The range of usage for “making” implied by the Man of Law and the God of Love, along with references in the shorter poems and earlier work to “balades” and “minstralcies” as “made,” establish the connotations and social environment of the term, and reveal an idea of the means, purpose, and domain of literature implicit in it. The testimony of the two dream visions we have considered suggests that the “courtly maker” conception of the poet’s enterprise does not enable a writer to sustain a long poem, only a long series of short ones. Chaucer’s two invented critics further emphasize the socially or cultically reaffirmative function of “making,” and show that it is conceived Chaucer with an occasion to consider in what senses fictions may be said to affirm anything, and the differernces between the literary and legal conceptions of truth and virtue. 23 Chaucer uses the verb in the Legend in the following places: G 69, 72, 73, 342, 364, 366, 437, 549, 573, 579, 618.

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as a performance in the current scene of polite amusement and secular ritual. And that he uses the verb metonymically almost entirely in contexts that imply a dismissal of the seriousness of intent in a writer’s practice, or a constriction on his freedom of invention, is particularly telling. When Chaucer treats the question of the poet’s enterprise as the explicitly debated subject of a poem, it seems he has no way to end it. If decorous “luftalkyng” no longer securely defines the writer’s “matere,” then the occasion that dictates the form and social function of composition is absent, and no other context supplants it; the Hous of Fame and the Legend are the two notoriously disputed unfinished works of his career. But he found another way to take up the matter within a poem: formally rather than referentially. In two of his other long poems, the Parlement of Foules and the Troilus, Chaucer builds his ideas of the role of the verbal artist into the fictive structure and rhetorical process of the work. This enables him to project imaginatively a place for the writer’s work beyond its performance value, to conceive of its function in a broader arena of action than that of contemporary cultic expectations. In these two poems he describes writing as potentially belonging to the world at large, enduring in historical time largely through the medium of books, and tries to conceive of how the world that “neweth everi dai” can use this literary inheritance, and in what form it becomes active again among the living. The enduring mode of existence for the writer he calls “poetrie.” Both the Parlement and the Troilus avoid the formal problems of poetic closure, and the constraints on the speaker’s rhetorical posture, that beset the other two we have considered, largely by keeping making and poetry out of dramatized confrontation. By scenically and dramatically separating these two notions of literature within the poems, Chaucer can both define “poetrie” and suggest his reasons for never calling himself a “poete.” Poetry is for him at once the highest and most austere achievement of the writer, and disturbingly, intractably, noncontemporary. It endures, but it does not live; it is silent with respect to the present. It is a lasting treasury, but not a living voice. Chaucer seems, somewhat wistfully, to speak of it much as Socrates in the Phaedrus characterized philosophy recorded in writing: it is dead to the world of action, and can have no real designs upon the world.24 Its beauty declares only itself, but not its paternity, or its “intente.” It confers no certain good on the living human community as a whole, and purchases for its devotees at best the questionable immortality of a pagan heaven. 24 Phaedrus 275, tr. W.C. Helmbold and W.G. Rabinowitz (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1956), pp. 68–70. See also Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 15–20.

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The Parlement separates the two domains of literature scenically and spatially. It announces its dual theme by a witty play on the commonplace ars longa vita brevis, which counterpoises the poetry that arises from, and celebrates, “love in dede,” with the poetry and philosophy celebrating love “in bokes” – the love of common profit, expressed not in courtship but in wise governance. The tutelary figures of the one are Venus and Nature, of the other Scipio Africanus; and the meaning of the relation between the two scenes over which they preside has been the chief problem in interpreting the poem. For our purposes, though, it is less important to specify that meaning than to notice the complete tonal assurance with which each scene is realized – and the utter forgettability and tonal obscurity of the passagework between them, the hundred or so lines describing the contents of the walled garden, which Chaucer derived from Boccaccio’s Teseide. What is there is visually clear enough; what is obscure is the auspices under which we (and Chaucer) are there, and hence the rhetorical purpose of this venture. Chaucer presents in the Parlement the assured voices of two excellent writers, but provides no common theme over which they can meet. One is a gracious performer who can end a scene of courtship debate in a purely musically satisfying way, as one might end a banquet entertainment, with a charming song. The other is a man of letters, who is looking for the “good” as well as the charm in the literary life, and is willing to stay for the answer. In the plot of the Parlement, the dreamer’s literary exertion and its reward are oddly incommensurate: for his devotion to Scipio’s book, Chaucer is repaid with yet another visit to a love garden – perhaps in the hope that under Ciceronian auspices the scene will resolve into a higher kind of sense. The structure of the poem, however, is designed not to harmonize the writer’s two roles, but to keep their incommensurability at bay: the garden scene ends without decision or agreement, but rather with postponement and a chorus. The two poetic places are never brought within one frame of reference, and the two episodes, one embedded within the other, are given separate closure. The song ends the “making,” whereupon the speaker closes the original thematic scene with the hope (rather than the confidence) that if he continues reading, “I shal mete som thyng for to fare the bet.” It is easier, it seems, to end an entertainment than to draw a useful conclusion to – or from – a book. For the end of song as he conceives it is immediate social pleasure; the end of books is said by those who care about them to be to change your life – they have an authority that ‘making’ does not. Chaucer presents himself in this poem as willing to take that claim for “poetrie” seriously, and at the end we leave him cheerfully awaiting his great transformation.

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Chaucer ends the Troilus with a more complex form of the same multiple closure, keeping the two aspects of literature in indefinite relation to each other. Throughout Troilus, he separates “making” and “poetry,” performance and book, rhetoricaly – as dramatic roles – rather than spatially. Chaucer shifts fluently between them as he simultaneously retells the old story he cannot change and conducts a service of love, ultimately to the virtual undoing of its cult value. At the end, however, he calls the whole cast of appearances out to take their leave. This final serial display of several distinct literary actions is his fullest survey before the Canterbury Tales of the competing notions of the good of literature within which he conceived his work. First he must end the “storie,” insofar as it is “of Troilus.” In doing so Chaucer reminds us that it has been all along two stories, only one of which he has amplified, namely, the tragic story of Troilus’ love, just concluded. The other, not yet ended, is that of his “dedes” in the war: it remains vestigial, a stillborn twin of the first. For the latter, he refers us to Dares; but before going on to end Troilus’ life, and sending him to the comic transcendence of worldly deeds and passions alike, Chaucer pauses to commend the book he has just written, the love tragedy, to the world at large. Go litel book, go, litel myn tragedye, Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye, So sende myght to make in som comedye! But litel book, no makyng thow n’envie, But subgit be to all poesye; And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace Virgile, Ovide, Orner, Lucan, and Stace. (V. 1786–92)

It has been noticed that Chaucer distinguishes tragedy from comedy here at exactly the point in the narrative at which he turns one to the other: as he has concluded the love story and is about to kindle the vestigial life of worldly glory into a moment of visibility in our minds just as it is extinguished and repudiated.25 It is possible to see the stanza as turning in the same way on another pair of counterpoised terms, “making” and “poetry,” and about these

25 See Garbáty, “Troilus V. 1786–92 and V. 1807–27.” There is disagreement as to what constitutes the “comedye.” Garbáty views it as Troilus’ ascent to the eighth sphere, from which cosmic perspective his sorrow is changed to laughter. Donald Howard, however, takes it to refer to the Canterbury Tales, which provide a tonal counterpart to Troilus; see The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 30–45.

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it is still more equivocal. Where the turn from the one to the other appears in the performance is crucial to the meaning of the equivocation. The stanza seems to urge the book forth on a journey, out of the envious company of other “makyng,” and into reverent discipleship to the “poets,” to make a clear distinction between the two places where literature lives: at court and now,26 on the one hand, and, on the other, in the temple of art, an “eternal image of antiquitie.” Yet the terms and structure of the passage are framed so as to obscure the threshold the book is asked to cross, and the differences between the two realms it provisionally occupies. The stanza turns on three words formed on the root verb make, whose uses do not reinforce each other, but create conflicting understandings of the verb that generate ghosts of interfering readings of the stanza.27 The adjustment in understanding these make-words each time calls a great deal of attention to the general possibility of misconstruing the “intente” of the gesture, or of the whole work – a possibility that becomes the explicit subject of the succeeding stanza. The act of commending the book, like the act of interpreting the gesture, is designed 26 The injunction to avoid “envye” tends to support the identification of the poem’s initial context and company with the court:

Envye – I preye to God yeve hire myschaunce! – Is lavender in the grete court alway, For she ne parteth, neyther nyght ne day, Out of the hous of Cesar; thus seyth Dante.

(LW G 333–6)

The accepted reading of the verb in 1788 is not “to compose in verse” but “to match” (sec Garbáty, “Troilus V. 1786–92 and V. 1807–27”; and Richard C. Boys, “An Unusual Meaning of ‘Make’ in Chaucer,” MLN 52 [1937] : 351–3; MED s.v. make). Yet “makere” in the preceding line – which is momentarily (and mistakenly) heard as in apposition to “God” (“God thi makere”), and thereby briefly (mis)understood as “creator” – and “makyng” in the following line, which can also be read as a near-synonym (as it is identical in etymological meaning) for “poesye” in the next line (that is, do not envy other poetry, but rather be reverently subject to it), both create the verbal equivalent of an optical illusion around “make,” and cause one to hear the meaning “to compose,” “to create,” anyway. This ghost reading shadows the first, and shifts the speaker’s wish to a more general sense: “send me the power to create again,” rather than “send me the power to make the opposite kind of poem to this one.” The effect of the optical illusions does not stop here, however. The first momentary misreading leaves a residue that parallels the writer’s “making” with the creative act of the Divine word; the third, by making the distinction between the pursuit of “makyng” and that of “poesye” finally consist in a different spirit (reverence rather than envy), tends to reduce the difference one heard at first between the objects or arts themselves. The stanza needs still closer analysis as a study of Chaucerian poetic process; these suggestions are confined to the present purpose. 27

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to feel as precarious as it is tentative, to sustain a confusion in the very act of making distinctions. Insofar as this work is of love, and its rhetorical fiction is that it is conducted in the presence and faithful cultic service of love’s devout, it is a “makyng,” a contemporary performance. Insofar as it has in many respects the “forme of olde clerkis speche,” the emotional seriousness, amplitude, and decorum of a “poet’s” story – in short, all the features Chaucer was pointedly to jettison in chastened conformity to the God of Love’s religion – it seems tentatively to emulate “poesye” as practiced by “Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.” Chaucer does not, however, as Dante boldly does, make himself “a sixth among those high intelligences” (Inferno IV. 100–102); he is content to lay his “litel book” reverently at the feet of tradition, the society of the mighty dead, without inserting himself, and the uncertain status of his enterprise, into such august company. The stanza ends with an imagined silent act of homage, a pageant; Chaucer no longer tries to imagine direct conversation with these ancients. By placing the passage after what seems to constitute the “making,” the love story, is ended, but before the end of what for most of the ancient poets would have constituted the real, publicly significant story, Troilus’ worldly “dedes,” Chaucer calls the greatest possible attention to the complexities of the literary dual allegiance of this poem, and its urgency as a problem confronting the vernacular writer generally. The kind, as well as the realm of literature, to which Troilus finally belongs remain ambiguous. As the contrast between the kinds “tragedye” and “comedye” – whatever actual works they may refer to – is collapsed by the more comprehensive gesture that directs this “litel bok” out of the bosom of its family toward “poesye” where its masters dwell, a realm that evidently includes both kinds; so the difference between “makyng” and “poesye” is subsumed in the motion and aspiration of the one toward the other. The tone is fond, paternal, and modest, and the figure of speech suggests that the relation between these two modes is that of youth to maturation. The author, it seems, is not urging a wholly new definition of his enterprise at the eleventh hour, but rather suggesting what aspects of this child of his pen show promise, how the concerns of “making” “up groweth with youre age” to become the concerns of poetry. Though the stanza does not decide whether this “litel bok” is “making” or “poetry,” it suggests what is at stake for a practicing writer suspended between them. The important question raised by this pivotal stanza and its location in the work is not simply a problem of genre, or level of style, a matter of what kind of subject – singular passion or public deeds – is properly celebrated in

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“high art,” but what kind of function does one honor by considering any art “high”? It is more fundamentally a question of how each of these arts, “making” and “poetry,” is conceived to act in the world – and here, at this point in Chaucer’s career, it is the “poesye” of the ancients, not the (to a modern, or at least humanist, view) slighter, more minor art of the “maker,” that seems to have the less certain footing. “Poetry” remains for him an enterprise that can only be thought of in the perfect tense. As if to confirm this point – that the relevant conflict between the two modes is their life in the world – Chaucer now turns from ending the twofold story of Troilus, to conclude the work, again in two separate aspects. He bids farewell first to the present auditors of the work as performance, the “yonge, fresshe folkes,” speaking finally, as at first, as a sober priest, bringing a service of love to an end. He then concludes the work as a book, commending it as a finished piece to “moral Gower” and “philosophical Strode,” transferring corrective authority over the work from the provisional judgment of lovers that have “felynge in loves art,” invoked several times during the performance, to the final judgment of his intellectual peers, fellow readers in moral and philosophic books. But in each of these leave-takings the speaker in turn invites the audience to take its leave of what in each case comprises the central good or value of the literary mode in which each has been addressed. The young lovers are urged to recognize that the cult in whose service they worship through such rituals as these is a cult of vanity; the readers of “poetry” are likewise reminded that the “forme of olde clerkis speche” celebrates a worldly “travaille,” the pursuit of honor and virtue, which is equally vain from the perspective of eternity. As Troilus rises above both versions of his story, the author now transcends both versions of his work. The final stanza of the poem then unites the two audiences, the author, and all possible hearers as “us” in a prayer for mercy. Neither literary enterprise, any more than any other worldly work, however charitably intended or lovingly executed, and with however lofty a style, will survive the world itself, nor can either contribute intentionally in any way to the soul’s salvation. At the end of the Troilus, as at the end of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is quite clear about this: no work of literature can, by its very nature, have as a deed the kind of efficacy that the smallest prayer has.28 To acknowledge this, however, is for Chaucer not the end of the matter, but the ground for a more precise speculation. It remained to be seen whether a writer who acceded, as Chaucer seems to have done, to the contemporary This is essentially the view of Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976). 28

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emphasis on the performance value of high vernacular literature was thereby committed to the Man of Law’s or the God of Love’s restricted conception of the “commune” itself within which it was enacted, and the kinds of affirmation it was to perform. What was it that the mighty dead had been doing, whose finished products we now admire as “poetrie”? There is no present-tense verb form in Chaucer’s vocabulary, corresponding to “making” for what the “maker” does, that refers to what the poet does as a present activity rather than a past achievement. There is poetry but not “poeting,” and “making” apparently does not cover the intentional as well as craftsmanlike excellences of ancient “poesye.” The answer, and the corresponding term in the system, seems to have been “enditing,” the celebration not of the court to the court, but of the human world and condition to the whole commonwealth. “Enditing” is the one literary enterprise Chaucer attributes both to the ancients, conceived as they acted into their own time, and those now living. The anomalous standing of Chaucer’s own writing – as both “making” and aspirant to the status of “poetrie” – could be indefinitely sustained as long as Chaucer in his own person did not have to call it one thing or another. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer solves both problems that had always attended his taking up the good of literature and its worldly status within a poem. This time the question was to appear both referentially, in the pilgrims’ critical debate, and formally, as the generically identifiable voices within a tale, and the several stylistic means of self-revelation in “compaignye.” The pilgrim-story tellers – as beings entitled, by the occasion on which they are gathered into a company, to be philosophical, to wonder about and seek the good of that very enterprise – provided several voices, several worldly angles of vision, several modes of social and literary performance, from which to reason on this matter. Any one of them could serve for Chaucer a speculative as well as satirical purpose: they could be an array of possible selves, playing the socially reconstitutive game of “making” in the company of the other players. The best way to deal with the charges of the God of Love and the Man of Law, Chaucer found, was to move the whole matter in both senses out of court. This simple transference out of a courtly scene of a kind of entertainment that traditionally belongs to it – with the result that the unity of the reigning literary ethos is irretrievably broken by the movers – is one of the most deeply comic and fertile premises of the work. To think of the courtly milieu of “luf-talkyng” as a structural substratum of the Canterbury Tales is to find unexpected hilarities among its surface features. Consider the

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Wife of Bath, for instance, as a voluble respondent to that traditional demand of the “maker” to praise virtuous ladies; or the Pardoner as a performer – and one proud of his virtuosity at it – in a context whose original strictures require one to adopt the pose of being an ardent lover, and to claim that the inspiration kindling such eloquence as this emanates from the love of one special hearer in the company. It is the new men, however, who seem most conscious that the shattering move has taken place: they seem to know that this is a transferred “gentle” game, and they play thoughtfully with this aspect of it, as if they recognize that any request to tell a good story means, in high circles, to “sey somwhat of love.”29 They find themselves in the dual role of the author of Troilus, suspended between amusement for the court and wise counsel for the world. They all acknowledge, or are pointedly reminded of, the customary gentle modes of entertainment, yet, chiefly by measuring aloud the distance between their own performances and the “high style,” invite our attention specifically to how the manner of acceding to the rules of the game expands our apprehension of its matter, its purpose, and its now-enlarged social function. In marking the distance between the two – as in telling what time it is, and where on the road to Canterbury we are – Harry Bailly as master of ceremonies plays a critical part: you can set your watch, or your style, by him. No one in the group more steadfastly exemplifies the current received standard usage in literary matters. “Sey somwhat of love” is his request of the Squire, the only pilgrim who looks as if this literary fashion is basic to his way of life. Harry shows a similar inclination to literary type-casting in all of his invitations to “pley.” From the worldly Monk, he hopes for robust, but distinctly highclass, masculine fare: something of hunting – or perhaps, he implies, the more extended sense of “venerye.” On the other hand, Harry warns the unworldly Oxford Clerk to set aside any moralistic clerkly designs on us to change our lives, and he is even more firmly insistent on the proper manner of his play: he should by no means “endite heigh stile”; that is for addressing kings, and the present company and game require plain intelligibility. All of these figures respond with manifest geniality to this assignment of parts, but in each case the whole performance is significantly out of frame with the imposed expectations. In this way each of them shows a different aspect of the possible literary eloquence to which a newly conceived social context gives place. 29 See Strohm, “Chaucer’s Audience,” pp. 30–31 on the taste of Richard II and the court generally for French love poetry; also Edith Rickert, “King Richard II’s Books,” The Library, 4th ser., 13 (1933): 144–7.

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The Squire’s Tale is unfinished – indeed, according to this ambitious prospectus it is scarcely begun – and proceeds with an amiable dilatoriness that many have seen as an inept version of his father the Knight’s measured rhetoric of noble amplification.30 Some of the same tropes and gestures are there, to be sure, but in the service of a wholly different effect. His performance exemplifies the effort to convert the ardent rhetoric of ‘making’ into the more general worldly celebration of ‘enditing’; Chaucer praises him for both (General Prologue A 95). His rhetorical amplifications are not devoted to material splendor, or to visible symbols of a changeless universal order, but to the subjective effect on the human perceiver of splendors and marvels whose objective beauty he does not describe. This kind of dilation supports a different meaning from the Knight’s: for the Squire, nobility of mind is the capacity for wonder and ready sympathy; the roots of human greatness lie not in prowess, or in the high-minded resignation of his father’s Stoicism, but in human curiosity, and strong empathy with what the soul recognizes. “Pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” is not for the Squire, as it is for the Knight, a maxim dictating the tempering of the ruler’s justice with mercy, but a definition of the gentle heart’s chief virtue, namely, its “sentement,” a generalized version of the noble love that characterized the “gentil herte” for Dante. We never learn the size or visual details of the steed of brass, or see its entrance into the hall – all things the Gawain-poet or the Knight would have told us – but we do follow the wondering of the beholders as the mind moves out of itself and its sense of the immediate dramatic situation to recall similar marvels in “olde poetries,” and finally to human crafts and natural phenomena, which, considered curiously in a mood of heightened suggestivity, become as wonderful as the King of Araby’s magical gifts. The rhetorical process of unfolding these marvels is as lively and mercurial as St Augustine’s exclamatory catalogue of worldly wonders (City of God XXI), and it ultimately produces a similar effect: an implicit argument that miracles are still and always possible, that remembered images can leap into new meaning in a sudden encounter, and that only custom and habit obscure these marvels and their uses from us: the world is meant to be read. The Squire’s rhetoric celebrates not stability but change, the swift and generative motions of the “corage” as it apprehends the worldly scene and responds to it. This “felyng” mind enriches the present moment by averting the immediate assimilation of new wonders to the familiar and present, by keeping them slightly alien and See, for example, D.A. Pearsall, “The Squire as Story-Teller,” University of Toronto Quarterly 34 (1964): 82–92; Robertson, “Chaucer’s Franklin.” 30

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surrounding them with likenesses to the storied past. By such means, it is not the far-off exotic “then” of the story, but the “now” of seeing, hearing, and feeling that is made into art. Where the Knight’s orderly pageant of chivalry is ultimately a celebration of the unmoved First Mover, around whom man’s whirling fortunes turn, the Squire’s more disorderly spectacle honors the magical possibility in the world that “neweth everi dai.” This breathless performance was evidently heading toward becoming a vast and exotic family romance, with its roots in Byzantine and Arabic story material,31 in which Christian and Saracen enmity is overcome through the mutual recognition of chivalric virtue, and the two warring faiths are brought to make peace through an ideal marriage of Christian princess and Muslim hero – a wishful hope for reconciliation quite divergent from the chivalric rhetoric of the Crusades. But the story need not have gone any further for the mode of performance to make its point. The Squire’s rhetoric depicts mind in motion; it is for this reason not the least bit surprising that this tale particularly charmed Spenser: the nobility it honors is that of the ethically responsive mind, manifested in ready feeling and eloquence. The Franklin goes to the heart of the matter in praising the Squire for “spekyng feelyngly,” and his tale, too, invites us to admire the capacity of human beings to rise feelingly to new occasions. His rhetoric, however, includes a caveat about the making of material appearances and, what for him amounts to the same thing, dwelling on speculative puzzles that take the mind away from what concerns the human condition, such as Dorigen’s wondering on God’s purpose in making the rocks.32 The Franklin’s profession of “pleyn” style and his professed avoidance of the “colours of rethoryk” introduces into his performance a counter-current that uneasily recalls that making an appearance in the world is always at the same time making a semblance. He is often faulted in Chaucer criticism for a sentimental sanguinity that confuses reality and appearance; his fable, however, argues that practically speaking they are the same thing. His story speculates on the way a care for the making of worldly appearances, not only by magic, but by the gestures that smooth the social fabric and the will to make life artful, generates eruptions through that fabric 31 Dorothee Metlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 137–60. 32 On the rhetorical uses of this characteristic Chaucerian device, and their significance for his theory of poetry, see Morton Bloomfield’s remarks on the strategy of “answering a querulous objector,” in “The Gloomy Chaucer,” in Veins of Humor, ed. Harry Levin, Harvard English Studies 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 64–6.

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of “monsters and mervailles” that present real worldly dilemmas. The remedy for them offered by the story provides no acts that can serve an audience’s moral emulation; they are acts of virtuosity, incapable of use or replication in any world other than that in which they happened to succeed. The Franklin’s uneasiness with the “supersticious cursednesse” of magic, like his disavowal of rhetorical colors, argues some recognition on his creator’s part of the inevitable consequences of the position that all art is worldly: each story becomes a “world” whose relation to the common world is problematic. The Franklin seeks to establish that relation with a question he invites his audience to debate: “Which was the mooste fre, as thinketh yow?” The practical virtue of the tale is in its providing of a feast for the living mind’s appetite. The Franklin, for all his professed plainness, is also an accomplished host, a “worthy vavasour.”33 For him, stories do not provide exempla, static images of model behavior one can transport out of the stories; they offer no lives we can imitate, but rather lives we can examine. Stories are social parables whose power lies in the quality of talk they create. Like a good host’s leading questions, they invite us to put examined, conscious human bonds in place of unexamined ritual. The courtly game of ideal talk has not for him lost its reaffirmative function, but he has, with his performance, expanded the social significance of that reaffirmation. The Monk, too, eludes Harry Bailly’s grasp, declining to perform entirely into the prescribed scene. His Boethian tragedies, whose nominal rhetorical thrust is an argument for world transcendence, become in his hands laments for the passing of human greatness. The Boethian perspective goes out of focus, the more so the closer the subjects are to the modern world and the bearersup of chivalry. The Monk “endites” false Fortune for destroying “corage of heigh emprise,” and “biwailles” with the highest powers of his rhetorical art not human blindness or worldly vanity, but “the deeth of gentilesse and of fraunchise.” “Enditing,” it seems, can celebrate the chivalric virtues, but no longer as they are part of a class ideal of inward individuation, the secret flowering of individual identity in the soul, but rather as these qualities were to be celebrated by fifteenth-century rhetors in encomiastic chronicles and triumphs: as the virtues that were to be definitive of public character in the great national monarchies.34 The chivalry honored here is closer to that of Spenser than that of Chrétien. 33 The literary role of “vavasours” in romances was to provide hospitality, to entertain knights-errant; see Pearcy, “Chaucer’s Franklin and the Literary Vavasour.” 34 The Monk’s “enditing” of false Fortune, like that for which the Man of Law is praised in the General Prologue (325; see note 22), sustains the dual sense of the term – the legal sense

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Finally, the Clerk, too, frees himself from the ground rules Harry has imposed on his performance, both by obeying them to the letter – much as his Griselda shatters Walter’s imposition of his will by infinite and impassive accession to it – and then by collapsing his sad and serious tale back into a playful performance, pretending to deny its present moral application in an envoy that is certainly Chaucer’s virtuoso performance in a courtly lyric form. The unworldly Clerk is Chaucer’s last and most complex exploration of “poetry’s” absence from the world; at the same time, and with some of the same means, the performance becomes a comic testing in extremis of the proposition that pure play, and pure beauty, have no moral designs upon, and no reference to, the world of action. As a character, the Clerk is a study of the Petrarchan man of letters, leading a life wholly “in bokes” and in “poetrie.” He professes a stylish and grave, but wholly secular, contemptus mundi, which means in his case only and exactly what it says: a distaste for present worldly life, and a corresponding sense of companionship with the mighty dead in books.35 It entails neither the desire for God on the one hand, nor, on the other, a devotion to virtuous action. His desires, like his physical substance, are barely there, or pallidly optative: he is lean, like his horse; he possesses almost nothing. Not even the “twenty bokes” we always attribute to him in memory necessarily belong to him, according to the grammar of the sentence. We only know he would rather have them than “riche robes” – a characteristically extreme contrast to the threadbare cloak he does have – or “fithele or gay sautrie”; it is axiomatic with such as the Clerk that melodies unheard are sweeter. If he is an ideal, as many critics have thought, it is an ideal of style, not of moral action or “intente,” as, for example, the Parson is, about whose self-presentation we learn little, while we hear much about his regular activities, which wholly define and absorb him, and place “to charge, accuse” (> Modern English indict), and the rhetorical sense “to decry, complain” (> Modern English indite) – and reminds us of the forensic aspect of such a public ethical appeal, of the way the rhetoric of complaint implicitly invites and directs an audience’s feelings as moral actors. 35 Cf. Petrarch, “Letter to Posterity” (Seniles XVIII.1) in Selected Sonnets, Odes and Letters, ed. and tr. Thomas G. Bergin (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1966), p. 3; also Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 246–8. A letter Petrarch wrote to accompany a copy of his Latin translation of the tale of Griselda (Decameron X.10), which he sent to Boccaccio in 1373 (Seniles XVII.2), describes the unique sweetness of the life in letters (“I am not fitted for other kinds of work”), and denies that he has sought fame or office: “(Only apparently) have I lived with princes; in reality, the princes lived with me .... I should never have submitted to any conditions which would, in any degree, have interfered with my liberty or my studies” (Bergin, pp. 12–17; see also Wilkins, pp. 236–9).

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him vividly in our minds as an actor in some other scene than this company. The Clerk, however, declines to be present in any worldly scene. Every unit of language of which Chaucer composed him tells the same story: from the minutest details of syntax in the portrait (which tell us what he does not have, what he does not yet do, what he would rather do, what he does not say, and the style he does not use to say it); to his opening remarks as a storyteller (in which he tells us about the proem he is leaving out for the sake of simplicity, and reminds us that, like the author of this tale “now deed and nayled in his cheste” we, too, shall all die); to his final witty denial that his tale has been about any ideal of human relations; to his envoy, rescinding the symbolic meaning he has offered instead, and ironically lamenting the departure of virtuous models of conduct from the company of the living forever. Chaucer presents the Clerk’s unworldliness as in every respect not that of a man of spiritual vocation, but that of a man who quite simply will not appear in this world: his only acts are vanishing acts. Minimalism is not only Chaucer’s technique in presenting him, it is also the Clerk’s way of existing in the world. His manner of address is infinitely weighty and infinitely brief, a very vanishing point for art, which presents to the world nothing but itself. As a performer he is perhaps the most outrageous player of the Canterbury game. His rime royal and his envoy are the most elegantly turned Chaucer ever made, but they playfully refuse to turn the good of the story outward toward an audience. He declines to translate his story’s “then” into this audience’s “now,” insisting that it cannot be done; instead he ends his “ernestful matere” and offers to add “a song to glade yow” as his contribution to the spirit of “myrie” play. Unlike the other new men, he does not comment on the relation of the translated story, “endited” in “heigh stile” by Petrarch the “lauriat poete,” to the current demand for entertainment. Like Chaucer in the Parlement and Troilus, he leaves “making” and “poetry” tantalizingly juxtaposed. The “intente” of the Clerk’s final gesture is baffling. It may be seen as an effort to defend and preserve the purity of Griselda’s example by isolating it, refusing to put its pure gold to the vulgar “assayes” of practical use “now-a-dayes,” a purpose consonant with the Clerk’s own avoidance of worldly “office.” It may also be read as yet one more profession of obedience to Harry’s request that he avoid making moral claims upon us in his “pley” – an assent whose patent irony requires the hearer to affirm the opposite: that this “ernestful matere” is both useful to hear and not “impertinent” to play and pleasure. Whatever the intent of the gesture, its curious similarity to earlier Chaucerian multiple closures is clear, and suggests an interpretation.

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With this tale, the Clerk challenges an audience as Griselda’s impassive patience challenges Walter. He offers a tale so beautifully made, with such art-concealing purity of line, that we must ourselves insist on its value, across the narrator’s denial that this value can be made useful or explained. He insists that he has obeyed our pleasure in all things, utterly fulfilling our implicit demand that he make an object of pleasure rather than one of moral use: his envoy, however, catches his audience in the act of trying to find a relation between the two, retrospectively searching the perfect serenity of its style for clues to what it means. In this way of posing the relation between “making” and “poetry,” however he is yet another – and the most extreme and comic – version of the perpetually ingratiating entertainer Chaucer. Like Chaucer he rides meek and still and must be coaxed into performing; like Chaucer, he is treated as infinitely pliant to detailed requests to be purely amusing and to avoid bookishness. And like Chaucer, he must somehow fulfill an utterly selfcontradictory demand: he must make us feel improved and vindicated, as well as entertained, without manifesting any persuasive designs upon us. The Clerk’s reply is comically radical: his ironic retraction of his story’s practical moral or allegorical use implies that “poetrie” has no life for practice or the present. His final gesture fulfills instead the customary expectations of the “maker”: that he act into the social situation obligingly and freely, and that his “making” be purely stylish and recreative, and affirm us in the feelings we came with; yet it also announces that this is done at the cost of keeping “enditing” the form in which “poetry” comes into current worldly use, “in stoor,” perhaps awaiting a more rarefied and princely taste than that of this company to recognize the goodness in its simple beauty. If the Clerk is an ideal, it is as his Griselda is – as one without a present world in which to live. Like her impassive face, “ay constant as a wal,” his perfect stylistic edifice is his only worldly resource. This is perhaps a perverse, and certainly too condensed, reading of the Clerk’s performance. It is intended, however, to suggest some possible implications of the intellectual genesis of the Canterbury Tales I have described. When a courtier’s amusement becomes the pilgrims’ game, “making” becomes “enditing,” and its emotional and ethical vocabulary become problematic, fertile ground for speculation, by being assigned to unlikely players and placed in narrative situations that generate questions not easily referred to cultic values. When “making” becomes “enditing,” its court of appeal becomes the world.

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Even in its transferred form, this theory of poetry and ideal of eloquence retains signs of its origin. The end of “enditing,” like that of “making,” is worldly pleasure and mutual understanding, not the inculcation of any transcendent truth; and as “making” was a way of affirming and celebrating the graces requisite to courtly society, “enditing” was a way of honoring and exercising the virtues conducive to worldly peace and secular felicity: in a heterogeneous society, these will be the virtuosities that assure “the sufficient life.” The young people of the Decameron choose for their last day’s storytelling a subject that seems especially well-suited for preparing them to reenter their plague-devastated city: “those who have performed liberal or munificent deeds, whether in the cause of love or otherwise.” And whether in the cause of love or otherwise, the stylistically self-conscious and high-minded Canterbury pilgrims tell some of the same stories; one feel it is with the same implicit sense of worldly and public purpose: “And thus our lives, which cannot be other than brief in these our mortal bodies, will be preserved by the fame of our achievements.”36 The examination of virtue through stories has itself become a virtuous act, and tale-telling a heroic pilgrimage to truth. The fifteenth century was well justified in considering Chaucer its primary English model of the “rhetorical poete.” He not only provided a tonally varied high vernacular eloquence as a model, but reasoned deeply and fruitfully in his own fiction on the social environment and philosophical purposes for which it was to thrive.

The Decameron, tr. G.H. McWilliam (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), IX, Conclusion, p. 731. 36

III

The Physician’s Tale and Love’s Martyrs: “Ensamples Mo than Ten” as a Method in the Canterbury Tales Whereas a man may have noon audience, Noght helpeth it to tellen his sentence. And wel I woot the substance is in me, If any thyng shal wel reported be. (Canterbury Tales B 3991–94)

It would be folly in this advanced state of Chaucer studies to attempt to reverse the “unjustified” neglect of the Physician’s Tale. Neglect can always be justified; it is not thereby necessarily explained. The usual justification is simply that the tale is dull and inferior. Considering the company it keeps, one must agree, but also point out that this does not mean that it is inartistic, or, what is more important, that it is uncharacteristic of its author. On the contrary, it is so utterly and modestly Chaucerian that it is practically invisible. The discernible marks of an artist’s “making” on the Physician’s Tale are everywhere so completely in line with what we intuitively know of Chaucer from the whole corpus that the tale can offer a clear lens through which to view his formal development in larger units. In the Physician’s Tale as in the Manciple’s Tale – another non-starter in the field of critical controversy – we have a model for Chaucer’s assimilation of influences and sources, and for his handling of a number of narrative techniques, a model both viable and valuable in approaching the enormous complexity of the Canterbury framework. This complexity, which has so far resisted schematization, looks in its individual lines and pieces remarkably simple, effortless, even dull: Godwin’s objection that there is nothing in the style to “hurry away the soul” is a perfectly correct, if insufficiently respectful, description of it. Neither is there anything in this tale to “kindle the fancy,” yet the astonishing fictional intricacy of the Canterbury Tales in some important features simply magnifies many thousandfold what this dull little moral tale does as a poetic structure. This essay will examine the Physician’s Tale of Appius and Virginia, first as it reveals its method through contrast with its immediate sources and narrative traditions; and then in relation to other tales with which it shares, if not genre, a family resemblance, and to the unfinished Legend of Good Women,

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the collection for which some critics believe the Physician’s Tale was originally intended. Both kinds of study suggest that the tale represents a point ahout halfway along a quite clear line of development in Chaucer’s conception and use of “exemplary” narrative, a line connecting the “Seintes Legendes of Cupide” with those of love’s martyrs in the Canterbury Tales: Dorigen of the Franklin’s Tale and the Prioresse’s “litel clergeon” (both of whose stories are hagiographical in certain very limited ways), Cecilia in the Second Nun’s Tale, Constance in the Man of Law’s Tale and, in the supreme formal triumph of the type, Griselde in the Clerk’s Tale. Chaucer’s transformations in his material and the processes of judgment and feeling he evokes for the reader in the tales of Virginia and Griselde are similar in kind; and perhaps the delicacy and paradox of the Clerk’s Tale will look somewhat less perverse viewed in the light of Chaucer’s gradual working through of a major problem in poetics. The usual practice of calling the Physician’s Tale the story “of Virginia” or “of Appius and Virginia” indicates the effect of Chaucer’s changes in the sources he appears to have used. His version shifts the narrative emphasis and ethical interest toward the virgin courage of the daughter, away from the other two principal characters and their chief moral attributes: the perversion of justice in Appius and the stern patrician resolve of the wronged father. Livy’s story of the wicked judge who contrives a false legal claim in order to win possession of the maiden Virginia whom he desires is told to illustrate the degeneracy of Rome under the tyrants. The civil outcry against Appius’ attempt is the first spark of resistance to an arbitrary and corrupt order, and Livy stresses the civil implications of the event. The efforts of Virginia’s fiancé to forestall her seizure as a slave by Appius’ henchman succeed just long enough to permit her father to return to Rome from a military mission, only to plead in vain for his daughter. Finding justice powerless, he perceives that the one remaining way to preserve his daughter’s honor against the false claimant is to end her life: as the spectators in the court watch, he seizes his sword, beheads his child and presents the head to the judge. Public outrage prevents the judge from carrying out the death sentence for murder that he instantly pronounces upon the father; instead the crowd forces Appius himself into prison, where he hangs himself. This “moral” – that the unjust judge deserves to suffer the penalty he has wrongly inflicted on others – is the focus of Jean de Meun’s use of the incident in the Roman de la Rose. He omits Livy’s larger political argument; Jean’s tale is no longer a historical example, but a moral exemplum, cited by Reason to demonstrate to the Lover the superiority of Love over Justice. Reason assures the Lover that both qualities are good and needful, but Love is the greater, “Car puis qu’Amor s’en voudroit fuire / Joutice en feroit trop

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destruire” (Roman, 5519–20)1 – if Love reigned, there would be no need for justice. Reason uses this story to prove that, in practice, power and virtue are seldom joined. Jean’s version is brief – less than fifty lines long – and omits all detail not directly relevant to displaying Appius’ perversion of his high responsibility. The beleaguered patrician Virginius, who exemplifies antique virtue now about to reassert itself and reverse a long period of oppression, yields to the negative example of Appius as the focus of ethical attention. Virginius has no direct speech, and only the one significant gesture “which transformed shame to tragedy” (Roman, 5601). Jean does not specify that he kills his daughter before the court in a sudden access of noble resolve, but he certainly does not present the act as a solemnly prepared sacrifice, as Chaucer does. Reason’s only qualification of the deed is that “for love and not for hate” he killed his child – a suggestion elaborated in the pathetic scene between father and daughter in the Physician’s Tale. Jean’s distilling of the story is the one Chaucer adopts; Chaucer’s emphasis, however, is not Jean’s. There is no convincing evidence that Chaucer used any source other than the Roman de la Rose for the events of the tale: like Jean, Chaucer attributes the story to “Titus Livius” in the opening sentence; Chaucer omits Virginia’s fiancé and his delaying action, and, like Jean, he discounts the important role of the Roman populace throughout. Yet he adds to Reason’s story a strong interest in Virginia as a virgin martyr. Without the political force of public pressure, the story loses its historical dimension; without Virginia’s betrothal, the story loses its similarity to Chaucer’s earlier tale of sacrificed Roman virtue, the story of Lucretia. Livy had once before been cited as Chaucer’s “auctor,” for the story of Lucrece in the Legend of Good Women (though in fact there too he uses another account, that of Ovid in the Fasti, as the basis for the tale). In the Physician’s Tale Virginia’s death is not, like Lucretia’s, a patrician defense of wifely honor and constancy, but the legend of a secular saint. Nothing of the hagiographical aspect of the story is explicit in the Roman. Reason shows no interest in Virginia: she is the price of her father’s moral triumph, which is in turn secondary to the triumph of justice in Appius’ suicide. The purely subordinate value of father and daughter to Reason’s point is obvious from the fact that they are introduced into the plot only after Appius’ scheme against them has been set forth, and neither speaks at all. Reason’s point concerns injustice, not its victims.

1 Le Roman de la Rose, ed Felix Lecoy, CFMA 92 (Paris, 1965). See Sources and Analogues to the Canterbury Tales, ed. W.F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago, 1941), which reprints the relevant passages from Livy and the Roman.

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Injustice also interests the Physician and Harry Bailly, but unlike Jean’s narrator and listener, they are also concerned about its victims: there is much talk of “innocence betrayed.” But whose injustice, whose innocence, and whose betrayal? And what do these concepts mean? The style, proportions, and narrative order of Chaucer’s tale open these and other questions, rather than restrict our inquiry, as Reason’s account does. Considered as an exemplum of injustice, Chaucer’s tale is severely flawed. It is vacillating in moral focus and uneconomical. It lapses into irrelevant preaching and sentimental scenes. It is difficult to find an action singled out for praise and emulation, or to regard the fable as a whole as showing what Samuel Johnson called “the observation of justice.” Johnson’s phrase for the essential quality he found lacking in King Lear aptly describes what this tale fails to provide: a set of understandable definitions, derived through particular actions, for the moral absolutes it is supposed to illustrate. Is it, then, merely a tale of rather repellent behavior, lacking “redeeming social value?” If it is, then so is the Clerk’s Tale, for the means by which Chaucer involves his listeners in the moral complexities that surround and qualify the exemplary meaning of the source story is the same in the two tales. Before considering those means, we may glance at the Physician’s and Harry Bailly’s comments on the story. Judging from the Physician’s remarks one would think he had just finished telling Reason’s story: his conclusion implies that his tale has been “about” Appius and the sin of injustice: “Therfore I rede yow this conseil take: / Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” (C 285–86).2 Harry Bailly, however, is more interested in the victim. He briefly echoes Reason’s condemnation of the “fals cherl”: “As shameful deeth as herte may devyse / Come to thise juges and hire advocatz!” (C 290–91), but bestows most of his feelings on the unfortunate Virginia: Algate this sely mayde is slayn, allas! Allas, to deere boughte she beautee! Wherfore I seye al day that men may see That yiftes of Fortune and of Nature Been cause of deeth to many a creature. Hire beautee was hire deth, I dar wel sayn. Allas, so pitously as she was slayn! Of bothe yiftes that I speke of now Men han ful ofte moore for harm than prow.

(C 292–300) 2 Citations of Chaucer are from The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1957).

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For Harry, Appius’ fate may exemplify injustice and its rewards, but Virginia’s shows the injustice of Fortune itself and the capriciousness of all earthly reward. Harry’s point is commonplace enough; and curiously in the Roman it is the very next subject Reason takes up after finishing the tale of Appius. There Reason, offering herself as a mistress to the Lover, sets forth the superiority of her gifts over Fortune’s. Similarly Harry sees in the story an instance of the woes Fortune can bring with her gifts even to one who does not overvalue them. What the story is “about,” it seems, depends entirely on whom it is about. Livy’s story, like the Physician’s “sentence,” focuses on Appius, and on Virginius as a positive example of civil virtue. In fact, the reciprocal relationship between the domestic and public virtues, shown in Appius and Virginius as schematized opposites, is Livy’s whole argument: when men like Appius hold public power, he suggests, there is no safety even for the bonds of home and family. Public ills disease even private goods; you must destroy the tyrant or destroy yourself – and for Livy, Virginia is simply an extension of Virginius himself. There is no question of her choosing death over dishonor as Lucretia did. Since Virginia is not germane to Livy’s argument here, her wishes are weightless in the moral balance struck between Appius and her father. Harry Bailly’s moral is not Livy’s, and it is not to be found in the Roman, where Virginia is likewise a non-person – the particular object of the dialectic, but not a controlling factor in it. Reason’s later discussion of Fortune’s gifts, which parallels Harry’s concern here, occurs in a separate argument in the Roman and by that time the wench is dead. Where then does Harry’s interest in Virginia come from? It is worth asking, for though Harry often picks up what the teller, or Chaucer, or we would consider the “wrong” point of view, or fails to see that an action is treated ironically, he never invents a problem that is not there. His answers to moral or artistic questions posed in the tales almost never follow the advocacy of the teller or his fable, but he always knows where the questions are. Like Pandarus’ proverbial whetstone, he need not be sharp himself to improve the cutting edge of an argument. He derives his moral concern, of course, from the tale Chaucer wrote, not the one the Physician seems to think he has just concluded satisfactorily with his last two lines. For even while the Physician is busy pointing out his “conclusiouns,” the rest of his summary raises problems of moral focus already heightened in Chaucer’s additions to his originals, and encouraged by every rhetorical device by which he gave them form and purpose.

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The Physicians “sentence” in its entirety admits both points remarked by Harry Bailly: Beth war, for no man woot whom God wol smyte In no degree, ne in which manere wyse The worm of conscience may agryse Of wikked lyf, though it so pryvee be That no man woot therof but God and he. For be he lewed man, or ellis lered, He noot how soone that he shal been afered. (C 278–84)

His tale illustrates chiefly “how synne hath his merite,” but also the utter inscrutability of Fortune and the questionable relationship between merit and earthly reward. Only the central three lines of this passage require us to consider it an interpretation of Appius’ fall alone: the rest is equally applicable to Virginius’ tragic sacrifice, and his daughter’s death. “Ne in which manere wyse” is first understood by a hearer as modifying the action preceding it, “God wol smyte”; the pause at the end of the line seems to confirm this interpretation of the sentence. Only at the end of the next line do we discover that the phrase modifies what follows it – “(ne in which maner wyse / ) the worm of conscience may agryse.” This ordering of the sentence brings the workings of conscience and the operation of God’s purpose through history into parallel relationship and pulls both into focus as subjects of the tale. The worm of conscience may reveal man’s sins to him, Virginius’ as well as Appius’, and Virginia’s death may suggest a divine pattem. That is, the “moral” of the tale may be independent of the motives of any of the characters, and also independent of the point of view of the teller. The Physician’s Tale presents ethical complexities evoked by no other version of the story, by inviting us to consider the undeserved wrongs of the victims as well as the deserved death of the evil judge. We are asked by the form of the narrative to weigh the actions of Virginius, the victim of Appius’ malice, and those of Virginia, the victim of her father’s conscience. It is not merely modern sympathy for the underdog, or resistance to the idea of martyrdom for virginity, that draws our attention to this second issue, any more than the widespread acceptance of the Wife of Bath’s view of feminine wilfulness suffices to explain our extreme uneasiness in the midst of aesthetic assent in the Clerk’s Tale. In both tales, most of Chaucer’s changes in his sources assure that we will be uneasy, that we will not be able to suspend

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our disbelief entirely, and forget a world of wider and more emotionally complex choices than the source tale offers, and its Canterbury narrator advocates. In the Physician’s Tale, as in the Canterbury Tales generally, Chaucer encourages us to examine, define, and redefine ethical abstractions that are treated as given in his originals or regarded as unexamined moral categories by their Canterbury narrators: concepts such as “gentilesse,” “fredom,” “innocence,” “auctoritee.” Instead of firmly defining these moral categories by exemplary action, and recommending them as imperatives to an audience, Chaucer places them within quotation marks, and chips away at their solidity by reminding us of the speaker’s self-interest, inconsistency, or imaginative blindness: In the Canterbury Tales, ethical terms are not hypostatized and set in motion, as in some allegories; they become sets of emphases in somebody’s scheme of things. The tale of Griselde is about patience, but also about the term “patience” as it is used by the Clerk against the Wife and as it can be applied in moral imperatives. The tale does not define a term, but describes the conditions under which debate arises. The tales as Chaucer adapts them become consistently less neat, less economical, and far less palatable as ethical examples than their sources are – and they succeed with us largely to the extent that they fail their tellers. Again and again, stories fail to “prove” their narrators’ theses, or to settle the conflicts that emerge from within their tales or the debates that arise among the pilgrims. The tales provide, as experience itself does, “ensamples many oon”; the problem, and their value, lies in reading them. The inconsistencies and loose ends that dangle everywhere in plain sight in the Canterbury Tales show the tellers of “useful” stories largely as dealers in ill-formed or incomplete “sentences.” The point of any story is fragmented among several coexistent but mutually exclusive readings of it, and its value emerges only in the reader’s ability to understand and entertain their several claims upon him. The Physician’s Tale provides as many examples as there are characters to embody them, and interested parties to defend or be offended by them. The “sentence,” the valued and valuable action the story offers, is not Virginia’s or her father’s, nor the Physician’s nor Harry Bailly’s, but ours, in receiving “solas” from them all. Virginius’ self-dramatization and the Physician’s sermonizing offer moral interpretations which, because they are highly selective, are lightweight, neat examples; but also not worth transporting. The structure and rhetoric of the story do not provide a portable lesson. They confer a power that cannot be applied outside the fiction: the power to sustain the weight and implications of all these partial views at once.

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The Physician’s “sentence” fails to acknowledge the pathos generated by the final scene between father and daughter. Nearly as long as the whole of Jean’s story, it is the last dramatically elaborated incident in the narrative; in contrast, Appius’ death is reported in a line and a half. This scene is entirely Chaucer’s contribution, one of two long additions which constitute his main departure from Jean’s story. In no other version of the tale is Virginius’ deed a ritual sacrifice, solemnly prepared in moral anguish, and separated from his decision by “a litel space” in which Virginia “compleyns” her death like the heroines of the Legends. Furthermore, in no other version of the story is the larger tragedy of Virginia’s death prepared by any information about her character. In Chaucer’s other major addition of more than a hundred lines at the beginning of the tale, he makes Virginia its primary focus, and thus justifies Harry’s reading of the tale. By describing her beauty and spiritual attributes as supreme gifts of Nature, and by stressing her active cultivation of virtue, Chaucer causes us to seek the meaning of her passive sacrifice, where Harry Bailly can only remark on a discrepancy he sees but cannot interpret. Chaucer prompts us to weigh the Roman civic virtue of Virginius against other classical and Christian virtues which Harry’s comment helps to define. Chaucer’s Virginia differs consistently from her predecessors not only in being a good deal more visible, but particularly in having the conventional attributes of a virgin martyr, a figure whose literary character is often a paradoxical mixture of active courage and passive forbearance. She is much younger than her earlier counterparts: fourteen, not yet betrothed. She is naturally endowed with beauty and pleasant bearing, but is also wise and steadfast in strengthening her gifts by conscious choice. “Of hir owene vertu, unconstreyned,” the Physician insists, she avoided wanton company, and was “evere in bisynesse / To dryve hire out of ydel slogardye” (C 56–57). This sort of precocious self-awareness and spiritual discipline is among the commonest of hagiographical commonplaces. The paradoxical “wise child” motif, with its rich opportunities for figural elaboration from the Gospels, is the dominant theme of many biographers’ accounts of the youth of a saint. The young St Martin, in Sulpicius Severus’ widely influential Life, is bound against his wishes to a military oath by force of arrest and chains, where he nevertheless avoids the usual sins of the professional soldier as Virginia shuns the pastimes of ordinary patrician youth, “feestes, revels, and ... daunces.” Though not of a Christian family, Virginia resembles in her early-cultivated sense of purpose another patrician Roman maiden, St Cecilia, whose legend Chaucer had already completed before the Canterbury period. As Chaucer explored the possibilities of argument among the pilgrims through their tales,

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the exemplary value of saintly activity and passive suffering was to engage his interest in increasingly complex ways. Here his insistence on Virginia’s actively virtuous use of her gifts contrasts strangely with the passive, almost negligible role assigned her by all the forces of the story as he inherited it. Heightened by the framing speculation on the “gifts of Nature,” which prefaces the description of Virginia and worries Harry Bailly at the end, this incongruity between active virtue and passive sacrifice itself becomes a formal interest of the tale. The story makes an example both of the nature of sacrifice, and of the moral ambiguities entailed in interpreting such examples. The question of who holds the final rights to the governing and disposing of human life, and hence the question of the context in which the moral problems of sacrifice can be understood, recurs throughout the tale like a refrain. Even before he introduces Virginia as an instance of saint-like selfgovernance, Chaucer prefaces the story with a philosophical myth which gives the dimensions of his moral theme. In a speech which begins the tale, Dame Nature, the harmonious generative principle of created matter, rejoices aloud in Virginia’s excellence. Nature’s delight or special care is a common conceit in medieval descriptions of feminine beauty; this speech, however, has an uncommon emphasis. Drawn from the prelude to Nature’s confession in a later part of the Roman de la Rose, it stresses Nature’s universal purpose and man’s subordination to it, rather than the artistic ingenuity of God’s “vicaire general.” Virginia’s excellence is simply an especially clear instance of the harmony and perfection of all Nature’s work, not a unique exception to the rules: Thus kan I forme and peynte a creature, Whan that me list; who kan me countrefete? Pigmalion noght, though he ay forge and bete .... (C 12–14)

Human artists – Pygmalion, Apelles, “Zanzis” – may strive for a lifetime and fail to create even one perfect illusion of Nature’s works, still less to create life itself. Here Chaucer, following Jean, alludes to the widespread notion of the danger of self-delusion and blasphemy inherent in an artist’s mimetic efforts. An ancient fear, recorded in taboos predating any specific aesthetic formulation, it is derived as a philosophical view of art from the Platonic notion that the artist’s handiwork is at best several removes from reality.3 In See Ernst Kris, “The Image of the Artist,” in Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York, 1952), esp. pp. 74–9. 3

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the Neo-Platonic form used here, however, it evokes in particular a closely parallel view of sexual generation. Pygmalion forged his image by hand out of the fantasy of his mind; his Galatea is both lover and child. Nature too, is an artist, whose medium is flesh and blood. Her hammer and anvil, as Jean’s and Alain de Lille’s elaborate metaphors make clear, are the reproductive organs of all living beings. Both artist and parent generate images, to which they contribute certain material accidents, but they are at best secondary creators; their images receive the spark of life, and whatever autonomous essence they have, from a higher authority. As many scholars have remarked, the effect of this powerful myth, characteristic of the Platonism of the school of Chartres, took two main directions. As a theory of art, this view of Nature-as-artisan enabled Chartrian humanism to justify the role of poetry in the edification of man’s soul. As a natural philosophy, it made a parallel between man’s rational and sexual creation, and assigned a new degree of dignity to his endowments as a “lyves creature.”4 Human love and the bonds of affection and responsibility between parent and child have their place in a hierarchy, parallel to the place of physical beauty. The myth both justifies the responsibilities of the human creator and shows the higher laws from which they derive. Concluding her speech, Nature cites the final cause of Virginia’s gifts: My lord and I been ful of oon accord. I made hire to the worshipe of my lord; So do I alle myne othere creatures, What colour that they han, or what figures. (C 25–28)

The human parent is conscientious in nurture as an artist is cunning in ornament, but neither Pygmalion nor Virginius can give life or govern it unaided. Appius abuses Virginia’s beauty by wilfully misreading it; the offense is not in her, but in Appius’ lustful eye. Virginius, in sacrificing his daughter, repeats the judge’s abuse in another form, for he implicitly confuses fatherhood not only with the privileged role of judge and executioner, but with that of the ultimate Judge of life, and his “vicaire general.” From the very beginning of the tale Chaucer provides a much larger operative philosophical context than his predecessors, within which their assumptions about virtuous actions are contained and examined. Pygmalion’s solipsism, in contrast with Nature’s See Winthrop Wetherbee III, “The School of Chartres and Medieval Poetry” (unpub. diss., U. of California, Berkeley, 1967), chapters II and III. 4

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more powerful craft, forecasts in the form of myth one kind of judgment on Virginius’ action; as the Old Testament parallel of Jephthah and his daughter evokes a similar judgment in the last scene. Chaucer follows his mythic presentation of assumptions about nature and nurture with an account of Virginia’s character, emphasizing her saintly cultivation of the active life of self-discipline. Yet he then has the Physician interrupt his tale with a moralizing discourse on the formative influence of parents and guardians. By suggesting that parents are the sole ethical force relevant to a child’s behavior, and by ignoring their duty to foster the inner autonomy of the child’s conscience, the Physician forecasts the grave questions of absolute and relative moral authority raised again later by Virginius’ sacrifice. Despite Virginia’s unusual strength of character, she is at the time of the story still in her parents’ watchful care; Chaucer adds to his source the fact that she was accompanied by her mother on the day Appius first saw her on the way to the temple, and he calls further attention to the point by including a long speech on child guidance. The Physician discourses at some length on the importance of having guardians and governesses who will keep their young charges securely out of wanton ways, either by virtue of their having themselves always maintained a spotless character, or because they have special knowledge through their own experience as reformed followers of “the olde daunce.” The latter proposal does not speak well for the Physician’s pedagogical foresight, since it recalls a philosophy of feminine education of which the Wife of Bath is the honors graduate. The apparent irrelevance of the Physician’s long digression, however, has led scholars to look even further afield than the Wife’s “scoleiyng” in order to explain his purpose. Summarizing his views of governesses with a general sentiment – “Of alle tresons sovereyn pestilence / Is whan a wight bitrayseth innocence” (91–92) – the Physician then turns to the duty of parents to be good examples to their children, and to be vigilant in chastising, lest the child perish and they live to regret it: “If that they doon, ye shul it deere abeye” (100). In this little sermon on the rearing of children scholars have seen a pointed allusion to recent events in the household of John of Gaunt, whose long liaison with his children’s governess, Katherine Swynford, is thought to have been the bad example leading to his daughter’s illicit affair.5 All this had been a subject of recent scandal, but even if the topical reference is historically likely, the assumption of it is not necessary to account for the

5

See Robinson’s note on the passage, p. 727.

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purpose of these remarks. Their value for the tale lies precisely in the fact that they are thematically inappropriate. Their stress on the passive malleability of youth contrasts strangely with the moral self-sufficiency we have already heard praised in Virginia; and the peculiar absence of any mention of love as the root of parental discipline runs counter to the whole burden of Nature’s speech. The stern dictum invoked here, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” finds fuller and more reasoned expression in Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” The Physician’s version retains the sternness of the imperative, but ignores the bond of natural love which in the Biblical formulation justifies sternness. “Ye shul it deere abeye” suggests the parents’ disgrace rather than the errant child’s suffering or spiritual welfare, and the entire digression on governance implies that the child is the parents’ manufactured possession, and “innocence” or virginity a physical condition to be guarded like property, not a spiritual treasure enjoyed by the child. Though we see ample reason for Virginius’ pride in his virtuous daughter, and hear that he has “pitee” for the fate he is about to announce to her in the final scene, it is there alone that we hear any mention of his love for her, and it is in the same breath with which he announces his intent to kill her. O gemme of chastitee, in pacience Take thou thy deeth, for this is my sentence. For love, and nat for hate, thou most be deed; My pitous hand moot smyten of thyn heed. (223–26)

No amount of rereading softens the violent juxtaposition of the last line; the graphic energy of “smyten of,” the gratuitous mention of hate, and the force of the rhyme emphasize the content of the “sentence” and weigh heavily against protestations about its motive. The verse heightens the horror of the act, while the indirection of the sentence structure dilutes responsibility for it. The father’s diction borrows legal language, invoking with it the privileged detachment of the judge’s office: not “I” but “my pitous hand” must carry out the “sentence.” This is as close as Virginius comes to specifying cause and effect: throughout his lament, Virginia is simply the target of her father’s moral demands of himself, and his deed an almost allegorical self-definition, not the slaying of another human being. Even his exclamations of anguish show no doubt about his moral rights in the matter. He sees himself as a deity might, as the scourge and minister of destiny itself, a force of nature;

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his speech recalls the Neo-Platonic goddess of the preface, “vicaire general” of the universal father. Virginius’ view of his action is practically identical with Livy’s: it defines a stern patrician honor of which he is the dramatic representative. Chaucer takes this narrative assumption from Jean’s story and assigns it a place within the tale, enclosing it within the quotation marks that surround the father’s speech. Virginius’ allegorical view of himself is manifest in every detail of his sentence structure: “Doghter,” quod he, “Virginia, by thy name, Ther been two weyes, outher deeth or shame, That thou most suffre; allas, that I was bore! For nevere thou deservedest wherfore To dyen with a swerd or with a knyf. O deere doghter, endere of my lyf, Which I have fostred up with swich plesaunce That thou were nevere out of my remembraunce! O doghter, which that art my laste wo, And in my lyf my laste joye also, O gemme of chastitee, in pacience Take thou thy deeth . . . .” (213–24)

Despite the passionate tone of these lines, their rhetorical posture is detached and self-regarding. Virginius’ lament for the daughter he has “fostred up with swich plesaunce” recapitulates Nature’s rejoicing at her creation, and from much the same point of view. Regardless of his naming of the alternatives, “outher deeth or shame,” there is nothing to suggest that a choice between them remains to be made. The structure of her father’s speech reveals that Virginia is seen as an object, not a person; even when she is the grammatical subject of a sentence she is the sufferer of an action (“Never thou deservedest,” “Take thou thy deeth,” “Thou were nevere out of my remembrance”). The epithets applied to her are hyperbolic, but also egocentric (“My laste wo / And in my lyf my laste joye”), and even startlingly inverted: “Endere of my lyf.” She is the subject of verb action only in sentences that preclude her volition (“Thou most suffre,” “Thou most be deed”). The immediate effect of this rhetorical arrangement is twofold: it severs all direct connection between the father as agent and his deed (“to dyen with a knyf ” and “my pitous hand” avoid naming a personal agent), and it casts Virginia as a purely passive object whom it is her father’s right, as progenitor,

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to sacrifice. His last two lines complete his detachment from the deed: Virginia becomes Appius’ victim directly, as her father becomes invisible: Allas, that evere Apius the say! Thus hath he falsly jugged the to-day. (227–28)

She is not in fact judged by Appius but by her father, whose language here encourages a comparison between them. As judge, Virginius is proposing that the remedy for the offending eye is not to pluck it out, but to remove its object – a decision certainly open to our question, though it is unexamined by Virginius. In his eyes, his daughter is what her name seems to imply to him, an extension of himself, and in killing her he is simply an executioner, a morally neutral “ministre general” carrying out the sentence Appius passed upon Virginius. He is, in Angus Fletcher’s terms, an allegorical character,6 a “demonic” figure without self-awareness, standing for a single value, patrician probity. Insofar as he is Livy’s hero, an idealization of Roman virtue, he is not culpable, for to him there is no distinction between self-immolation and sacrifice of another for his principles. But his moral terms, accepted wholeheartedly by Livy and with guarded admiration by Jean, are in the Physician’s Tale enclosed within a series of more inclusive frames, permitting the reader a wider view than the Physician or any of the characters in his story has. Chaucer’s long preamble has shown a natural law above civil justice and men’s desperate remedies against its errors. Poised against the Roman patrician heroism of Virginius is a heroine of saint-like active virtue, martyred, like Jephthah’s daughter, to a father’s vow. The Old Testament story evokes a similar struggle between the two kinds of allegiance examined in the Physician’s Tale: the bonds of natural affection and those of “the worshipe of my lord.” Jephthah’s sacrifice of his only child (Judges 11:29–40), explicitly echoed as a figural parallel in Virginia’s plea for “a litel space” to mourn her death, has long been recognized as adding significant detail and symbolic depth to this tale. Jephthah, a general of the Israelites, has vowed to sacrifice “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house” to meet him if he defeats the Ammonites. On his triumphant return he is welcomed by his only daughter. Chaucer apparently derives his extended last scene between father and child, present in no other version of the story, from this Old Testament account. Jephthah tells his daughter of his vow in a speech that parallels Virginius’ lament: “And it came to pass when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and

6

Angus Fletcher, Allegory, the Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, 1964), pp. 25–69.

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said, Alas, my daughter! Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.” Richard Hoffman has shown that the Jewish commentators devoted a great deal of attention to Jephthah’s dilemma, and he points out that generally Jephthah was regarded as mistaken in carrying out his vow, since God did not demand human sacrifice.7 This moral speculation about tbe Old Testament story is similar to that evoked by the Franklin’s Tale, which directly precedes the Physician’s in the Ellesmere manuscript; Hoffman sees the two as related by the common device of a rash promise, and by their two narrators’ hazy ethical grasp of its implications. After the fourth quistione in Boccaccio’s Filocolo, an analogue to the story of Dorigen, the listeners debate at length the Franklin’s unanswered question “Which was the mooste fre?” and point out in particular the ambiguities of the central abstraction, liberalità,8 upon which Boccaccio’s story depends. Similarly, Hoffman claims, the Physician is oblivious to the moral questions he raises. His “studie was but litel on the Bible,” and so he ignores the common Christian exegetical tradition which has interpreted the story of Jephthah at length. It was traditionally read as similar in spiritual meaning to Abraham’s offering of Isaac: Jephthah is a type of Christ and his daughter Christ’s human flesh, sacrificed in redemption. Since to this “praktisour,” concerned with the care of bodies and not the cure of souls, virginity is physical intactness rather than a state of the “goost,” the spiritual meaning of Virginia’s death escapes him, and in his concluding remarks he dwells only on the punishment earned by the wicked Appius. These parallels from scriptural commentary offer relevant insight into a dimension Chaucer’s contemporaries may have found operative in the story. That there are more things in it than are encompassed in the Physician’s “moralitee” can be shown, however, not only by its relation to analogous stories and exegetical tradition, but perhaps more forcefully by the structure that sustains them. The narrative sources and commentaries on Biblical analogues can, like an X-ray of a metal sculpture, by showing the seams indicate the places where the materials of tradition and the individual talent meet; they cannot characterize the expressive form of the result. The literary structure is not the sum of its allusions, but the means by which they are made accessible to us in the process of reading or listening. We examine the moral problem surrounding Virginius’ act, not only because a scriptural analogue is open to similar questions, but because the tale itself offers incompatible 7 Richard L. Hoffman, “Jephthah’s Daughter and Chaucer’s Virginia,” ChauR 2 (1967), 20–31. 8 See Alan T. Gaylord, “The Promises in the Franklin’s Tale,” ELH 31 (1964), 331–65.

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ethical and generic systems for understanding it, and forces us to vacillate thoughtfully among them. Like the notion of “fredom” in the Franklin’s Tale, ideas associated with “justice” and “right” recur in this story like rhymesounds, inviting us to use them to order the reported events in our minds in such a way that the instance supports the abstraction. Yet repeated attempts to apply these patterns as tools of thought change them; increasingly the abstractions become “immersed in matter,” in Bacon’s admirable phrase, until the situation manages the principle, rather than the reverse. The rhetorical use of the exemplum is turned inside out, until the overwhelming question changes from “What is a good action; what is doing-well?” to “What kinds of things can we say about human actions?” What is changed as we read the tale – or any other part of the Canterbury Tales – is not our definitions of justice, sacrifice, innocence, or of marriage or pilgrimage or the proper earthly order of things, but our ideas about order itself. Chaucer’s ordering of his material is as meaningful as his selection and adaptation, for it forces the interpretation of irreconcilable narrative premises. He adopts the “natural” order of the historian, in which events are narrated in the sequence in which they occurred: Virginia is created by the goddess Nature, and augments her natural gifts by conscious choice; yet as she grows in reason and grace she manifests her virtue in beauty which attracts the lustful glance of the subject. It is only at this point that Jean’s version of the story begins. Reason’s exemplum can only sustain its singleness of moral focus by use of the “artful” or “artificial” order in which “what occurred first is told last,”9 beginning with Appius’ plot, then introducing its victims. The artful order is dramatic and selective, permitting the teller a close control over the implications, an advantage which probably explains why medieval rhetorical theorists recommended this narrative mode over the “natural” one for the telling of exemplary stories. It throws a few selected incidents into sharp relief, and views them from a carefully delimited vantage point; as when Jean, following Livy, restricts the ways we can regard Virginius’ act by rendering his sudden decision to “turn shame into tragedy” in a single swift motion, a gesture continuous with the fall of his sword. Chaucer’s natural order in the Physician’s Tale is, however, his characteristic one: that of the detached and painstaking historian, scrupulously letting time take its natural course and allowing implications to fall where they may. This narrative strategy had become almost an artistic signature; its effect here is identical in kind, if not 9 See J.W.H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism: The Medieval Phase (New York, 1943), pp. 100–101; and the discussion of the potential uses of the two orders in Larry Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New Brunswick, N.J., 1965), pp. 170 ff.

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in intensity, to that produced by the sober historian of the Troilus, and by the seeming randomness of the entire Canterbury framework. The reader’s satisfying conviction that “here is God’s plenty” only proves the success of a particular kind of artifice deeply characteristic of Chaucer throughout his career. Within the natural order and the omniscient and ethically neutral narrative stance it implies, however, Chaucer introduces, by means of tone and detail, focal points of strong advocacy that can be attributed to several recognizable viewpoints. More flexible than the use of a fully realized dramatic persona, this technique, perhaps better called impersonation, gives a hearing in this tale to a Christian Platonic philosophy, to the hagiographer’s special form of piety, to a “praktisour” who is a practical moralist, as well as to Appius’ anticipatory relish, the anguish of Virginius, and the fortitude of his daughter in the face of death. These voices come out of several different literary kinds; their partialities do not all exercise the same kind of claims upon the reader, nor exert them with equal force, but neither does any one of them coincide with the view permitted by a formal aggregation of all of them. Like Chaucer the pilgrim, who introduces his characters on the road to Canterbury with indiscriminate benevolence, the narrator of this story does not maintain a consistent historical detachment, but arranges a series of strong advocacies in the simplest of all patterns, a straight line. The fundamental narrative posture of the Canterbury Tales is not godlike neutrality, but serial partiality to causes as they unfold, apparently at random, through time. The pilgrim sees a “good felawe” or “parfit praktisour” wherever he casts his eye, and the controlling consciousness behind this story – like the consciousness in front of it – sees a different lesson in whichever of the characters or systems occupies the foreground at the moment. One would expect that such a fragmentary procedure would not stimulate judgment in the reader, but rather immobilize it. If the fundamental structure is merely, in Robert Jordan’s term, “aggregative,”10 then what, besides the welter of events themselves as they fall, gives the tale, or the Canterbury Tales, any formal coherence or interest as made objects? Why do we not get the same effect by listening carefully in a crowded railway carriage? (We sometimes do, but that is a condition of the listening mind and its expectations, not of the historical material.) Between the voices endlessly explaining themselves and their formal suspension in an artifice is the intermediate ordering system of genre, the perceptions it allows and the expectations it engenders. Genre is See Robert M. Jordan, Chaucer and the Shape of Creation (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 152 and passim. 10

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like memory: it operates on the chaos of events to perpetuate those which impose some conceptual organization or serve some perceptual end, and to blur “irrelevancies.” One man’s irrelevance, however, is another man’s touchstone, and when the narrative offers more than one mode of classifying the discrete fact, or details which are anomalous within the prevailing system, our attention is partially diverted from the object to the selecting eye, from exemplary fact to the act of judgment, from learning to epistemology. Generic conflict, a characteristic device of Chaucer throughout the Tales, is a fundamental tool of parody or mock heroic: the rhyme of Sir Thopas and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale are obvious examples. On a smaller scale are the elaborate effictio portraits, typical of courtly romance, used to present Alisoun and Absalon in the Miller’s fabliau, a literary mode usually characterized by its use of only those details which directly serve the mechanism of a swift, economical plot. There the incongruity between a generic device and its setting forces ironic comparison of Palamon and Arcite’s refined paeans to natural love with Nicholas’ more directly pragmatic response to the same impulse, and invites speculation about the key abstractions – in this instance “Nature” – by which human beings present their intentions to themselves after the fact. The effect of generic incongruity need not be explicitly comic. The tale of Griselde is within one narrative system or genre what Petrarch made it, and the Clerk says it is: an exemplum of the right relation of man to God, shown in the total submission of a patient wife to her husband. Chaucer, however, introduces obstacles to the simple acceptance of this “sentence” in the very process of adapting it. Into the elegant and easy flow of the tale he introduces counter-currents and eddies of momentary emotional resistance: he assigns pathetic laments to Griselde dramatizing her plight, and, by permitting us to view the fable with the necessarily limited knowledge Griselde has of Walter’s purpose at just the points when those purposes seem most monstrous, he makes the questions of Job, her typological analogue, our own. He also permits the narrator to remark upon Walter’s cruelty in testing his wife, and to insist that the vehicle of this symbolic example of patience shows highly unexemplary behavior. He makes the same kind of additions in the Man of Law’s Tale of the beleaguered Constance, as well as in the Physician’s Tale of Virginia. The literary limits of the exemplum are themselves held up for inspection by the reader. Typically in the Canterbury Tales the story is what its teller claims it is, but offers us in addition the literary material and emotional autonomy to place it within other contexts as well – and Chaucer invites our inspection of all of them. This cross-graining of originally smooth and

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unambiguous story material is perhaps the most universal operation Chaucer performs upon his sources. The Physician’s Tale provokes consideration of its major moral categories through characters who act in recognizable generic patterns that do not add up to a single overarching system. Within the tradition handed down from Livy through the Roman, the story is “about” perversion of justice, with Virginius as positive example of an uncorrupted sense of honor. Yet within a second equally strong system Chaucer imposed upon his source, the story exemplifies “Of alle tresons sovereyn pestilence / ... Whan a wight bitrayseth innocence.” It is a theme very closely allied to the first – so closely that the Physician cannot see any difference. But in the second system, the tale of Virginia rather than the tale of Appius, the passive victim of the wicked judge becomes a model of active forbearance, and the Roman general an accessory to a martyrdom. Virginius has an active role in both stories. In the first he is a positive counterexample balanced against Appius, but in the second he becomes part of the brutal judge’s crime. Like the “veyn justice” in the Second Nun’s Tale, who condemns St Cecilia to death for her faith, Virginius makes his daughter a martyr for her filial obedience and faith in him; like Appius, he is judge and executioner. In the rich metaphorical pattern typical of the martyrologies, the stock figure of the fanatically unjust and merciless judge is portrayed, usually in the virgin saint’s last triumphant speech, as but a “ministre of deeth” in contrast with the true Judge, the Christian God who is also father and preserver, the universal minister of life. Virginia’s mention of the one trespass of Jephthah’s daughter – “ ... For she ran hir fader first to see, / To welcome hym with greet solempnitee” (243–44) – recalls the activity of the virgin martyrs in their celebratory procession in heaven, and the fact that Virginius is both slayer and father of his victim, and identified through his diction with the judge, enriches the symbolic dimensions of her sacrifice. Like Griselde’s speech, added by Chaucer to Petrarch’s narrative, reminding us that as “men speke of Job” so is the narrator regarding her within this exemplum, Virginia’s last words to her father heighten the typological parallel as they deepen our doubts about the right of a human progenitor and judge to enact what the heavenly father assigned to his “vicaire general.” The equivocal role of Virginius in this story, which encourages us to invest ethical interest both in his virtuous action and in the martyrdom of Virginia, reflects a fundamental literary problem of exemplary narrative. The narrator must control his “sentence” almost to the point of falsifying the human conflicts in the event which give his message urgency or applicability. The longer and more fully dramatized the situation, the more likely it is

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that the narrator’s assertion of principle will become the reader’s question, as our opportunities multiply for examining the single thesis beyond the narrow confines of the gesture presenting it. In stories of saints and heroes, therefore, less is often more – a principle Chaucer seems to have discovered by experience in the Legend of Good Women. The narrative pattern of the stories he included in the “seintes Legendes of Cupide,” and their gradual divergence from the exemplary formula prescribed by Queen Alceste in the frame, suggest a growing sophistication in Chaucer’s notions of how, or whether, a story “proves” a point. The Legend was Chaucer’s first experiment in writing a series of framed tales, and apparently his last appearance as the kind of Ovidian love poet the Man of Law considered him to be. The professional condescension with which the lawyer declines to rival the poet’s tales of “loveris” – “And if he have noght seyd hem, leve brother, / In o book, he hath seyd hem in another” (Bl 51–52) – lends support to the view that the poet’s self-defense before the God of Love is a fictional presentation by Chaucer himself of the current state of Chaucer studies on the eve of the Canterbury period.11 The Prologue to the Legends and the Man of Law’s remarks offer strong evidence that the poet was in his own time admired for a narrower range of his total achievement than has often been supposed; both passages gently satirize the implicit demand of his audience to be entertained only within these familiar bounds. The Man of Law, speaking with assurance of what constitutes literary good taste, commends Chaucer for avoiding as subjects for poems the “wikke ensaumples” of Canacee and Apollonius of Tyre, presumably because they contain incest; on similar critical grounds the God of Love reprimands the poet for slandering women by telling “how that Crisseyde Troylus forsok.” Only when Queen Alceste intercedes is the poet given a reprieve on condition that he give equal time to the other side through examples of virtuous wronged women. She means well, but shares with the God of Love and the Man of Law a common and artistically restrictive notion of “morality” in literature: they equate the moral effect of a story with the moral status of the character’s behavior, and “sentence” with the narrator’s sententiousness about that behavior. To tell a story in which incest occurs is, for such an audience, to advocate incest, or at least to condone it. The Prologue to the Legend goodnaturedly dramatizes “the difficulties of a poet who writes for a

Alfred David, “The Man of Law vs. Chaucer: A Case in Poetics,” PMLA 82 (1967), 217–25. 11

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small but opinionated audience,”12 and the Legends themselves document the artistic infeasibility of exemplary narrative thus narrowly conceived. The Legends are, like the Physician’s Tale, stories of “innocence betrayed,” but in three instances which foreshadow the issues of Virginia’s story, the wronged woman is not actually a martyr to Cupid’s service. Most of them – “Cleopatra,” “Dido,” “Hypsipyle and Medea,” “Ariadne,” and “Phyllis” – follow the pattern established in the legend of Cleopatra. The briefest summary of history before the battle of Actium prefaces the queen’s long lament over Antony’s betrayal of her “wyfhod” and constancy in love. The pattern, echoing that of the Heroides, had appeared earlier in the Hous of Fame, where “Geffrey” summarizes Virgil’s epic as a story of Aeneas’ betrayal of Dido; the unfinished complaint of Anelida also follows the basic Ovidian model. In these, as in the majority of the Legends, the loyalty of a mistress or wife is abused by the desertion of a lover, and the “saint’s” life is at most a preface to a set speech of complaint deviating little from a single rhetorical model in explicating the paradoxical risks of love. The Legend of Piramus and Thisbe differs from them primarily in showing mutual instead of onesided self-sacrifice for love. The three remaining complaints are not provoked by a lover’s disloyalty. The legends of Lucrece and Philomela implicitly extend the definition of faithlessness from the breaking of vows sworn between lovers to the violation of a universal and religiously sanctioned obligation, that of chastity. These two ladies, one a loyal wife, the other a virgin, suffer the opposite wrong from their saintly sisters: not desertion but rape. The one is said to illustrate the wife’s “stability” in love, the other the knavery of men. Neither, however, is a clear instance of martyrdom to a love which has the paradoxical status of a natural and sometimes ennobling, if perilous, force in human life. Both women are victims, not martyrs; their pain is in no way directly entailed by a prior election of the God of Love’s service, and the oxymoronic “observation of justice” within the God of Love’s laws goes slightly but significantly out of focus. The last legend, left unfinished just short of its explicit “moral,” partakes of both preceding types, and shows the need for a more complex framing device to sustain the range of narrative viewpoints Chaucer could now command. Like her forerunners, Hypermnestra is deserted by her husband, but his injustice is conditional upon, and second in emphasis to, her father’s mortal sin. In this last story, Chaucer came close to shocking deeply such

12

David, p. 219.

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listeners as the Man of Law: incestuous rape, threatened if not performed, activates the plot. On her wedding night, Hypermnestra is commanded by her father, who confesses his wish to possess her, to slay her husband or be slain herself the next morning. Instead she warns her bridegroom, having decided that . . . it is bet for me For to be ded in wifly honeste Than ben a traytour lyvynge in my shame .. (F 2700–02)

He flees but leaves her to her father’s wrath; thus her “innocence” is betrayed by both husband and father, as Virginia is in different ways betrayed by both father and false judge. Unlike the preceding legends which end with a summary moral argument this one dissolves in questions, unfinished: Allas! Lyno! whi art thow so unkynde? Why ne haddest thow remembred in thy mynde To taken hire, and lad hire forth with the? (F 2716–18)

A question to be asked, both within the laws of the court of Queen Alceste that bind lovers in mutual loyalty, and within the more general moral scope provided for the Canterbury pilgrims. “Unkyndness” throughout this legend is a violation of larger laws than Cupid’s and demands for serious consideration a wider context than this frame permits. The Legend as a whole invites little serious consideration for just this reason. The poem bears all the marks of a coterie product, written as a compliment to an audience especially inclined by familiarity with the man Chaucer to identify him with his fictionally professed intentions. The framework offers no defense against this kind of identification. The tales argue a thesis proposed by Queen Alceste; within the fiction of the poet’s self-defense it becomes his thesis, and his narrative means of arguing it are restricted by his own acceptance of the role his prevailing reputation assigns him, that of an Ovidian court poet. The “Chaucer” of the Legend is a poet imprisoned by his own success. As is perhaps always the case to some degree, his audience has taken delight in what their literary traditions have prepared them to hear, rather than the full range of available meaning, and has, even in the guise of encouragement, held him to what they hear. The Prologue to the Legend records his confrontation with his own literary renown, which had from the first been an operative

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force in his fictions; here he examines its liabilities as well as its comic advantages. What could the poet do, if an attentive and devoted audience could regard the complex narrative stance of the Troilus as tantamount to an Ovidian complaint about a faithless woman, and the tragedy as consisting in her rebellion against a current fashion in love? Chaucer’s answer to the problems posed by complexity was more complexity: if men insist that stories prove something, then that stubborn conviction would itself be subjected to scrutiny in fiction. The poet would both participate enthusiastically in their efforts, and as controlling artist surround his story-tellers on their pilgrimage to meaning. *****

This tale is seyd for this conclusioun –

This last line of the last legend suggests the dilemma to which the Canterbury framework was the inspired solution. Throughout the Tales, stories continue to buttress “conclusiouns,” which are in turn assigned to fallible and implicated disputants. The old quistioni d’amore, cut up and handed around for recitation, become a “marriage debate,” and the legends of good women receive a new lease on life at the variously interested and qualified hands of Wife, Clerk, and Merchant. If, as in the Physician’s Tale, the conclusions do not follow smoothly from only, or all of, the narrative premises, then these too could be examined within the “game” of the fiction; inside it even the inevitable discrepancy between intent and performance, principle and practice, “auctoritee” and “experience” were “game” for the artist – and fair game, not grounds for turning in his poetic license. The Physician’s Tale, with the strain of several incommensurable burdens of “pref ’ upon it, realizes and uses its several possible “conclusiouns” in a coherent narrative form that extends to the reader, as willing participant in the game, the process of determining the end for which “this tale is seyd.” The possible meanings this fable assigns to the notion of “betraying innocence” admit of no very easy application of a capsule “moralitee,” for “moralitee” resides not in what we do after reading the tale, but in what we must do while reading it. The “sentence” is in the action of the reader, not the protagonist, and in reading the Canterbury Tales we are, like the pilgrims, always in motion. Speaking of the more sophisticated cousin of this story, the Clerk’s Tale, James Sledd has astutely observed that “Chaucer ultimately forbids us to

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apply the rules of his fictional world outside his fiction.”13 The proof of the ethical fable lies not in the “conclusiouns” we take back to the real world, but in how much of that world we can engage in active play within the sanctuary of fiction. If this tale is less read than the more polished tale of Griselde, it is not because of any difference in fictional principle. Rather it attests, as do the Second Nun’s, Canon’s Yeoman’s, and Manciple’s Tales, to the truth of a principle toward which Chaucer was reaching at about the time he wrote this tale: the interest any story can generate is in geometric proportion to the number and complexity of its linkages with the rest of the fictional structure, and of the issues it encompasses.14 It does not reside in the “conclusioun,” which is perhaps not true, and certainly not useful. Neither example nor proof, experience nor “auctoritee” triumph in the Canterbury fiction. The play of the mind in examining their claims empowers us to move easily among “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” to master them through an artifice. The act of reaching after “fact and reason,” after principles of order which always elude us, is the reason that readers honor the Canterbury Tales by calling them “lifelike,” and thus explain the value “in ernest” of Chaucer’s game “to shorte with oure weye.”

13 James Sledd, “The Clerk’s Tale: The Monsters and the Critics,” MP 51 (1953), 73–82. Reprinted in Chaucer Criticism, I, ed. R.J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame, 1960). 14 See Kris, p. 62: “It is a plausible but not a verified impression that survival value [of a work of art] does not depend on the closeness with which the reaction of the audience tends to repeat the experience of the creator but, among other factors, on the dynamic effectiveness of the experience in the audience and thus also on the degree of activity it stimulates.”

IV

The Clerk and his Tale: Some Literary Contexts The Clerk’s tale of Griselda has become in modern times perhaps The Canterbury Tales’ supreme test of its readers’ interpretative powers. It taxes more than any other their capacities to re-enter with sympathy and informed understanding the values and ideals of an age insistently different from their own: it insists on its “otherness” from all our habits of reading, our customs of approval, and our wishes for comfort. Though critics differ widely as to which course of discipline will best enable us to enter the tale as properly informed readers, nearly all are agreed that we must give up something – some modern prejudice, or skepticism or ignorance or indifference, toward a medieval trait or habit of thought. Acts of interpretation commonly set about a dual course of instruction to take us across the chasm: to wean us away from that something which is ours, and to supply us with something “medieval,” information we did not know or are unable to apply, to take its place. We are, most of us, willing to undertake this discipline because the tale is plainly worth it: it fascinates and strangely delights even those who, freighted with that needless burden of modernity, are at the same time distressed by it. That same delight and fascination, and the same urgent critical discussion about what the tale asks of us, and what it asks us to renounce, has, however, been an inextricable part of the literary history of the tale since the fourteenth century. Every reader from Petrarch on has been forced by it to confront some “modernity” in himself – the habits or values he holds as a reader – that must be explained. For many of these readers, the value and pleasure of the tale lies precisely in that difference or distance from us: the effort required to close that distance, though variously described, seems to reveal the moral beauty and the emotional benefit of the fable. For them, the act of interpretation reveals not only its “sentence,” but its “solas.” It is not, therefore, the tale itself, but several fourteenth-century efforts to give it a context for enjoyment and use, that is the main concern of this essay. The exercise is not an attempt to supply previously missing data toward a historically accurate interpretation, a correct reconstruction of its meaning in the fourteenth century – even if such a reading were possible: most of the information I shall survey has been available to Chaucerians since Severs’

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masterfully thorough account of the sources of the tale.1 It is, rather, an effort to trace several medieval acts of literary criticism which surround the story, and became in Chaucer’s hands part of the Clerk’s contribution to the Canterbury game. In creating the Clerk’s fastidiously “obeisant” response to Harry Bailly’s invitation to “pley,” Chaucer invites us to examine literary questions closely analogous to the moral and spiritual challenge issued by the tale itself. The story asks us to find the meaning and serious use to us of Griselda’s patient suffering; the act and circumstances of telling it raise, for Chaucer and all antecedent writers of the tale, the equally urgent critical issue – central to Chaucer’s ruminations on his art throughout his poetic career – of how woe can be delightful, how “ernestful matere” becomes, through “art poetical,” an object of pleasure as well as use. The Clerk’s performance is rivalled only by the Nun’s Priest’s as the most “literary” offering on the pilgrimage, the most thoroughly infused with play upon the very terms of literary value by which it may be enjoyed. It is those terms and canons of value, rather than the narrative sources which they sustain, that are the subject of this essay. Chaucer’s sources for The Clerk’s Tale have long been known: he used both Petrarch’s Latin prose version of Boccaccio’s final tale in the Decameron, and at least one French adaptation of the Petrarch text, in composing the story. Since Severs’ concern was to establish in detail the relations between the versions of the narrative, he offers little analysis of how Chaucer treated the critical materials with which all these prior narrative texts are surrounded. That Chaucer knew the stories within these broader contexts is demonstrable from several close verbal correspondences between them and the Clerk’s performance, but their importance for interpretation extends beyond Chaucer’s rendering of specific terms.2 The unit of composition that most fully reveals what Chaucer made of these materials is not the Clerk’s tale, but 1 J. Burke Severs, The Literary Relationships of Chaucer’s Clerkes Tale, Yale Studies in English, 96 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1942). Robert B. Burlin, in Chaucerian Fiction (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), has recently discussed Petrarch’s critical remarks on the tale as bearing on the multiplicity of perspectives Chaucer includes in the tale. He is, however, chiefly concerned with interpreting the narrative, rather than, as I am here, examining the play of literary values implicit in the fourteenth-century uses of it. 2 An example is the Clerk’s characterization of Petrarch’s tale as composed in “heigh stile” (CT IV, 41). All citations of Chaucer are to The Works, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1957). While this is an appropriate description of the style, from the Clerk’s point of view, it is likely that here Chaucer is translating from a scribal error in Petrarch’s description to Boccaccio of his translation of the latter’s work as stilo alio, “in another style” (Seniles XVII. 3). See Severs, p. 288 and note.

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the Clerk’s performance, which includes his presence and discernible style among others on the pilgrimage, and his way of acceding to the rules of the storytelling game, both explicitly, in his “obeisance” to Harry’s directives, and implicitly, in the created resonances between his act of narration and others within The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s presentation of the Clerk, and his contribution to play, offers a complex critical speculation on the uses of high literacy and the nature of “heigh stile.” Every version of the story Chaucer used or could have known came to him embedded in a rich variety of critically self-conscious remarks on its style and meaning, and its ethical and emotional value. Through the Clerk’s performance and its situation in the “game,” Chaucer explores not only the application of the tale, but the reasons why its interpretation and use become problematic; by doing so, he indicates the literary conditions within his own performance setting which make the problem significant. An examination of these critical contexts of the story will enable us to see how it comments on his own literary locus. We must begin, however, by considering why these texts should have accompanied and supported the story in the first place. A glance at where and how the Griselda story initially entered European literate life is a first step in clarifying how the Clerk’s rare wit and unusual seriousness may be understood within Chaucer’s milieu of composition. The history of the Griselda story offers a neat paradigm of an important general development in late medieval narrative. From folk-tale origins it springs into another order of narrative existence in the Decameron.3 Uprooted from the context and cultural standing of a “traditional tale,” and set down within the literary and social framework of the novella collection, its formerly uninterpreted motions become newly problematic; the question of what it means, the wisdom or counsel it contains, comes into conjunction with that of how it may be used, of who or what may appropriate its power for a specific design or rhetorical end, and what literary means are conducive to those ends. The beginnings of literary life of the Griselda story coincide with the beginning of its critical and interpretative history, in a succession of explanatory gestures at first surrounding it, and later embedded in it, contexts for reading from which it is never again free.

3 See H.R. Jauss, “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature,” New Literary History 10 (1979), 222; Hans-Jörg Neuschäfer, Boccaccio und der Beginn der Novelle (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1969), pp. 105–8; Derek S. Brewer, “Towards a Chaucerian Poetic,” Proceedings of the British Academy 60 (1974), 219–52; Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969).

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The precise character of that lineage of transmission and criticism, the succession of uses to which the story is put, is instructive, especially in view of the figure to whom Chaucer assigns the tale. The currency of the tale from the latter half of the fourteenth century on is by and large secular, and quite self-consciously “literary.” Boccaccio’s tale is recast by Sercambi in Italian as well as by Petrarch in Latin; then Petrarch’s version is adapted into French prose independently by two different writers: first, by Philippe de Mézières, a counsellor and diplomat employed successively by King Peter of Cyprus, Pope Gregory XI, and Charles V of France; then by the anonymous author of Le Livre de Griseldis. Philippe’s version is twice adapted within France in the fourteenth century: in about 1393, it is incorporated into the Ménagier de Paris, a book of general counsel and edification compiled by an old merchant to instruct his newly-married young wife, and in 1395 it is recast into a play in rhymed French verse.4 It is only in its French lineage that the tale becomes an explicitly marital exemplum: Petrarch, followed by the Clerk, explicitly disavows this application. Yet while all of its fourteenthcentury versions – French, Italian, and Latin, as well as English – insist on the generally edifying quality of the story, their terms for specifying the means, the locus, or the intended result of this edification vary widely. We shall examine this variation shortly in more detail, but there is an equally striking common feature noticeable in this lineage: the absence of any comparable and explicit life within clerical tradition. It does not figure in this period in writings of ecclesiastical origin or sponsorship: in homiletic, confessional, or exemplum literature, or pulpit speech. To note this is not to deny the seriousness of the didactic claims that were repeatedly made for the story, or the strong strain of Christian moral and sacramental meaning informing its several versions, but only to indicate the circumstances for production and performance within which these claims and meanings were asserted in the fourteenth century. This is not the provenance we should expect if either the Christian sacramental doctrine or the counsel to patient forbearance as a specifically Christian moral virtue is considered in this period to be primary to its meaning or value as a fable. In fact, in the extant versions, the explicit “meaning” of the fable is its least stable feature. This history of transmission suggests that the power of the fable continually challenges those who retell it both to find the source and specify the uses of that power – to explain what is good about this good story, and what it is good for. Our task here is to characterize how the writers who composed Chaucer’s source texts perceived and described that challenge,

4

See Severs, Ch. I.

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and how they met it. Their critical terms provide an interesting small lexicon for understanding how fourteenth-century writers characterized the value of high secular literature as an improving enterprise for both author and reader. Their responses to the challenge of the Griselda story were profound and various, and it is to these that we must now turn. Petrarch issued his tale of Griselda not as a separate narrative work, but within a letter to Boccaccio, which forms the preface and postscript to the tale in fourteenth-century manuscripts.5 The letter (Seniles XVII. 3) records Petrarch’s general critical reflections, after a cursory reading, on the Decameron, which had only recently come into his hands. He admits to having read it skippingly, but more than the current “warlike stir” about him, and the pressure of other business, seems to justify this casual attention: the work is itself made for such “light” reading.6 It is, he assumes, a work of Boccaccio’s youth, explicitly designed for the entertainment of the youthful or lightminded. Its subject matter is light, and its style corresponds fittingly to both the mores of the audience and the generally recreative aims of the work. These observations are neither a rebuke to, nor a misunderstanding of, Boccaccio’s enterprise, as Olson has shown. Petrarch here also applauds Boccaccio’s defenses, included within the Decameron itself, of his work against detractors, and praises its accurate description and eloquent lamentation of the horrors of plague-time. But his general categorization of it as light and recreative, and intended for the vernacular laity, gives special point to his admiration, in quite different terms, of the last tale in the collection: In altero autem ystoriam ultimam et multis precedencium longe dissimilem posuisti, que ita michi placuit meque detinuit ut, inter tot curas que pene mei ipsius immemorem me fecere, illam memorie mandare voluerim, ut et ipse eam animo quociens vellem non sine voluptate repeterem, et amicis ut fit confabulantibus renarrarem, si quando aliquid tale incidisset. At the close you have placed a story which differs entirely from most that precede it, and which so delighted and fascinated me that, in spite of cares which made me almost oblivious of myself, I was seized with a 5 Severs lists three manuscripts now in English collections which lack these framing materials, but none of them predate the middle of the fifteenth century. 6 See Glending Olson, “Petrarch’s View of the Decameron,” MLN 91 (1976), 69–79, for a fuller discussion of the tradition behind Petrarch’s classification. His more recent essay, “Making and Poetry in the Age of Chaucer,” forthcoming in Comparative Literature, is valuable in presenting some of the recreative and didactic vernacular “poetics” of the later Middle Ages.

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The terms of praise here are striking. Though Petrarch insists that the Griselda story is “entirely different” from most of the rest of the Decameron, the difference does not, for him, consist in any unique didactic claims or edifying effect which distinguish the story from those told for pleasurable entertainment. On the contrary, he describes his reactions to the tale primarily in terms of “pleasure, delight, fascination,” rather than moral benefit, and imagines retelling it to enhance conversation with friends. He seems to conceive of the tale as capable of illuminating the leisure of literate men in a fashion analogous to, rather than wholly opposed to, the way the lighter tales of the Decameron ornament the less sober leisure hours of a youthful and mixed company. This view, like Petrarch’s general opinion of the Decameron in this letter, does not reflect a scorn for the recreative aims of literature, but a fundamentally less sanguine view than Boccaccio’s of leisure itself, its uses and its dangers, and an interest in the literary recreation of a different class of participants. His praise of the Decameron is qualified only by a different conception of the recreative uses of literacy, and of the kind of community it creates and defines. In this critique, Petrarch addresses one of his favorite themes, the soberer and more solitary joys of the literate man’s labor and leisure. Within this context of judgment upon the Decameron as a particular kind of literary project, Petrarch’s presentation to Boccaccio of a Latin translation of its last tale constitutes an act of redefinition of the pleasures of the text, according to Petrarch’s idea of the literate man’s “pley.” To turn it from Italian, the vulgar tongue, to Latin is of course to render it accessible to a differently defined community of the literate, and to that community’s terms of value and ideas of the uses of story. Its forum of appeal implicitly becomes the international community of connoisseurs of Latin style, the possessors of a classicizing tradition of eloquence and learning. It is noteworthy, however, that 7 Severs, p. 291. Severs prints all of Seniles XVII.3, Seniles XVII.4 (“ursit amor”) is printed in Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ed. F.J. Furnivall, et al., Chaucer Society, Part II, Vol. 10 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1875), pp. 170–72. Translations from the letters of Petrarch are, unless otherwise noted, those of James H. Robinson and Henry W. Rolfe in Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (1898; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), pp. 191–6. Robinson and Rolfe’s translations of Seniles XVII. 3 and 4 are also reprinted in The Decameron, tr. and ed. Mark Musa and Peter E, Bondanella (New York: Norton, 1977), pp, 184–7; Seniles XVII. 2 is reprinted in Thomas G. Bergin, Petrarch: Selected Sonnets, Odes, and Letters (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966), pp. 10–17.

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Petrarch does not insist that this transformation elevates what was lower or more humble, or makes “grave” that which was “light,” or makes instructive what was playful. He has simply “told it in my own words,” and presented it to Boccaccio as a tribute, as one might answer a verse letter or ballade from a fellow-poet with a performance in kind.8 He has translated it from one kind of literary recreation to another. He is careful, too, to insist on the recreative status the act of composition had for him: he treats it not as a labor to bring out the deeper meanings of the text, but as a piece of delightful work to take up when pressed by distraction or discontent. While it is true that both these tributes and these fictions of spontaneity are themselves conventional and omnipresent in Petrarch’s letters, it is also true that they all serve the same general rhetorical end: to invent and sustain the ideal of the lettered life as a vocation, an international community of the elect, whose changing moods and various tasks are to its secular devotees as fasts, meditations, prayers, and self-examinations are to the vowed religious. Such exercises as this are the craft, practice, and spiritual discipline of the writer’s calling, and it is in that spirit that Petrarch exchanges them, as he exchanges works and opinions, with Boccaccio. Finally, Petrarch makes a point of telling Boccaccio that though many have “admired and wished for my version,” he has thought it fit to dedicate and refer the work to Boccaccio, its “author.” “The story returns whence it came; it knows its judge, its home, and the way thither.” It is an achievement he wishes to have joined to the act of criticism and praise which prompted it, an act of literary production best understood not as a rival creation, but as a commentary. Petrarch’s prefatory remarks in the letter insist on the essential unity of spirit that binds together the act of literary criticism and the narration. It is only in his conclusion that he comments on the function or value of the tale itself, and he does so within the terms of the preface. He retains the distinction he had made between the Decameron’s intended community of readers, and that implied by his own Latin version; it is here that he calls attention to its stilo alio. Hanc historiam stilo nunc alio retexere visum fuit, non tam ideo, ut matronas nostri temporis ad imitandam huius uxoris pacienciam, que Both efforts would be “compositions”; the term includes redaction as well as making of an original narration or lyric. Vernacular or Latin literate culture offered many occasions for “quiting,” matching, or complimenting another’s work in this fashion; see Daniel Poirion, Le Poète et le Prince (Paris, 1965; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine, 1978), pp. 73, 221. 8

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michi vix imitabilis videtur, quam ut legentes ad imitandam saltem femine constanciam excitarem, ut quod hec viro suo prestitit, hoc prestare Deo nostro audeant . . .9 My object in thus re-writing your tale was not to induce the women of our time to imitate the patience of this wife, which seems almost beyond imitation, but to lead my readers to emulate the example of feminine constancy, and to submit themselves to God with the same courage as did this woman to her husband.

The source of the Clerk’s final application of his tale is evident in this passage: Petrarch’s vix imitabilis becomes the Clerk’s “inportable” – a burden not bearable. The intended recipients of the fable are not matronas nostri temporis but legentes, and as the community to which the tale is referred changes, so does the meaning of the “retold” tale, from a moving example of a woman’s patience to one of Christian courage and constancy. Petrarch’s proffered reading of the tale is thus inseparable from the notion of two different literary communities upon which it rests. This stilo alio is not, like Boccaccio’s, for gentlewomen, but for those who possess the language of the ancients and of high written eloquence – and who are not, in Petrarch’s social context, only ecclesiastics. They may be jurists, administrators, men of affairs: Petrarch includes both himself and Boccaccio, as well as “our friends” – to two of whom he later reports having read the tale – in this group. Perhaps the closest analogue in Chaucer’s situation would be a circle of men like “moral Gower and philosophical Strode,” as discerning readers, distinguished from the audience of “yonge, fresshe folkes” to whom the Troilus is nominally referred. But the analogy is not close in all respects, and the fact that such a community of the secular high-literate is not defined in English experience as yet in the same way, or as securely, as Petrarch by his own example defined it for fourteenth-century Italy is part of the complex wit of Chaucer’s adaptation. Nostri temporis, however, is as important as matronas in declaring Petrarch’s notion of legentes: as Petrarch never tires of telling us, his true peers, his “compaignye,” are the literate and philosophically leisured of all places and times, rather than simply a specific group of similarly cultivated contemporaries.10 In this he differs as markedly from the canons of Latin

Severs, p. 288. Seniles XVIII. 1, “To Posterity,” a letter begun in 1370 and left still without a final fair copy at his death in 1374. See Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 246. “Among the many subjects which interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those 9

10

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cultivation that dominate Franco-Burgundian court and clerical activity as he does from those of Boccaccio’s vernacular milieu and practice. For them, as for earlier practitioners of the stilus altus in Sicily and Tuscany, Latin authors remained a source of hyperbolic comparison, and of “rhetorique”; they made little attempt to recover the style or the literary conditions of an ancient literary public, apart from medieval Latin standards of rhetorical beauty and epistolary function.11 Petrarch, however, created within his Latin works the fiction of living within a literary artifice of eternity; the ancients were fellows and contemporaries within the timeless and austere pursuit of greatness. This striking difference between what one might, perhaps too loosely, call the French and the Petrarchan strains of high literacy in this period generates much of the wit in Chaucer’s adaptation of the story, and its Canterbury situation, from both lines of transmission. The distinctions of style and audience implicit in Petrarch’s commendation of the tale to the international brotherhood of literate peers is a critical “quiting” of the Decameron, a claim that while Boccaccio’s style and decorum is appropriate to the leisure of matronas nostri temporis, another style, alio stilo, and another notion of the dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own. In order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages.” (The translation is that of Robinson and Rolfe, reprinted in Bergin, Petrarch, p. 3). Petrarch’s fictional correspondence with ancient writers, and his customary terms of comparison, which evoke an eternal pantheon of the lettered against which to measure his and his friends’ style and thought, attest to rhe centrality and seriousness of this project. 11 The Anglo-French court “high style” and the stilus altus of the Italian cities are of course ultimately similar in social and institutional origin. They are formed out of the new curricular divisions and changes in the nature and prestige of literary studies of the late Middle Ages: in the north it was the disciplines of logic and scholastic theology that eclipsed the study of letters; in Italy it was the professions of law and medicine. They are nurtured within royal and civil administrations, for petitionary, epistolary, and epideictic purposes; the prestige these uses confer causes these styles to be extended to more purely literary application. Considered with respect to their ultimate formal antecedents, both Petrarch’s and Philippe’s could be called “curial” styles. But Petrarch develops a new purely non-civil setting for the exercise and perfecting of his style, and it is that sense of the realm of the literary that distinguishes his work both from its precursors in Italy and from the courtly high styles north of the Alps in this period. French and English literary culture will not assimilate this Petrarchan relocation of the poet, as austere stylist and ruminative rather than persuasive secular voice, for at least a century. The distinction I am drawing here is not between two stylistic techniques (though the techniques that characterize the prestige vernacular styles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries need study, as do the relations among these vernaculars), but between differently specified ideals of style. On the development of the stilus altus in the Italian peninsula before Petrarch, see Helene Wieruszowski, “Arezzo as a Center of Learning and Letters in the Thirteenth Century,” Traditio, 9 (1953), 321–91.

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occasion, are proper to the recreation of scholar-poets, the communion of souls fostered by Latin legentes. To emphasize his offering of the Latin tale as defining the narrative pleasures of the man of letters, Petrarch not only embeds the tale itself within a critical assessment of the Decameron (Seniles XVII.3), but prefaces that critical act with a still broader one, a general meditation on the pleasures and value of the life of the writer (Seniles XVII.2). He sends the two letters at once, as a single message, to Boccaccio, introduced by a brief note (Seniles XVII.1) explaining how both came to be written.12 Though Petrarch composed it after he had finished translating the Griselda tale and written the preface we have examined, this more general letter introducing it responds to one he had received in the preceding year from Boccaccio – possibly before he received a copy of the Decameron – and had left unanswered. There Boccaccio, prompted by friendly concern at hearing of Petrarch’s recent bout of ill health, had invited him to ease his burdens by ceasing from his literary labors. He argued that, having equalled Virgil in poetry and Cicero in prose, and having received the laurel crown, Petrarch should now be content, leaving the field of literary activity to younger men, and preserve his life for the sake of his friends.13 Though he recognized its friendly intentions, Petrarch found the letter “abhorrent,” and set it aside, later to change his mind and answer it only after he had completed his Griselda and its introduction. Under these auspices the act of translating the tale becomes a living refutation of Boccaccio’s arguments for retirement from literature: “The following letter will show you how far I am beyond the reach of advice to be inert. ... I am looking every day for new and different tasks – such is my hatred of sleep and languid idleness.”14 These remarks corroborate those in Seniles XVII.3 which emphasize the healthfully recreative aspect of the translation, its status for Petrarch as pleasant exercise; they also give point to his later closing remark that “it is out of love for you that I have undertaken as an old man what as a young man I should scarcely have attempted.”15 This friendship and fellowship in letters now prompts not only a reply in kind to the Decameron and its implicit idea of the community of literate play, 12 Severs, p. 8, explains the order of composition of Seniles XVII.1–4, and Petrarch’s final disposition of the order in which they were to be read. 13 Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Petrarch’s Later Years (Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1959), pp. 242–3, 265–6. 14 Wilkins, Later Years, pp. 247–8, 15 Seniles XVII.4; Robinson-Rolfe translation, rpt. Musa-Bondanella, p. 186. The Latin text is in Originals and Analogues, p. 170.

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but an equally thorough reply to Boccaccio’s account of the achievement of literary greatness, and the life of study, as heavy labors best set aside in age. On the contrary, Petrarch insists, “no burden is lighter than the pen.” Even if I were most tenacious of life, which I am not, I should assuredly die the sooner if I followed your advice. ... As there is none among earthly delights more noble than literary activity, so there is none so enduring, none sweeter or more faithful; there is none which accompanies its possessor through the vicissitudes of life at so small a cost of effort or anxiety.16

It is, rather, life “in the world,” among courts and princes, that is burdensome. No manner of life would ever suit me that interfered in the least with my liberty and my studies. So while everyone else sought the palace, I sought the woods, or sat quietly in my own room among my books.17

It is possible to see in these latter remarks some antecedents of the Clerk’s “unworldly” declining of “offyce”; like the portrait of the Clerk, they invite us to consider the possible distinctions, as well as the similarities, between ascetic and devotional otium on the one hand, and explicitly literary or studious leisure on the other. The letter defends the literate man’s round of study, thought, compositional exercise, and brotherly exchange of the fruits and pleasures of this discipline, in terms which make it analogous to the study, meditation, prayer, and brotherhood of the regular community of the vowed religious. They are parallel, but not identical, activities; and both seem to be, for Petrarch, salvific in their respective spheres. He metaphorically conflates the disciplines leading to the soul’s and the world’s salvation and those conducive to literary “immortality”; and the forms of life that secure the one are identified, in spirit and intent, with those that win the other. “I desire that death find me reading and writing, or, if it please Christ, praying and in tears.” One need not assert that as an orthodox Christian Petrarch believed that “reading and writing” were equivalent substitutes for “praying and tears” as salvific disciplines, in order to see the kind of honor he manages to assign to the life in letters by sustaining the analogy. As a human enterprise, literary production avoids the charge of vainglory by becoming a secular analogue to monastic otium. It is precisely this equation that Petrarch develops in De vita solitaria, which urges withdrawal from the cities and offices of the world, “whether we are Seniles XVII.2; Robinson-Rolfe, rpt. Bergin, p, 17; cf. Wilkins, Later Years, p. 247. Bergin, p. 12.

16 17

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intent upon God, or upon ourselves and our serious studies.”18 Echoing as it does these sentiments developed earlier, Seniles XVII.2 offers a counterpart, an answering general idea of literature as spiritual recreation, to Boccaccio’s literary ethos and purpose in the Decameron – both as Boccaccio describes and defends it in his work, and as Petrarch judges it in Seniles XVII.3. The Griselda story as told by Petrarch becomes in this context an instance of the “play” proper to the status of the man of letters, a sanctioned exercise against the sloth or apathy specific to that vocation and estate, and at the same time an instance of the spiritual practice that defines that vocation.19 This mental locus of actuosa requies et quietus labor which sustains literary production is strikingly close to John Gower’s formulation: poetry is made inter labores et ocia.20 Chaucer’s opposed terms “ernest” and “game” gain some resonance when heard against these developments. The Clerk’s performance in retelling Petrarch’s tale becomes a particularly rich commentary on the interplay of recreative and serious modes of literary activity, on the mixture of levitas and gravitas that defines “clerkly” eloquence and “pley.” If Seniles XVII.3 is a defense of the style of narration proper to the pleasure of the literati, Seniles XVII.2 is a justification of the entire pursuit of refined style and thought as a way of life at once secular and unworldly, an apologia for the life of the untonsured and unbeneficed clerk. Petrarch, then residing in Padua, where for safety he had taken refuge from the war between Padua and Venice, prepared the two letters to send to Boccaccio as a single communication in April of 1373. But it was not until June that he was able to find a carrier, and sent the message with a prefatory letter explaining the circumstances of their composition, and attributing the delay to the difficulties of wartime. The hostilities which delayed the letters continued, and prevented their delivery to Boccaccio. Nearly a year after he had sent them, and less than two months before his death, Petrarch – by then returned from Padua to his home in Arquà – learned that they had never reached Boccaccio, and once more copied out the entire message to be sent. This time he appended some further remarks on the Griselda tale (Seniles XVII.4), examining its effects on

18 The Life of Solitude (De vita solitaria), tr. Jacob Zeitlin (Urbana: Univ, of Illinois Press, 1924), Bk, I, Ch. i, p. 105. 19 Olson, “Petrarch’s View of the Decameron,” p. 78. 20 The English Works of John Gower, ed. G.C. Macaulay, EETS, ES 81–82 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1900–1901; rpt. 1957), II, 479. See John H. Fisher, John Gower, Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1964), pp, 88–91; Anne Middleton, “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” Speculum, 53 (1978), 101–2.

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two of its actual legentes among their mutual friends.21 Petrarch’s account of this early exercise in practical criticism is prompted by his reflections on the status of the narrative, as historia or fabula; the response of the two informants defines the importance of pathos to success in either kind. “Whether what I have narrated is truth or fiction (res veras...fictas) I do not know, but that it is not historia but fabula is likely since the tale is from you.” Petrarch refers the question of the status of the tale, as a fable or a true story, to the literary nature of the Decameron itself, whose stories are assumed to be not anecdotal history (like, say, stories in Livy) but circumstantially embodied fictions. The distinction is brought to bear, however, not on the exemplary force of the story, but its affective powers; it is these that prove its value as a narration, Petrarch reports two experiences with this “historia – or as I prefer to call it, this fabula” – to make this point: the kind of good the tale offers its hearers is not dependent on the historical truth of events. The “truth” of its claim on the hearers is of a different kind. Petrarch tried the effect of his version of the story on two friends of his and Boccaccio’s, men of known literary discernment and knowledge (vir altissimi ingenii multiplicisque notitiae; ingenioso et amico viro); their ingenium is their chief qualification for this experiment in taste. The first, a Paduan, weeps readily and freely several times as he reads it aloud, finally handing it to a companion, a learned man (docto viro), to finish when he is quite overcome with emotion. Petrarch, citing Juvenal, finds this a salutary and appropriate response: “a more kindly (humanior) disposition, I have never yet found.” For Petrarch, the tale is a touchstone to find out the true gold of humanitas in its hearers: by the mollissima corda, the capacity for openly declared sympathetic suffering, rather than by interpretative penetration, the spirit shows its “finest sense” (haec nostri pars optima sensus: Juvenal, Satire XV. 133). That it is the central and significant response is agreed by all three ingeniosi. Petrarch’s second informant, a man of Verona, reads the story dry-eyed, however, with no sign of emotion. “I too would have wept,” he reports upon concluding, “for the subject certainly excites pity, and the style is well adapted to call forth tears (nam et pia res, et verba rebus accommodata fletum suadebant), nor am I hard-hearted – but that I believed, and still believe, this is all a fiction. If it were true, what woman, whether of Rome or any other nation, could equal Griselda?” Petrarch tells Boccaccio in the letter that “to avoid lengthy debate” he refrained from answering their Veronese friend: that there are those who judge what is difficult for themselves to be impossible for others, yet that Originals and Analogues, pp. 170–72; the translation is that of Robinson-Rolfe.

21

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history provides many equally astonishing and moving rales – “a Curtius, a Mucius ... or Portia, or Hypsicratica, or Alcestis.” The Veronese friend wishes to bind literary values to historical actuality; he declines to display the emotions he considers proper to the literary matter if the heroine is fictive, rather than an attested inhabitant, past or present, of this world. Petrarch clearly finds this distinction arbitrary and literarily trivial, and thereby suggests that with respect to their emotional, spiritual, and ethical value to the hearer, there is no functional difference between historia and fabula; the good of a story, whether it is historical or fictive, lies in its use as fabula. The objection of the Veronese is the same cavil that the Clerk mocks in his Envoy: let those addicted only to historical rather than fabulous examples seek their education in refined feeling at the hands of the Wife of Bath, for “Griselde is deed, and ek her pacience” – she is not in our world, and is therefore “scarcely imitable.” Like Petrarch, the Clerk insists throughout his performance that what he offers is a “serious entertainment,” which tries the noble heart and the refined feelings, rather than the belief and credulity of the hearers. Its style is to be judged by the standards proper to poetic fable, and will be most profoundly tested by its adequacy to that affective rhetorical end. This, Petrarch’s final addition to his correspondence about the Griselda story, also forms a valediction to the Seniles as a whole. It ends with a farewell to his letters, and his friends in letters (valete amici, valete epistolae) – and, in fact, to his life in letters: he died a little over a month later. Because the Clerk’s performance manages to incorporate so much of both the critical issues and the circumstances of composition surrounding Petrarch’s work on the Griselda story, it seems likely that Chaucer knew not only the introduction and conclusion to the story in Seniles XVII.3, but the whole of Seniles XVII, and its broad defense of the life of a man of books and learning. From the first and fourth letters, Chaucer would have learned of Petrarch’s residence in Padua while composing the tale, and, it seems, while trying its effects on two discriminating readers; from the fourth, he would have derived the connection of the commendation of the tale to the valediction of the great man of letters. In using this material in the Prologue to his tale, the Clerk presents himself as imaginatively among that small elect band of literati in Padua, and his entire performance imports the Petrarchan canons of literary judgment of “ernest” and “game” into the Canterbury pilgrimage, with hilarious results. Chaucer uses the entire literary context of Petrarch’s tale, and the challenge it offers as a set of literary standards to an English vernacular audience, in composing both the Clerk’s identity and his “pley.”

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The terms of the challenge offered to the Clerk within The Canterbury Tales, however, are issued by a far less cosmopolitan literary mind than Boccaccio’s in the Decameron offered to Petrarch. It is Harry Bailly who proposes both the general form and the individual instructions for “pley” on the pilgrimage, and his pre-performance advice includes a great deal of literary and social type-casting. His strictures, like Hamlet’s advice to the players, define the general received standard and canons of performance within which the entire vernacular work in which he appears is rooted, and by which its originality may be assessed. He has a distinct and complex – if unexamined – sense of stylistic decorum, a clear idea of the kind of game and the kind of earnestness proper to each pilgrim’s social, professional, and personal condition, which he reveals each time he invites a new narrator to join the round of storytelling.22 His advice to the Clerk, one of the most detailed instructions on “pley” given to anyone on the pilgrimage, addresses both the matter and the style of performance. He wishes to assure, first of all, that the Clerk will narrate rather than “prech,” but he also dictates an acceptable manner and effect: it must be both “myrie” and plain. His instructions raise, though within a wholly different range of social and literary expectations than those current in the Italian milieu, the same critical issues that inform Petrarch’s assessment of the Decameron in Seniles XVII.3: what style and kind of tale will produce pleasure, what kind of pleasure, and according to whose canons of taste and use? What is at stake is not only whether the Clerk will “pley” or “prech,” but the very nature of a clerk’s play, and the possible broader relations between his play and his serious uses of literacy. As Petrarch’s recasting of the Griselda tale argues a more complex relation between levitas and gravitas, between delight and tears, in the literate man’s recreation than that which governs the decorum of the Decameron, so the Clerk’s obedient satisfaction of Harry’s literary demands translates those demands into the definition of a literate clerk’s sober play, and calls into question Harry’s ordinary vernacular understanding of the relations between “ernest” and “game.” Harry Bailly’s security in his own literary judgment derives from his confidence in his social categories and instincts. He knows what kind of literary performance a clerk will give, and consequently what he must prevent, because he knows what a clerk is. He knows the ways of life, and the usual range and kind of literacy the term “clerk” denotes in ordinary speech and English social experience. For him, this sober and austere pilgrim is easily 22 See my essay, “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales,” in Literature and Society (English Institute Essays, 1978), ed. Edward Said (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), pp, 15–56.

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classified: genus, clerk; species, university man. He is a thoroughly familiar type, both in his silences and in his speech. In his quiet moments, Harry is sure, the Clerk’s thoughts are on his university studies, which, since they leave the experiential world behind, are necessarily melancholy in tone, as all deep reflection must be (in this belief Harry has the support of John the Carpenter). Since this particular Clerk is far gone in “logyk,” he must be preoccupied with “som sophyme”; however, being a man of learning who must necessarily respect all bearers-up of ancient wisdom, he will be cajoled out of his brown study by the mention of one of its chief pillars, “Salomon.” If a clerk’s silences are morbid, his speech, too, has its dangers for conviviality. His characteristic and perpetual inner sadness and sobriety may be expected to issue in forms more appropriate to the congregation or lecture room than to a “compaignye” in “felaweshipe.” Clerkly speech, Harry is certain, is all in “ernest,” purposefully laboring for the moral and mental improvement of the hearer, rather than disporting itself for their recreation and pleasure. The cleric’s vocation is defined by this function, by the kind of work it does with words. If the clerk is not yet ordained or beneficed, it is only because he is still preparing to be. It is with these social and vocational assumptions in mind – that speech is the instrument of the clerk’s salvific work – that Harry reminds this Clerk that on this occasion, “pley” rather than his accustomed works are the end of speech, and he must find his matter and manner accordingly. Harry is equally certain about the emotional effects proper to verbal recreation: it must keep the listener awake, and it must not, like the friars’ preaching in Lent, “make us for our olde synnes wepe.” The antidote to sleep seems to be adventurous matter – and perhaps, in addition, a brief and plain rather than augmented style, about which Harry will have more to say. The injunction to avoid matter to make us weep, however, is of a piece with Harry’s views on the Monk’s tale, and like those remarks, these indicate more than a temperamental predilection for “myrinesse” and even “japes.” Taken together, these strictures against “sad” matter define what Harry sees as the only purpose and value of tears: to offer “remedye.” The remedy they offer, according to Harry, is of two sorts, both practical rather than sentimental, expressive, or reflective. The one is to express contrition, and bring about repentance, “as freres doon in Lente” – a practical remedy for the soul. The other, implicit in his distaste for the Monk’s historical tragedies, is as a practical remedy for the aggrieved creature living in society: to call attention to a cause of complaint and thereby urge redress. But pardee, no remedie It is for to biwaille ne compleyne

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That that is doon, and als it is a peyne, As ye [the Knight] han seyd, to heere of hevynesse. …………………………… For therinne is ther no desport ne game. (VII.2784–91)

To weep for those long dead, or those who never lived, has no practical purpose, in Harry’s view; it can do nothing to lighten their pain, and such “hevynesse” does the hearer no good, and provides no “desport.” When the Clerk has finished his tale, Harry will find “this legende” an exemplary piece, valuable, like The Tale of Melibee, for teaching matronas nostri temporis, in particular the absent but formidable Goodelief, Harry’s far from patient spouse. Despite his initial request for “pley,” Harry takes the tale, with the prompting of the Clerk’s ironic commendatory envoi, as an object of moral use. In the same vein, and despite the Clerk’s double disavowal, both end at the of the tale and in the envoi, of its use as a marital exemplum, the Merchant, too, will find it suggesting the anti-matrimonial theme of his own performance. Both of these hearers pursue the paradigmatic usefulness of the tale, rather than its paradoxical delight, described by Petrarch, and apparently central to the Clerk’s admiration of it. In doing so, they are responding within the French rather than the Italian tradition of the tale. Absent from Harry’s and the Merchant’s range of literary pleasures are all the less than immediately practical values of weeping: as an expression of the “pitee” which “renneth soone in gentil herte,” and validates the humanitas of the hearer; or as the outward sign of that tragic emotion which both effects a pleasurable catharsis in the hearer and celebrates the human greatness of the sufferer.23 These might be described as the recreative pleasures of tears, and while they are sober and grave, they do not necessarily, or even usually, coincide, in tragic or noble stories of the Middle Ages or the ancient world, with either remedy or moral approbation. The tale of Griselda presents to the Clerk, as it did to Petrarch, the opportunity to display these recreative as well as exemplary uses of a grave and touching story, to show that weeping and gravitas are not in every respect opposed to delight. Harry’s proscription in advance of the recreative value of gravitas gains depth when viewed as parallel to Boccaccio’s similar insistence in the Decameron, that his tales are an antidote to both the lamentation of plague-time, and to the customarily sober brief narrative fare offered by clerks, either “in church” or “in the On the uses of pathos, and the idea of tragedy, in The Monk’s Tale, see Susan Dickman, “Tragedy from Chaucer to Cavendish,” Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1979. 23

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schools of philosophers.”24 As Petrarch answers Boccaccio by insisting on the recreative value of the clerk’s brevitas and gravitas to induce sober reflection on human nature in the man of letters, so the Clerk accedes to Harry’s demand for recreation, while shunning his association of sobriety and tears only with preaching and practical remedy. The consequence of this “obeisant” performance is like that of Griselda’s within the story: it is not the sufferer of the “yerde” of imposed conditions who finally yields under testing, but the “yerde” itself. The Clerk is constant to his “worthy clerk’s” view of the pleasures of the tale. Harry’s confidence about the desirable matter and emotional ends of narrative “pley” is matched by his certainties about stylistic means. As he is aware of the “matters” that usually concern clerks in their work, he also acknowledges the existence of a “clergial style,” which is not, to him, simply the habitual manner of speaking of those in, or preparing for, holy orders. It is, in fact, primarily a manner of writing rather than speaking, and is characteristic of highly literate men in more worldly occupations: it is properly used “whan that men to kynges write.” Harry’s conception of the “heigh stile” of “enditing,” or composing, describes the traits, aims, and worldly uses of the’ “clergial” style, adapted from that of the clerks of the Roman curia into the late medieval vernaculars of the national chancellories.25 It became the fashionable model of vernacular high style for didactic works when these same lay clerks in the service of royal administration turned their hands to the composition of literature.26 Its favored “termes, colours, and figures” in French and English in this period were legal phrases and formulas of reference (le dit ), synonyms piled in doublets and triplets, sentences composed of long and loosely-coordinated series of relative clauses, and elaborate formulas of introduction, address, formal forensic appeal, and conclusion. Harry urges the Clerk to keep this arsenal of “clergial” eloquence “in stoor” for the present occasion, and to speak plainly so as to be understood, rather than elaborately to be admired. It is apparently in accession to this stylistic demand that he omit ornamentation that the Clerk agrees to skip over in summary Decameron, tr. G.H. McWilliam (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), Epilogue, p. 830. See Diane Bornstein, “Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee as an Example of the Style Clergial,” ChauR 12 (1978), 236–54; John H. Fisher, “Chancery and the Emergence of Standard Written English,” Speculum 52 (1977), 870–99, esp. pp. 877 and 892, on the influence of chancery on curriculum and institutions in Oxford. 26 See Poirion, pp. 50–51, 173–5, 585–91, on the learned poetry of notaries and jurists, and the redefinition of “clergie” in this period. See also Norman Blake, The English Language in Medieval Literature (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1977), p. 121. 24 25

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fashion Petrarch’s “prohemye” describing the countryside around Saluzzo, as “a thyng impertinent.” Yet like his benign obedience to Harry’s other rules, this concessive gesture confounds the authority of that “yerde” as a measure of literary merit. The wit in this response lies in the fact that the Petrarchan version of “high style” was a very different and considerably more elegant creature than that formed on French and Anglo-French models current in Chaucer’s England. That the Clerk, in the process of declining to rehearse Petrarch’s proem (“in the which discryveth he … “), manages to translate virtually all of it, is only the first of his witty disruptions of Harry’s categories. Chaucer’s inclusion of this proem, like his rendering of Petrarch’s alio stilo as “heigh stile,” is one of the chief pieces of evidence that he used Petrarch’s Latin; all of the French redactors, though acting without the benefit of Harry’s literary advice, also omit the proem. For it, they substitute introductions which undo Petrarch’s careful insistence on the human universality of the tale, and its emotional profundity. The French translators bring back matronas nostri temporis as its chief intended audience, but unlike Boccaccio, they insist that they mean to instruct rather than entertain these femmes mariées. When Petrarch’s clerical recreation comes into the hands of French “clercs,” among whose primary current diversions was the querelle des femmes, the issues the tale seemed fit to address shift significantly. The questions it raises are no longer what quality of pleasure the tale offers, and to what kind of literary cultivation and social occasion it answered in its readers, but what exemplary purposes it serves. The French versions of the fourteenth century are agreed in two main points about Petrarch’s tale: that its value in French literary life lies in its exemplary value for married women, and that the French style into which they translate it is in no way comparable to Petrarch’s in elegance, or in itself of particular virtue toward the desired effect. Whether Chaucer used one (as Severs believed) or more of these French versions, they are remarkably uniform in this view of their enterprise, and it is to their common literary assumptions and principles – those which inform the Merchant’s and Harry’s ideas of the value of the tale – that we must now turn. In place of Petrarch’s geographical prologue, Philippe de Mézières introduces the tale as “l’histoire souventefois repetée, escripte et translatée par cel docteur devot et catholique [Petrarch].” Several transformations in literary and ethical context are implicit here. Petrarch is no longer a man of letters, a giant within the European literary scene – as the Clerk calls him, “lauriat poete” – he is now an authoritative teacher, “vaillant et solempnel docteur-poete,” who for his “science” is regarded as “le plus souifissant

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poete” of the last century in Christendom.27 Though Petrarch had portrayed his literary calling as analogous to the devotion of the religious solitary, he is now re-assimilated into an explicitly religious context, to the explicit orthodoxy of belief and pastoral authority in the exercise of his “science” attributed to a “maister” of spiritual doctrine. The status of Petrarch’s writing has changed with the nature of his cultural authority: as he is a “tres devot et vray catholique – qui n’est pas ainsy communaument des poetes-docteurs,” so his “biaus livres” are “remplis de tres grant devocion et de vraye doctrine catholique.” No longer a fabula, the story has become doctrinally valid – and, it seems, historically true as well: “Et est la dicte histoire publique et notoire en Lombardie et par especial en Pieumont et où marquise de Saluce est reputée pour vraye.” Where Petrarch had collapsed the distinction between historia and fabula with respect to literary effect and value, Philippe reinstates it, and makes truth the daughter of both history and doctrinal orthodoxy.28 Elie Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, L’Histoire de Griseldis en France au XIVe et au XVe siècles (Paris: Droz, 1933), prints Philippe’s version, pp. 153–82, as well as Le Livre de Griseldis, pp. 195–213. 28 This effort to associate the literary and ethical value of a tale with its historical veracity was to become an important critical theme in English fifteenth-century narrative, as it was not yet for Chaucer and his contemporaries. It suggests a new pressure to explain the value of literature in the face of apprehensiveness about “feigning” and the idleness of nonhistorical narration. Like Philippe’s sacramental piety and chivalric ceremony and idealization, it belongs to the chivalric chronicle, whose appeal as an edifying and celebratory mirror for princes seems to have been supplanting that of fictive romance in some court circles. The marks of this new concern are everywhere in English literary narrative in prose and verse by the fifteenth century: 27

Quha wait gif all that Chauceir wrait was trew? Nor I wait nocht gif this narratioun Be authoreist, or fenyeit of the new Be sum poeit . . . (Henryson, Testament of Cresseid, 64–7, in Robert Henryson, Poems, ed. Charles Elliott [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963].) And for to passe the tyme thys book shal be pleasaunte to rede in, but for to gyve fayth and byleve that al is trewe that is conteyned herin, ye be at your lyberté.

(Caxton, Preface to Morte Darthur, The Works of Thomas Malory, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. cxlvi.)

Chaucer is aware of contemporary continental efforts to found claims for the serious merit of narrative on the historical veracity of its matter, but only to mock them: This storie is also trewe, I undertake, As is the book of Launcelot du Lake That wommen holde in ful greet reverence

(CT, VII, 3211–13)

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This combination of religious and historical pieties is the distinctive mark of late medieval Franco-Burgundian “curial” prose narration: histories, legends, romances, chronicles become the medium for offering models of chivalric idealization. The ideal itself involves Christian service, honor for the sacraments, knightly loyalty (and often crusading zeal), gentle manners, and refinement in taste – an ethical and aesthetic amalgam honored in the late medieval chivalric orders (the Garter, the Golden Fleece), in encomiastic chronicles, and in royal and noble pageantry and spectacle. Philippe is a lifelong spokesman for this eclectic conception of “worthinesse.” Himself a member of the minor nobility, he served in the court of the King of Naples, was chancellor to King Peter of Cyprus by his mid-thirties, later a member of the council of King Charles V of France, and among the appointed supervisors of the education of Charles VI. In all of these capacities his ideals of a virtuous life were fixed upon the renewal of chivalry through sacramental service and a new crusade.29 Author of a letter to Richard II, which urged the English king to join and further a new Order of the Passion, founded to recapture the Holy Land, Philippe voiced this hope of transformation in a host of other didactic-allegorical works: Le Songe du Vieil Pelerin, La Sustance Abregie de la Chevalerie, De la Chevallerie de la Passion de Jhesu Crist. An equally strong and complementary strain in his didactic works is an emphasis on sacramental significance and devotion. His customary mode of exposition is to create and expound elaborate and ceremonious symbolic figures. During his brief service to the newly elected Pope Gregory XI in Avignon he succeeded in having introduced to the Western Church a new feast day, the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, and he composed an elaborately detailed religious drama of the Presentation for performance on the feast day at Avignon in 1385. Sacramental symbolism was thus a central feature of Philippe’s religious and political ideals, and central to his practice and theory as a writer. It is therefore not surprising to find him adapting the Griselda story to insert as a richly readable didactic symbol into the last book of his Livre de la Vertu du Sacrement du Mariage (1384–89). Philippe, like Petrarch, takes within his own writing the literary character of “the solitary”; what he means by it, however, is quite different, as his career suggests. He is the “old pilgrim,” adviser to princes and sometime dweller in the Convent of the Celestines in Paris. The pattern of his literary career is, in fact, much closer to that of John Gower30 than to that of Petrarch, whose 29 See Geoffrey Coopland’s account of Philippe’s career in his introduction to his edition of the Letter to Richard II (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1975), pp. xii, xxix. 30 Fisher, John Gower, Chs. 2 and 3.

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withdrawal to Vaucluse and later residence at Arquà was not couched in such explicitly devotional terms, but seen as well – and perhaps more fundamentally – within the pattern of ancient philosophical-literary otium. Philippe keeps the medieval character of the spiritual counsellor and sage, and sees Petrarch in a similar guise.31 It is as such a figure that “le dit Solitaire” offers Petrarch’s tale as “un miroir de dames mariées,” since its heroine kept supremely the sacrament of marriage. In keeping this sacrament, the heroine is “victor over herself ”; Philippe cites the Emperor Constantine to the effect that such virtue places Griselda above the Nine Worthies. The force of the story is centered on Griselda herself, not simply as a pathetic and noble but as an allegorical figure, and the pleasure and value of the tale lies in the symbolic paradigm, rather than in the wonder and pity it stirs. The style of this “piteuse, vertueuse et merveilleuse histoire,” however, is no match for Petrarch’s, as the “Solitary” himself admits. He has translated “rudement et grossement” a Latin prose he describes as “hault et poetique, et fort à entendre à ceulx qui n’ont pas acoustomé à lire tel latin.” As Philippe’s interest in the story reveals the preoccupations and methods of “curial” didacticism, his French prose exemplifies the curial style, replete with the “termes, colours, and figures” Philippe had in fact directed to several kings in the course of his literary and diplomatic career. It is prolix, loosely additive in syntax, filled with doublets and legal turns of phrase. Yet as if he recognized that the style which amplifies this tale does not necessarily enhance or augment its significance or gravity, he closes his prologue to the tale praying that God may assist his readers “en prendront le grain et en laisseront la paille.”32 By “chaff ” here, however, Philippe seems to mean not the husk of fable which contains the symbolic kernel of doctrinal and sacramental truth, but the style, for whose beauty and worth Philippe makes no special claims in comparison to Petrarch’s, as distinct from the symbolic “mirror” of the fable, its substance or “matere.” It is this sort of “curial” style that Harry seems to have had in mind in urging the Clerk to set aside “heigh stile,” but as we have seen, it does not tempt the Clerk as a standard of eloquence, as the undertaking of the public counsellor’s role, or any other worldly “offyce,” does not tempt him as a position for the literate man. For all of these – his conception of the locus of value of the tale and of its profoundly recreative power, and for his view of the writer’s solitude and the source of his authority – he seems largely to 31 On the social situation and rhetorical posture of the “old counsellors” in the reign of Charles VI, see Laura Kendrick, “Criticism of the Ruler, 1100–1400,” Diss. Columbia Univ., 1978, Ch. 4. 32 Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, p. 156.

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have abandoned the French tradition of the tale and returned to Petrarch’s ideals of a “clerk’s” performance, unlike his Canterbury audience, who hear it in the French manner. Though there is no firm evidence that Chaucer used Philippe’s version of the tale, it is Philippe who most fully articulates the view of its use and value that continue to inform its fourteenth-century fortunes in French. All of these are centered primarily upon the instruction of “femmes marieés,” as firmly as the Italian versions had, in their critical contexts, raised the questions of gravitas and levitas in entertainment, and the various kinds of audience for the pleasures of narration. Only a few years after Philippe incorporated the story into his Livre de la Vertu du Sacrement du Mariage, his version was adapted to the less sacramental and more directly practical moral instruction of a young wife. The anonymous author-compiler of Le Ménagier de Paris (about 1393), casting his net into some of the same waters Chaucer was then fishing for tales of virtuous women, finds and inserts Philippe’s translation of the Griselda tale into his compendious and practical book to teach his newly-espoused young wife all of the duties of her new estate, from managing servants, marketing, and caring for the sick, through personal appearance and demeanor, to prayers and “Cristes owene werkes” of charity, to the general forming of the self upon ideal models of female virtue. The Ménagier author follows Philippe’s version fairly closely, but his less symbolic and more directly practical purpose in offering Griselda as an example prompts some disclaimers, both of its historicity and its literal applicability to human conduct. The authority of “maistre Francois Pétrac” is such that “I must not correct [the tale] or make another, for a wiser man (plus sage) than I put it together, and gave it its title.”33 Nevertheless the author remarks in concluding, “I do not believe it ever really happened (ce ne fust onques vray),” and, while this is a noble example of obedience to one’s spouse, “May God keep me from ever trying you thus, par ceste maniere ne par aultres, soubs couleur de faulses simulations!” The Ménagier author apologizes for the cruelty of the tale – “à mon advis, plus que de raison” – even as he observes that he hesitates to change it in adapting it. The gesture is Chaucerian, similar not only to the reporter’s disclaimers before rehearsing The Miller’s Tale, but in particular to the author’s additions to The Clerk’s Tale itself, in which the narrator is compelled to note the unreasonable and unnecessary character of Walter’s impositions (456–62, 621–23). These remarks have no exact parallel within any source narrative; their closest counterparts seem to be these framing remarks of the Ménagier Severs, p. 22.

33

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author. It is this unpretentious French redactor who restores the functional status of fabula to the tale, to assure that the other questionable ethical models it includes (cruaulte, faulses simulations) need not cause problems of practical interpretation for the reader, and it is he who implicitly calls our attention to the differences between a sacramental and a moral ideal as a narrative subject. Chaucer’s likeliest French source, however, was a third fourteenth-century version, Le Livre de Griseldis, which renders Petrarch’s Latin independently of Philippe, and in a much simpler and more concise prose. Like the other two, however, its author is both awed by the style and status of his Latin exemplar – “un tres vaillant et moult solennel poete, appellez Francois Petrach, dont Dieux ait l’amme” – and primarily concerned to offer it as “a l’exemplaire des femmes mariées,” adding, however, “et toutes autres.”34 Like the other French redactors, he translates it serviceably “selon mon petit engin et entendement.” It is from this version that Chaucer seems to have taken the Clerk’s prayerful thoughts for the soul of Petrarch (“He is now deed and nayled in his cheste, / I prey to God so yeve his soule reste”), and the concluding retraction of a narrow application of the fable solely to marital conduct. This final move, in which the French Livre reproduces Petrarch’s closing remarks at the end of Seniles XVII.3 – though in a literary and social setting which give them a different resonance – draws it closer to the Italian sense of the story as fable than any other French version. Ceste hystoire est recité de la pacience de celle femme, non pas tant seulement que les femmes qui sont aujourd’uy ie esmeuve à ensuir ycelle pacience et constance, que à paine me semble ensuivable et possible, mais aussy les lisans et oyans à ensuir et considerer au mains la constance d’icelle femme, afin que ce qu’elle souffrist pour son mortel mari facent et rendent à Dieu. (Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, p. 213)

While these remarks simply translate Petrarch’s conclusions, they mean within the circumstances in which they are made something quite different. This French version, like the others, appears to belong within a didactic and essentially symbolic frame of reference for literary interpretation and use,35 34 Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, p. 195. Severs also prints the text of the Livre facing Petrarch’s Latin, pp, 255–89. 35 See Severs, p. 26. One of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Livre was given by “maistre Estienne Huvete,” a canon of Chartres, to the Church of Chartres in 1422. The kind of readership, and methods of interpretation, implied by this gift warrant further study, as does the relatively plain and efficient style of the French prose in which this version is made. I

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according to which Griselda is a paradigmatic model rather than an admirably suffering and pathetic figure, and the clarity of that model as didactic fable, rather than a style which excites pity and admiration, is the purpose of narration. Though the same conclusion is common to both of Chaucer’s source texts, their equivalent words and phrases resound differently within their respective literary languages, and in the critical and social contexts in which they occur and are heard. The supreme wit of the Clerk’s performance lies in its superimposition of these divergent traditions of interpretation, praise, and use of the Griselda story. Chaucer inserts into the story both those features which heighten its capacity to “excite pity,” and those which emphasize its symbolic status. At the end, he has the Clerk playfully set aside the whole question of the uses of a narrative “serious entertainment,” with a purely nugatory lyric in yet another literary mode, “a songe to glade yow” which ironically and explicitly commends to us a modern instance as a living model for moral emulation. In doing so he transforms his offering from a textual tour de force back to the socially-embodied “pley” Harry had commanded. The Clerk’s narration itself as performance is not memorable as a dramatic experience, but as a textual one, and it is considerably more insulated from audience response and interaction than many others told on the pilgrimage. Like its immediate antecedents in Latin and French, the story is offered and received primarily as read rather than heard; its narrator has within it the status of author rather than actor, and so, it seems, his fellow pilgrims take him. He is not interrupted while speaking, like the Wife, nor, like her and many others, does he call attention in any way within his tale to the act and business of storytelling as spoken performance in shared social time, do not know of any full account of its locus and purpose of production which would further clarify its critical premises and intentions; for one example of the sort of study needed, see Lee W. Patterson, “Ambiguity and Interpretation: A Fifteenth Century Reading of Troilus and Criseyde,” Speculum 54 (1979), 297–330. The present essay is meant to suggest that we need to know not only how near-contemporaries read Chaucer, but also how they read, transmitted, and interpreted narratives that became his sources, in order to understand the meaning and varieties of interplay provided by the storytelling game as a feature of literary structure. That a French translation of Petrarch’s Latin is not necessarily from a “learned” to a “popular” literary environment (as Severs apparently assumed), but rather to a different intellectual and literary arena, with different and equally well-articulated canons of value, and a different notion of what constitutes learning and its uses, is attested by all three of the French versions I have cited; a Latin verse translation of Petrarch’s text, “metrificata per P. de Hailles” – Peter de Hailles, secretary to the Count of Blois between 1385 and 1390 – is further witness to the variety of high-literate intetest in the story in France in the fourteenth century. See Olson, “Petrarch’s View of the Decameron,” p. 79, n. 24.

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with the dilations and foreshortenings and other forms of self-reference of the speaking narrator. He does not at the end turn to the audience, like the Pardoner, with a direct appeal, or, like the Franklin, with a debatable question. Until the Envoy he does and says nothing which explicitly plays into any continuing issue of debate, whether of content or of literary form and style, among the pilgrim players. He does not at the start offer to “quite” anyone or any thing, though, as the preceding examination of the French lineage of the story suggests, it would probably have been difficult for the pilgrim audience, and even more for Chaucer’s audience, to ignore the animus radiating from the querelle des femmes which illuminated Griselda as an exemplary figure. This querelle will inevitably arise in the mind of the hearer, in Chaucer’s time or our own, who has already heard from the Wife of Bath, but it is important to notice that the Clerk himself as pilgrim-performer does nothing – except by being an Oxford Clerk, and therefore the Wife’s “natureel contrarie” – to put that idea in our minds. Nor does Harry place the Clerk’s offering in this “quiting” context; he is, as we have seen, too absorbed in drawing the Clerk into any acceptably “myrie” kind of play at all to further specify a sparring partner. Harry, in fact, tends to put this sort of interaction foremost only for those players who have already shown a marked inclination for it; but the Clerk has been riding silently (in this respect like Chaucer the pilgrim), “as coy and stille as dooth a mayde/Were newe spoused, sittynge at the bord.” It is Harry’s “yerde,” not any subject latent in the antecedent “pley,” that governs the Clerk’s Canterbury performance – as it is no set of implicit assumptions, but an extraordinary “obeisance” to an explicit promise, that determines Griselda’s course of action in the story. It is not, then, as a dramatized interaction, but as a rarefied act of literarycritical wit, that the Clerk’s tale is a performance. His story remains perhaps the most “textual” of The Canterbury Tales, bearing few of the marks of a voiced interaction upon it. If the Clerk as narrator is a performer in it, it is not in the same sense as are those voluble claimants upon our attention and beliefs, the Wife and the Pardoner, but (for example) as Nabokov’s highly literate self-creators are, through their writings – performers who weave a design upon the world as they see it in applying language to the page, rather than in facing living hearers to dispute or entertain them. Or as Petrarch is a performer, not through a distinctly voiced style, as raconteur, but as in every sense a man of letters, a posited ideal character, created, displayed, and caught only in the act of writing. He holds no office or place; the community within which he acts has no institutional location, living only in the pages its members exchange and share. These, not a road or an inn or a court or

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a creed, define their “felaweshipe.” We know Petrarch wholly through his relation to the reading and making of his world in a text; he presents himself as writer as, in Spenser’s phrase, an “eternal image of antiquitie.” It is this created and performed idea of the man of letters, not stylistic innovation or distinctive philosophical originality, that constitutes Petrarch’s chief invention and offering to the world.36 The interplay between Harry’s instruction and the Clerk’s “obeisant” narration is a confrontation of the Petrarchan Clerk as an emanation and creation of his own books, a man wholly of letters, with the more familiar socially-embodied French and English sense of the Clerk as speaker in his writing, a corrective voice and public presence, whether in exhorting the layman to repentance or the king to a proper view of his office and duties. As the tale closes, it successively gives standing to each of the competing views of clerkly eloquence and its role in the world, then, with the Envoy, adds one more: that of the courtier-poet and recreative counsellor to the noble. The Clerk’s Envoy ironically pretends to abandon all the serious claims of his “ernestful matere,” and offers instead a “songe to glade yow” – the play Harry had insisted upon is finally offered explicitly. It is, hilariously, an advisory gesture, both practical and playful: it offers us the Wife and all her “secte” as applicable models for life. Yet more hilarious, however, is the poetic form this gesture takes: an extended envoi, a form associated with the conclusion, delivery, and application of a lyrical fable to its princely audience, the handing-over of an enigma as both game and counsel.37 This long tour de force of versification, turning for 36 lines on three rhyme sounds, ends the tale as the envoi ends a balade or chant royale: it retrospectively assigns the narration to the role and status of a lyrical fable, a covert and complex figure of imagination for the noble mind to enjoy, interpret, and apply. It is comically fitting that in doing so, the Clerk should overturn Harry’s last strictures – that he avoid the kind of utterance ordinarily aimed at kings, and that his meaning should be “pleyn” rather than enigmatic. It is fitting, too, that this last effusion of clerkly play should finally join the “ernestful See John H. Fisher, “The Myth of Petrarch,” in Jean Misrahi Memorial Volume: Studies in Medieval Literature, ed. Hans R. Runte, Henri Niedzielski, and William L. Hendrickson (Columbia, S.C.: French Literature Publications, 1977), pp. 359–71. 37 On the use of the envoi, see Poirion, p. 373. The envoi of a chant royale customarily begins “Princes ... ,” according to Deschamps in L’Art de Dictier, Oeuvres complètes de Eustache Deschamps, ed. Le Marquis de Queux de Saint-Hilaire and Gaston Raynaud (Paris, 1878 – 1903), VII.278. See Chaucer’s balades “Truth,” “Fortune,” “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” and “The Complaint of Venus.” 36

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matere” to mental recreation and pleasure. The Envoy renders the Clerk’s whole offering at once a recreative and speculative object, a fable for wonder and use, accompanied (unlike any of Chaucer’s source texts) by the “natural music” of elegant verse. Chaucer’s invention of the Clerk’s performance constitutes a guided tour of several specifically secular literary canons and ideals current at the end of the fourteenth century. Their intersection is playfully enigmatic, but provocative and fruitful, both to the Canterbury pilgrims, in their doubly hopeful journey toward the ideal story as well as toward St Thomas’ spiritual benefits, and to modern readers, who still need enlightenment about how these several pilgrims might have defined the tale of “best sentence and moost solas.” Though amply provided with both medieval and modern accounts of the uses and pleasures of the narrative text, we must decline to guess what sort of story might have been considered worthy of a supper, and why.

V

Playing the Plowman: Legends of FourteenthCentury Authorship* Dare not to match thy pype with Tityrus hys style, Nor with the Pilgrim that the Ploughman playde a whyle: But followe them farre off, and their high steppes adore....

Spenser, Shepheardes Calender, December: Epilogue.1 This experiment in practical historical criticism rereads the careers of two late fourteenth century English poets with the aim of reversing most of the terms in which the literary relationships between them have been understood. As a speculative exercise rather than in the mode of aesthetic judgment, I propose to displace Chaucer from his familiar position as acknowledged founder and master in the early genealogy of English literary authorship. In his place I propose to insert a poet nearly anonymous, one who in traditional literaryhistorical accounts lacks a literary genealogy – or for that matter any other kind. As poet he declined to use his father’s surname, and he was himself supplanted, within his own lifetime, as an agent of imaginative production by his own fictive creation. I refer, of course, to William Langland and his Piers Plowman.2

*As the annual Charles Mills Gayley Lecture of the English Department of the University of California Berkeley, this essay was presented in May 1993 to faculty, students, and Berkeleyarea alumni, and designed for the general audience of its original occasion. I have retained that approach in adapting it for this volume, occasionally drawing attention to its connections to other essays here, and adding notes to works cited. An Appendix lists published reproductions of the visual materials briefly discussed at the end of Section II; these accompanied the original lecture in a photocopied handout, but are not reproduced here, as all of them have since become amply available in print. 1 The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J.C. Smith and E. de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1912). 2 All citations of Chaucer are from The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd. ed., Larry D. Benson, gen. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). References to Piers Plowman are to the Athlone edition of the poem (London: Athlone Press) in three volumes: Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. George Kane, 1960 (revised edition 1988); Piers Plowman: The B Version, eds. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, 1975; Piers Plowman: The C Version, eds. George Russell and George Kane, 1988; unless otherwise specified, quotations are from the B Version.

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Unless we make this trial substitution, we will never understand what was at stake, formally or culturally, in the late fourteenth century emergence of an English practice of vernacular literature. And unless we are prepared to acknowledge as formative and fundamental Langland’s innovations in poetic discourse and narrative form within their socio-political situation, we will certainly never understand the nature of Chaucer’s. While this reading of the two poets in tandem has its own rewards, its larger implications extend well beyond the study of medieval literature. Perhaps the most fundamental is its design to illustrate how, why, and in what terms a reconception of the critical tasks of literary history itself (a currently discredited branch of literary studies) is now, following two decades of a salutary and radical reorientation of critical agendas and vocabularies, a task long overdue and urgently necessary. Paradoxically centered on two authors, their works, and their literary careers (those arch-unities, as Foucault viewed them, of traditional historical narrative now in bad odor in criticism), it proposes a dialogue about literary history across a 600-year gap, roughly between 1390 and 1990. I start from the demonstrable premise that an idea of the literary as a category amenable to explicit historical consideration and intervention was not at all foreign to fourteenth-century writers: on the contrary, it was an enabling condition of their innovations, as it was to Spenser in inserting both poets in the genealogy of his own work. To reimagine historical change within and at the borders of the literary, we need to ask how imaginative writers themselves conceived and negotiated it, and it is in search of answers to these questions that I turn now to our two fourteenth-century poets, both of whom actually did offer new accounts of vernacular literary practice and history that differed substantially from those current when they began their careers. I: Vernacular authorship: mapping and reversing the field In proposing the replacement of Chaucer by Langland as a generative or initiatory figure for such a history of English vernacular fiction, I am far from suggesting a mere change of statuary in the literary Hous of Fame, while leaving this figurative image of literature itself undisturbed. On the contrary, it is precisely this substitution that enables us to denaturalize the familiar humanist metaphors by which literature as a historical institution has been imagined by traditional literary history, for Chaucer is largely responsible for installing these in our field of vision in the first place. In the process, he also provided to critical scholarship what was to become its dominant figure for understanding the formation of poetic self-awareness and self-reflexivity.

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So thoroughly naturalized is this venerable imaginative model of literary succession and “influence” that, despite the caveats of critics from Harold Bloom through Michel Foucault (neither of whom really addresses the historical interplay of structure and agency involved), we still need reminding that it is an artifact, indeed an invention of poets.3 The general outline and key metaphors of Chaucer’s model of literary tradition began to take shape as early as the Hous of Fame, and are elaborated in various ways in Parlement of Foules, Troilus, and Legend of Good Women. In recalling the key features of what it will be convenient to call the Chaucerian legendary history of literature, I identify for emphasis three features. First, although it was to receive a few further broadly Darwinian turns when literary history (like everything else) became a virtual industry in the later nineteenth century, this model of literary history is already, in Chaucer’s imaginative figuration of it, recognizable in most of its main elements as the formation against which poststructuralist criticism was to direct its heaviest artillery. Second, there is implicit in it both a distinctive politics and an epistemology – an image of society and a notion of knowledge – that are structurally allied to an actual social formation that specifies a poet’s positionality within it. Third, this legend of vernacular authorship was almost entirely the product of one decade of Chaucer’s career, the years from about 1377 to 1387, during which the poems I have named, along with the translation of Boethius and the fragment Anelida and Arcite, were written. It was immediately following this period that he began the long unfinished work we call the Canterbury Tales; despite the possibility that a few individual tales might predate this period, this large-scale complex fiction seems to have occupied the remainder of his writing life. The chronology of this formation is far from incidental, and, as we will see, helps to explain its cultural and political function. In Chaucer’s usage, those called “poets” are invariably dead, and mostly belong to antiquity, like that convocation of the revered masters of both ancient historical matter and rhetoric named in the conclusion to the Troilus: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” tr. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977). In “Reading Piers Plowman” YLS 8 (1995), 1–20, based on his plenary address to the first international conference on Piers Plowman in 1993, George Kane presents a searching critique of recent devaluation of such critical categories as “authorship” and the literary; his remarks, and references there, furnish valuable supplementation to the argument of this essay; also germane is Hayden White, “Foucault’s Discourse: the Historiography of Anti-Humanism,” ch. 5 of his collection The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 104–141. 3

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“Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan and Stace.” The more recently dead Dante (d. 1321) and Petrarch (d. 1374) also seem to attain a kind of honorary or satellite membership in this company of named literary forbears and models to whom one could acknowledge a debt – though in each case by more indirect means. The literary enterprise of living writers is designated only by the present participle, “making,” as if to suggest that contemporary literature is always in a provisional state of acceptance, and of doubtful durability: there is no other term for the finished product of “making,” corresponding to poetry or poems as what poets produce. Even though, as Chaucer almost certainly knew, this English word, used in a number of Latin works he quotes, is cognate to the Greek verb at the root of the term “poetry,” the latter always encompassed the arts of conceptual invention and disposition as well as versification, while “makyng,” a term used by both poets for vernacular verse composition, implies a more limited avocation, normally to some degree improvisational. In Langland’s usage “makyng” denotes a minor personal pastime, a venial foible or bad habit for which the only excuse is that it seems to provide to its practitioner interim comfort until more enduring and trustworthy consolation manifests itself. Until then, a life spent in “makyng” is a lifetime of waiting, not doing: within his fiction he has his poetic speaker disavow all his past ventures in this kind before his sternest judges, who pronounce these a mere waste of time that might have been better spent in spiritual reflection. Chaucer’s “makyng” has a more restricted meaning, as well as a more benign valuation: it denotes not simply verse composition, but as Lee Patterson and others have shown, specifically that kind of ephemeral or occasional verse made for the brief recreative attention of the court, and designed primarily to please the great, whose dispositive power makes the court a focus for such imaginative production, and therefore a magnet (even if only as ideal rather than social fact) for writers who aspire to careers both rewarding and honorable.4 It is best exemplified in the formal intricacy (“curiosite”) of the nearly-contemporary lyric verse of “hem that make in Fraunce” (Complaint of Venus 82). Chaucer does not otherwise name living writers at all, except in the form of a genial and specific coterie address or commendation, as of Troilus to “moral Gower and philosophical Strode” or such individual addressees as “Vache,” “Bukton,” and “Scogan” in his balades and envoys, those fixed French lyric forms which virtually specify this gesture,

Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp 49–61, on “makyng” and its late-medieval social functions. 4

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as of epistolary address, among their formal rules.5 And (a point to which we will have cause to return) Chaucer never, as authorial person, names any writer, living or dead, while in the act of appropriating his work. The most notorious example is of course the recently dead Boccaccio (d. 1375), whose Troilus, of which Chaucer’s is in the medieval sense a translation, is attributed to the non-existent and pseudo-antique “Lollius,” a vaporous creature born of a (scribally deformed) line of Horace. Metaphorically, literature as a historical institution is figured in terms of the two great material correlatives and privileges of medieval lordship and proprietorship: the fertility of the agrarian domain, and the ordered physical and social structure of a grand hall. We all know the touchstones: those “olde feeldes” out of which the “newe corn” of fresh knowledge and composition arise spontaneously, as if without the intervention of human effort or formal learning, as Chaucer represents the translatio studii in the Parlement of Foules (PF 22–25); it is a prospect inspiring delight rather than craftsmanly solicitude, chiefly for the proprietor of these “feeldes,” from whose imaginative vantage point they are regarded. And although the standard edition of Chaucer makes no mention of it, this appealing analogy of imaginative production to the perpetual fertility of an agrarian field contains nothing drawn from nature: it translates the sententious opening words (Ex agro veteri virtutum semina, morum / Plantula...) of a famous Latin verse schooltext of the middle ages, the Tobias of Matthew of Vendome.6 Because medieval literati recalled their recognitionrepertory of texts not by the title of the book or work (these varied widely, and were often missing in manuscript), but by incipit, this English quotation of the opening phrase or sentence of the “source” metonymically invoked the settled traditional wisdom with which the whole discourse is aligned. And this one in turn would have gained further medieval resonance from the incipit of one of the era’s most widely-used searchable collections of such extracts (florilegia) made expressly for the use of later writers, the Manipulus Florum of Thomas of Ireland, which began, as did a host of similar medieval compendia, by citing the divinely-sanctioned gleaning of Ruth in the fields of Boaz (Ruth 2:3) as warrant for using others’ eloquence in one’s own composition.7 5 Daniel Poirion, Le poète et le prince (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), offers a thorough account of the formal and rhetorical properties of the late-medieval courtly lyric. 6 Mathei Vindocinensis Opera, ed. Franco Munari (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1982), vol. II, 161. 7 See Richard H. and Mary A. Rouse, Preachers, Florilegia and Sermons: Studies on the Manipulus Florum of Thomas of Ireland. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1979), p. 114, and Appendix II, p. 236.

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Chaucer opens this poem in the same register of serviceably learned and polite sententiousness, with another such fundamental text for the teaching of an “art,” rendering the Latin saying ars longa vita brevis as “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” This short formulation, given wide currency by those sententious schoolmasters of the humanists Horace and Seneca, was usually adduced by Chaucer’s Renaissance successors as if it meant to celebrate the durability of the creative productions of human minds in contrast to the brevity of their mortal lives; as Spenser adapts it in the final line of his Epithalamion “for short time an endlesse moniment.” But Chaucer’s opening gambit in the Parlement incorporates the full text and sense of the earlier aphorism from which these Latin writers adopted and abbreviated it. Wrongly termed by many literary scholars a “proverb” (the baggy default category to which readers of Chaucer as well as Langland too often assign any sententious statement that seems both self-evident and memorably phrased), as rendered by Chaucer in two lines this dictum is unmistakably the first aphorism of the collection of these transmitted in the Latin Hippocratic corpus. By the later middle ages several of the learned disciplines, law as well as medicine, had acquired as part of their transmissible professional lore a set of handily memorable brief formulations of their main doctrines and articles of practice: such mnemonics for practitioners-in-training still survive in verses used (at least until recently) by beginning students in these “arts” (e.g. the medical student’s acronym “on old Olympus’ towering tops...” for recalling the sequence of the cranial nerves), as well as in spoken odds and ends of putatively “folk” wisdom (e.g. “feed a cold, starve a fever,” another of the Hippocratic aphorisms). As the initial dictum of the Hippocratic sequence, this formulation encompasses the main challenges to the aspiring professional presented by any advanced learned discipline dependent for success on extensive experimental practice and observation: Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile (“Life is short, the skill long, opportunity [or “the crisis”] fleeting, experiment perilous, judgment [i.e. inference, assessment, and decision] difficult”); Chaucer’s paraphrase includes the monitory as well as sententious clauses (“Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge”) of this Hippocratic summation of the demands of his own still-unspecified “art.”8 But despite this initial gesture to the rigors of a skilled practice underlying the visionary dialogue that follows, Chaucer names the “craft” to which these competences lead as he proceeds to the nominal topic of his poem: “al this mene y by love,” that perennial Ovidian Hippocratic Aphorisms, tr. Francis Adams. Internet Classics, consulted 10/26/09:

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metonymy by which the courtly “maker” disavows any indecorous display of effort or schooling, in favor of an inspiring affective avocation that cannot be fully mastered as “craft” but only ineffably experienced by the finer spirits, to whose pleasure “makyng” is addressed. Chaucer’s second main metaphor for literary tradition represents it as a great edifice, such as the palace of Fame, which explicitly acknowledges no single builder’s hand, though it is ornamented within by monumental images of antique achievement held up, quite literally, by the auctors through whose writings they are known to our time. In a comic turn on Dante’s journey, the cicerone of this crowded exhibit of greatness, and vehicle of the poetic persona’s aerial journey, is an enthusiastically voluble Eagle, who remains as undaunted by the anxious traveller’s un-Dantean indifference to such edification as he is deaf to his portly passenger’s fear of heights. But in either figurative guise – as seemingly self-fertile agrarian land or as a palace or pleasaunce – the cultural role of literature is figured in Chaucer’s preCanterbury period primarily in richly-imaged spatialized terms, as a sequestered or privileged place, in which the cumulative art and wisdom of the culture become available as objects of appreciative spectatorship, the treasury accumulated by generations of intellectual surplus-extraction, conducted in the mysterious absence of the laborious. Knowledge and cultural competence are imagined as proceeding somehow from contemplation, not exercise, from “taking thought” upon things seen, “new sights” which are induced by the reading of books and projected as visions. It is not, as they say in the current educational establishment, an interactive process. Chaucer’s Italian-humanist legend of literary tradition as antique cognitive inheritance is thus grafted seamlessly onto the received, largely French and courtly, model of literary production as edifying display for the powerful – again without acknowledgement of either applied labor or claims to constituted didactic authority by anyone. As a way of negotiating a court artist’s actual position of dependence on favor, this was a tactful way of purporting to offer knowledge or counsel without presumption, and in the absence of doctrinal sanction. In its dual disavowal of aspirations to speak directly of either truth or power, literature thus retains a high degree of “deniability,” and the deferential authorial person is little more than a backformation of this positioning of the literary itself as under a kind of double erasure in relation to potentially rival lettered institutions of authority and dispositive agencies of power. Retaining the postulate that knowledge is a matter of spectatorship, but enlarging the field of vision from “love” (the code of conduct and feeling

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in which both truth and power are encrypted in the French love vision) to include the monumental achievements and historical matter of ancient poets, Chaucer constructed the model and genealogy of literature with which he wished to affiliate his enterprise in this decade. Yet precisely because he repeatedly portrays ancient books in these poems as a vernacular maker’s defense against the demands for the literary assimilation of contemporary reference, Chaucer’s “humanist” model of literary history, as a transtemporal affinity group of kindred spirits, prompts us to ask not simply the traditional question, how this move dignifies Chaucer’s conception of art, but what this notional pantheon of literature – and hence the model of literary history and the construction of a canon and of critical values that is its legacy to us – is built to exclude. Langland’s very different imaginary account of literary practice stands not merely as a contemporary alternative to Chaucer’s in a hypothetical free market of ideas and figurative images, but as an antecedent and in many ways entirely antithetical conception, equally unprecedented in English vernacular discourse. What is important for our purposes is that within the terms of value laid down in the Chaucerian “classical” legend of literary history, the nature of Langland’s innovation can scarcely be seen at all – and that may have been precisely the point of the Chaucerian invention. Wherever authorship is conceived in this humanist mode as a sort of appropriative transcendence of constituent “traditions,” Langland is destined to be seen as a grand failure. He is repeatedly (and patronizingly) described in literary histories as a mind or voice that cannot subsume and subordinate his constituent “materials,” both ancient and contemporary, and rise from these into the imaginative freedom and synthetic mastery that has traditionally defined achieved literary form; C.S. Lewis’s often-quoted remark, that “he scarcely makes his poetry into a poem,” typifies this perspective.9 In Langland’s practice of literature, however, mastery was not a solution, but the key problem for literary form to address. The discursive overload and conflict of contemporary life, the multiple claims to superordinating authority to which his poem attests, were not poetic materials, to be made to submit in turn to an overarching imaginary order; they were rather his principles of poetic form – as at last Chaucer was to figure out, in framing the dialogic form and contentious interactions of the Canterbury Tales. While imaginative writing was for Langland an instrument of knowledge, that knowledge is achieved not through spectatorship, but through work. In his terminology, “poets” are C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford University Press, 1936); pp 158–61 present his brief discussion of Langland’s poem as “a little outside our subject.” 9

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philosophical thinkers, not ancient artists; they do not found or model literary enterprise, and the literary is not monumental, but the subsistence production of the mind. Around this non-transcendent imagination of literary practice, Langland invents for English the notion of literary vocation not merely as a “craft,” but as “life work.” The core “statement,” in Foucault’s sense of the term, of this new discursive formation is the figure of Piers Plowman himself, and it is given its virtually complete articulation in the poem’s second vision, the episode in which Piers erupts suddenly into the field of vision to perform virtually all of the action and speech he has for the entire poem. Here the plowman servant of truth speaks, leads, and reads – as no member of his class had done before in vernacular literary representation. In this vision, Piers is made essentially what he was very quickly to become in the reception of this poem, by a startling series of displacements and metonymies, almost immediately upon its circulation into use, as well as in Langland’s revision of his work: a kind of screen-figure for the authorial enterprise, a fictive projection of the origin of the worldly “maker’s” will toward form and ethical clarity, a myth of the genesis of his aspiration to know and express the moral law experientially and existentially. By the end of the episode, Piers also figures the cultural problematic encountered by literary discourse, in the reduction of his role once again to marginality and invisibility, to dispersal and de-authorization, through its continued confrontation with the already-written. Rather than a means of display and amplification of fixed positions, visionary narrative becomes for Langland a way of staging scandalous recognitions through simple displacements of voice and position: in the expression of impeccable doctrine by impossible persons. II. Life Work: a vernacular poetic and ethics The second dream of Langland’s poem stages in narrative form the argumentative rationale for an “estates” model of society, by imagining that structure as if it were built, and morally justified, from the bottom up. It unfolds the functionalist argument for social differentiation, starting from the fields of labor where food and other subsistence needs are produced, then developing for its own preservation two complementary functions, above it in the social scale as their responsibilities are superior in the moral order: the clergy, who minister to those aspects of the human person and community that are not fed by bread alone, and secular lordship, which provides a system of governance and justice within which these enterprises of bodily and

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spiritual sustenance, the collective tasks of humankind, can proceed in peace, without danger of force or fraud from within or without. This conceptual panorama of the estates model proceeds in its explanatory logic from base to superstructure, imagining society as if evolved historically, as an emanation of human practical rationality, and in the interest of its collective survival and spiritual health.10 There is nothing necessarily Christian about this argument, in that it invokes no transcendent sanction for these arrangements: though the particular social diagram it yields is peculiar to medieval social thought, its main ethical elements would be intelligible to any Roman Stoic; for simplicity’s sake, let us call this the social order according to nature. As Helen Waddell might have said, there is an almost Confucian sobriety and serenity in all this, and the assurance it implies – that if one does, as all should, what is asked or expected, whatever one’s station requires, the good order of things will be secure and both human happiness and divine favor will ensue – defines the basis for Piers’s moral confidence as he begins to speak and act in this scene. This rationale for social order would be a less remarkable premise than it is if it had begun the poem. But the poem’s first vision, disclosing the field of folk shortly to be expounded by Holichurche, unfolds according to a diametrically opposed argument for the differentiation of worldly estates – which is also the one that, as our earlier analysis has suggested, philosophically underwrites most literary visions. If the array of “estates” I have just rehearsed is functionalist, this version might be called a specular or immanent explanation of social form, which imagines social difference as ontologically rather than practically derived. The human world according to Holichurche is an order of honor, not nature, and she explains its differentiation from the top down, depicting earthly estates, not as the product of historical experience and human rationality, but as given in principio by divine fiat, and framed in an image-likeness or analogy to the heavenly hierarchy, where each of the angelic hosts has its own absolute excellence, but some are ranked closer to the divine radiance. In this scheme, toil reminds humankind of its difference from, rather than likeness to, the divine. Maintaining visible distinction of merit and reward is essential to this order, and indeed constitutes its primary economic activity. And if the functionalist order of nature is based imaginatively on the field of agrarian production, the place that produces, and is produced by, the specular order of honor is the court. The first vision of the poem thus serves chiefly to underscore this deep alignment of the rhetoric of gift and glory, prowess and Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); Georges Duby, The Three Orders (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 10

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reward, and the social diagram it assumes, with the sociopolitical perspectives and interests of the powerful (both good and bad), for whom it serves to justify the appropriation of surplus material production (wealth considered as “treasure”) for conversion into symbolic capital for reward. From Will’s first question about the field (“to whom does all its treasure belong?”) to the change of visionary venue it ultimately prompts (the shift to the debate at the king’s court over who shall marry Lady Meed, or Reward) the first vision establishes the literary tropes that the second vision will thoroughly revise. The second dream is built out of the narrative residue of the first. Though the court scenario vanishes with Will’s waking, when he dreams a second time it is again of the field of folk, as if to announce a rewriting of the initial explanation of its elusive order. Reason now preaches a general sermo ad status to these multitudes, which induces “Will” (thus far in the poetic sequence not firmly identified with the authorial persona of the dreamer) to weep for his own sins, the Deadly Sins to confess severally, and the folk in general to resolve to undertake a mass pilgrimage to Truth. But they lack a guide, and it is to volunteer for that role that Piers Plowman abruptly “puts forth his head” to speak. It is difficult, but essential, for moderns to recognize the radical change in literary register announced by Piers’s entry into the poem, its profound indecorousness according to the norms of medieval vernacular visionary fiction. As Elizabeth Kirk has suggested, it is in the first instance profoundly surprising that an agrarian worker is made the spokesman (that is, not merely the icon or symbol) of Truth, and scarcely less surprising that his occupation is that of plowman rather than shepherd.11 But the manner of his entry is still more shocking, and literally from its first word, precisely because it occurs without any narratorial preparation, as a spoken irruption into a fictive action already under way. “A plowman” suddenly exclaims “Peter!” (which the folk take to be his self-introduction by his given name), adding “I knowe hym [Truth] as kyndely [naturally] as clerk doþ hise bokes.” This dramatic interruption is the first such occurrence in the poem, but it is far from the last, and Langland, who exploits this device of interruptive speech for maximum effect whenever he uses it, is to my knowledge the first fiction-writer in English to deploy it at all. As an innovation in narrative procedure this one has slipped right by modern readers entirely without critical notice. Those accustomed to the 11 Elizabeth Kirk, The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) offers in ch. 3 (pp. 71–100) a trenchant analysis of the scene of Piers’ entry onto the field, and the pivotal aporia it enacts, to which the one offered here is complementary.

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conventions of the naturalistic novel (which is to say all of us) find it entirely “natural” for a new character to enter the narrative in this way, in direct speech, without an advance narratorial accounting of the appearance, pedigree, or ethical standing of this new player. But there is nothing “natural” about it: in virtually any premodern narrative form, this simply isn’t done: consider how long it takes to get the Man in Black to start talking in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Here, as in general in dream-vision, decorum requires deferral to the superior, the dispositive figure, as Will acknowledges in waiting to be addressed by Lady Holichurche, who appears from “on high.” But (and this is the point of Langland’s move) on the busy horizontal plane of the field in Vision 2, that position is vacant: Piers assumes that role with this dramatic and unconventional gesture. In similar fashion Langland will later bring out of thin air into speaking roles in his poems such narratively pivotal figures as the virtuous pagan emperor Trajan, Ymaginatif, and the catalyst of the ultimate vision, Need. The interruption in each case marks a discursive fracture in the narrative, and effects a radical turn in its course of development. It would take Chaucer more than ten years after the first appearance of Langland’s work in the public realm to figure out, in the Canterbury Tales, how to use interruptive speech to similarly striking purposes, and with cognitive and ethical effects remarkably similar to Langland’s. Yet if the manner of Piers’s entry announces a new literary dispensation, the guidance he offers is at first unexceptionable. The road-directions he now gives the folk offer no more than impeccable doctrine: they simply project the Commandments and other injunctions to virtue onto an allegorical road-map, one that will lead to a “court as clear as the sun” where Truth sits. When some of the folk protest that they need a leader, not merely road-directions, Piers offers to take them there himself, if they will first help him finish his work, the plowing and sowing of a half-acre. It is at this point that the vision begins to enact a return of the repressed – of the narrative possibilities normally forestalled by the specular order of visionary display. No longer simply an an expositor of a mental map or missive for others to deploy as they can or wish, Piers’s imagined ethical leadership is now raised to a new level. Like Cincinnatus torn from the plow, he is pressed into service as a governor, a role which awards him dispositive authority and ultimately requires the deployment of coercion. He now must represent the folks’ interests to them, and not merely exemplify for their spectatorial appreciation their ideal functioning as a laborers under a hypothetical estates model of social accord. Instead of the court, as in the first vision, the agrarian field is here magnified to become the world, and defines the tasks of all estates: at Piers’s hands, the entire social contract

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is rebuilt, literally from the ground up, as if productivity were not merely the differentiated task of the laborantes, but the chief objective of the whole society. The raising of Piers from expositor to founding governor of the social enterprise of the field is the first of three transformations he undergoes in this vision. In each, under the pressure of increased and conflicted responsibilites, Piers is exposed to successively more profound anomalies and moral consequences inherent in his position as vernacular and ad hoc spokesman for Truth. Each transformation drives Piers toward an ethical impasse, which delivers a strong affective and cognitive shock to Piers and to the reader. In this way, Langland sets forth in fictive form the pressures under which a vernacular poetics and what amounts to vernacular anthropology of literature emerges, as Piers enacts – with little more than Truth’s sanction, his own good will, and his intimate immersion in the folks’ language and practices – a poetic venture never undertaken before. In volunteering to lead the folk, and organize their labors into a single enterprise, Piers in effect acts out in narrative the fundamental procedures of Langland’s poem. As C.S. Lewis rightly (if only dismissively) observed, Langland’s expository and narrative procedures were constituted out of a rich and orthodox late-medieval store of prescriptive formulae for realizing the good society and the good life, exemplified chiefly in the vast compendia of ethical and spiritual guidance that form the bulk of the surviving written production of this period.12 He gave contemporary life to these postulates by having them articulated in visionary fiction not only by the expected voices, those of leaders of church and state, but by a great variety of ordinary Christian and pagan voices, as if to invoke imaginatively a virtual chorus of universal affirmation of the key elements of the good life, much as Piers attempts to bend these several interests to one end on the half-acre. But a funny thing happened on the way to organic community, in the process of putting it in imaginary action; the chorus failed to materialize. Cardinal Newman (no radical he) is said to have remarked that if your objective is to make men better, you will eventually end up wanting to kill them all; the less alarming but more profound Langlandian counterpart of this observation, to be developed later in his poetic sequence, is the eventual exposure of “well12 Ralph Hanna, “Middle English Books and Middle English Literary History,” Modern Philology 102 (2004), 157–78, provides a salutary overview of the vast presence of this corpus of writings in the surviving book production of the later medieval period, and of the diverse organizing principles (until recently all but ignored in literary histories of the period) by which they were presented and transmitted.

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doing” as admirable but insufficient in itself for salvation. It was the repeated resurfacing of this fearful underside of the rage for order, in episode after episode constructed on these seemingly guileless formal premises, that began to generate quite other effects than those the expository doctrinal program was designed to sustain. As Piers assigns the tasks necessary for the cultivation of the half-acre, a knight volunteers to take a turn at Piers’s plow himself (this is a dream, remember). Piers, however, declines with thanks, instead assigning the knight the task of defending the field from “wasters” (thus far dimly specified), while Piers does the plowing for both of them. At mid-day mealtime, many decide that this is the end of their workday (as in agrarian actuality it often might be), and betake themselves to song and drink. Some feign disability; some simply defy Piers to make them work further. Piers invokes the knight, who has sworn to prevent this sort of thing, but these recreants, now with fuller descriptive specification designated wasters, remain undeterred from their refusal to work further. In frustration, Piers now sends for a figure called Hunger as enforcer, to apply the only sanction he has, with predictable and morally troubling results. Before we quite know how it came about, Cardinal Newman’s dismaying dictum is fully installed on the field, and Piers, the only absolutely good mortal human who will appear anywhere in the poem, is responsible for putting it in place. How did this happen, and what is Langland doing by staging an ethical aporia – for Piers, and hence for us – here? This first narrative impasse exposes a moral dilemma implicit in Piers’ own divided interests and status. His identity has from the first been both ambiguous (i.e., not fully determined by the immediate narrative circumstances) and ambivalent (i.e., productive of contrary attachments). While as a tiller of the soil he is certainly of the third estate of laboratores, he is not merely a smallholder, bond or free, whose chief interest in this respect might in the first instance be simply the survival of himself and his family, and only secondarily the well-being of other social estates, to the extent that they in turn reciprocally support his. As a plowman specifically, Piers is in charge of a large and expensive machine, the plow and its team, and hence by functional position and specialized skills necessarily a kind of primus inter pares in organizing various field labors around the application of this machine in season to the strip holdings of various neighboring peasants. He must therefore be able not only to exemplify but to represent to others the order and end of the whole agrarian enterprise, to furnish the rationale that underwrites his own actions. Whether or not the half-acre, which could not possibly provide subsistence to even one, is his only holding, his occupation

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as a plowman also defines him as a wage-worker, paid directly for his services at plowing. (This implication is enhanced by the latent wordplay in Piers’ claim that he serves Truth “to paye”: literally “satisfactorily, in a way that pleases his master,” but possibly carrying the added implication that Truth’s acceptance of his good service is signified in his contractual recompense.) These specifications of his position give him a set of special relations of responsibility both to his lord and to his fellow workers. As Hunger goes into action at this summons, Piers’s commitment to both is tested, and the relations between them strained. The contraposition of the tiller of the soil to the pastor of animals, as Cain to Abel, in traditional exegeses of the primal social order in Genesis gives further complexity to the ideational implications of Piers’s occupation in the poem.13 What happens in this second movement of the half-acre episode is appallingly simple and quickly told: Hunger beats on people until they work out of fear. Piers, in dismay at the suffering Hunger has inflicted on his “blody brethren,” must ask him to stop. The order of nature, initially imagined as a way to produce enough for all, stands revealed as an order of managed need and manipulated insufficiency, and the functionalist argument for social difference within social unity a Hobbesian scenario rather than a projection of a golden age. Piers now registers in moral anguish the division of his allegiance between the universal imperative to labor, and the equally universal imperative to love his neighbor – imperatives that he supposed were mutually supportive when he undertook this task. Yet it also directs our attention to what one might call Piers’s poetic or rhetorical position, and its discontents. Under these conditions, is Piers a spokesman to or for the folk? And is the proper rhetorical instrument of his leadership primarily the threat of sanction, or a compelling positive imagination of a sustained and sustaining relation to a world in which one might hope to attain the elusive subjective sense of sufficiency? Is Piers’ enterprise in relation to the folk any longer utopian, or merely the police in different voices? The difficulty lies in speaking for and trying to enforce an order or totality whose telos has not yet been made manifest. Piers’s reflections on the moral questionability of authority in the service of maintaining such a structure, and the questionable efficacy of invoking an imaginary vision of total harmony as persuasion, do not, however, trouble Hunger, who now makes to depart. But before leaving, Hunger himself requires a meal, and the These are beyond the scope of this essay, but see Michael Camille, Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp 180–223, on the character and significance of agrarian labor in late-medieval visual representation; on the labors of Cain and Abel, see 190–91. 13

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folk in fear of his displeasure feed him everything they can think of to keep him at bay – which is to say everything that might otherwise have tided them over until harvest. Hunger, who knows no law, overeats and falls into heavy sleep, and day-laborers once again fall to complaining against the government and the quality of their rations. But in the absence of Hunger’s threats, not to work. Into this second impasse, to remedy the crisis of confidence and conviction that baffles his good servant, Truth now intervenes directly, in a turn that prepares Piers’s third and final transformation in this episode. Truth sends to Piers, and all folk who have agreed to help him, two things: a direct order to keep themselves at home and tend their fields, and a general pardon, for Piers to promulgate to the folk. The narrative structure of the episode renders both of these mandates immediately problematic. The effect of the first is to suspend indefinitely the projected mass pilgrimage (great thing of us forgot), thus redefining it simply as the work of the half-acre: the two enterprises have become one. The second mandate from Truth, the Pardon and its promulgation, involves Piers in an anomaly. Its terms, which Piers expounds at some length (nearly 300 lines in the last version of the poem) closely resemble those of the previous sermon to the folk that had induced mass penitence in the first place; as such they are doctrinally unimpeachable, even if reframed here as a sequence of “if-then” conditions, indicating the circumstances under which – and the rectifications through which – they may attain salvation. Severally appropriate to specific major categories of the folk, these clauses constitute Truth’s massively articulated set of concessions to human frailty. But precisely because, like the listening folk, we are intent upon the provisions that concern our own ultimate good, we are for the moment inattentive to the question of Piers’ authority for this role, as well as to the textual mediation of Truth’s mandates. Piers “kyndely” expounds these, but he is nowhere explicitly said to read Truth’s Pardon, which to him is apparently not a text for interpretation, but rather a theme for pious reflection. No such distraction inhibits the priest who suddenly intervenes in Piers’ promulgation of the Pardon, as abruptly as Piers had burst into the fictive scene in the first place. Indeed, with the very same word: “Piers,” says the priest, “þi pardon moste I rede, ... [and] construe ech clause and kenne it þee [explain it to you] on englissh.” Only with this interruption is it suggested that the amplified terms we have just heard may well go beyond the Pardon’s text, which contains, according to the priest, simply the culminating two Latin lines of the Athanasian Creed, baldly stating that those who do good deeds [qui bona egerunt] will gain eternal life, those who do evil, eternal damnation. The priest

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calls this no pardon at all, and, from a grammatical, formal and documentary perspective (that is to say, the perspectives that are the special prerogative and responsibility of instituted literate authority), he is right. He is also “right” as a matter of practical rhetoric: his reductive paraphrase of the “two lines” of credal Latin by a pat and recognizable English formulation (“do wel and haue wel”) is catchy and memorable, but also manifestly unequal to the magnitude of the present crisis of faith and leadership on the field. Formally felicitous as an aphorism only in English (it is flat and awkward in both Latin and French), “do wel and haue wel” often occurs in pastoralia, some of it contemporary with Langland’s poem, and when so used is always termed by the preacher or teacher citing it a bit of “proverbial” or “vulgar” wisdom. Its implication, that there is a direct and untroubled causal relation between good deeds on earth and ultimate heavenly reward, will become the leading question for the following vision, accounting for much of the notorious and frustrating recursiveness of that episode. But it can be demonstrated (though not here) that Langland is fully conscious of the prior use of this dictum as the focal example in a brief but trenchant early critique of inadequate pastoral “craft.” Its earliest recorded use in England is in the work of the influential ecclesiastical schoolman, William de Montibus, chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral until his death in 1213. To him it is not an admirably pithy formulation of what God’s folk most need to know for their salvation, but exactly the opposite: a conspicuously flimsy instance of the kind of “soundbite” doctrine that without further qualification and development starves God’s folk of substantial teaching. He cites this notionally “proverbial” dictum to make the point that there is more involved in actually teaching spiritually sustaining “truth” than easy general dicta, however memorable. The voluminous written output of this Paris-educated master (who in his position in Lincoln would have been in charge of the cathedral’s schooling) was one of the foundational insular elements in the vast edifice that would become for the later middle ages what we would call a doctrinal and rhetorical “resourcebase” for teaching and preaching clergy, though despite wide recognition of Langland’s pervasive indebtedness to such materials, in little and in large, this particular writer’s work has not thus far been recognized as among his “sources.”14 By advisedly echoing at this dramatically pivotal moment (as it were over the head of the intervening priest, for whom it is apparently an In a forthcoming essay (“Dowel, the Proverbial, and the Vernacular: Some Versions of Pastoralia”) I discuss the implications of this hitherto undiscovered source for reading the poem, and acknowledge a debt to Fiona Somerset, whose recent research supplies several fourteenth-century examples of similar criticism of this oft-repeated pastoral aphorism. 14

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entirely apt paraphrase of Truth’s message) this widely-known ecclesiastic’s animadversions on the perils of dumbed-down spiritual guidance, Langland marks for his “clergial” readership (i.e. the literati who constituted his primary audience) his acknowledgment of the fraught course and dubious uses of speciously “popular” and memorable vernacular “construings” of Truth’s message. Yet with the sheer claim that the Pardon sent from Truth requires “construing” in the first place, the priest challenges not principally either the meaning or the performative status of the document, but Piers’s authority, and that is how Piers understands this intervention. “In pure tene” (in sheer anger) Piers tears the document in two, and renounces his agrarian occupation, resolving no longer to be so “busy” about his livelihood, and to exchange his plow for prayer and penance, trusting that God will provide, as he did for his prophets. As the priest and Piers continue to “appose” each other, the dreamer wakes to reflect on his dream, “ful pensif in herte,” as well he might be. As a resolution to the third and final impasse that now confronts him, Piers’ disavowal of his occupation enacts a process that is itself richly codified in his culture, and was briefly and pungently encompassed in a characteristically 1990s idiom as “getting a life.” Then, as in recent parlance, this injunction encompassed the idea of a radical reversal, not primarily of fortune but of consciousness; then, as lately, it held out the possibility of an existential and formal individual solution (in place of the general one of reformed social structure) to the problem presented to consciousness by a culture of profound material and juridical inequity amid rich specular and spectacular overproduction. In its earlier medieval forms “getting a life” involved entering a religious order, leaving the world for an existence in bodily life, but not of it. Later medieval religious forms of living offered a wider and sometimes more ad hoc variety of such transformations, all of them involving removing the self from the circuit of worldly production, both sexual and laborious; one form of this turn away from sheer busy-ness to “real life” is the vocation of the hermit.15 Its one inescapable mandate, incumbent on all as a form of periodic personal renewal in accord with the requirements of the Fourth Lateran Council, was the undertaking of penance. As a state of reflective dissociation from the habitus of the workaday individual of any estate, and hence one of the chief late-medieval “technologies of the self,” penance as an institution for imagining and scrutinizing human identity acted 15 Ralph Hanna, “Will’s Work,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 23–66, examines the dreamer’s vocation as that of a hermit.

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as general solvent of the moral claims of most imaginary rationales for social totality, for within this regimen one’s social position was always permutable, at least for a time, for the state Victor Turner calls “liminality”; as a collective act, extensively studied by Turner, the most common medieval form of liminality is pilgrimage.16 At the allegorical level of the narrative (embodying quid credas, what you should believe), Piers’ renunciation of his living in favor of a “life” of penance enacts the perfectly orthodox doctrine that humana natura, even in the perfection of its practices through the moral teachings of the church as instantiated in the figure of Piers, is insufficient for salvation. This assertion probably represents the conscious “intente” of this fictive transformation, as it is the recognition that also underwrites the poem’s continuation into successive visionary episodes more prominently centered upon the rectification of the author-dreamer himself. Yet at the other interpretive levels in the medieval fourfold scheme of exegesis (which I invoke here as they have been brilliantly reframed by Fredric Jameson as an interpretive paradigm for historical criticism) the episode yields implications disturbingly at odds with the manifest doctrinal one.17 The affective violence of this moment thus marks the transformation of the narrative event into a provocative enigma, a crisis that might well make a reader “pensif in herte.” And we must therefore read it “against the grain,” for Langland makes it available to further narrative development as an ambiguous legend about the moral force and social standing of unauthorized speech – i.e. of literary discourse. At the literal level of historia (which in an allegorical narrative is the level of the plot or story, the level of the literary vehicle itself) Piers’s renunciation of his “solicitude” for his own body’s needs paradoxically dissociates him from the community of his “blody brethren” still engaged in providing for those needs. This moment also reinstalls the laws of social and literary decorum out of which Piers had burst into speech in the first place: namely the notion that to assume a sanctioned “life,” which in the middle ages always meant mimesis of a life already written, such as that of the apostles, 16 Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1975). 17 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), ch. 1, “Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act” (17–102); see esp. 28–58 for Jameson’s use of the medieval fourfold method of allegoresis as an interpretive model. Hayden White characterizes Jameson’s project as “surely the most ambitious attempt at a synthesis of critical conventions since Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism”; see White, “Getting Out of History: Jameson’s Redemption of Narrative,” ch. 6 (42–68) in The Content of the Form (n. 3 above).

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prophets, or hermit saints, you must renounce your work, for to work is to remain culturally without a language of representation. The priest’s successful evocation of guilt in Piers for his efforts to render Truth’s message in the vernacular recontains Piers in silence, as the good lay subject now disclosed as a sentimental projection of the clerical imagination. The tearing of Truth’s text and Piers’s renunciation of his work also marks a defeat at the moral level of poetic procedure (quid agas, what you should do). Piers’s vernacular labor was for Langland metonymic of the task of vernacular literary work. The workings of this metonymy are implicit not only in contemporary reception of this episode and in the literary appropriation of Piers in other works, but in Langland’s own further development and revision of the poem from this point. Thus far I have been describing the ending of the half-acre episode as it stood in the A and B versions of the poem, as the poem was extant and circulated from about 1378. But in the C revision, most of it probably postdating the 1381 rebellion, Langland made two changes that confirm that the figure of Piers had from the first stood in his imagination for a revised vernacular literary ambition. One was the outcome of this episode: in the C version Langland cancelled the tearing of the pardon; instead, after the priest’s corrective intervention to read the two lines of the pardon, Piers and the priest “jangle,” or argue, over it as the dreamer awakes. But like the gesture it revised, this one too was overdetermined, and created unintended secondary effects in the narrative dynamic of the poem. In the C-version alone, Piers keeps his occupation, remaining among the folk as the plowman servant of Truth (at that point the dreamer awakes in that version); significantly Piers there makes no separate peace or provision for the fate of his soul apart from that of the folk, by “getting a life” of penance as distinct from that enjoined upon them all. The implication is clear: the living he has – his laboring craft and his perfection in it – is his life. Truth’s permanent sanction of his calling overrides the Priest’s impugning of its unauthorized standing. Yet in another sense the dramatic renunciation of earthly “swynk” for a transformed life is not wholly cancelled from the poem in the C version; it is instead reassigned to the dreamer-poet, in an entirely new waking episode introduced into the gap between the first and second visions, the second of the two important changes in that version that align the imagined lives of poet and plowman. In this addition, Langland portrays Will the “maker” himself (for the first time in any version of the poem unambiguously depicted as a vernacular composer of verse) undergoing exactly the same kind of authoritative challenge to his occupation and the standing of his

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pronouncements that Piers had suffered in A and B at the hands of the priest, and here too it both is and isn’t a break with his vocation and his identity. Staged as an inquiry by Reason and Conscience into the “maker’s” apparently idle mode of living (indeed, as an incipient juridical prosecution under a newly-enacted parliamentary statute against idleness) this encounter has a paradoxical outcome.18 On the one hand, by possessing the attributes of an educated man without a position commensurate with this attainment, Will here becomes a kind of hybrid of layman and cleric, both subject and object of didactic ministrations, and is forced to admit to his past idleness; he must also concede that his pretense to clerical standing, and therefore (ironically) his exemption from the laws against idleness, is fradulent, since he holds no actual clerical appointment: it is in this guise that he ultimately accepts the injunction of Reason and Conscience to penance, and a more “lowable life” hereafter. Yet on the other hand, having gone to church to undertake formal self-examination toward a reformed life, he is promptly deflected from penitential “wepyng and waylyng” by sleep, this time to dream of the entry of Piers onto the field of folk. This new waking inquest in the C version thus has the effect of authorizing the role of Piers in the poem as metonymic figure of its unofficial imaginative authority. As both royal judges and confessors, Reason and Conscience have, it emerges, unwittingly sanctioned the making of the poem we are reading. Reoriented by this inserted episode, the long form of the poem in its last version becomes a massive palinode to earlier youthful and occasional “makings” about and among the idle, which he here forswears in favor of what is now declared his life’s work. Acceding to their moral pressure to reform his life and examine his conscience, Will invokes the gospel parable of the man who bought a field wherein treasure was hid, and sold all he had to obtain it (Matt. 13:44). In this maker’s idiosyncratic terms, he has done so: the field he has obtained for development is Piers’s half-acre, and his project, idiosyncratically specified as penance by other means, now becomes his work, neither idleness nor courtly play. Staged as having occurred in the poet’s youth, this waking episode as an authorial confessio becomes a discovery of vocation and a retroactively declared ars poetica, fictively representing his

18 Anne Middleton, “Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed Steven Justice and Kathryn KerbyFulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 208–317. As Justice explains in the Introduction, “Authorial Work and Literary Ideology” (1–12), all of the essays in this volume examine the formal and ideational centrality to the poem of its depicted authorial figure.

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finding of his theme, as well as his disavowal of the association of his literary art with idleness. Recent textual scholarship has suggested that this waking episode was the last major addition Langland made to his poem; the C-version entered circulation not long after that – some suppose by executors after his death.1199 By thus fictively drawing the fire of authoritative challenge in the C-version away from his fictive plowman’s claims to vernacular leadership and directing it instead toward the authorial person, Langland depicts his acceptance of the ethical burden (by this date already considerable) of having created the figure of an agrarian worker who, in ways that might well have alarmed his inventor, had become a household word, entering as a manipulable person into others’s inventions. Yet in a move that stands in Langland’s work as the fictively staged counterpart of Chaucer’s Retractions in his, Langland, like his revised plowman, retracts nothing: by thus recasting his episodic narrative in the image of a continuous and chosen authorial “life,” he claims his poem as his. Ironically, it was already too late. By the time Langland wrote this waking scene, it had been about a decade since the poem in the B-version had entered circulation. Piers had become “public domain,” and in a peculiar series of cultural metonymies that paralleled Langland’s own, he had become not the name of the author (Langland’s contemporaries knew better than that, though many later commentators did not) but the name of the poem, the name of the voice in which it spoke, and the name of the person who “stood for” its truths and could in turn be appropriated in other fictions. It was and is a telling distinction. However externally overdetermined were the pressures that caused Langland’s name as author to be almost lost to history (and they were many and complex), these cultural fortunes, these erasures and metonymies, could not have befallen just any poem, but only one structured like this one, in which the subject of the narrative and the object of his desire were so clearly made the obverse and reverse of the same coin. Rare but unmistakable pictorial evidence in two illustrated manuscripts of the poem provide remarkable, and remarkably consistent, witness to early readers’ understanding of the poet’s own daring metonymies. Like most medieval pictorial elaboration of texts these images were not made or chosen by the author himself, but assembled by medieval illustrators from a repertory of representational formulae that offered generic models for depicting both the actors and events of the work and the implicit “author-function” within Ralph Hanna, “On the Versions of Piers Plowman,” in Pursuing History: Middle English Manuscripts and Their Texts (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 203–243. 19

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it. These two historiated initials are the more surprising in that they have no discernible textual relation to each other, as of “source” to copy, but are independent witnesses to the understanding they both attest. One appears in a manuscript of the B-version of the poem made in eastern Essex in the early 15th century (Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS. 201); the other occurs in the same poem-initial position in a C-version manuscript made in the far west of the country, or possibly Ireland, in the very late 14th century (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104).20 Both are incipit images, small pictures at the beginning of the text representing in pictorial codes the mode and authorship of the work. In the later middle ages these are often nestled inside the largest loop of the first letter of the first line of the text, like the figure in Corpus MS. 201, drawn in the closed compartment of the initial letter A, which in this manuscript begins the first line of the poem with an added syllable (“Al yn a somer sesoun”) that provides the requisite frame. Depicted in the iconic posture of a writer at work that had been used in manuscript illumination since late antiquity (most familiarly in depictions of the early patristic expositors of scripture) this figure’s attire further indicates a late-medieval literatus of mature years: he wears a heavy long-sleeved gown, and his draped head-covering, resembling the one worn by Chaucer in the Houghton panel portrait, is a familar item of clothing for men of the urban gentry class. He is sitting, and though the character of the seat is unclear (it may be a mound or rock) his head and hands are disposed in the body-position of someone writing, but his eyes are closed, and his head rests on his left hand, in a posture that has been called a “prototypical image... of sorrowing or meditating” in continental illustration.21 Though his feet rest on a footstool, another common feature of initial author-images, the expected writing-desk is absent, leaving his writing hand without its proper resting-place, and without its identifying implement, the pen it would normally hold in a more conventional author-depiction. Instead, his right hand is strangely equipped – in a plowman’s heavy workglove; his left hand is, if more ambiguously, similarly clad. This heavy glove is the defining attribute of plowmen in late-medieval illustration and almost as widely depicted as the plow itself: in the famous 20 See Kathleen L. Scott,”The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990), 1–86. Full references to published facsimiles of both of these manuscripts, and to other published images discussed here, appear in the Appendix. 21 This characterization is that of Pickering, quoted by Scott (19); see also her remarks (38–9) on the rarity of pictorial depictions of plowmen in fifteenth-century manuscripts.

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image of a plow-team in the Luttrell Psalter, a manuscript from the first half of the 14th century (London, B.L. Additional MS 42130), the plowman wears such heavy mitts, as does the driver of the huge draught-horse that on another leaf is shown pulling the heavy piece of seasonal land-tilling equipment, the harrow, that would be applied next to the field in the seasonal sequence of land-cultivation. In an agricultural almanac of the late fourteenth century (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Rawlinson 939), one of these mitts is used in a weather-chart as the identifying icon for January: plowing was the labor of the month of January in northern picture cycles. In the other illustrated manuscript of the poem (the C-version MS Douce 104, f. 35r), Piers himself is shown with such a glove on his right hand, and holding with his left a plowhandle or plow-foot, without which the heavy machine would not bite deeply into the earth; this marginal image appears next to the text (C.8.1–4) in which Piers tells the folk that he must plow his half-acre before leading them on pilgrimage.22 For August, the month of harvest that ended the seasonal cycle of the land-tiller’s labors that began with January plowing (the harvesting of treefruits and herbs, and the gathering of wood, followed the grain harvest in the annual sequence of agrarian labors), the iconic image in the Rawlinson “farmer’s almanac” is the sickle, as the labor of March is represented there by another kind of agricultural knife, the bill-hook. In the initial author-image of MS. Douce 104, still faintly visible on the worn first leaf of the poem, the dreamer-poet is shown holding such an agricultural knife in his right hand (the exact character of this implement is debated, but its agrarian provenance is undisputed). In this C-version manuscript the author-figure (like that of Corpus 201 enclosed within the loop of the initial letter of the poem, here the Y of “Yn...”) is middle-aged and bearded, and wears a long gray gown and tan cowl, but he is recumbent; here too, his head rests on his left hand, and though his eyes are open this is recognizably a posture identifying the author as visionary dreamer. As Kathleen Scott, the foremost scholar of these illustrations of the poem, has noted (19): “To understate the case, it is surprising that [these] two provincial illustrators... apparently at opposite ends of the realm, should be acquainted with this iconographical tradition and employ it independently.” That these textually unrelated manuscripts of two different versions of the poem represent the poet-dreamer in a historiated initial in the iconic attributes of Piers Plowman as well as those of the 22 Ralph Hanna has observed of this image of Piers with glove and plow-foot (personal communication) that in conventional representations the writer with a pen in his right hand holds with his left a pen-knife, both for sharpening the pen and for erasure of errors.

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visionary writer suggests that such a metonymic association was established well and early in the relevant prototypes – an act of illustrative syncretism without insular precedent. The author is shown to write, as in the poem Jesus was ultimately to joust for human souls, in “Piers’ armes.” III: Toward a new history of literature We are finally in a position to revise our understanding of Chaucer’s familiar humanist legend of vernacular authorship as aspirant to membership in a dead poets’ society – and to make a different kind of sense of his ultimate turn to a contemporary setting, multiple “authorial” voices, and a pilgrimageframework for his last work of fiction. In 1377 or very early 1378, the B-version of Piers Plowman entered copying and circulation, and it did so from London. Copies must have multiplied very rapidly: by 1400, the year of Chaucer’s death, the poem in all three of its versions must have been extant in literally scores of copies: no other explanation could account for the state of, and complex relations among, the more than 50 MSS that survive. If by 1381, the dissident priest John Ball, who began his career in York, could refer repeatedly to various moments and figures of the B-version, in letters to and for the peasant rebels that seem to have originated in Essex, and invoke in them the figure of Piers Plowman “my brother” as if it were a household word, it is a safe bet that the word was on the street in London well before that.23 Moreover, if the C-version confessio records, as it pretends to, where and how its author lived at the time he undertook the long version of the poem, then Langland lived in or near Cornhill in the middle 1370s, a factoid at least consistent with the circulation of B from London, and also with the detailed knowledge of legal, especially Chancery, procedures manifested in the poem. For in fourteenth-century London, the stationers’ shops were concentrated in the district between Chancery and St Paul’s (less than a half-mile from Cornhill); there one could arrange for production of a book, or enlist in individual “bespoke” writing projects the “moonlighting” talents of a variety of scribes whose regular “day jobs” were in various offices within the metropolis, such as the writing staffs of the cathedral, Inns of Court, and Chancery. Meanwhile, in the 12-year period from 1374 to 1386 Chaucer lived in a house over Aldgate (less than a half-mile from Cornhill in 23 Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), presents (13–15) the texts of the rebel letters, and in ch. 3 (102–139) examines the prompts in the poem for these appropriations.

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the other direction); his “day job” was collector of customs, and it was from the drudgery of such bookkeeping that the Eagle of Hous of Fame proposed to expand Chaucer’s sights to include the news “almost at they very dores.” By 1378, Chaucer’s travel to the continent on various (unspecified) missions in his majesty’s service was virtually over. It is therefore not merely unlikely but inconceivable that in the decade between 1377 and 1387 Chaucer remained unaware of Langland’s poem. His humanist legend of the canon of literary tradition becomes in this light a strategic detour around an unnamed and still unassimilable presence, almost at his very doors. At this point it hardly needs saying how I would rewrite the received genealogy of English vernacular literature into an alternative model of literary history. Reading Langland’s position in the history of English literature as an antecedent and informing model to Chaucer, rather than merely as the alternative important tradition that informs Spenser’s placement of his chief vernacular forbears, we find that the most profoundly formative relations poets have to the already-written are not to the ancients, but to the imaginatively compelling discourses at their very doors, and not in the benign form of elective and reverent apprenticeship, but of incessantly renewed contest. To reread the Canterbury Tales as the first chapter of that revisionary history greatly enriches our understanding of the form and literary-historical motives of Chaucer’s last work, which have been highly resistant to such accounts – unsurprisingly, since in this analysis they register his own resistances. The obvious resonances hardly need comment: the Canterbury Tales is the second, not the first, large-scale work of English fiction to be conceived as both a fortuitous and an unconcluded pilgrimage, conducted in disparate voices. Work, the subject’s definition of an occupation and lived experience in it, rather than an abstract supervening “objective” ordering of estates, largely disposes the distinction of pilgrims, as Jill Mann has already suggested, and provides for each the conceptual language within which both the journey and its diversions are debated and understood. Rereading individual pilgrims and their performances in the imaginary presence of Langland as forbear explains much and provokes new questions. It is a game any number can play, and rather than exemplify its rewards by playing it through, I merely suggest here a few opening gambits: the Pardoner, the Parson, and the Plowman are all obvious choices; for the advanced player I recommend the Nun’s Priest, for “wayke ben the oxen in my ploughe.” All forms of this game involve the deployment of unauthorized voices in disputation of important questions – voices that without Langland’s fictive mediation would not have been so copiously available to Chaucer’s adventurous re-imagining.

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For Chaucer is the second English poet, not the first, to subsume the specular display of the dream-vision in intense spoken contest, and thereby advisedly to submerge the ultimate larger bearing of such talk in the lively and highly textured discourses of immediate sectarian diversity, a move that in both poets threatens to swamp all sense of an immanent larger poetic structure. In this respect both the Canterbury pilgrims and Langland’s folk on the field echo, without authorial heavy breathing, the bafflement of the travelling disciples, who after the reported Resurrection are full of doubts and differences (Luke 24:12: “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them”), and are deeply absorbed in conversation (Luke 24:36: dum fabularentur) about the meaning of their recent experience when their slain master manifests himself among them as they walk toward Emmaus: the rarity of Piers’ appearances as a speaking presence in the poem that bears his name thus has a venerable, if unadvertised, narrative lineage. More important, Chaucer’s ultimate encounter with Langland also involves refiguring the institution of the literary, and reimagining authorship, not as self-monumentalization, but as diffusion. In the form of the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer absorbed the one thing Langland’s work spectacularly instantiates to his contemporaries, whether or not they can appropriate any of his techniques (as I think Chaucer in fact did): that the only way to make a name for yourself in literature is not by getting your authorial handle inscribed on Fame’s slippery mountain but by getting a life in the lives you write. Langland’s career figures that dispersal that (as Foucault and Nietzsche argue) is the form of genealogy: a fanning-out of one’s distinctive language into every fiber and strand of the language everyone speaks, so that perfect success at genealogical imagination of your identity is making yourself disappear. With its multiple narrators, its dissociation of the role of guide-figure from any claims to wisdom or knowledge that could differentiate him from any of the rest of the Canterbury folk (Harry Bailly is simply positionality at its purest), Chaucer modelled a very different institution of English literature: one of multivocality and dispersal rather than linear tradition, of competing voices and social perspectives to embody and therefore inflect “doctrine.” Significantly, in the Canterbury Tales, for the first time since he created his legend of authorship, Chaucer’s poetic persona goes unrecognized in his fictive interactions as either poet or “maker”: even though the Man of Law complacently professes to be aware of the (copious, if mediocre) writings of someone named Chaucer, none of the chubby pilgrim’s fellow-travellers in this company has any idea that such a person is among them. He therefore remains the only pilgrim without a specified occupation or “life,” a default of

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social identity that explains Harry Bailly’s unique fashion of addressing him when he finally calls upon him to tell a tale: “What man artow?” Even if we use our revised perspective to identify pieces of Langland’s project as legible traces in Chaucer’s, we must still acknowledge the encrypted character of these inscriptions. To read the Canterbury Tales with Langland in its genealogy is to read a story, not of positive modelling or apprenticeship, but of an absolute aversion partially overcome, a threat recontained. Whether or not one accepts the specific rewritings I have proposed as Chaucer’s positive assimilation of Langland’s techniques and tropes, the deepest ones, the ones that count, are those that register not a fully-articulated difference between Langland and Chaucer, in acts of conscious “translation,” but those that imply a larger and necessarily repressed continuity, against which even previouslyremarked nods to his predecessor (for example his inclusion of those two brothers, the Plowman and the Parson, in the pilgrim company) seem merely defensive. To deflect the impact of the Langlandian version of literary history, Chaucer must render as benign, festive, and ludic what Langland represents as cultural work; the life of labor rather than leisured play must remain unrepresentable.24 And rather than abandoning it outright, Chaucer disperses into the common consciousness of the pilgrims themselves his own former model of authorship: their accounts of ethical ideals are without exception coded in old stories, while contemporary settings are not imaginary places for “getting a life,” but for getting even. Which brings us at last to our silence, the silence of 600 years of literary history about the possibility of real discursive relations between these two writers that makes it seem at this distance forced, “against the grain,” even to propose any. Dostoevsky is supposed to have said that all of Russian fiction came out from under Gogol’s overcoat. For English literary fiction, the equivalent of that overcoat may well have been “Peres armes,” the garb of someone to the eyes of the literati a non-person. After retracing our steps so many times to the same purported origin, it seems useful at this stage in literary studies to follow the tracks of English literary fiction not merely back along the carnivalesque Canterbury way to a tavern in Southwark, but further back than that, to a site of work rather than play, to Piers’s half-acre, where 24 See Thomas Habinek, “Latin Literature between Text and Practice,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 135.1 (2005), 83–9, a brief and provocative essay offering a conspectus of the theoretical issues implicit in consideration of the relations of mimesis to semiosis; i.e. of embodied performance to textual symbolization. It may be read with profit as complementary to the account offered here of the transformations of poetic authority staged in the pivotal second vision of the poem, and as suggesting some critical ways forward.

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at the “stremes head” of English vernacular fiction Chaucer encounters an author he cannot or will not name, a poetic “life work” that stages its own unmaking and dispersal as the fate of the literary. Like it or not (and at bottom I don’t think Chaucer did), it is a genealogy for his time, and ours. Appendix: Published sources for images discussed in II above: Piers Plowman Electronic Archive. Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts (SEENET), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000–. Vol. 1: facsimile of Corpus Christi College, Oxford MS 201 (“F” of B-version), ed. Robert Adams. et. al.; see fol 1r. (incipit initial). This historiated initial is also reproduced as frontispiece to John M. Bowers, The Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman. Washington, D.C.: Catholic U. of America Press, 1986; it appears as fig. 2 (p. 19) in the article by K.L. Scott, below. Piers Plowman: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library Oxford, MS Douce 104, with introduction by Derek Pearsall and catalogue of illustrations by Kathleen Scott (Cambridge: Brewer, 1992). Image of Piers in heavy gloves, holding a plow-foot, is on f. 35r, in the margin of C.8.1–4; it is reproduced as fig. 13, and analogues discussed, pp. 38–9, in K.L. Scott, “The Illustrations of Piers Plowman in Bodleian Library MS. Douce 104,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990), 1–86. This manuscript’s “very worn” incipit image of the author, reclining with head on hand and holding with the other an unidentified bladed instrument, is reproduced as Fig. 1, the frontispiece to her article. The Luttrell Psalter [facsimile of London B.L. Additional MS 42130], with commentary by Michelle P. Brown. London: Folio Society, 2006. Images of the plowman’s heavy-duty working gloves, on fols 87v, 170r, 172r, are also reproduced as figs. 14, 17, 24, respectively, in Janet Backhouse, The Luttrell Psalter (London: British Library, 1989), and in Camille, below. Camille, Michael. Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). See esp. Ch. 4 (178–231), “The Lord’s Lands,” figs. 80, 82, 96, 97 (heavy gloves), 79 and 83 (agricultural knife). Friedman, John B. “Harry the Haywarde and Talbot his Dog: An Illustrated Girdlebook from Worcestershire” [Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D.939], in C.G. Fisher and K.L. Scott, eds., Art into Life: Collected

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Papers from the Kresge Art Museum Medieval Symposia (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1995), 115–55. Fol. 3v. of this 1389 MS (described by Camille, op.cit. pp. 223–5, as a “farmer’s almanac”) displays “mnemonic signs” for seasonal labors: the glove for January, the sickle-knife for August, the bill-hook for March; it is also reproduced in Camille, op. cit., as fig. 99.

VI

Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman Nearly everyone who has ever read Piers Plowman has confronted an odd formal characteristic of the poem when someone asks “What’s it about? What happens in it?” These two very ordinary questions, considered loosely equivalent by the common reader, will not at all elicit the same kind of answer. A description starting from “what it’s about” will be radically different from one relating “what happens” and may imply quite different assessments of the work’s poetic intention and success, as well as different notions of its model or root paradigm. This is not, I submit, simply a matter of the normal distinction one may make between literal and allegorical meaning, between narrative and symbolic “levels” of description. There seems to be an unusually large gap between the two: one does not easily translate into the other, and they seem not to be describing the same work. Thematic descriptions (“what it’s about”) tend to be offered as noun phrases encompassing a global statement: it is about the salvation of man’s soul, the reform of the Christian community, the problem of knowledge, the grounds for, and means of, attaining faith. Such descriptions imply that there is a perceptible order, continuity, and unity of dominant and realized artistic intentions in the poem. When they suggest a particular conception of the poetic form that sustains this global statement, it is usually a progression or quest of some sort, a broadly linear or serial shape, marked perhaps by stretches of greater or less expansion, by larger or smaller steps forward, by more or less clarity or “success.” The poem’s own name for its divisions seems to endorse this construction: passus, or step, a rarely used term designating the parts of a long composition, and suggesting here the stages of a journey. Yet attempts to recount the whole narration of this journey as a developing succession of acts and events tend to emphasize discontinuity rather than progression. It is not quite a story, nor a collection of shorter ones. The poem is most vividly remembered, and usually explicated, in episodic units whose arrangement seems somehow reiterative rather than progressive. The nature of the relationship between episode and total poetic form is problematic: it is difficult to reconcile the single event, which often ends with a rupture or abrupt shift of ground, with a plot which is said to record a progression. Yet

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it seems to me that a basic pattern of action informs all the episodes. A large part of my effort here will be to describe “what happens” in the episode, to clarify what I take to be its fundamental dynamic principle. Examining its character as a unit of narrative form rather than a unit of statement or meaning may indicate some reasons for its structure and its repetition, and reveal the relation of the episode to the total form of the poem. The exercise of trying to read the poem as story rather than exposition suggests why the relation between the fictive form and philosophic content of the poem has been so elusive to critics. Such an effort is bound to be literal-minded and largely unconcerned with the allegorical significance below, or reflected in, its surface succession of temporal appearances. To read the poem as if it were a story will seem not only to ignore but to defy “deep reading” and to reject the meanings the poet was constructing by telling that story. This impression of eccentricity and neglect of intentional meaning will only be intensified for readers of this poem in the light of what is by now a generation of very detailed and informed work on the complex traditional thought patterns and metaphoric depth of Langland’s figurative levels of coherence. A variety of research and interpretation of a very high order of detail and sensitivity has changed irreversibly our notion of what kind of poetic production this is and made quite untenable the older view of Piers as the work of a half-educated or undisciplined, if impassioned, genius. It is not my aim in reading Piers as a fictive record of events, to reinstate earlier, naive views, but to try to present in another way “what happens” at the level of action in this poem and what we can see by looking at it. Accounts of a poem which seek to place it in an historical context, showing its intellectual antecedents and affiliations by expounding its images in relation to literary or other traditions, are often paradoxically those which most isolate it from history as a specific poetic production. They give fullness not to the poem, but to our attention to it, filling our rapt gaze with meaning, giving it purpose, justifying it as a moral activity, and providing us with something of permanent cognitive value. Nevertheless, these efforts leave a sense that the poem as made is relatively empty and thin. If we invert this paradox, we find a second one: it is at the literal, ordinary surface of the poem, the level accessible to a “naive” reading, that we find what Pierre Macherey calls “the unconscious of the work (not that of the author).”1 By this he means what the work does not say, and what the author

1

Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, tr. Geoffrey Wall (London, 1978), p. 92.

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cannot be aware of, concerning the circumstances which induced its creation. It is, he says, a kind of “latent knowledge,” emerging in the specific labor of composition itself, but not “as an extension of the explicit purpose, since it arises from a completely different principle.” This “knowledge” cannot be experienced by the writer as a treasury of materials or conventions, literary or otherwise, to “work with,” but constitutes what he must work “against,” the given realities within which he must articulate this specific piece of work. If the meaning offered to explication is what the poet’s labors cause to appear, the “latent knowledge” implicit in the work is already visible to historical examination, yet not usually noted, “because the accent has shifted, so to speak,” diverting attention from what “goes without saying.” It is in this undeclared but unconcealed surface “unconscious of the work,” Macherey argues, that we see the poem’s specific relation with history. In the events through which the poet opens his meaning, “what the poet was compelled to say in order to say what he wanted to say,”2 we may see the conditions of its production. These appear not in a deep explication of the total design of a work, but in the perceived breaks and discontinuities of its literal surface. In his view, such historical understanding is, in the geological rather than aesthetically normative sense of the term, a reading of its faults. Literary form is in this view an aspect of a historical language mediating between the will and the work. We need not claim that the poet was unmindful or impatient of literary form, nor that, on the contrary, his narrative discontinuities and changes of direction are really signs of his conscious mastery, begging to be translated into explicit meaning. These opposed ways of describing poetic making both tend to keep the specific finite acts involved in the process of composing the poem mysterious and closed to practical question. Langland, like other poets, is mindful of form in the only way a working artist can be, that is, as what emerges as a result of specific acts and choices in a world where many utterances and artifices already exist and are remembered and used. Form is not for him a wholly free choice, an abstract or open question, but a practical one – or more properly, a very large number of practical ones. As Macherey puts it, “The writer is not called upon to resolve the vague and empty question ‘Will I be believed?’ but a different and determinate question, ‘What must I do to be read?”’3 It is the surface of Langland’s work, with all its fissures and new starts, both as a story and as a much-revised text, that reveals to us his implicit answers to this

2 3

Macherey, p. 94. Macherey, p. 72.

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practical question. The fact that the work is made and revised as a narrated sequence of events, as a record of a life, shows us the conception of the literary enterprise the poet took as given, the conditions of being read as they appeared to him. What we learn by following the literal level, noticing the nature of the appearances we are explicitly urged to see through, is not what Langland set out to display, a conception of truth or of Christian well-doing, but his idea of “making.” An “episode,” in this discussion, denotes any described encounter between personages or animate beings in the poem – whether one or both speak, and whatever the character of their verbal or physical exchange – which issues in some noted change.4 It is basically a unit of action described as an “event,” as a change or result brought about by a “doing.” It may include mental events as well as social or material ones, so long as they are described as acts rather than activities. When the narrative subject’s travel through the forest issues in a challenge and battle, or when the bird song he hears suddenly becomes intelligible as a warning, a narrative interval becomes an episode. Though this rough definition would not do as a description or heuristic device if our text were, say, To The Lighthouse – or any narration chiefly conducted in free indirect discourse5 – it does suggest the unit of composition characteristic of many kinds of medieval narrative. In Piers Plowman, there may be one episode within the boundaries of a dream, but usually there are several. These may be multiply interlaced, as they are most artfully in the multi-levelled dream of the Crucifixion and Harrowing of Hell. Episodes may be joined together by a manifest, even “overdetermined,” sense of consequence and horizontal ideational coherence, as in the encounters with Abraham, Spes, and the Samaritan, and these linkages may extend across the boundaries of a single dream, as this dream leads to the following Easter vision. Their linkages may, however, be more loosely sequential, as in the series of dialogues in the order prescribed by each successive informant in Dowel, from Thought to Wit to Study to Clergy and Scripture – a sequence then intersected by another long and more diffuse encounter with Recklessness. In this sequence the argumentative encounter seems to be a more constant and stable unit of narration than either the speaker’s identity or the topic of discourse. The implication of this is that a certain kind of episode, played over and over See Morton Bloomfield, “Episodic Juxtaposition or the Syntax of Episodes in Narration,” in Studies in English Linguistics for Randolph Quirk, ed. Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik (London, 1980), pp. 210–20. 5 I am indebted to my colleague Ann Banfield, whose forthcoming book Unspeakable Sentences deals with the narrative grammar of free indirect discourse. 4

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again with different actors and initiating conditions, is a root paradigm of Langland’s composition. The evidence of revision corroborates this impression. The insertions and rearrangements in the text suggest that the integrity of the narrated event had primacy in Langland’s imaginative enterprise over the fixed nature of actors, or the expository integrity of their arguments. Expository passages are dropped or inserted, expanded or reduced, and essentially reworked to produce somewhat different arguments in both stages of revision. Narrative episodes are moved whole and reassigned to other speakers and actors, but their character as events – the points at which they begin and end and the general dynamic of the exchange – is scarcely ever altered and neither greatly elaborated nor reduced. Examples are the transference of Hawkyn’s confession of several sins in B to the narrative accounts of several penitents who confess their sins after Reason’s sermon in C, and the insertion, whole, of the coronation and rat-parliament sequence of B into the first dream, with no alteration of the course of action. It seems as if the episode is Langland’s unit of composition, the one in which ideas came to him, and the one whose basic shape and outcome he was most reluctant to alter once conceived. This unit of poetic composition should be distinguished not only from the poet’s philosophic conceptions or theological schemata, but also from his associative techniques of invention, development, and ornament. “The method of concordance,” as John Alford calls it,6 not only supplied the means of developing the figurative density of the poem, but suggested specific episodic figures and stories and supplied chains of ideational association connecting them. A good example of the associative method used to link episodes is the transition from Jesus’ debate with the Jews (John 8:33–58) to the new dream of Abraham immediately following.7 It is worth noticing, however, that the poet gives both the antecedent and consequent narratives joined by this method essentially the same shape as events. They are imagined by Langland in the episodic form most deeply characteristic of his practice in turning figurative suggestion to narrated action: they are presented as disputes. In its most basic form, the episode in Piers presents a combat. Whatever the visionary scene, whatever the identity of the instructor or expositor, whatever the philosophic question that initiates the encounter, at some John Alford, “The Role of the Quotations in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 52 (1977), 80–99. C 19.163–83. Citations of the C text are to the edition of W.W. Skeat, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman ... in Three Parallel Texts (London, 1886). Those of the B text are to Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E.T. Donaldson (London, 1975); and of the A text to the Athlone edition by George Kane (London, 1960). 6 7

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point the interaction becomes charged with opposition. The injection of a countervening force, rather than the logical or rhetorical limits of the discursive topic, shapes the further course of the episode and determines its often abrupt end. The prospect of revealed knowledge may initiate an action, but it is almost invariably a rivalry, and an implicit pursuit of a resolving judgment, that brings it to an end. Sometimes the “I,” the narrative subject, is chiefly an observer of this conflict, as he is in the first dream of Lady Meed, the final dream of Antichrist, and the climactic Easter dream. These episodes are all imagined in the form of judicial duels, for which the dreamer’s narration is, like Book’s testimony, the authenticating report of a witness. Sometimes the subject is himself one of the combatants in the scene, even when his search is nominally for understanding rather than sanction, as in much of the Dowel section. Though his pugnacious interference with the ample course of exposition draws the rebuke of his informants, his questions and efforts at memorable summary implicitly raise questions about the efficacy and use of the privileged visionary exchange he has been offered – a secondary interest within the episode which becomes primary in its development.8 In some episodes he is by turns both spectator and actor. In the Banquet scene, he provokes a “joust” with the Doctor of Divinity while the table-talk of the company ultimately produces divergence between Clergy and Conscience; these two, allies at the beginning of the scene, soberly part ways at its end. This parting of company, by means of an asserted difference from within the group or an explicit defiance of the common effort, is a characteristic turn of events. The assertion of singularity regularly makes cooperative venture, whether teaching or plowing, into competition and forces a redefinition of the initial purpose of the exchange. The search for knowledge becomes a struggle between rival claimants over the power to wield it, to use it to command assent and determine action. The exchange terminates in an expressed, but rarely achieved, desire for an assignment of authority. The multiple expositors of the poem are similarly handled. When more than one is present at the same time, they invariably enter into competition with each other, or are urged by their pupil into declaring their differences. The poet presents their relations to each other metaphorically in human social roles that conventionally permit such contention – garrulous husband and scolding, censorious wife (Wit and Study, Clergy and Scripture), gossips (the 8 Cf. David Mills, “The Role of the Dreamer in Piers Plowman” in Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. S.S. Hussey (London, 1969), p. 196: “Langland has created a situation in which the reader must question the arguments advanced by the abstractions at every point.”

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Four Daughters), rivals for the king’s favorable judgment (the Meed episode). He avoids the range of comforting familial or ideally amicable roles we find in dialogues of counsel or didactic visions in the Latin tradition from Boethius through the thirteenth century – the attentive confessor and penitent, the physician and patient, the parent and child, loyal brothers or sisters, patient teacher and devoted pupil. Dialogue in this poem is neither nurturing nor friendly, but pervaded by a sense of injured merit, quick to censure any slight to the speaker’s dignity or powers. It is extraordinary how fundamental this model of the episode is for Langland. The Easter vision presents salvation not only as a fruition of grace, but as the issue of battle, a triumph of law and justice.9 The Abraham-SpesSamaritan sequence, while revealing a cumulative pattern of significance, is also developed to call attention to mutual incompatibilities or gaps among the three testimonies (e.g. C 20.25–45, 94–105). While the purpose of using this procedure in expounding ideas may be, like that of scholastic disputation, to draw explicit discrepancies to the surface so as to show in what senses they may all point to the same truth,10 its narrative effect is quite different. The prophetic testimonies of the first two members of this triad seem discredited by their refusal to aid the man fallen among thieves, rather than fulfilled by the Samaritan’s deed. What did not begin as a contest becomes one retrospectively; a device for displaying relations among qualities and entities collapses into one inviting a judicial determination between them. There is often a discrepancy of this kind between the interpretable significance of the event and the affect arising in the course of its narration, and often someone remains – as the Dreamer does after the “jangling” over the Pardon – to reflect on, or lament, this difference. The prevalence of these scenes of dispute and their tendency to end in discord and irresolution have not gone unnoticed in the critical literature, but they have usually been considered an aspect of “content.” Some early readers assigned this quality of irascibility and restlessness to the poet as thinker, imagining him as an angry man or a rebel and projecting a cause of this discontent to match the animus. This “gap between atmosphere and

9 William Birnes has explicated in detail the governing legal metaphors of this episode, and the contemporary legal practices and political theories to which they refer (“Patterns of Legality in Piers Plowman” [Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1974], chs. 3 and 4, pp. 66–122). 10 Denise Baker, “Dialectic Form in Pearl and Piers Plowman,” paper presented at the meeting of the Middle English Division of the Modern Language Association, December, 1980.

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argument,” as Priscilla Martin puts it,11 has been more subtly analyzed in recent years. When it has appeared in systematic examinations of the poem as a whole, the disjunction has been viewed as part of the poem’s general strategy for acknowledging and illustrating the claims of what Elizabeth Kirk has called the “two kinds of knowledge” active in human conscious life, and for dramatizing both the difficulty and the necessity of their synthesis.12 These two truths correspond roughly to the Wife of Bath’s “authority” and “experience.” The one is revealed and cognitive, “the knowledge that comes from intellect and tradition,” the other comes from “one’s own normal experience and consciousness.” Though ultimately complementary, these two sorts of knowledge are “in the short run tragically incommensurable,” Kirk says, and she adds that it is the distinctive achievement of Piers Plowman to place the struggle to resolve their incommensurability in the foreground of our attention. This seems to me a succinct and perceptive identification of the two forces that meet explosively in scene after scene of the poem and a proper estimate of the prevalence of struggle over resolution or clear progression in the narrative action. It seems to imply, however, that the episodes of dispute simply mirror the philosophic issues in the poem’s speculative and didactic program, and have no distinctive formal significance in themselves. It is, I hope, in no way dismissive of this admirably thorough and sympathetic reading of the poem to pursue its formal rather than thematic implications. By reversing Kirk’s emphasis, I want to examine just the opposite possibility: that the philosophical content is in large part a sign of a highly original literary enterprise and the formal procedures and generic commitments it requires. The central intellectual and spiritual concerns of the poem are shadowed at every point by a self-referential doubt about the cultural, moral, and spiritual standing of the poem which claims to record this effort, and about the purpose of offering the record to the world as a made object or testimony. Many of the philosophical questions examined within the poem, including several which the speaker admits are detours tangential to the main theme of the exposition, may be seen as rationalized accounts of its own fitful and highly unstable yet obsessive narrative project. What most needs explaining from this perspective is not the thinness and discontinuity of the narrative but the excessive thickness of the philosophical “content” Priscilla Martin, Piers Plowman: The Field and the Tower (New York, 1979), p. 56. See Elizabeth Kirk, The Dream Thought of Piers Plowman (New Haven, 1972), pp. 33–40; she presents a valuable brief discussion of these and their correlatives in the philosophy and systematic theology of the fourteenth century. 11 12

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of the poem, its surplus of unsubordinated explanatory discourse, and what becomes of that discourse at the many disruptions of the narrative surface. One of the most often-remarked qualities of this discourse is the freefloating combative animus we have noticed, which has generally been seen as disproportionate to the specific actions that occasion it. As an attribute of Will, it is most often described, both by critics and by Will’s informants, as impatience or pride. It is not, however, a distinctive trait of Will. It is also common to his instructors, who lose patience with Will’s impatience and turn away the face of revelation and systematic knowledge, frequently offering instead what they believe suits his amateur’s condition. It is predicated of many of the poem’s actors, including Piers, both in the Hunger scene and in his encounter with the priest. Trajan and Recklessness display it in their brief and pivotal appearances, as does Christ in combat with Satan, and it is the first aspect we see of Conscience, one of the most important presences in the poem. The fluidity of this animus suggests that it is neither a positive nor a negative moral attribute or sign as such, but a kind of enabling gesture which permits a particular kind of turn in the development of an episode. As a deeply characteristic poetic quality, this combative spirit raises some of the same questions as “the wrath of Dante” does for the reader of the Comedy 13 and may, I think, be similarly understood. The problem is not whether in each occurrence this aggressive energy can be explained as an ethical response, justified by the event which provoked it, but in what way this emotional energy and procedure is fundamental to the formal genesis and narrative unfolding of the poem. For Dante the emphatic assertion of self with which various actors, the honored and the condemned, inscribe themselves and their entire personal histories on the memory in a brief selfrevelatory action – most often and most strikingly as an intrusion into some other process or center of attention – is the constitutive gesture of the poem. Out of such irruptions into the larger continuous venture, the pilgrimage or journey, is spun the narrative sequence in all its fullness. In this respect, the wrath of Dante is the formative energy of the Comedy, the principle of its narrative generation, variety, and amplitude. It is what made this particular poem, rather than the articulation of its ideas, possible. The combative animus pervading Langland’s poem is likewise fundamental to its production. Its assertion disrupts expository discourse, propelling the episode to its terminus as an action and engendering a new occasion and ground for dialogue. This explosive disruptive power acquires in this way a See G.A. Borgese, “The Wrath of Dante,” Speculum 13 (1938), 183–93; rpt. in Essays on Dante, ed. Mark Musa (Bloomington, Ind., 1964), pp. 94–109. 13

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crucial generative function: it supplies the “horizontal” motivating force of the poem as narrative, an impetus which counters the stasis of the purely expository.14 But it does not carry allegorical meaning of its own. This energy does not cease to be disruptive, and it is difficult to regard the fissures, breaks, and impasses its assertion creates as in themselves a desired end or goal of composition. They are not, in other words, examples of imitative form, designed moments in the reading experience which, by frustrating our desire to construct a coherent meaning as we read, implicitly assert that striving toward truth is often a frustrating enterprise. Rather, they are a kind of involuntary authorial signature left in the literary material by the act of bringing the poem into being, pointing to those ways of proceeding that differentiate this poem from any other, as its “ideas” and its mode of figurative elaboration do not. Its ideas and methods were, many of them, traditional; what Langland undertook to make with them was new. In Macherey’s terms, these gestures of opposition arising within episodes exemplify “what the author was compelled to say in order to say what he wanted to say”; the fissures they create in the narrative continuity manifest the “unconscious of the work.” That work, as the poet conceived it within the range of literary languages and forms available to him, could be brought to light only in opposition, as a literary design repeatedly colliding with more securely established forms and modes for making a serious and speculative work. His project, I believe, was a serious fictive work grounded, like Dante’s, in first person worldly experience as the generative principle of narration; in this respect it was, like Dante’s, without literary precedent in his vernacular. Both poets make the “I” the narrative subject, a center of “sensemaking” for the poem. He does, suffers, and interprets as well as reports its actions, simultaneously composing and reading them as personal history, a “horizontally motivated” narration. This individual historia constitutes his own counterpart to the world’s salvation history – that universal design which he can know in the books of philosophers and as a cosmic display revealed to him through the intercession of his guides. His effort is thus active and practical as well as receptive and contemplative and effectively supplants the purely visionary as a center of narrative interest. The splendid sight of the regularities of the created cosmos, offered by Latin didactic vision literature from Boethius’ starry harmonies through Alanus’ natural fecundity, become the background, the landscape in which the subject composes himself as a 14 On “horizontal motivation,” see Morton Bloomfield, “Episodic Motivation and Marvels in Epic and Romance” in Essays and Explorations: Studies in Ideas, Language, and Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1970), pp. 97–128.

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historical being. He is defined by this enterprise not as contemplative man, but as homo faber. His task in the course of the narrative is to recover what has been lost to time and thereby to understand it, rather than to reason himself into accepting his loss. His labor of consciousness in making intelligible his past deeds will empower and give integrity to his future acts, supplying a conviction and personal authority from which he had initially been estranged. This enterprise is the reverse of the therapeutic process Lady Philosophy offers Boethius. She shows the grieving and dispossessed subject that in reality he has lost nothing of value: his alienation from his story and worldly identity is the aim of her philosophy. That alienation is the starting point of Dante’s and Langland’s poems: in both, the direction and amplitude of the narrative effort gradually return the subject to the full possession of his worldly history, enabling him to know it profoundly as – and because – he has made it. What the Consolation ascribes to Fortune and defines as radically unknowable, these two great fourteenth-century poems present as the germ of modern autobiography, developing in the interstices of an encyclopedic display of universal knowledge. In the Comedy, the subject is repeatedly provoked into this conscious reclamation of his own historical identity by the thickly interposed stories of others. They appear all around him in the final throes of their own selfmaking, filling the entire poetic space with their impacted and now intensely concentrated stories, urgently making claims for his attention. They act as a mirror to him, giving him back his own particularity in reflection. The mirror of world history available to him through this privileged vision thus intensifies his own historical location. His lost Florence, his youthful songs, his past private and political passions and deeds are not disavowed as illusions but are returned to him as his own forever. His temporal acts acquire particular clarity as he assumes personal authority for them among souls whose every moment in eternity is spent in recognizing and taking upon themselves the authorship of their own life stories. This reclamation of experiential coherence, however, is realized narratively as constant interruption, an irregular series of commanding distractions crossing the subject’s path through an objective terrain which visibly maps the eternal order. By assigning the autobiographical project the structural status of an interruption, Dante’s poem formally raises to conscious attention the ever-present possibility of conflict between contemplative apprehension and the active recovery and memorialization of individual experience. The possibility is contained, however, by the continuous presence of a terrain and of solicitous and loving guides, who can not only rebuke when necessary

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the subject’s excessive absorption in the local and curious but also validate his efforts to integrate the two modes of knowledge. They support the proposition that the two parallel endeavors are ultimately complementary. In Piers the subject’s pursuit of a worldly sense of well-doing is presented in a discontinuous series of interpositions. Langland, however, provides no secure narrative principles of mediation and neither stable landscape nor the continuous presence of expositors whose primary commitment is to the subject’s understanding as a being in historical time. In Piers, the subject and the expositors wage a war, in a series of largely inconclusive skirmishes, about what kind of inquiry and what kind of poem this is. Dialogue turns upon itself and becomes dispute over the absent means of mediation. The two kinds of knowledge – and the fictive models that sustain the exposition of each – are set in competition, and their parallel course becomes a sequence of mutual interferences. At that characteristic moment in episodic development when exposition becomes conflict, what is always at issue is the value, autonomy, and cultural authority of personal history as a genre, and the status of a serious fictive work centered upon it. In every episode, the narrative project encounters the limits of its literary and social authority. The subject, or other representative of what experienced suffering teaches, is shown attempting – and almost without exception failing – to justify what Dante takes as given, as his fundamental narrative premise. What is pursued in every encounter is not knowledge but power: the power to wield the text that “makes” the world as a world. As a mode of knowing, but perhaps even more fundamentally as the organizing center of a philosophically serious long poem in English, the status of worldly experience and the cultural authority of what the subject “makes” of it, is on trial. While both poets interpose the autobiographical dimension of their narratives into the gradual unfolding of an objective order of truth, it is only in Langland’s poem that this procedure seems to challenge that order and its traditional literary mode. In this mode, a display of universal harmony – of the stars, of natural generation, of ideal discourse – is offered to a subject in spiritual need of a restored inner equipoise. The receiver of this privileged display is conceived primarily as a receptive mind, not as a historical actor, and it is to his contemplative gaze, not to his worldly praxis, that these ministrations are addressed. He is to be made once more into a philosophic man, a seer, as the powerful encyclopedic image imprints itself on his soul through sight. The subject is specified by the rules of the genre as ideally silent, or speaking largely to lament or disown his former blindness. These are also the specifications of the narrative subject in the chivalric romance

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and the roman d’aventure. Whether he is challenged to battle or confronted by an absorbing image, the romance actor’s ideal response is an intensely focused spiritual attention, yielding an exact introspective understanding of his inner state, but no reference to past events or future possibilities that would disclose an intentional pattern in their sequence. He can read his heart, but not his history. The questions he asks are silent, and he asks them of his own soul, not of the presence confronting him. His speculations about the situations or persons he meets are casuistical, not immediately practical: all objects to him are objects of contemplation, not of use. He does not seek the “horizontal motivation” of his own actions or those of others, nor attempt to convert the potentially limitless series of his “adventures” into a composed life story, a personal record which in reflection he may “read” and incorporate into further action. The romance hero and the subjects in Latin visionary dialogues contemplate and assimilate themselves to a presented cosmic image; they do not compose a story of their quarrel with it, as finite historical beings contained by the condition of mortality. Dante’s greater success in combining the cosmic and the personal as centers of interest in a long fiction has been ascribed to a greater poetic gift generally, but it owes a great deal as well to his literary-historical situation. Dante’s vernacular contained a resource for which Langland’s vernacular provided no counterpart – a refined and serious subjective poetic mode which memorialized the self ’s experience as a formative personal history indelibly imprinted in the individual soul. This was the brief but crucial coming of age of the personal voice in the dolce stil nuovo. Compounded of erotic and religious sentiment, vernacular song, and liturgical verse, it made possible a poetic celebration of the discrete mortal historical self; its practice by poets at once learned and cultivated,15 clerks of civil rather than ecclesiastical eminence, made it a culturally central and serious enterprise. This vernacular poetry – a specifically literary eloquence of the subjective – attained a stature in lay cultivation that no comparable mode was to achieve securely in England until about the death of Chaucer, though the attempt was to figure prominently in the work of every major writer in English in the latter half of the fourteenth century. For Langland, therefore, the effort to center a serious fiction upon the experience of the self as a historical integer rather than as the locus of a The distinction is that of Erich Auerbach, and crucial to the description of the situation of high literacy in this period. See “The Western Public and Its Language” in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, tr. Ralph Manheim (New York, 1965), pp. 237–338, esp. 318–19, 296–8. 15

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spiritually receptive eye is an extremely unstable enterprise and must be constantly asserted against the more established paradigms for a long speculative fiction. In Piers, the subject’s behavior is continually rebuked as inappropriate and indecorous, when judged by the structural rules and generic claims on the subject made by the allegorical vision. In contrast to Dante, who is repeatedly welcomed into the company of the wise and learned, Will, is forever being expelled from such company for violating the rule of silence, “medlyng” with verbal formulations in an effort to convert visionary comprehension to utility in the saeculum. The conflict at the heart of the episode is in effect an attempt to substitute one genre for another, to convert a didactic or revelatory encounter to a practical and determinative one. The episode begins rather like an avanture: we anticipate the unfolding of “wondres” before a subject who by contemplating them will become assimilated or reconciled to them. As it proceeds, however, the explanatory discourse, the verbal counterpart to the cosmic vision, is subjected to a gradually increasing double pressure implying two rival standards of didactic adequacy, method and use.16 The conflict is represented by two sorts of actors. One is a figure who embodies inchoate desire and an indeterminate quality of “natural knowledge” based on his personal experience in the temporal world: in “leel labor” (Piers), in the making of choices (Conscience), or bodily or mental suffering (the poor, the “minstrels of God”). For this figure, knowledge arises from and conduces to action and production: the paradigmatic form for setting forth such knowledge is personal testimonial narration. His opponent has the power to cancel or devalue that enterprise and the learning and office to redefine it with an account that exposes its systematic insufficiency. He generally possesses a superior discursive logic and a demonstrative rhetoric richly stocked with explanatory figures and comprehensive schemes for articulating gradations and distinctions. This part is usually played by a representative of a traditionally authoritative institution – the ecclesiastical court, the university – with the cumulative weight of determinative written instruments or proclamations. For him, knowledge is systematic, universal, and contemplated; general questions about its worldly utility can only be signs of pride. Some actors play both parts in different scenes, or successively in the same scene; Will is a notorious shape-shifter in this respect. What is constant is not the parties to either “side” but the mechanism of raising genre conflict as a means of 16 On the “treatise” versus the “poetical text” in Piers, see Herbert Engels, Piers Plowman: Eine Untersuchung der Textstruktur mit einer Einleitung zur mittelalterlichen Allegorie (Ph.D. diss., Köln, 1968).

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redirecting the event. The problem of knowledge in the poem exerts pressure on its form when it is raised on the field of contention between two actors for whom knowledge is power. The episode reaches its point of explosion, turning discourse to contest, not over the meaning of words, but over doing things with words. The Pardon scene is the most memorable instance. It is important to the understanding of the poem not because it is exceptional in its extreme and mysterious disruptiveness, but precisely because it is not. It presents a clear instance of the “gap between atmosphere and argument,” contrasting the treatise and the experiential orders of the poem, their modes of assertion, their authority, and the contrary directions in which they develop. Whatever the figurative significance of the violent denouement of this scene in either the B or C form, what initiates it is quite clear: the priest proposes to read and “construe” the pardon because it is patently strange that a written instrument of any kind should be in the hands of an unlettered layman. It is the relation between Piers and these letters, not what they contain, that is called into question by the priest’s interference. There is no evidence whatever of hostility to Piers himself in the priest’s offer to “kenne it þee on englissh,” and, as I read it, there is even some respect for Piers’s natural literacy and eloquence when he finds that the plowman is “lettred a litel.” “Were þow a preest, [Piers],” quod he, “ þow myȜtest preche [whan þee liked] As diuinour in diuinite, wiþ Dixit insipiens to þi teme.” (B 7.140–41)

Piers, however, for all “Abstynence þe Abbesse’s” teaching, is not a priest and has not the authority to proclaim or expound a document such as the priest takes this one to be. The priest’s implicit concerns are to assure that interpretation and the public proclamation of Christian truth shall be made only by those with the literacy and learning to do it correctly, and that as a consequence the teaching of doctrine, unlike devotion and witnessing to the faith, shall remain the prerogative of a properly trained clergy. Both concerns were heard frequently as lay piety movements gained adherents in the later Middle Ages,17 and they are consistent with other passages in the poem on the presumptions of the ignorant and the abuse and neglect of learning by those 17 See Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, N. Y., 1978), pp. 114–16, and M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century, tr. Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little (Chicago, 1968), pp. 260–61.

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charged with spiritual guidance. With the priest’s interference here, Langland re-literalizes the action and raises within the episode the question of the social authority of the poem itself as a text, as distinct from its “truth.” That the document was sent by Truth and that Piers is Truth’s loyal servant are not at issue: the priest does not ask its source, but the source of Piers’s literacy. He does not interpret the text itself literally – or at all: he offers no comment on the several hundred lines of Truth’s biddings which up to this point have seemed to form its text, or on the two lines of the Athanasian Creed which in fact constitute the only writing on the leaf. His sole challenge is not to the meaning of the text but to its public power and performative kind, its genre:18 it is not, he declares, a pardon. Piers himself understands the event as a challenge to his authority, an insult to his role in proclaiming a document with performative or determinative powers. In response he destroys the object that called forth this interference from the sanctioned and traditional magisterium and proposes to dismantle his literal identity as well, renouncing his worldly “swynk” and remaking himself in the image of a penitential laborer. This change – often seen as a raising of the level of perfection to which Piers is pledged to aspire and a declaration of the primacy of the spiritual over the corporal – should not obscure some of its important literal side effects at the level of narrative. It is representative of episodic endings in the poem generally in that a gain in figurative coherence is purchased at a marked and lamented loss to narrative continuity and a loss of personal authority in a figure whose integrity we have come to trust. Here Piers’ occupation is gone, finally transferred from the literal frame of activity in which he is competent to one in which he is necessarily at a disadvantage and must acknowledge it. As his role as lay laborer is re-literalized, he is exposed to challenge, not for his “natural literacy” and “leel labor” as such, but for seeming to claim that these conferred on him some kind of communal authority. What is at stake here is not experience as a mode of knowing, but the social authority and uses of such literacy. Is a poem like a falsely claimed pardon, offering the illusion of absolution? Is the layman who brings it, whose only knowledge is experiential, asserting a doctrine or teaching, or simply witnessing to the faith? Is his truth and authority of some other kind than that of the magisterium? This public exposure of lay experiential authority enacts an important structural transformation in the narrative. For a discussion of genre as the action-rules and use-rules of a text, and a very valuable account of the “rules” of early modern autobiography, with a good deal of bearing on what I am claiming about Piers, see Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre (Baltimore, 1976), pp. 4–6. 18

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The denouement of the Pardon scene in either version marks definitively a shift in Piers’ narrative valence from present authority to absent object of desire. Never again in the poem will the hope for a principle of love and truth incarnate and visible in contemporary worldly action be free from a kind of nostalgia, a lament for a lost order of time. The prospect of grounding the narrative process of making sense of this world in the unsullied conscience of a lay workman becomes attenuated, a distant hope; Hawkyn and Actyf may be seen as a sad afterimage of a possibility from which sustained conviction has been drained. The priest’s intervention has carried the day, and the poem with it. The community’s continuing need for Piers will be given narrative expression from here on in the almost erotic intensity of the subject’s longing for him: like a romance hero seizing a token of his lady, Will swoons at the mention of Piers’ name and can only summon his strained powers of attention by focusing on the tokens the absent one has left behind. The event offers a paradigm of the basic conflict and its outcome throughout the poem. At its end Piers has been rusticated, rendered marginal to the serious uses of literacy to move and teach others, and dismissed, resigned by his own act from the company of those entitled to wield the books and texts that “make” the world by declaring its nature. Yet he continues to exert a powerful hold on the imagination of those who remain on the field. He becomes the absent beloved, always sought and never recovered – yet engendering all the while a personal narrative of uncommon power and amplitude. After the second vision, Piers becomes Langland’s Beatrice, a human image held in the memory as the Other in whom his poetic subject first discovered a personal integrity and authority given him wholly within the frame of temporal experience. The removal of Piers from the action leaves the defense of Truth’s historical inscription in the individual laboring life to a deeply compromised figure, Will himself, for whom pugnacious selfjustification and authentic self-knowledge are mixed in almost indeterminable proportions. In this, Will is much like those two other great contemporary autobiographers and memorializers of their worldly lives – one fictive, one actual – the Wife of Bath and Margery Kempe. Like theirs, Will’s urgent and discontinuous history is a story of contention, and it exhibits by turns the rhetorical manipulativeness of the one and the theatrical sincerity of the other. And as with these two other self-appointed confessors to the incontrovertibility of experience, combat almost always arises over his encounters with, and designs upon, “textualitie” and the rivalry this implies to those “clergial” beings traditionally empowered to wield it. The trials of Will,

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like those of Alice and Margery, are at bottom for questionable claims on the institution of letters. It is for his deployment of performative texts that Will himself is brought into the poem by name as an actor in the second of the three “signature” passages in the A text (A 8.42–44); the other two record him in related and complementary gestures – bewailing his sins at the injunction of Repentance (A 5.43–44) and in the act of asking to know (A 9.61–62, 116–18). Will’s relation to texts continually exposes him to challenge and generally has the result of suspending him between these two flanking postures, guilty and assertive, rightly accused and self-assured. Those passages which name the fictive speaker as the maker place their writer in an important fourteenthcentury generic lineage, which we will examine in conclusion; those which allude to the subject’s literacy and literary pretensions, however, expose him to the same kinds of questioning that Piers received from the priest. And as it was a gesture of interposition which brought that episode to its disturbing and unprepared-for ending, it is always some form of interposition, either by the “medlyng” subject or one of his rebuking informants, that manifests the historical character of the conflict. The poet’s term for this characteristic gesture, “medlyng,” sometimes represented by its synonyms entermete and interponere, is used to describe the enterprise of “making” the poem itself. In this way the disruption of the episode becomes doubly an artistic signature. It releases the energy by which the poem not only makes itself, but defends itself, though only in what may be the last addition to the C text – the so-called “autobiographical” interlude between the first and second visions – is this defense before the authorities even provisionally successful.19 This exception is not fortuitous: it is only here that the essentially autobiographical fictive center of the whole project 19 See Mabel Day, “The Revisions of Piers Plowman,” MLR 23 (1928), 2, and E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet, Yale Studies in English, 113 (New Haven, 1949; rpt. Hamden, Conn., 1966), p. 26. Donaldson and Kane have cautioned about the precariousness of dating or determining the exact sequence of any addition to the poem, but some guesses are possible on external evidence. While several other passages unique to C are echoed in the Testament of Love of Thomas Usk, who was executed early in 1388, I believe this passage – from which he draws no material – was composed between late 1388 and 1390. It seems to allude in some detail to the Second Statute of Laborers, an act of the Cambridge Parliament of September 1388, and is composed as an imaginary inquiry before the Justices empowered to enforce it. If this is correct, then it offers some corroboration of Day’s and Donaldson’s opinion that this passage – along with two hundred lines or so added to Truth’s message to Piers in C 10, and, like this one, bearing on the question of legitimate labor – is among the very last additions to the poem.

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declares itself fully. For Langland, the invention of experience as a literary category issues in a poetics of interposition. The self as a fictive narrative center for the work appears as an abashed interloper in a stern pantheon of serious genres and clerical modes of discourse. It is in exactly these terms that Ymaginatif in B presents Will’s “makings” as idleness, calling the subject to account for his use of his years and his language. The dialogue comes at a pivotal point between the two major movements of Dowel. In the first of these, whose main outlines had already been laid down by the A Vita, the subject figures largely as a pupil to a sequence of instructors. The second, following Ymaginatif ’s speech, will present Will chiefly as observer in two episodes: as sullen guest at the Banquet of Clergy and as witness to Hawkyn’s sad catechism. Since Piers’ departure at the end of the second vision, Will seeking Dowel has passed from the tutelage of Thought (“a muche man, lik to myselve”) to Wit (“long and lene, like to noon ooþer”) to Study. She is Wit’s wife and sharply rebukes her husband’s indiscriminate casting of his pearls of wisdom before a seeker with dubious credentials for serious learning: she excoriates a host of idle talkers – flatterers, lying minstrels, and high-table dabblers in theological speculation – with whom she seems to associate Will. Mollified at last by Will’s persistent effort to display “mekenesse and mylde speche,” she refers him to her “cosyn” Clergy and his wife Scripture, her star pupil who has now progressed beyond her teacher’s powers. This succession of tutors shows a movement away from reflection on experience toward textual sources of knowledge, the province of the university, the regular orders, legal institutions and the authority of the clergy. It seems increasingly to divide Will’s quest between the natural knowledge that issues in good works or “clergie” as the surer means to salvation. With this dilemma A breaks off, and B’s development from here through Ymaginatif ’s speech provides a particularly choppy coda to this movement. In a passus which barely controls its own scattered topicality (e.g., B 11.232, 318), this phase of Will’s philosophic quest ends with a reversal of the narrative perspective, turning him from the expositions of the learned and textual to the blandishments of earthly experience, and leaving it to Ymaginatif to resolve these two kinds of “sight” into one synthetic vision. To the epistemological problem presented to him by the expository logic of Dowel thus far – does Truth manifest itself to “plowmen and pastours and povere commune laborers” or to “þise kete clerkes þat konne manye bokes”? – Ymaginatif has a satisfying resolution. What appeared “to pastours and to poetes,” to laboring men and the deeply learned Magi, is, he answers, but one truth. Clergy and “kynde wit,” traditional learning and

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the experience of creatures, are “cosyns,” not opponents, “for boþe ben as mirours to amenden (our) defautes.” When he was scorned by Scripture (multi multa sciunt et seipsos nesciunt), and plunged from the high “sightes” offered by texts and philosophical learning into all that Fortune can show of the experiential world, his fall was but the exchange of one of the “mirours” of knowledge for the other. The problem of integrated vision, however, is attended by another which has become a lengthening shadow of the first. It is the question of Will’s own practice: the ethical standing and social authority of what he “makes” of such vision. Is Will a laborer or a clerk? On this matter, Ymaginatif offers but cold comfort: as labor, Will’s making is useless, and as teaching it is at best superfluous. Will has arrived at this point in Dowel by a process which reduplicates that by which Piers was gradually removed from his earthly vocation and natural authority in the preceding dream. Handed through a succession of teachers, each more “textual” in authority than the last, Will has followed Piers’ course, drawn further from the field he knows by the direct experience of his enigmatic labor to the risk-fraught terrain of action-at-a-distance carried on by means of authoritative written instruments. He now stands before Ymaginatif seeming to his challenger as Piers seemed to the priest: as one who has wrongfully appropriated clerical authority and prerogative. And as the priest who confronts Piers is the institutionally sanctioned mirror image of what Piers does, possessing the pastoral authority the plowman has by nature rather than by appointed office, so Ymaginatif presents an authorized version of what Will as visionary and maker aspires to do, to integrate what books and experience can show. Will, however, conducts his enterprise outside the institutional sanctions for using this visionary capacity either as a memorial image by which he might reform his own life or as an instrument of explicit teaching. There is no instituted place, Ymaginatif declares, for a serious imaginative fiction outside of penitential or didactic purposes. As the power of making similitudes and likenesses, Ymaginatif is the tutelary genius of fiction as well as prophecy.20 To him belongs the body of knowledge, the form in which mental and spiritual realities are represented so that they may be possessed by living mortals as the common knowledge which secures their worldly identities. He is the faculty that makes it possible to examine one’s life as a comprehensive pattern, as the story one makes; and it is upon Ymaginatif ’s integrated presentation that Repentance (rather than mere reverie or remorse) may arise from retrospection and Conscience, See Morton Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, N.J., 1962), App. 3, pp. 170–74 and notes, pp. 230–31. 20

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the making of choices, may be awakened in projected action. He presides, therefore, over both autobiographical “sense-making” and the human employment of knowledge generally. By nature as well as by his place in a succession of informants, he is heir to questions about the use of this faculty, and it is these he addresses first. To his view, Will’s mode of living and his craft cannot be considered separately, and both are morally dubious.21 Since as early in the poem as Dame Study’s tirade, the status of speculative fiction in general has been doubtful, and in the passus leading to Ymaginatif ’s intervention, Will’s efforts at the poetry of social correction also stand condemned. He is twice rebuked on slightly different grounds for his invectives,22 before Ymaginatif appears to impugn in more sweeping terms the whole fictive enterprise, both as product and as vocation. These rebukes are concerned with two questionable characteristics of the poetry of public speculation and correction: the corrosive anger, rather than brotherly sorrow and love, which tends to inform such work (Lewte); and the presumptuous claim to a godlike perspective on the world’s apparent flaws by a merely human surveyor who cannot, as their maker can, know their true purposes (Reason). Both challenges concern the negative effect of such makings on the maker himself; they subject him to soul-endangering anger and pride. They do not, however, examine the character or use of the made object or the kind of life the maker must lead in order to produce it. It is at this point that Ymaginatif enters to urge upon Will a more comprehensive view of the uses of his “sights” of the world: Will’s repossessed worldly history is properly an instrument of his own reform; it gives no counsel to the world at large. Having first appeared anonymously to rebuke Will for breaking silence with his verbal “entremetynge,” Ymaginatif now, at the start of a new passus, introduces himself by name and begins a more constructive task. He contrasts his mode of action with Will’s way of living: though solitary by nature, he is never idle, and he can remember – what Will has deferred or suppressed – an exact account of his finite span of life and the many opportunities Will has missed in “fyve and fourty wynter”:

21 In what follows I describe the B version of the dialogue. The C text cancels the passage containing the challenge to Will’s “makynges”; its function is taken over by the new “autobiographical” addition, which is built up from this dialogue, together with suggestions from the passus immediately preceding the insertion, and some from the passus preceding Ymaginatif ’s entry (B 11.130–32 and 295). 22 B 11.91–107, 376–404. See Martin for a valuable discussion of the morality of satire as it figures in the explicit poetics of Piers (pp. 66–70).

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(B 12.3–5)

Properly examined, the incidents of this recalled life-history might have afforded Will a number of specific inducements to a long-overdue repentance, if he would only read them: “poustees of pestilences, ... poverte and angres.” It is as part of this general persuasion toward the examined life (in which, he will claim, both book-learning and experience fall into their proper reciprocal relationship) that Ymaginatif next questions Will’s preoccupation with “makynges”: And þow medlest þee wiþ makynges and myȜtest go seye þi sauter, And bidde for hem þat Ȝyueþ þee breed, for þer are bokes y[n]owe To telle men what dowel is, dobet and dobest boþe, And prechours to preuen what it is of many a peire freres.



(B 12.16–19)

This is the most absolute challenge to the poetic enterprise to appear in either the A or the B texts, for it attacks both the product and the profession of “making.” Both are seen as fundamentally and intrinsically idle, not simply frivolous or scurrilous in execution. Unlike Dame Study, Ymaginatif is unconcerned with particular abuses of the practice and seems to attribute to Will’s enterprise the high-minded, if misguided, purpose of public didacticism. It is not the purpose, however, but the activity itself that is idle, in two related ways. It is a thief of time, the medium in which man works toward his own salvation, making an empty and unaccountable space of not-doing where a fullness of restorative action, brought about by prayer and penance, should be. It is these verbal “doings,” not “makings,” that inscribe one’s life usefully in the book of the world’s history. This interlude in one’s spiritual labors, the blank space in the life-story, is doubly idle, for unlike the active life of good works or pastoral governance, it also fails to produce anything for the benefit of others. Books “to telle men what dowel is” and clerics to expound the theme are already plentiful. The poetic enterprise Will represents is a compromised activity in its essence, not merely in the debased forms criticized earlier in the poem. It has no distinctive integrity and institutional situation of its own, and in its public and practically didactic design and intent, it lacks the authority of clerical didacticism. Nor can Will’s questionable mode of life authorize him to compose a testimony uniquely worthy of serious attention. As both a layman

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and a modern, Will is condemned to permanent disadvantage as a maker. He is left gazing reverently at the comprehensive learning of his predecessors, unable to make in his own voice anything new of any distinctive worldly use or belonging to a distinct cultural tradition and institution. Though it may consume his life, it cannot become wisdom. This indictment presents in a particularly accusing form a fear heard frequently in the works of the makers of the fourteenth century – and not only in England – about the status and integrity of imaginative literature as an institution. As reverent heirs, conscious of their debt to “olde bokes,” clerical or classical, the major authors of vernacular fictions in this period display their own peculiar and generalized brand of the anxiety of influence. Their condition was not new: literature had been made of other literature for centuries and would continue to be. What was new was the sudden variety of new fictive ways to examine that condition within their compositions. The major vernacular authors of this period present as part of their story and argument the fabricator himself, ruminating on the traditional materials of composition and displaying himself in the process of consciously re-forming them for a new and singular occasion. This range of techniques and terms of address is part of an astonishingly open and complex new contract between the poet and his public in the sustained fictions of several fourteenth-century writers – Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch; Machaut, Froissart, and Deschamps; Chaucer and Gower as well as Langland. Even this limited list, however, will immediately suggest that the literary annexation of first person experience – whether of the world or of “the literary” as material for new makings – was not undertaken by all of these writers in the same way, nor with the same degree of success, nor, what is more to our immediate purpose, with the same assurance of its legitimacy or confidence in its rhetorical strategies and ethical and social purposes. Unlike the inward gaze of an earlier age – that of the great monastic contemplatives and humanists of the twelfth century – the reflexive prospect of the fourteenth-century writer disclosed not (or not only) the image of God in man, but “myselve in a mirour” – the poet as fabricator. He did not see the essence of man, but his worldly estate, revealed in his works, in the endless accidents of production. In this view, the poet’s exercise seemed prey to the same self-serving stratagems as other secular crafts. For these writers, the incorporation of first person experience as fictive material, and life-history as model, permitted a newly-enlarged testimony about man’s estate. It also, however, represented a fall from a kind of literary grace, from the traditional materials and social gestures which were the heritage they shared with any possible public and which authorized their literary enterprise,

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into a worldly multiplicity of means and local purposes in which authorization and composition become identical, and the social authority of authorship becomes newly problematic. Will is charged by Ymaginatif with a fundamentally compromised aspiration, not bad workmanship. Like Piers confronted by the priest, he is put on the defensive and concedes to Ymaginatif virtually all of what he claims. And yet somwhat me to excuse (I) seide, “Caton conforted his sone þat, clerk þouȜ he were, To solacen hym som tyme; [so] I do whan I make: Interpone tuis interdum gaudia curis. And of holy men I her[e],” quod I, “how þei ouþerwhile [In manye places pleyden þe parfiter to ben].”



(B 12.20–24)

Will here, as in the C counterpart to this defense, refrains from claiming clerical status explicitly for himself; yet he implies that he is ruled by an analogous sense of personal discipline in his speculative activity.23 Furthermore, he goes on, if anyone could “telle” him “what were dowel and dobet and dobest at þe laste,” he would indeed abandon his present vocation and devote himself wholly to prayer. Evidently there are not “bokes ynowe,” or of the right kind, to provide the special kind of conviction, certainty, and satisfaction for which Will strives in his “werk.” It is, however, as restorative “pley” and not as spiritually efficacious work that he can defend his “makynges.” As Milton alludes to Cato’s saw in order to justify letting “our frail thoughts dally with false surmise” (Lycidas 152–53), Will uses it here to characterize his making as “interposed ease.” This is a quizzical and perhaps feeble defense of a poetry which makes the most strenuous demands upon maker and reader alike. Yet it also insists that the value of the search it claims to record, the quest for truth in experience, should be recognized. Will’s concession conceals an assertion: there is recreative value, the power to give solace to the soul, in the truthful and painstaking record even of a life of “spilled tyme.” Like the virtuous pagan Trajan, who had boisterously inserted himself and his remarkable story of an improbable salvation into the preceding passus (“Ye, baw for bokes!”), Will has repeatedly defied “clergie.” 23 For a similar claim that the man of letters has a discipline analogous to that of the cleric, a “rule” to which he is committed in his practice as a writer, see my essay, “The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts,” SAC 2 (1980), p. 132.

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Here, in a gesture akin to the radical folly of entrusting one’s life to God’s own provision, taking no thought for the morrow, Will commends himself and his story into the hands of history itself. Like Trajan’s, his work will be a memorial image of his life. The pagan emperor was saved when the integrity of his actions, preserved in legend, caught the imagination and sympathy of a later age: ... al the þe clergie under crist ne myȜte me cracche fro helle, But oonliche loue and leautee and my laweful domes. Gregorie wiste þis wel, and wilned to my soule Sauacion for sooþnesse þat he seiȜ in my werkes .... ………. Wiþouten bede biddyng his boone was vnderfongen And I saued as ye may see, wiþouten syngynge of masses, By loue and by lernyng of my lyuynge in truþe; BrouȜte me from bitter peyne þer no biddyng myȜte. (B 11.144–53)

Will seems here to count only on the possible benefits his making affords to assure him of a similar grace. In the much fuller “autobiographical” inquest which in C replaces this exchange about “making,” the interrogation of Will by Reason and Conscience as King’s officers, Will closes his defense with a similar hope: that his “tyned tyme” and “spilled speche” will at last win him “a tyme / That alle tymes of my tyme to profit shal turne” (C 6.100–01). The “lyf that ys lowable and leel to the soule,” authorized by Reason and Conscience, may be the same penitential activity recommended by Ymaginatif in B. It seems, however, to be the strange vocation he has just defined for himself, the testimony of a misspent life in which the same faculties are engaged, memorializing the self for the profit of others. It is upon a kind of communal historical memory, a continuing imaginative reciprocity between the dead and the living, the just and the pious, that Will seems to rest his faint hope for salvation. Such memory was the agent of Trajan’s salvation by the prayers of St Gregory, to whom the virtuous pagan’s justice was a living example. It is such remembrance and trust in God’s love of truth to “keep the commune” that Ymaginatif commends to Will before departing: Ne of Sortes ne of Salomon no scripture kan telle. Ac god is so good, I hope þat siþþe he gaf hem wittes To wissen us [wyes] þerwiþ þat wiss[h]en to be saued –

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And þe bettre for hir bokes to bidden we ben holden – That god for his grace gyue hir soules reste, For lettred men were lewed yet ne were loore of hir bokes. (B 12.271–76)

This communal trust defines the ideal social and literary institution within which Will’s notion of his enterprise finds a place. Ymaginatif grants no authoritative status to his labors, but the recreative function Will himself assigns to it manages at once to disavow didactic claims and to assign to his work another kind of integrity. If Will cannot claim “to telle men what dowel is,” he can at least tell his own story of his effort to locate it in his own time, interposing this process into the traditional display of encyclopedic and universal knowledge of faith and reason. Although in doing so he repeatedly breaks the decorum of traditional “philosophic” poetry, thereby repeatedly assuring the discrediting of his enterprise by those who define the company of the wise (philosophus esses si tacuisses), it is in these disruptions that the writer declares the most original aspect of his own poetic project. “For þyn entremetynge here artow forsake,” Ymaginatif has reminded him. If Langland could not defend poetic fiction as either philosophy or doctrine, he would insist on its power, as individual testimony of his times, to afford a kind of solace. By showing it as interposed into the traditional genres whose rules resisted it and whose Latinate practitioners scorned its value, he would memorialize the doubtful nature of his vernacular fictive project, and stamp his own character indelibly in his work. His very equivocation about his labors would become his signature. I have called the disrupted episode Langland’s poetic signature in the sense that it is deeply characteristic of his way of composing narration. There are, however, also signature passages in the poem in which the writer claims the authorship of his text by having the subject, the “I,” identified by name as a maker. There is no need to review these here, as two of the finest critical scholars of the poem have done so in detail.24 What is noteworthy about them is the kind of attitudes and activities in which they present the poet – what they present him as. Langland’s signatures typically occur at the joinings of sections, as one venture yields to another, and, with remarkable regularity, in close association R.W. Chambers, “Robert or William Longland?,” London Medieval Studies 1 (1948, for 1939), 430–62; George Kane, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London, 1965), pp. 52–70. Kane’s Chambers Memorial Lecture also deals with these matters in literary history (The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies [London, 1965]). 24

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with the characteristic disruptions of the narrative: they show the “I” in the act of repeatedly transforming rather than finishing his project. With an increasing fullness in each successive revision of the text,25 they present Will primarily in the guise of an active inquirer and writer (“here is wil wolde wite”) so as to ally the two activities. Will does not, like earlier poets such as Cynewulf, name himself as penitent hoping for grace and the benefit of his readers’ prayers, but declares himself a writer for whom the business of writing is finding things out. He identifies himself as a maker not simply of verse but of fictions, in opposition to those modes of discourse which display truth as myth. Frank Kermode makes this distinction, which describes well the place in literary history where Langland and other fourteenth-century composers of long subjective fictions found themselves: Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanation of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change .... Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time; fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now, hoc tempus.26

The interposed effort to construct a record of personal labors as a history represents in the poem the project of making sense of the here and now.27 It presents to the mythic order of explanation and authority the prospect of a rival which offers to supplant it. History ... is a fictive substitute for authority and tradition, a maker of concords between past, present and future, a provider of significance to mere chronicity. Everything is relevant if its relevance can be invented. ... The merely successive character of events has been exorcised, the synthesizing consciousness has done its work.28 See Kane, Authorship, p. 65. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London, 1966),

25 26

p. 39.

Cf. Mills, p. 191: “[It is the Dreamer’s] function within his own dream ... to assert the primacy of the present and of the individual against the denial which the dream-experience proposes of any such primacy. It is this assertion which destroys the unity of the vision but which also makes the vision uniquely the Dreamer’s.” 28 Kermode, p. 56. 27

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It is this kind of perception that Ymaginatif recommends to Will; he cannot, however, justify a practical secular poetics arising from it. The fiction of the self as a center of “sense-making” presents a competing order of coherence; and it is in this act of “sense-making” that Langland repeatedly signs his poem. He declines to make the mythic claims on belief that belong to the cosmic fictions which are his models; he asks, rather, that his work be seen as the serious labor of a fabricator, and in his signatures – located, like those of Chaucer and Gower, at some distance from the moments of high drama in the work – he commends his work to the judgment and gratitude of the community. It is they who will judge the utility of his work; its truth is coextensive with that of his life and will be judged by his maker. Chambers points out that this kind of multiple signature, presenting the poet as seeker and fabricator, is a distinctive feature of late medieval high vernacular literature. This practice, and his self-presentation within his work, allies Langland’s poem more closely with the fourteenth-century formal innovations in serious sustained fictions of court, capital, and civil society than with the specifically ecclesiastical modes of discourse, both exegetical and more broadly homiletic, which pervade its style.29 Langland shares with his great French and Italian as well as English contemporaries a formal and ethical commitment to the uses of the “fallible first person singular” whose adventures in the looking-glass of encyclopedic knowledge and philosophic vision radically alter their “fitness to mean.” The disrupted episode in Langland’s life’s work reveals what Barthes terms its “morality of form,” which “issues from the writer’s consideration of the social use he has chosen for his form, and his commitment to his choice. ... This choice is a matter of conscience, not efficacy; it is a way of conceiving literature, not of extending its limits.”30 Although this way of conceiving literature as subjective testimony was perhaps the major literary invention of the fourteenth century, for its first major practitioners it was as fraught with tonal insecurity and moral risks as it was for some of the lay religious, like Margery Kempe, and the new classes of legal plaintiffs31 who also in this century in large numbers commit themselves and their lives to written 29 On the self-presentation of court and curial writers of the fourteenth century, see Daniel Poirion, Le Poète et le Prince (Paris, 1965; rpt. Geneva, 1978), pp. 145–235. 30 Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York, 1968), pp. 14–16. 31 See Bertha Haven Putnam, ed., Proceedings before the Justices of the Peace in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London, 1938), p. cxxv; Alan Harding, “Plaints and Bills in the History of English Law” in Legal History Studies, 1972, ed. Dafydd Jenkins (Cardiff, 1975), p. 70.

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testimony in search of social sanction and a sympathetic hearing for what they have done and suffered. The relation of these accounts to the literary presentation of self in the century has yet to be described; the proliferation of personal records and testimonies, accounts public and private, offer the material for a rich chapter in a history of medieval mentalities. This telling, the counting-out of the self ’s works and passions, must seem at its beginnings a fragile venture, since its only certain resource is not the treasure of “olde bokes” but that fierce devourer against which the edifice of myth and tradition has been built, mortal time. It is this commodity that in his last defense of his vocation and his life, Will hopes to “turn to profit.” It is Langland’s peculiar achievement to have composed his poem to include an accounting of his poetic project, displaying to history a painstakingly circumstantial reckoning of both its profit and its loss.

VII

Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman This exercise in the archaelogy of literary intention declares George Kane’s presence as a tutelary spirit even more openly than must any general consideration of the text of Piers Plowman since the appearance of his magisterial editions. It is indebted specifically to his two complementary studies of the problem of authorial identity in the poem. On the surface, they had two quite distinct purposes. The one, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship, undertook to assess the matters of fact at stake in the “authorship controversy” that had preoccupied a generation of Piers scholarship – and effectively closed the books on the question, at least in the form in which it had been posed; the other, The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies, examined some of the literary effects of a tantalizingly “real” and rounded authorial presence in first-person fictions of the later Middle Ages.1 Yet these two fertile studies, which appeared in the same year, are even more fruitful when viewed as companion pieces, and the present essay began in just such a consideration. That its end is a renewed appreciation of where and how literary evidence intersects that of other kinds of historical documents is also a tribute to what a generation of Middle English scholars has learned from George Kane. If the “autobiographical fallacy” is a critical error, it is not exclusively a modern one. The first of Langland’s readers committed to the “autobiographical fallacy” was, I believe, also the first of his critics to leave us his name: the poet’s contemporary John But, who “made an end” to the A version some time before 1399, and in doing so held out to us the hope of discovering, through his addendum to the text, factual truths concerning a poet whose life is otherwise virtually undocumented in surviving records. Yet whatever may be the value of John But’s ending as “external” documentary evidence about the historical William Langland, it also, and first, offers us priceless internal testimony about what, to a contemporary view, made 1 George Kane, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1965), and The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies (London: H.K. Lewis, 1965).

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authorial identity interesting in the construction and development of the poem. We can learn most from what John But has to tell us about William Langland’s life if we are also attuned to what, for the “maker” of “þis ende,” goes without saying about his art – and about why his death required textual commemoration. The brief Passus 12 of the A Text is represented in only three manuscripts, and appears in full in only one of them.2 The final 19 lines of the passus – those which refer to “Will” in the third person rather than as the “I” of the allegorical action – are usually ascribed to John But (named in line 106), and read as “external” testimony about the name of the author, his authorship of all three extant versions (the “other works” of line 101 are generally taken to mean one or the other of the two long versions), and possibly, if we could only identify John But, a terminus ad quem for their composition.3 2 The manuscripts are described by George Kane in his edition, Piers Plowman: The A Version (London: Athlone Press, 1960), to which all citations of the passus and the A-Text refer. Their scribal dialects are discussed by M.L. Samuels, “Langland’s Dialect,” MÆ 54 (1985), 232–47. The manuscripts are: (1) [U] University College Oxford MS 45 (1400–25; hand II, in which the fragment of A.12 is written, “belongs to the second quarter of the fifteenth century”), S. Cambridgeshire; has lines 1–19 of Pas. 12, after which the MS breaks off damaged. (2) [J] Pierpont Morgan Library MS M818 [olim Ingilby] (ca. 1450); has lines 1–88 of Pas. 12, ending with two lines at the top of a leaf, implying that its exemplar had no more of the passus than this. “Its language ... and the fragment of a will in the medieval wrapper, suggests SE Lincolnshire as the area of making,” according to A.I. Doyle, “The Manuscripts,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and Its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), p. 96. (3) [R] Bodleian MS Rawlinson Poetry 137 [Bodl. MS 14631] (ca. 1450), SW Sussex; has all of Pas. 12 (lines 1–117). 3 Edith Rickert, “John But, Messenger and Maker,” MP 11 (1913), 107–16, presents evidence to suggest that John But was the king’s messenger of that name who was dead by April 17, 1387, when a successor in the office of messenger is named to replace the “deceased” John But (Cal. Pat. Rolls, 1385–89, p. 290). If Rickert is correct and But speaks knowledgeably of the author, this date thus provides a terminus for all versions of the poem. The identification of But is by no means certain; Rickert presents (p. 107, n.2) records postdating 1387 of persons of that name, including two (her nos. 1 and 2) that place a John But in the southwest of England in 1400 and 1402. Oscar Cargill, “The Langland Myth,” PMLA 50 (1935), 36–56, favors an identification of John But with a Norfolk mercantile family, members of which are named in several late fourteenth century records in association with persons of the surname Rokele – the surname, that is, of the poet Langland’s father, according to the Latin note of about 1400 in the C-manuscript Trinity College Dublin 212. Cargill’s analysis of his evidence is sketchy, and his argument very uneven – and in places tendentious – but the records he cites are extremely useful. On the TCD 212 note and other external evidence about authorship, see Kane, Authorship, pp. 26–46. Malcolm Parkes has recently stated that the copy of C in TCD 212 “must have been made in the first half of the 1380s”; see George Kane, “The ‘Z Version’ of Piers Plowman,” Speculum 60 (1985), 910–30, p. 912. This dating would make TCD 212 the earliest extant copy of

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In scrupulously telling us his name, John But differs from Langland’s many other early imitators (apart from this example, their only name is legion); moreover, his concluding prayer for the well-being of Richard II shows that he was Langland’s contemporary, and that therefore this report of the poet’s sudden death could have been based on direct factual knowledge. But was it? Much that we should like to know about Piers Plowman and its author seems to ride on this offered information, and the writer’s care to name himself and effectively to date his testimony seems to invite our trust in his good faith and solicitude about the matters on which he reports. Yet But’s conclusion also withholds what it seems so provocatively and precisely to offer, since we cannot be sure where in the passus “this end” begins; moreover, this indeterminacy seems essential to But’s design. A firm determination of how much of the passus is John But’s work in Chambers’ view “does not admit of proof ” in any direction, yet what is and is not “external” to Langland’s work in this passus is crucially important if we are to understand what kind of “document” it is, and the motives that underwrite its making.4 Evaluation of its testimony about matters of fact – of its value as “external evidence” – seems thus inextricably linked to a critical assessment of its literary character and mode. About literary designs, his own and Langland’s, John But seems to have had firm, if largely implicit, views that can help us to understand his purpose in “making a good end” to the poem. Unlike the anonymous scribe who added seven closing lines to the A Text in the Westminster manuscript, But does not consider it necessary to invent a little reprise-in-reverse of the opening lines of the poem in order to bring it to a satisfactory close.5 The Westminster commentator has Will wake from any version of the poem. For the view that the “other works” mentioned by But (line 101) are the long version(s) of Piers Plowman, see R.W. Chambers, “The Original Form of the A-Text of Piers Plowman,” MLR 6 (1911), 302–23; this article remains the most thorough treatment of the content of Passus A.12, and of the arguments concerning But’s hand in it. 4 See Chambers, “The Original Form of the A-Text,” pp. 320–23. Manly believed that But’s work began at line 55; Chambers here favors the view that it started at line 89, while admitting the possibility that the whole passus might be But’s work. While assenting to Chambers’s caveat that the there can be no proof of the matter, I shall argue here that But’s work begins no later than line 34, and consider it quite possible that the entire passus is his. 5 See George Kane, “The Text,” in A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed John A. Alford (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, forthcoming), pp. 175–200, p. 182; the addition reads: And when I was wytterly awakyd I wrote all thys dreame And theys mervellys þat I met on mawlverne hyllys In a seysoun of sommer as I softe nappyd

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his dream to report that he has written it, then turn to us in his own person as writer to laud the “tresure and tryacle” of dowel that was its substance, and to invoke for his readers the “grace to make a good ende.” John But, however, seems to regard the content of Will’s visions as no fictive “avanture,” no literary dream at all, but authentic spiritual experience, figuratively expressed. What concerns him in the first instance is a “good ende” to the writer’s life, and only secondarily a narratively satisfying closure to the dreamer’s “avanture.” In John But’s view Langland as writer has not merely depicted but enacted an exemplary enterprise in the “making” of this poem. The acts of what Leo Spitzer differentiated as the “poetic and empirical ‘I’” are here wholly fused, much as they are by the authors of the Provençal vidas, but in this instance the broadly autobiographical assimilatio of Langland’s “menyng” has profound implications about poetic form and mode, both John But’s and Langland’s.6 For þe people after ther power wold persen after dowell That þe tresure moost tryed and tryacle at neede now god gravnt vs grace to make a good ende And bryng vs to þe blysse as he bowghte vs on þe Roode Amen

RH

This scribe’s seemingly metonymic association of the act of ending the poem with a pious wish that we readers shall have the “grace to make a good ende,” is striking, in the light of But’s similar equation, even though the prayer itself is broadly commonplace as a scribal gesture of conclusion. On the openness of long allegorical narrative to continuations of this sort that both close the narrative action and implicitly make a determination of its broader generic “intente,” see David F. Hult, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Readership and Authority in the First Roman de la Rose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 10–64. The Westminster scribe in effect continues the poem in Will’s own voice, assuming the persona of dreamer-author to enact the “avanture” to its conventional narrative closure of waking and retrospective interpretation. John But scrupulously separates his own voice from that of “Will” the dreamer, yet as I shall suggest, his work extends back into the first-person narration of Will’s adventures; But’s rationalization of his own act of closure is thus performed in two voices, that of the dreamer constructed so as to authorize that of his interpreter. 6 Leo Spitzer, “Notes on the Poetic and Empirical ‘I’ in Medieval Authors,” Traditio 4 (1946), 414–22; Kane, “Autobiographical Fallacy,” pp. 14–15, expresses reservations about the adequacy of this formulation to encompass the strategies of self-presentation by late-medieval authors. On the vidas and other forms of biographical and autobiographical narration of the later middle ages as in effect a “back-formation” from the lyric presentation of the first person, see Paul Zumthor, “Autobiography in the Middle Ages?” Genre 6 (1973), 29–48; see also Michel Zink, “Time and Representation of the Self in Thirteenth-Century French Poetry,” Poetics Today 5 (1984), 611–27, and Nancy Freeman Regalado, Poetic Patterns in Rutebeuf (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970), esp. pp 190–313. On assimilatio, see Judson Boyce Allen, The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982),

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Paradoxically, it is because this grateful reader so thoroughly identifies the “profitable werkes” that enable Will to end well the “lyf ... ordeyned for the” (l. 90) with the lifelong ambitions and literary project of the poet whose work he respects that the line between his own work and Langland’s in this passus is similarly, and artfully, blurred. The question of where “þis ende” begins is posed by the literary form John But claims for it: it is not a scribal explicit but a tribute in kind, a “makyng” about a making, an act of both literary criticism and literary imitation. Fastidious in declaring his own name, John But is equally careful to raise the status of his participation in Langland’s enterprise, and his solicitude about its closure, above the merely scribal or documentary. In representing his role, and his motives for intervention, as those of a grateful and discriminating reader and amateur versifier, he borrows Langland’s own phrase – though stripped of Langland’s rueful irony – to tell us so: “for he [i.e. John But] medleþ of makyng he made þis ende” (109). But the very phrase he quotes from Piers Plowman (B.12.16) to ally his own pious purpose with the morally edifying designs he sees in Langland’s endeavor is taken from perhaps the most devastating systematic indictment of “making” anywhere in Middle English literature, one which contains a fundamental and self-aware disclosure of Langland’s literary designs. John But’s small act of “translation” thus reveals what, as I shall show, we can also confirm by other means – namely that he not only knew of, but knew well, at least one of the long versions of Langland’s work, and was here also drawing some important critical inferences about it. Moreover, it opens to us the differences of value and meaning each writer assigns to poetic closure. John But is determined to turn Langland’s “every drem to goode”; Langland himself never loses sight of the possibility, latent in the psychology of penance, that they may bring him to a bad end. To say, as Ymaginatif does in Langland’s B-Text, that Will’s “meddling with makings” is a waste of time means, within the values assigned to time as the medium of salvation, something far more serious than that it is a fairly witless amateur pastime, to be indulged if not greatly admired, which is the worst indictment of his authorial enterprise that Chaucer has to hear from his fictionalized critics the Man of Law and Queen Alceste.7 To be sure, Will has certainly been suspected before this point in the poem of trivial and nugatory pp. 248–87, and my essay, “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England.” 7 Canterbury Tales B1.46–89; Legend of Good Women F.362–72, 412–30, cf. G.340–52, 398–420. These and other citations of Chaucer are taken from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957). Ymaginatif ’s charge appears in

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intentions – of wishing to “finden up fantasyes” about serious spiritual matters only to serve a turn in table talk. This was Dame Study’s dismissive initial view of Will’s quest for Dowel, expressed in the passus immediately preceding this one (A 11.5–92; cf. B 10.5–139). But Ymaginatif ’s charge in the B-continuation (B 12.10–19) is far more fundamental and devastating than that of Dame Study. In his view Will’s “makynges,” even if understood as earnest didacticism, would at best duplicate “bokes ynowe” already extant “to telle men what dowel is,” and preachers’ use of these “to preuen what it is.” Yet it is not what Will’s “makings” do or fail to do in the world, but the activity they replace that condemns them as otiose and worse. What appears to be most deeply at issue for Ymaginatif here – as it will be for the inquisitors Reason and Conscience, whose interview with Will early in the C-Text (C 5.1–104) largely supplants in argumentative force this part of his encounter with Ymaginatif in B – is not Will’s authority to edify, the redundancy of his efforts, or the effect of his writings on others, but their effect on Will himself.8 In the internal economy of salvation, Ymaginatif suggests, “makyng” is the mental equivalent of material “wasting” on the half-acre: it consumes in fruitless dilation precisely those finite temporal gifts of mind that are given to man to sustain spiritual life and health on earth. These commodities – time and memory, and the power to constitute them in mental image and utterance – are loaned to humankind for use, and the manner in which the individual deploys them constitutes an implicit account of his earthly stewardship; they are the counters with which he can of his own will offer a temporal wager for his own salvation. Defining man as a historical being, these faculties are productive in rendering human life as a formal unit, an act of spiritual composition oriented toward “making a good end.” Will acknowledges as much to Reason and Conscience, when he compares his contrite self-recognition to the merchant’s hazard of all he has in in one ultimate “bargayn” by which he will be “the bet euere” (C 5.96). When time, memory, and imagination are applied instead to the farming of a verse, however, “makyng” becomes in Ymaginatif ’s view the very antithesis of penitential discipline – indeed, as it were its demonic double. Narration, particularly that which “speaks the self,” is thus rendered double-edged. Its ideal use is in the service of confessional “truth-telling,” the contrite return through memory to one’s past, enabling the subject to Passus 12 of the B Text, lines 10–19; this and all citations of B are taken from Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone Press, 1975). 8 Citations of the C Text are from Piers Plowman by William Langland: An Edition of the C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979).

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transform the present into a new starting-point from which to make a good end. Yet first-person narration, even if nominally confessional, also carries within it a second kind of hazard. In the psychology of sin implicit in the medieval handbooks, in which the subject’s capacity to see and tell the truth about himself is circumscribed by the empty recursiveness formed by his own habitus, such utterance is in practice equally capable of deflecting and deferring penitential contrition, enacting a fruitless and endless auto-exegesis which keeps the narrative subject in medias res, able only to “heavily from woe to woe tell o’er,” his story a pattern of repetition rather than revelation.9 Many readers have noted this vivid pattern of habitual return to the “old man” in Langland’s treatment of the Confession of the Deadly Sins: Envy, when urged to penitential sorrow, replies that he is “seldom other” than sorry, and seems therefore incapable of finding this a restorative state of mind; Glutton falls once more into the sins of the tavern while on his way to confession. Not only for these speakers, but often for Will himself, declaration of one’s own designs quickly becomes indistinguishable from self-justification, reasons blur into excuses, and confession repeatedly decomposes into apologia. From the first to the last version of Langland’s poem the confessional imperative that underwrites both allegorical self-representation and penance – and hence the impulse to narrate – never loses this deep subjective danger and duplicity. Indeed, it would be hard to find an “idea” in the poem more basic to the workings of Langland’s moral and literary imagination, and more fundamental to the form of its realization, than this notion that “makyng” is a kind of endless lecture upon the shadow that nevertheless is powerless to deliver us from the “body of this death” that it can so compellingly envision. As I hope this exercise will suggest, it is the deeper exploration of precisely this idea – and its development in the representation of Will himself, as well as in the early visions through other allegorical figures – that enables and generates the B-C continuation. Sloth, for example, is conceived not simply as social inactivity, but as a habitual complex of a short memory for favors received, an almost obsessive nostalgia about his own carnal powers and pleasures, a delight in revisiting and recreating the scene of the crime, as well as in amorous delay – all of which are reinforced by idle songs and tales. In what may be Langland’s last addition to his poem, the so-called “autobiographical” waking interval between the first and second dreams in the C-Text, it is Will himself, idle at harvest-time, who is caught “romynge 9 See Lee W. Patterson, “Chaucerian Confession: Penitential Literature and the Pardoner,” Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 7 (1976), 153–73, esp. 156–62; J.A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 106–9.

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in remembraunce” and forced by Reason and Conscience to replay still more fully his humiliating B-Text confession to Ymaginatif, that beneath his fradulent pretense to clerical otium his far more grievous fault has been that he has “tyme myspened.”10 His self-defenses and delays finally demolished, he is released by his interlocutors at last “to bigynne the lyif that is louable and leele to thy soule” (103). He proceeds to church, to make up for lost time with the requisite penitential countermeasures, and promptly falls asleep, to dream the rest of the poem. Penance, the undertaking of one’s own “good end,” is once more deferred by its dilatory double, “making,” in the course of the very imaginative labors which initiate it; what had been a thematic concern is here fully realized as a principle of form. I have suggested elsewhere that the narrative pattern and generative form of Langland’s poem in all its versions is essentially recursive, an episodic reenactment in various scenes of a fundamental struggle over the power to determine what counts as edification, and in particular to authorize memorial reconstructions of the past.11 The conflict takes several forms: a dispute over the interpretation of historical example (such as what conclusions one may draw from Trajan’s puzzling salvation), the productive rendering of Christ’s life as a model, or of one’s own experience of one’s life and times; how shall “al tymes of my tyme” be turned at last to profit, and what kind of profit, and by whom? It is in his prominent representations of penitential motives that Langland reveals the subjective terrors latent in these boldly anti-authoritarian questions – and the almost unbridgeable gap they open between narrative dilation and closure. In such scenes as these Langland explores the deep and abiding instability of “romyng in remembrance”: when at any point penitential reflection may be swamped once more by wasteful nostalgia, narration knows neither progress nor recovery. The resemblance of Will’s attributes and habits to those of the slothful man have been noticed before; the most thorough and complex treatment of this matter is John M. Bowers, The Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), esp. pp. 128–89. On the disposition of one’s earthly time as a topic of examination in the late-medieval confessional, see Jacques LeGoff, “Merchant’s Time and Church’s Time in the Middle Ages,” and “Labor Time in the ‘Crisis’ of the Fourteenth Century,” in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 29–42, 43–52. 11 On the conflict over the determination of the discursive order of the poem as it is reinscribed in its depicted events, see my essay “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman,” in The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982), pp. 91–122. 10

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“When you hear a man confessing, you know that he is not yet free,” declared St Augustine. It was, I suggest, John But’s endeavor – deliberate, if not wholly conscious – to free the poet from these profound and disturbing consequences of his own narrative principles that prompted him to “make this end.” As I have tried to suggest, he was right in perceiving that the poem was imagined most deeply as a memorial abstract of the subject’s life, and the subject himself as always on the verge of penitential self-reformation. In “makyng this end,” however, John But must resolve the ambiguities of this project, and to do so he must take the repeatedly proclaimed restitutive intent as final, and take the author at his word. He stabilizes Langland’s hazardous narrative dynamic in two ways. He “takes personally” – which is also in part correctly – Langland’s representation of a man who is “thinking of his end,” as part of a genuine, if incomplete, confessional self-disclosure of the author, a confessio ficti which is potentially salvific (and retroactively effective) for the maker, and not simply an imitation of such an action for the affective edification of the audience.12 John But regards Will’s “makyng” not as a deferral of penitential reflection but its heroically prolonged enactment, an undertaking of “profitable werkes” by the author in “real time” – a time, however, foreclosed by death “ere Wille myȜte aspie.” He must therefore with his prayers help this unfinished project of reconciliation through a work of sustained self-reflection toward its “promised end.” A second translation is implicit in the first. Diverging from Langland’s understanding of what kind of act begins the making of a good end, he must also assign real rather than contingent and gestural value to the specie in which “Will” offers to purchase paradise. Works – in this case that which “here is wryten and oþer werkes boþe” – become in John But’s account equivalent coin to that contrite recollection which, in Langland’s own view, they repeatedly drive out of the spiritual economy. For him, “profitable werkes” are in effect the just price that God exacts for the salvation that is his to give in return. In Langland’s view, which is both more theologically complex and less reassuring to those in search of moral art in his poem, they are but the sign of an empowering grace obtained by an initiatory wager of faith, a transaction in which man is at most a willing beholder and partaker, not a “maker.” Langland’s Will does not, and can not, on his own behalf “make a good end,” but must endure his going hence even as his coming hither, giving over the narration of his story to the master historical pattern in whose image it has been made. On the efficacy of a confessio ficti, see Thomas N. Tentler, Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 273–80. 12

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We are now in a position to engage in a retrospection of our own, moving backward through the passus in search of where “this end” begins. It seems appropriate to take this analytic regression in three main steps, corresponding to three distinct narrative motions in the passus: (1) lines 99–105, which speak of Will in the third person as having ... wrouȜthe þat here is wryten and oþer werkes boþe Of peres the plowman and mechel puple also. And whan þis werk was wrouȜt, ere wille myȜte aspie, Deth delt him a dent and drof him to þe erþe And is closed vnder clom, crist haue his soule. (A.12.101–5);

(2) lines 55–98, in which Will, in the first person, falls in with Hunger and Fever and seeks to die; and (3) lines 1–54, which continue from the preceding passus Will’s quest for Dowel, as he is sent on from the house of Clergy and Scripture to Kynde Wit for further instruction. While in principle anything before line 106 could have been written by Langland, lines 99–105 have generally, since Skeat, been seen as fully continuous with what follows, and assigned to John But – correctly, as I believe can now be demonstrated. Though Skeat’s case has rested, largely for lack of interest since the lights went out on the “authorship controversy,” John Norton-Smith has recently re-opened it, assigning these lines to Langland as instancing a well-known “concluding topos” of the end of an author’s writing life.13 Norton-Smith cites in evidence Chaucer and Gower – by which he apparently means the Retractions and the end of the Confessio Amantis. At first glance, Gower’s work might seem to offer a particularly close parallel: he divides his fictitious persona Amans from his own authorial identity in a way broadly analogous to the division between the dreaming and writing self that Norton-Smith here attributes to Langland. Lines 99–105 deviate significantly, however, from the analogues Norton-Smith cites – and from other latemedieval examples of this “concluding topos” – as well as from Langland’s own literary usus elsewhere in the poem in ways that decisively rule out his composition of any part of this passage. The topos, as Norton-Smith sees it operating here, consists of two gestures: the poet claims his own work (lines 99–102) and reports his own death (103–105).14 Neither Chaucer nor Gower, however, nor any other late John Norton-Smith, William Langland (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983), pp. 11–12. The shift from the first to the third person at this point would not in itself necessarily rule out Norton-Smith’s claim: earlier in A Langland has named Will in the third person – the 13 14

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medieval poet portraying himself and his designs from the perspective of the borders of death, represents himself as actually dying and, in effect, pulling the tomb lid down over himself – much less in an untimely and unpreparedfor fashion, as Norton-Smith would have Langland do in lines 103–105.15 Rather, poets who use this device in poetic closure present the authorial self in the act of final rectification through testament, penance and prayer – the performative rituals necessary to disposing one’s earthly effects and spiritual intentions, enabling one to “make a good end.” Even when travestied, as they are by Villon, these final preparatory deeds, not death itself, form the focal point of this “topos” wherever it is used, the raison d’etre of the literary representation – and they are entirely absent from the lines NortonSmith would assign to Langland. We must therefore, I believe, consider lines 103–105, reporting the poet’s death, literarily “ungrammatical” as issuing from the author of Piers Plowman, and assign them to John But’s “making.” If they are fiction, the fiction is not Langland’s. The first half of this “topos” is equally unlikely to have been from Langland’s hand, for reasons that we have already examined. Here (lines 99–102) the “profitable werkes” enjoined upon Will for his final spiritual rectification are said to consist in the “making” of “þat here is wryten and oþer werkes boþe.” Such activities are the salvific “werkes” enjoined upon Will as a substitute for the immediate “deþ” he seeks by following “Feuere” (line 88). The latter, Death’s “masager” (who has a “confessoures face”) persuades Will instead to remain on earth until his allotted years are finished, meanwhile to “lyue as þis lyf is ordeyned for the,” engaged in “preyeres and profitable werkes” (89–98). This turns of events closely resembles that of the final passus of B and C, when, after a buffeting by Elde and various infirmities, Will’s despairing plea to Kynde to be taken “out of care,” is met instead by Kynde’s command that he enter into Unity “and hold þee þere til I first time, in fact, as a penitent, the first to weep at Repentance’s sermon. 15 Another famous dreamer and pilgrim named William – Guillaume de Guilleville, at the end of his Pelerinage de la Vie Humaine, in the early fourteenth century – closes his long allegorical quest-narrative by staging allegorically his own approaching death. He is old, and feels himself growing weak and faint, but as Death swings his scythe at Guillaume, he wakes from his dream. Even the more elaborately self-dramatizing Villon does not quite place himself in his grave in his Testament. He does set down wonderfully precise instructions for his funeral, specifying the prayers his mourners should say, and the clothes they should wear, and he composes his own epitaph. The final stanzas of the poem, his own eulogy, record his last moments in the third person. While Villon saw to it that the reports of his death would always be greatly exaggerated, even they offer no more satisfactory analogue to what Norton-Smith claims for lines 103–105 than Chaucer and Gower do.

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sende for þee.” The difference, however, between these two similar moments is telling. Where in the final passus (as also in Will’s two earlier confrontations about how he should spend his remaining earthly time) the time between now and judgment is to be spent in penitential labors that supplant and “turn to profit” Will’s former waste of time in “making” and other spiritually empty pursuits, the lines in question here assign saving power to the farming of a verse. Perceiving “soþe” in Feuere’s counsel, Will’s responds, not by turning toward prayer (as he does in the face of Reason and Conscience’s rebuke, and as Piers does in renouncing his occupation), but by turning his hand to rather than from his “makings” (99–100): his reprieve from death merely buys him more time to write his great work. This is a plausible construction of his pious continuator John But, who then puts paid to these salvific if uncompleted labors by adding his own prayers for the poet’s soul. It is, however, completely opposed to Langland’s own treatment of the relations between “making” and penance everywhere else in the poem, and must rule out his authorship, not only of the lines depicting his death (103–105), but those in which, according to Norton-Smith, he claims his works. If Norton-Smith’s analogues fail to support as Langland’s the second gesture of this “topos” – Will’s representation of his own death – massive internal evidence undermines the attribution to Langland of this account of the ethical and representational value of Will’s “makings,” and their relation to “making a good end.” Again, Skeat’s judgment as textual critic is vindicated by the ratio of the literary scholar: Langland’s work can extend no further in this passus than line 98. Indeed, the internal evidence against Langland’s authorship of these lines goes still deeper than their treatment of “making” as salvific labor, and extends backward in the passus to call into question “Feuere’s” counsel as well; John But’s construction of Will’s final spiritual rectification appears to begin no later than line 89.16 At no point in the poem does Langland himself concede to those who live under the New Law the capacity to win their salvation simply by applying energetically and with earnest conviction some temporal “one talent it is death to hide.” Much as Langland is willing to “allow” to the “treuthe” of the virtuous pagans – and as we know from his handling of the legend of Trajan it is a great deal – for Will and his contemporaries the principle of facere quod in se est, “do what is in you,” is a great deal more intractable and less

16 Chambers’s view was that But’s work began here, with Feuere’s reply to Will. He cites in support the Pierpont Morgan manuscript, which stops the passus with line 88, leaving most of the leaf blank below it, thus strongly suggesting that this scribe’s examplar went no further.

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optimistic than that.17 Will’s enduring resistance to its implications is evident in his staunch nostalgia for primal precedent, and his stubborn conviction, under the sign of satire in the early stretches of Dowel, that at least he has a firm ethical grip on historical example – a conviction seriously shaken as he watches Piers unmake his own entirely virtuous occupation in the Pardon scene. The problem for all of those living in the commune Langland depicts, including himself in Will, is that they cannot by either study or introspection know “what is in them,” and therefore they cannot render it as continuous narration; they can only find out “as in a mirror,” by revealing it in prayer and penance to God. The individual’s story cannot be told wholly in the first person; as Augustine acknowledged, “I have become a puzzle to myself.” The belief that one may win heaven by works alone is everywhere for Langland the original and final delusion of mankind, yet it is so very tenacious, and so very reasonable – especially to those who care as deeply as Langland does about civil virtue – that it always in this poem requires a violent shock to dislodge. Every major reversal in the poem witnesses to the power of this delusion: Piers’ dismantling of his occupation in the Pardon scene, Will’s vertiginous fall into himself in the Lond of Longyng when Scripture “scorns” his pursuit of knowledge, and the ultimate failure of the poem’s seemingly most secure principle of virtuous action and considered choice, Conscience, in the final passus, immediately following an exposure as devastating as Augustine’s own of the insufficiency of the four classical virtues to secure peace on earth, and health to the human spirit.18 For nearly six hundred years, all that most deeply dismays those determined to regard Piers Plowman as morally improving reading emanates from the thousand-volt mortal shocks administered by such moments as this. John But, I suggest, was such a reader, and it was through such reasoning that he became the admiring continuator On the righteous heathen, and the principle of facere quod in se est – matters beyond the scope of the present essay – see G.H. Russell, “The Salvation of the Heathen: The Exploration of a Theme in Piers Plowman,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966), 101–16; Janet Coleman, Piers Plowman and the Moderni (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1981), pp. 108–46; Pamela Gradon, “Trajanus Redivivus: Another Look at Trajan in Piers Plowman,” in Middle English Studies Presented to Norman Davis, ed. Dougals Gray and E.G. Stanley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), pp. 93–114; Gordon Whatley, “Piers Plowman B 12.277–94: Notes on Language, Text, Theology,” MP 82 (1984), 1–12; idem, “The Uses of Hagiography: The Legends of Pope Gregory and the Emperor Trajan in the Middle Ages,” Viator 15 (1984), 25–63. 18 Augustine, Civ. Dei XIX.4, cited from The City of God, tr. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin, 1972). Much of the developing logic of the allegorical narrative in the long versions of Piers Plowman from civil satire to cosmic history seems to track the course of the argument of Book XIX. 17

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who undertook – not only with his prayers, but with a retrospective rereading of the value of the “profitable werkes” to which he wrote a pious closure – to deliver the poet Langland from the dreadful logic of his represented pursuit and untimely ambush by the forces of mortality; the seamless grammar that links John But’s prayers to the terms of his rescue tends to confirm that they are the work of this second “maker.”19 The narrative logic that produces this resolution extends, however, yet further back into the antecedent events of this passus, which as we have seen closely follow a similar sequence in the final passus of the B-C continuation. In the course of lines 55–98 – and nowhere else in the A Text – Will’s fundamental effort to Dowel, here realized in his proximate quest for Kynde Wit, abruptly yields to increasingly mortal guidance. Almost immediately upon setting forth, he is diverted, first by hunger and then by surfeit, and ultimately by despair of attaining “mesure” between them; this vicious circle of moral causality echoes that played out earlier among the folk on the field in the Hunger episode. It is in this demoralized condition, despairing at the grim prospects of attaining by his own efforts any restoration of moral equilibrium, that he meets Feuere, and quickly volunteers to follow him on his mission from “Deþ þat is oure duk” to kill Lyf. Only in the final passus of B and C, under the disciplinary ravages of Conscience’s assistants Kynde and Elde, do we again find Will as despairing and eager for death as he is in these lines. There, in a world threatened by the forces of Antichrist, the sheer self-preserving vitality of Life resists Conscience’s first round of warnings, in the form of diseases sent by Kynde, which are intended to summon the endangered folk within the stronghold of Unity. Life continues vigorously wasting the commune through his demonic progeny: with his “lemman” Fortune he engenders Sleuthe, who spreads “drede of dispair a doȜeyne mile about,” causing Conscience to send in his second-strike force, Elde, to 19 Langland’s first printer, Robert Crowley, was another; see “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’.” I do not, of course, claim that in constructing his ending John But consciously undertook the chain of reasoning applied here to Langland’s poem, merely that his general view of it as edifying narrative, chiefly promoting good works, tended in effect to gloss over the moral and theological difficulties that Langland’s own treatment renders visible – and in particular to submerge those aspects of their dynamic representation that become especially problematic at the end of A. What John But seems to have perceived was not the exact nature of the philosophical and practical difficulty, but a general dissonance that he seeks to resolve with a coda in a major key. My argument is that this dissonance was not local or accidental, generated in the hiatus between the first version and the continuations, but pervasive and programmatic – and demanded from But in the execution surprisingly programmatic and sweeping narrative measures to resolve.

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combat this spreading wanhope. It is on his way to attack Life that Elde runs over Will’s head, making him bald; when Will refuses to take this insult lightly, he adds for good measure deafness, toothlessness, gout, and, worst of all, impotence. As in Passus A.12, the assaults of despair lower the resistance of both Will and the commune generally to the forces of Antichrist, and only true contrition and satisfaction will restore health to the sick. This entire apocalyptic sequence at the end of the B and C texts replays as a universal historical process and prophetic revelation what these versions had staged earlier, roughly at the midpoint of the two long texts, as Will’s personal recognition of the meaning of his craft, and a rededicatory turning point in his life. “Scorned” by Scripture only a few lines into the B-C continuation for wishing to know everything but himself, Will falls into Fortune’s realm of “middelerd,” where he eagerly accepts as “lemman” all of Fortune’s handmaids (who are the three temptations), only to recognize the mortality of their charms when Elde approaches and they abandon him to his decrepitude and the prospect of a death unprepared for.20 It is to interpret this encounter as a warning that it is time to “mynne on þyn ende” that Ymaginatif next intervenes, urging Will to reconceive the seductions and terrors of the days he has seen under the sign of penance rather than “makyng” – to begin to take his visionary “avantures” personally rather than as mere “wonders.” Yet it is precisely the expanded penitential and prophetic dimension of Will’s pursuit of death in the final passus of B and C that “this end” elides. In Passus A.12 Will remains simply an individual soul both in search and in terror of death, much as he was in Fortune’s Lond of Longyng, before his enterprise was “translated.” Like Kynde in the final episode, Feuere rejects Will’s despairing plea to die. But while the Will of the B and C text “comsed to rome thoruȜ Contrition and Confession til I cam to vnitee,” empowered by the “craft” of love, Will in this passus earns John But’s prayers for his soul simply by remaining in this harsh world a while longer to exercise the “maker’s” craft, continuing a morally edifying story of his individual deliverance from despair through “profitable werkes.” If faith without feat cannot go, in the end all “werkes” walk blind, and in Langland’s enterprise it is ultimately only the underwriting of “werkes” by a penitent will that can heal the wounded world. Lines 55–98 of this passus therefore appear to be not Langland’s sketch for later work, but John But’s partial “back-formation” from the B-C ending, its events stripped of the universal apocalyptic overtones they acquire by See my essay “William Langland’s ‘Kynde Name’.”

20

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following the long intervening narrative of the redemption as historical process, and rendered instead as a continued figurative narration of Will’s personal quest to know and Dowel – the matter immediately in the foreground at the end of the A Text. John But’s view, explicit from line 99 on, of the edifying power of Langland’s “werkes” – and his concomitant sense of their unity of theme and purpose – authorizes such a construction. The passus from at least line 55 appears to be a critical act in the form of an imitation, undertaken in the attempt both to understand the further development of the poem, and to apply this understanding to clarifying and interpreting the form of the text at hand, and the narrative occasion it offered for an intellectually and morally satisfying conclusion.21 If the last half of Passus A.12 offers a “fast-forward” version of the major developments in the first and last moments of the B-C continuation, lines 1–54 likewise repeat, and still more mechanically, antecedent plot developments in A.22 The first half of this passus closely parallels the histoire 21 George Kane has recently made a similar argument about the longest continuous run of distinctive verses in the so-called Z-Text; see his review – “The ‘Z Version’ of Piers Plowman,” Speculum 60 (1985), 910–30 – of Piers Plowman: The Z Version, ed. A.G. Rigg and Charlotte Brewer (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983); his discussion appears on pp. 922–5. The lines in the Z manuscript called by the editors “Meed’s denunciation of Conscience for avarice” do not appear in any other version at this point in Meed’s speech; Kane argues that this passage “records the Z writer’s attempt to understand the role of Conscience in the B version of the poem” (pp. 922–3), and that the substance of Meed’s charges, incongruous and incorrect at this point in the narrative, is a conflation of Conscience’s several actions in the final passus of the long versions – an interpolated “back-formation” prompted by, and based on, these final dismaying events, inviting the kind of ideational intervention from the scribe that I here attribute to John But in his making of “þis ende.” 22 A similar instance of the “fast-forward” approach to concluding a long and complex allegorical narrative may be seen in the spurious ending to Guillaume de Lorris’ text of the Roman de la Rose. In 78 lines, this anonymous continuator has Bone Amor open the gate to allow Biaute – accompanied by Pitié, Bel Acueil, Loiauté, Douz Regart, and Simplece – to bring to Amans the bud he desires, and to exact his continued service as the price of his keeping it from repossession. For the text of these lines see Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Ernest Langlois, 5 vols. (Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Françaises, 1920), II.330–33. The crucial requirement of closure, to this continuator, seems to have been swift attainment of the ultimate narrative objective, the lover’s obtaining of the rose, with little regard to the delicately balanced proprieties and powers of each of Guillaume’s personifications in developing the symbolic structure of desire; the relentless continuity of histoire drowns out the claims of discours. In a similar fashion, both Feuere’s and Kynde Wit’s roles in Passus A.12 seem both inexact in their suitability to the actions they are here assigned, and at odds with their proprieties elsewhere in the poem; here they are broad personified agencies capable of filling a slot in the all-important resolution of the action. On the decorum of other scribal-editorial interventions in the textual traditions of the Rose, see Hult, pp. 34–55.

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of the immediately preceding episode, recapitulating it point-for-point with different actors. It disposes within 50 lines Will’s encounter with Clergy and Scripture, the second husband-and-wife team who have attempted to teach him, in exactly the same terms as his earlier meeting with Wit and his scolding wife Dame Study, who had sent him here – and with precisely the same narrative outcome. Like Study (A.11.1–92) – though unlike Scripture in her earlier appearance in A (11.225–257) – Scripture in A.12 is something of a scold (12–33). Like Study’s tirade, her storm of “skorn” (a term otherwise associated with Scripture only in the opening lines of the B-C continuation) drives her more temperate spouse from further discourse (A.11.93–99; cf A.12.34–37); Clergy’s abashed creeping into a “caban” at this point also closely echoes a much earlier shamefaced retreat – the one Lady Meed accuses Conscience of effecting in the King’s troops in Normandy (A.3.178). Like Study earlier (A.11.109), Scripture is finally mollified by Will’s gestures of formal obeisance (A.12.38–46), and – again like her predecessor – to his great joy gives him detailed road-directions to his next instructor, who is in each case her “cosyn” (A.11.110–124; cf. A.12.47–54). These resemblances to the anterior text are more detailed than broadly reduplicated events: throughout this dialogue, and the ensuing narration that sends Will out on the road again, there are also insistent verbal echoes of the Prologue and the Meed episode: sustained similarities of vocabulary, and even direct quotation of whole lines (A.12.58; cf. A.Pro.62). Moreover, the resemblances are not only to the A version of these episodes. To accompany Will on his journey to Kynde Wit her “cosyn,” Scripture summons a companion, omnia probate, who is to remain with him as far as “þe burgh quod bonum est tenete – or as far as Will wishes (A.12.49–52). The same Latin text (I Thess. 5:21) is reified (and similarly as a pair of separated phrases, distanced from each other by the turn of a “leef ”), in Conscience’s reply to Meed’s charges – but that passage is introduced into Conscience’s speech only with the B revision (B.3.337–43). The verse that introduces omnia probate as “a pore þing withalle” (A.12.50) follows the pattern of the one that introduces the “lunatik” as “a leene þyng wiþalle” in the coronation scene added to the B-Text prologue (B.Pro.121). The differences, however, between these features of Langland’s poem and their use in A.12 are far more telling than the similarities: neither the discours nor the histoire of the passage is as coherent as – or consonant with – what precedes or follows it in Langland’s poem. “Trying all things” does not by any means produce or lead to “that which is good”; this is precisely Conscience’s point in turning the division of the Biblical verse against Lady

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Meed. How such a course of action might lead Will to Kynde Wit is equally puzzling, as are Scripture’s specific qualifications for recommending it. Even if “Kynde Wit” implies here the power of knowing one’s own good, a natural and enlightened self-interest (the sense of the term in Holichurche’s speech: A.1.53–4), it is far from obvious how the logic of progression in Langland’s series of instructors in the third dream, extending from Thought to Wit to Study to Clergy to Scripture, could produce this figure as the next in the set – and the narrative logic of sudden regression, provided by Will’s precipitous fall at Scripture’s “scorn” in the long versions, is here precluded by Scripture’s retraction of her initial insult. The preparatory role here forecast for Kynde Wit is fulfilled in the long versions by Ymaginatif, who helps Will to integrate what text and experience, Clergie and Kynde, present to the inner sight, but it is narratively required only by the radical break in Will’s progress that passus A.12 elides.23 Moreover it is unlikely that Langland would thus conflate the essentially prudential self-preservative powers of Kynde Wit, who lodges “wiþ lyf þat lord is of erþe,” with the projective and even prophetic capacities of the imaginative faculty. Ymaginatif defines Kynde Wit as springing from quod vidimus, “of siȜthe of diverse peple” (B.12.67); along with “catel” it “acombreth ful manye” (B.12.55). At its most informative and enlightened it is wisdom of this world, and has no knowledge of the wellsprings of grace (B.12.69). While it may indeed, as a prudential faculty, conduce to the exercise of virtue, the identification of virtuous practices is no longer the chief question before Will at the end of A.11; it is rather their salvific efficacy in the face of the inscrutable operations of grace. With her last words in that passus, Scripture insists on the simultaneous necessity of good works and on their insufficiency per se as the means for a Christian’s salvation. It is in the dismaying apparent gulf her words open between virtuous practice and salvation that Will remains, “in wandring mazes lost,” at the end of A. What is wanted from this point is an understanding of specifically that kind of welldoing that finds favor in God’s sight. Its two complementary forms, prayer and penitential self-knowledge, bracket the gap between the end of A – as the paternoster that pierces the “paleis of heuene” in its final sentence – and the first episode of the B-continuation, which reorients Will’s reflective capacities

23 On the meaning and role of Ymaginatif, see Alastair J. Minnis, “Langland’s Ymaginatif and Late-Medieval Theories of Imagination,” Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 3 (1981), 71–103; Ernest N. Kaulbach, “The ‘Vis Imaginativa’ and the Reasoning Powers of Ymaginatif in the B-Text of Piers Plowman,” JEGP 84 (1985), 16–29.

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toward thoughts of his “ende” in response to the shock of Scripture’s catalytic “scorn.” Scripture’s commendation of Will to Kynde Wit in A.12 is thus radically at odds with both Langland’s definition of this faculty’s powers early in A and in the B-continuation, and with the allegorical logic of the immediately preceding episode. This high valuation of Kynde Wit as an instructor in the nature of virtuous deeds is, however, entirely of a piece with the restitutive and exemplary value placed on good works later in this passus. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that everything from line 34 on is the work of the same maker – and that, on the grounds of a vocabulary of philosophical distinction elsewhere powerfully attested in the poem, that their maker was not Langland. A similar suspicion attaches to the substantial narrative developments in the first 33 lines as well. Scripture’s insistence (A.12.14–15) that before Will can receive further instruction from Clergy or herself, he must be shown (or shriven by) “þe kynde cardinal wit” and “christened in a font” is open to the same charges of elementary conflict with the literal sense of the antecedent text.24 It is the fact that Will is already a baptized Christian that denies him the scrap of comfort about the possibility of his own salvation that he seeks to infer from the tales of deathbed conversion and baptism he desperately seizes and hurls against Scripture in the preceding passus (A.11.232–45). If prior guidance by Kynde Wit as a condition for further tutelage by Scripture means no more than the orthodox dictum that that one must attain the age of reason before being instructed in the articles of faith, it is irreproachable advice, but inapplicable to Will’s condition at this point in the narrative. The lines seem to suggest, however inexactly, that a sacramental intervention of some kind is a prerequisite of Will’s further adventures, and will somehow empower his understanding of Dowel. If Kynde Wit’s role in such a transformation is unclear from this text, this development at least registers, if it does not solve, the impasse to which passus A.11 had brought Will. All that one can discern of an authentically Langlandian development, germane to this specific point in the allegorical narrative, lies in Scripture’s subsequent argument: that in the face of wilful and recalcitrant sinfulness one may, and ought, rightfully to remain silent rather than utter sacred truths as correction, where the condition of the audience precludes their efficacy (17–33). The impression of authenticity in this passage is in part stylistic. Of the entire passus, it is this speech alone, cogently adducing three Latin texts in 19 lines, that shows the Langlandian manner of using scriptural quotation; in “Schriven” is the emendation proposed by Kane for what is clearly a defective line.

24

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comparison, the deployment of omnia probate – the only other Latin scriptural verse in the passus – is lame and unconvincing.25 It is not merely Scripture’s manner here, however, but the matter of her speech that shows some specific appropriateness to the immediate narrative and argumentative impasse in Langland’s poem. She articulates a question first voiced by Study, but raised repeatedly, with increasing fullness and self-assurance, in the development of the B and C texts: the value, appropriate manner, and social effectiveness of the public orator’s or writer’s enterprise of moral correction, and the blocking effect of the hearer’s unregenerate discourses upon those of his appointed scourge and minister, the truthteller. Scripture’s speech in A.12 resembles both that of Lewte, early in the B-continuation, and that of Study in A.11, in exposing the prospect of certain defeat for any literary enterprise conceived chiefly as a “Retorik to arate dedly synne.” Like Study in A.11, Scripture in A.12 finally charges Will with seeking knowledge only to retail it for praise: For he cam not by cause to lerne to dowel But as {ho} seyþ, such I am, when he with me carpeþ. (A.12.32–3)26

But her approach to this condemnation more closely parallels the concerns of Lewte in B.11.84–106 about the problematic “publishing” of corrective discourse. Early in the B-continuation, when Will, after vehemently denouncing the avarice of the friars, wonders aloud whether he dares “amonges men þis metels auowe” (B.11.86), Lewte draws him to articulate the limits of the socially licit for the speaker who undertakes to “[legge] þe soþe” by telling tales – even true ones – to expose “falsnesse [and] faiterie” in the interest of public moral edification (B.11.84–106). In A.12, however, Scripture provides, with apposite scriptural precedents, the considerations that might authorize the just man to remain silent in the face of extreme provocation to reasonable and truthful corrective utterance. The speech goes 25 On this “Langlandian manner,” based on the practice John Alford has called the “method of concordance,” see John A. Alford, “The Role of the Quotations in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 52 (1977), 80–99, and Judson Allen, “Langland’s Reading and Writing: Detractor and the Pardon Passus,” Speculum 59 (1984), 342–59. The nature of Langland’s specific cleverness at deploying this technique of the preacher’s and glossator’s expository inventio is beyond the scope of this essay, though several detailed local readings of passages in recent years have given exemplary accounts of how this can be demonstrated. 26 I have here chosen the reading of the Pierpont Morgan MS “{ho}” over Kane’s “he,” which is that of the Rawlinson MS.

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beyond Study’s condemnation of the unworthy hearer and prideful retailer of truth, in that it registers the dynamic according to which the recalcitrance of the sinful world is at once the stimulant, topic and defeat of the moral reformer’s project. As a forcer of intolerable paradoxes, the Scripture of A.12 is thus conceptual kin to both the Scripture of A.11, who insists on both the necessity and the insufficiency of works, and the Scripture of B.11, who follows Lewte’s speech by “skipping on high” to preach on the very theme that had left Will in a “weer” at the end of A: “wheiþer I were chosen or noȜt chosen.” If there is anything of Langland’s in this concluding passus of the A Text, it seems likeliest to be the argument that rationalizes the didactic poet’s principled retreat into silence.27 It is in this part of the passus that one can see how “þis ende” might have begun: in the attempt to join the sacramental implications of Scripture’s final strictures in A.11 to the sudden gulf of despair and anxiety at the prospect of imminent death that her “scorn” opens before Will in the first moments of the B-continuation – and that gapes still wider in Will’s, and the world’s, sickness unto death in the final passus. As the last half of this passus shows an attempt to assimilate and interpret in terms of personal morality the prospect of death and dissolution which constitute Langland’s own severe ending to all his “werkes,” its first half attempts to give a constructive context to Will’s final despair and produce the reconciliation that could lead him, through the “sawes” he made, to win a “good end.” John But’s “making” thus becomes a way to stabilize and unify the moral truth of the text that he knew circulated in the world in more than one form. It was his effort to make that truth canonical and final that underlay his construction and benediction of the poet’s good end.

This view of Scripture’s speech sorts ill with the suspicion that what initiates it (14–15) is intellectually incoherent and inconsistent with Langland’s usage. But these opening lines of Scripture’s speech are also textually corrupt, to a degree difficult to determine from the paucity of attestation of this passus. One could make both for and against Langland’s authorship of lines 1–33 arguments of some precision – in particular, from the evidence of versification, of which until quite recently no detailed study adequate to the state of the texts has been made or even attempted. Hoyt Duggan’s analysis of the “normal” Middle English alliterative line, and of Langland’s characteristic (and apparently unique) divergences from it, could be turned to good account upon this passus as well as the “Z Text.” See Duggan, “The Shape of the B-Verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Speculum 61 (1986), 564–92, esp. pp. 577; “Alliterative Patterning as a Basis for Emendation in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 (1986), 73–105; and “The Authenticity of the Z Text of Piers Plowman: Further Notes on Metrical Evidence,” forthcoming in Medium Aevum. 27

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Was his report of Langland’s death then false? or a fiction? Like George Kane, I doubt that But, whose profound respect for the poet is evident in this performance, would have knowingly promulgated a false or erroneous report, or even hazarded a mistaken guess, about this matter, if he had the means of ascertaining its truth, and the impetus to do so from the material in hand. Moreover, as the further records here adduced show, there may even be slightly better reasons, though quite different arguments, than Rickert knew for thinking that the king’s messenger might have been in a position to hear of the writer’s demise. Nevertheless, within John But’s understanding of the kind of wisdom offered by the poem that he knew in at least two versions – each of which failed in his terms to end satisfactorily – the story told here was true, indeed the only one possible. The poet’s death, looming unreconciled in all forms of the poem known to him, was probably the only circumstance But could conceive as adequate to explain the state of the texts. Far from an irresponsible inference, it was the sound, natural, and inevitable one from John But’s literary premises about the poem and the available material. It was a truth that needed telling outright, an account that needed closing, if one maker were adequately, and without impious presumption, to render tribute to another in kind. Literary truth and historical truth were one and the same, and the poet’s end was implicit in “all times of my time,” at every point in his historical life, the end of which alone could have severed him from his work. John But’s pastiche of Langland’s work has, however, its own kind of integrity, for it is a serious, if not profound, effort to work through and integrate morally the most intellectually vertiginous moments of the poem. In replacing the austere and imageless speculation of high-scholastic hypothesis with the sensory riot of “middelerd,” the B-continuation also lays bare the subjective treacheries that lie at the heart of the initial authorial enterprise, in the depiction of Will’s individual course – and his public discourse – of improvement through knowedge, and a didacticism that proceeds by adventurous spectatorship through the display of readable “ferlies.” In assimilating Will’s story to the exemplification and promotion of pious practices he saw as the pervading intent of Langland’s “works,” John But must remain committed to the narrative enterprise of spiritual romance that Langland himself begins to dismantle and reassemble in the two long versions. He dimly understood that what supported the remainder of Langland’s literary “werkes” beyond the text he had in hand – and Will’s moral “werkes,” to which he assimilated them – was a self-representation of the “I” staring face-to-face with the mortality of its own projects, and he chose to build his

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own ending on that premise. But for him it was simply another exemplary figure, not a sign of a reconceived literary mode or constructive principle. Will-as-maker has earned through his “werkes” the good end that John But prays for him, much as Trajan’s “treuthe” warrants St Gregory’s prayers; but John But is not inquisitive about the questions raised by the terms of either salvation. Yet what John But does understand of Langland’s poem similarly deserves our respect, and like Trajan’s “treuthe” a debt of gratitude for the example of his intent. His reading shows us how a contemporary registered the integrity of purpose in Langland’s lifelong project, and what it meant to take the persona of Will “personally”: to assimilate it not chiefly as a term in an allegorical fiction but as a “profitable” and earnest struggle of a contemporary to understand through “making” the elements of his own faith as he understood these in Langland’s work. And it is hard to resist the appeal of a “maker” who, in the face of Langland’s powerful contrary arguments, persists in believing that a writer can come to a good end. Appendix Much work remains to be done in unpublished records on the author and his family and possible circle of acquaintance; one published subsequent to Rickert’s article, however, may somewhat strengthen her identification, and (along with recent work on the regions of production and dialect distribution of manuscripts of the poem, particularly the C-text) weakens Cargill’s suggestions that link the John But of this passus with East Anglia. If the king’s messenger is indeed the writer of part of this passus, the following record suggests that he must have been well advanced in years by the time he “made þis ende”: Cal. Close Rolls, 1378–81, p. 343; 3 Richard II. Nov. 5, 1379, Westminster: John But, one of the king’s messengers, is sent to the prior and convent of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, to have for life such maintenance as Roger Couper deceased had at the late king’s command. By p.s.

The nature of this position is further clarified by the lengthier record of the grant of it to But’s “deceased” predecessor Roger Couper (Cal. Close Rolls 1369–74, p. 279; 45 Edw. III, Feb. 22, 1371, Westminster). That document

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demands to know why the prior and convent have failed to act on an earlier directive “to admit Roger le Copper the king’s yeoman to their house” with all the requested privileges enjoyed by the previous grantee, now outlawed, and the arrears due this predecessor. It orders them at once to “make fitting provision” for Couper’s maintenance, and “to minister to him as aforesaid,” and to make him letters patent under the common seal of the house specifying “what he shall take” – i.e. the terms of support due him. These details tend to confirm one’s initial impression of the grant to John But that it is a retirement position, such as a corrody. (For assistance in interpreting these records, I am indebted to my colleague in history and law, Professor Thomas Barnes.) As an alien priory, St Michael’s Mount was in the king’s gift. Couper also held a similar grant of maintenance at the nearby convent of Torre: he is described as “deceased” in a record six years later (Cal. Close Rolls 1374–77, p. 528; 51 Edw. III, April 5, 1377, Sheen), which replaces him in this position with one Peter Fraunk, “one of the king’s henchman” [henxtmannorum], much as the deceased But is replaced by a man newly promoted from courier to messenger in the record of 1387 cited by Rickert. The remainder of that record mentions that this grant of wages for the new messenger was cancelled when a life grant of 10 pounds a year from Lincolnshire issues was found for him; possibly the award of lands and tenements in Barton-on-Humber to But in 1378 was a similar substitution. The pattern of such grants also suggests that they constitute routine forms of patronage placement for a large and miscellaneous cadre of royal functionaries, rather than forms of payment for specific services rendered, or extraordinary honors for exceptional merit. The appellation “messenger” seems to have designated a status or rank within an increasingly articulated royal officialdom, at least as much as a specific set of duties, and it could cover a multitude of missions, some best left unspecified; see J.R. Alban and C.T. Allmand, “Spies and Spying in the Fourteenth Century,” in War, Literature and Politics in the Late Middle Ages, ed. C.T. Allmand (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1976), pp. 73–101. And it does not by any means imply that someone so designated held “a position at Court where he came into daily contact with the King” (Rickert, p. 115). We may assume from this record that by 1379 the messenger John But is in effect a pensioner, no longer actively employed on the king’s business, and living in the west country. If he was the writer who reported the poet’s death, his information was likelier derived from sources in this region than in London or East Anglia. It may also cast in a different light another record cited without further comment by Rickert (p. 107; it is no. 5 in her note 2):

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Cal. Patent Rolls, 1381–85, p. 369; 7 Richard II, April 30, 1384: Henry Amys, for not appearing to render account to John But, Thomas Mille, Thomas Warde and John Crofte, executors of the will of Alice late the wife of John But, for the time he was her bailiff in Toriton. Devon

While nothing indicates that this is the king’s messenger, the context, involving a private inheritance rather than a matter devolving from his status as royal servant, would not in any case require or elicit such a notation. If this man is the retired messenger, then this record would tend further to confirm his continued residence in the west country from late 1379 until 1384. And if he is also the writer of “þis ende” who reports William’s death, it would justify a much closer look at Cargill’s Record #21, cited (p. 50) from the Fine Rolls for 6 Richard II [1383–84], which mentions one “William Rokle” as a collector in Devon. (Cargill, who only summarizes this unpublished text, uses the phrase “collector of the tax,” leaving it unclear to what actual office it refers.) One other record cited by Rickert associates John But “messager” with the southwestern quadrant of England in this period. A ‘vyneter’ of London, one Philip Derneford, has returned to him (Cal. Patent Rolls 1377–81, p. 615; 4 Richard II, March 30, 1381, Westminster) “all his goods and chattels” formerly “forfeited on account of his outlawry”; the occasion of the initial forfeit was a “trespass in the county of Gloucester” prosecuted by John But. It should be noted that although the record is dated March 1381, it refers to a sequence of prior events which is likely to have spanned several months; the initial offense in Gloucester might have occurred in 1379 or even earlier. Moreover the act which the “messager” is said to have prosecuted may as well have been the subject of a private suit as a matter of the king’s business; we need not infer from this designation (as Rickert repeatedly does) that in this instance But was involved in his capacity as a royal officer (see p. 110). Notice of But’s employment here may only mean that he himself had initially invoked it in making a charge to give additional weight or credibility to his case. Several scenarios are of course possible behind this sketchy report, among them a trespass on property in which But had some interest. However it started, But’s prosecution was unsuccessful: the accused vintner was found innocent. If it was John But the messenger who “made þis ende” and recorded for posterity the death of William Langland, the record missed by Rickert offers one clear indication of where he spent the 1380s, and taken together with those

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already known, it places him close to the west-southwest Midlands area from which the C Text appears to have been disseminated. It slightly strengthens the case for his knowledgeable report of the poet’s death, while it also shifts the likely base of it from general literary reputation to local information. John But’s pious record thus looks from this perspective similar in kind to the TCD 212 inscription: a preservation of regional knowledge about a writer whose local habitation was as important as his name in purchasing him a literary epitaph.

VIII

William Langland’s “Kynde Name”: Authorial Signature and Social Identity in Late Fourteenth-Century England A good poem, even if it is signed with a full and well-known name, intends as a work of art to lose the identity of the author; that is, it means to represent him not actualized, like an eye-witness testifying in court and held strictly by zealous counsel to the point at issue, but freed from his juridical or prose self and taking an ideal or fictitious personality; otherwise his evidence amounts the less to poetry. (John Crowe Ransom, “A Poem Nearly Anonymous,” in The World’s Body ) At certain moments in the history of literature ... producing a text – as an ideal goal for the writer – is extremely problematical.... The difficulty for such writers, as for such times, is in being able to distinguish adequately between the author as a human being (whatever his selfcharacterization), the author as a producing writer, and his production. Those moments and those writers ought to become a more prevalent theme of literary study, for their exemplary uncertainty, which to them appears abnormal, brings into question otherwise reified, “normal” notions held about texts. (Edward Said, Beginnings)

I. A Poet Nearly Anonymous Why is the author of Piers Plowman a poet nearly anonymous? William Langland, an older contemporary of Chaucer, spent at least two decades making and revising the first English poem to attain a national readership and influence while its author lived. Its survival to the present century in over fifty manuscripts, none clearly a direct copy of any of the others, implies that copies

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of the poem must have numbered in the hundreds by 1400.1 The poem was immediately and widely imitated, but those who adopted its distinctive idiom did not credit Langland with its invention. Rather, the poem’s fictive hero Piers Plowman, who is rarely present in the narrative and seldom speaks, was widely taken to be the center and source of authority for the poet’s powerful innovation, and in contemporary imagination Piers effectively supplanted the author as a putatively actual historical being, the origin of a mode of speech and action that abruptly found in his name a condensed rationale for its own continued articulation.2 While Langland lived, Piers Plowman figured significantly in current discourses of religious and political dissent. He was named as an exemplary, if hypothetical, person by the rebel forces in the Rising of 1381, and as one of the actual leaders of the rebellion by some chroniclers of these events. For over two hundred years it is Piers’s example, not Langland’s, that is repeatedly adduced to authorize an enduring vernacular literary tradition of cultural criticism broadly underwritten by Langland’s stylistic example.3 In this same period, however, Langland himself, in a near-vacuum of external biographical documentation, virtually vanished from public notice as a known English author, diminished by the sixteenth century to “that nameless malcontent”

1 A.I. Doyle, “Remarks on Surviving Manuscripts of Piers Plowman,” in Medieval English Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G.H. Russell, ed. Gregory Kratzmann and James Simpson (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1986), pp. 35–48; J.A. Burrow, “The Audience of Piers Plowman,” Anglia 75 (1957), 373–84, reprinted with corrections and a new postscript, in Burrow, Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 102–16; Anne Middleton, “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” in Middle English Poetry and Its Literary Background, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1982), pp. 101–23, 147–54. 2 Anne Hudson, “Epilogue: The Legacy of Piers Plowman,” in A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 251–66, provides a succinct account and bibliography of the influence and afterlife of the poem. Elizabeth Kirk, “Langland’s Plowman and the Recreation of FourteenthCentury Religious Metaphor,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 2 (1988), 1–21, explains the social circumstances and literary traditions within which Langland’s invention of the plowman took on a volatile new signifying power in this period. On the appropriation of Piers’s name, see Pamela Gradon, “Langland and the Ideology of Dissent,” Proceedings of the British Academy 66 (1980), 179–205; John N. King, “Robert Crowley’s Editions of Piers Plowman: A Tudor Apocalypse,” MP 73 (1976), 342–53; and Barbara A. Johnson, “From Piers Plowman to Pilgrim’s Progress: The Generic and Exegetical Contexts of Bunyan’s ‘Similitude of a Dream’,” unpub. Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1983, DAI 44.2154A. 3 See, in addition to the above, David Lawton, “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition,” MLR 76 (1981), 780–93.

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to whom the conservative Puttenham attributed the poem.4 Yet Langland evidently intended to associate his name irrevocably with his work, for he signs it in all three of its surviving versions (the A, B, and C texts, representing three successive states of composition), inscribing these signatures more fully, deeply and indelibly in the fabric of the narrative with each revision. While there is no evidence to suggest that either Langland or his scribes ever attempted to efface these signatures, they apparently never functioned culturally as ascriptions. As far as his contemporaries, and those who for two hundred years continued to appropriate his invention, were concerned, the only name William Langland ever made for himself in writing was that of his elusive hero Piers Plowman. The question that begins this essay is in effect the founding question of all modern study of this poem.5 If the riddle of authorial identity that occupied scholars at the turn of this century has since been reframed by more recent interpreters, its central importance to historical understanding of both the writer and his cultural moment has not diminished. In this essay I shall argue that Langland’s elusive identity defines, both for the earliest readers and imitators of his poem and for modern literary scholars of late The ideological significance of Puttenham’s attribution should not be overlooked. As David Norbrook points out, the Arte of English Poesie (1589) spoke for a courtly definition of the function of literature in society; see his Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), Chap. 2. Puttenham’s view of the poem as fundamentally a satire, and its author’s literary role and lineage as comparable to that of “Lucilius, Iuuenall and Persius among the Latines,” contrasts sharply with the Protestant “prophetic” views of it articulated in the age of Edward VI, particularly by John Bale and Robert Crowley. Both had taken an exceptional interest in Piers Plowman and the name and historical situation of its author, and became for later generations the major sources of information (and misinformation) about these matters. Bale, seeking for internal clues to the author’s name, hit upon “Robert Langland,” probably deriving the given name from a scribal error in the first line of a new passus and a new vision: “Thus yrobed [y robert] in russet y romed aboute” (B 8.1); Crowley, the first printer of the poem, apparently owed his information to Bale. See George Kane, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London: Athlone, 1965), pp. 37–45, and John N. King “Tudor Apocalypse” (n. 4 above). In his introductory summary of the poem, however, Crowley nevertheless refers to the poetic speaker in much of the Vita as Piers rather than Will, the name Langland gives to his dreamer-persona. 5 For a brief discussion and full bibliography of the “authorship question,” see Anne Middleton, “Piers Plowman,” Chapter XVIII of A Manual of Writings in Middle English 1050–1500, Vol. 7, gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986), pp. 2224–7, 2429–31. The two complementary studies that survey the issues and documents, and the literary significance of late-medieval authorial self-disclosure, are George Kane, Authorship (n. 6 above), and The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies (London: H.K. Lewis, 1965). 4

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medieval literature and culture, a locus of what Edward Said calls “exemplary uncertainty” that requires both Langland’s interpretive community and our own to revise their traditional notions of what constitutes the integrity of a text and the ground and limits of its representative claims. In particular, Langland’s authorial evanescence, to his contemporaries and to us, invites a reconsideration of relations between the projected design of the author’s work and the immanent form of the authorial life, and the ways in which a published authorial name attempts to regulate and mediate these problematic connections and distinctions. Text and context, “external” and “internal” information, narrative progression and digression, the generic and the specific, the common and the proper, blur and fail to sustain themselves as useful heuristic distinctions in stabilizing either Langland’s “authorship question” or ours. In every one of its many versions from Langland’s lifetime to our own, the “authorship question” is au fond a question about boundaries, about what is inside and outside the field of interpretation – what is “proper” to the authorial enterprise as such, and what it has in common with other cultural work – and what kind of interpretive attention this indeterminacy invites. As we shall see in detail below, Langland explicitly poses such questions within the work itself, and it is in precisely those moments when he brings them sharply into the foreground that he signs his name in the text. For the fourteenth century, the authorship question posed by Langland’s work opens to view not only the ambiguous status of vernacular literary authority in this period, but the moral and political claims of vernacular cultural productivity in general to embody “truth.” During the poet’s lifetime, and for the two following centuries of his work’s greatest influence, these are volatile and contested questions, which Langland represents in their most culturally encompassing and historically concrete forms. To specifically literary-historical hindsight, the precarious fortunes of Langland’s name as author illustrate some of the uncertainties latent in the enterprise of large-scale vernacular fiction-making in the later fourteenth century, the period of its first decisive articulation in England: this literary era has been seen as one of unsteady transition from conventions of authorial anonymity to those of authorial individuation and self-advertisement. Yet these changing literary procedures for the representation of authorship, and the rich formal heterogeneity of the vernacular literary works in which they appear, are not isolated or culturally insulated phenomena. Instabilities in the literary presentation and reception of identity may, I suggest, be understood more productively as part of a still more pervasive late fourteenth-century “crisis of the proper” concerning representation itself, a crisis more fundamentally political than literary. It is

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within this broader discursive field that Langland presents the status of his authorship as a matter of paradigmatic importance: the making of this poem, the nature of its representative claims, and the elusive social identity of its author, acquire – with more specificity in each of its revisions – the aspect of urgent contemporary political concerns. In the terms offered by John Crowe Ransom’s formulation of represented authorial identity (the terms that have for most of this century implicitly defined the “literary” or “internal” approach to the authorship question) it is his “juridical” self that Langland increasingly brings to the foreground by his disposition of his name in his work. He calls into question the very possibility of sustaining as an author an “ideal and fictitious personality” that can remain exempt from answerability to a larger contemporary “point at issue” in the depiction of his authorial enterprise as cultural work. For twentieth century interpreters of Langland’s poem, the apparently idiosyncratic qualities of the text as a literary production – its heterogeneous literary form, the affinities of its style – have with remarkable consistency seemed explicable only by reference to the identity of the author: the course of inquiry has repeatedly enacted a kind of scholarly ascesis, an ascent from the unknown to the unknown. Indeed, to the early twentieth century scholars who first posed and debated the “authorship question,” the very boundaries of the literary text were (as for different reasons they still are) at issue: in its initial version, the question under most intense dispute was whether the same writer composed all three surviving versions of the poem, and what circumstances conditioned the course of its production as a sequence of revisions. Since these indeterminacies arose from ambiguous “internal evidence,” they seemed capable of resolution only by appeal to information that lay outside the text. Scholars sought decisive “external” documentation, either in the form of extra-literary biographical records that might corroborate or supply a name for this elusive writer, or through comparative investigation of analogous examples of authorial self-presentation in other medieval poems that might establish the norms within which Langland’s authorial self-disclosures might be understood. Both kinds of “external” inquiry were conceived as factual constraints upon interpretation, “historically” grounded controls of the almost limitless interpretive inferences that are everywhere tantalizingly invited by the poem itself concerning the actual social identity and life-circumstances of the author. Biography – a text or tissue of data woven by inference into knowledge, but conceived as distinct in character and truth-value from a literary record – would in this view stabilize the range of legitimate inferences that the poetic text can not in itself contain or disclose.

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The chief “external” record of authorship cited in these debates seems to offer all the documentary solidity that turn-of-the-century scholars sought. It is a Latin note written about 1400 in the Trinity College Dublin manuscript of the C version of the poem. The earliest surviving manuscript of any version of the poem, it originated and for some time remained (as did most of the surviving C texts) in the southwest Midland region of the poet’s own origin, as determined by dialect evidence. The memoranda among which this Latin note appears show considerable local knowledge of South Wales border events and families: there is, in other words, good reason to trust its report as informed about the matters it records.6 It declares “willielmus ... de Langlond” to be the maker of the poem, names Langland’s father as a member of the gentry who held land of the Despensers in Oxfordshire, and reveals that Langland, at least as a writer, did not use his father’s surname.7 One early inference from this note – that it meant that William was illegitimate – is certainly itself illegitimate: individuals in the fourteenth century might be known by more than one surname, and we shall have occasion to examine this practice more closely. Yet both in content and placement, this note is hardly fully “external” to the poetic text: it is appended to a copy of the poem, and serves as an implicit commentary upon it, at least to the extent that it acknowledges that there is an indeterminacy about the author’s existence. It is, in other words, at 6 This note appears in full in Appendix I. On this and other external attributions of authorship, see Kane, Authorship, pp. 26–51. For the most recent argument about the dialect evidence on the poet’s native place, see M.R. Samuels, “Langland’s Dialect,” Medium Ævum 54 (1985), 232–47. Malcolm Parkes has recently determined that the Trinity College Dublin manuscript “must have been made in the first half of the 1380s,” and is thus the earliest surviving manuscript of any version of the poem; see George Kane, “The ‘Z Version’ of Piers Plowman,” Speculum 60 (1985), p. 912. 7 The fortunes of the Despenser family – their spectacular rise and as spectacular fall in royal favor and power – roughly brackets the poet’s lifetime. The chief magnate adherents of Edward II in the 1320s, they had consolidated their standing during the Welsh border wars, and continued to prosper under the reign of Edward III. The family’s already declining political fortunes went into ultimate eclipse with the accession of their long-standing opponents, the house of Lancaster, in 1399, and with the lack of male heirs after that date; see Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917–), vol. 5, pp. 860–67, s.n. Henry le Despenser (d. 1406), Hugh le Despenser (d. 1265), Hugh le Despenser the elder, Earl of Winchester (1262–1326), Hugh le Despenser the younger (d. 1326), and Thomas le Despenser, Earl of Gloucester (1373–1400). As Paul Strohm has argued for the post-1400 alteration of the “Chaucer tradition,” it may be that the death or decline from social power of Langland’s immediate circle of readers and kindred intellects – and possibly patrons – by the mid-1380s has as much to do with the pattern of transmission and reception of the poem as changing literary fashions per se; see Strohm, “Chaucer’s Fifteenth-Century Audience and the Narrowing of the ‘Chaucer Tradition’,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 4 (1982), 3–32.

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best further testimony to a fourteenth-century question of authorial identity, rather than a decisive contemporary answer to it. Moreover, it shows the kind of information that, for this witness, counts as an answer: the note places the author, not with respect to his literary productions or his own institutional situation, if any, but in relation to family, lineage, and property-holding – relations conspicuously absent from the poem’s “internal” account of the author’s identity. This strangely precise, as well as rare, “external” record takes on an overdetermined quality as a comment upon Langland’s authorial selfrepresentation. Derrida’s formulation of the divided and duplicitous motives surrounding the inscription of the proper name – that it involves on the one hand the “narcissistic desire to make one’s own ‘proper’ name ‘common,’ to make it enter and be at one with the body of the mother-tongue; and at the same time the oedipal desire to preserve one’s proper name, to see it as an analogon of the name of the father” – could scarcely be more apposite.8 If the early formulation of the “authorship question” has receded from scholarly and critical agendas, the initial terms for dividing the labors of inquiry have remained largely undisturbed. “Historical” knowledge comes from that which is seen as “external” to the poem, “literary” understanding is derived “internally” – and they offer two virtually incommensurable orders of truth. That which went without saying for the writer, the knowledge internal to his practice, must be reconstructed externally by the modern scholar of medieval texts, and the secure externality or otherness of the latter’s knowledge remains his distinctive property and armature, constraining and legitimating rather than enabling his access to the internality of writerly knowledge, and guarding his interpretive labors against the cardinal sin of medieval literary scholarhip, “anachronism.” It will be part of my purpose to reframe the classic form of the “authorship question” by collapsing the division between its “internal” and “external” aspects, by considering within one field of vision the documentary designs of the literary text, and the literary strategies of many contemporary documents adduced as “external” records. In some respects, much recent criticism of the poem has anticipated this move: the old pursuit of the actual historical identity of the author beyond or behind the poem has for nearly two generations been regarded as something of an embarrassment, a largely irrelevant distraction from the more fundamental business of interpreting the work “itself,” and its persona, as the

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, tr., Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, introduction, p. lxxxiv. 8

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authorial presence is called when conceived as a function of literary design.9 Yet in some of the best recent study of the poem, Langland as the producer of the text rather than its product has enacted a return of the repressed. Even though interpreters no longer seek to define what turn-of-the-century scholars usually termed the “character and opinions” of the writer, his education, social location, antecedent textual materials, and working methods are often substantial, if largely submerged, hypotheses that underwrite detailed readings of the poem: a posited actual historical individual now lurks in what is commonly described as his “context,” which is now seen as revealed in certain of the internal procedures of the poem. Yet if the fourteenth-century writer William Langland re-emerges in these accounts as a kind of back-formation of the intertextualities of his work, his reappearance has thus far tended to silence rather than invite further questions about the historical forces that cast enigmatic emphasis upon the identity and social location of the author, rendering it at once urgently important and elusive to the meaning of the poem. What seems at first a salutary critical decentering of that authorial subject that it had been the goal of earlier 9 These two conceptions of the limits of the text tend to correlate closely with two opposed views of textual criticism, a long-standing debate in medieval literary studies but articulated anew in the past generation chiefly in disputes over Kane and Donaldson’s landmark edition of Piers Plowman (see Appendix II). The latter position, in which meaning is a matter of authorial design and reception is a distinct and separable phenomenon, is associated with Kane and Donaldson’s radically Lachmannian enterprise of reconstructing the authorial text; the former, loosely Bédierist, argues both the quixotic nature of this project given medieval circumstances of textual reproduction, and its errors of principle in the face of medieval attitudes to authorial “propriety” in the work. See Anne Hudson, “Middle English,” in Editing Medieval Texts, ed. A.G. Rigg (New York, 1977), pp. 42, 44; and Barry Windeatt, “The Scribes as Chaucer’s Early Critics,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1979), 119–42. While Kane and Donaldson would probably not dispute the claim that meaning is in part a social construction, they differ from their critics about how this construction is to be represented in the edited text and what reconstruction of the text recovers. Nor is it coincidence that this debate has supplanted the “authorship controversy” as the locus of the most fundamental discussion of what counts as historical interpretation of this poem, or of medieval poems generally. Critics on all sides of this editorial controversy have lately begun to look beyond the textual particulars of Piers Plowman to acknowledge that what is at stake in their disagreement is ultimately nothing less than the privileging of the subject, as well as of the “literary” a central issue of postmodern literary theory; see Lee W. Patterson, “The Logic of Textual Criticism and the Way of Genius: The Kane-Donaldson Piers Plowman in Historical Perspective,” in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 55–91, and Kane, “The Text,” in A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 175–200.

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scholarship to discern “in” or “behind” the poem has in practice been a less than fully enabling interpretive move, because the kinds of discourses that are thought to constitute and determine both the content and “author-function” of the work have not thus far differed greatly from those disclosed by oldfashioned source study. The Langland that emerges from some of the most learned and thorough recent analyses of his work is, to be sure, no longer the sublimely impatient and impassioned enthusiast, scornful of formal niceties and deliberate art, that emerged from earlier criticism. On the contrary, he is crabbedly learned, a writer steeped in others’ writings, and deriving directly from them, rather than from his worldly position or experiences, the armature of his individuation. His authorial design and character is seen as determined “from the outside” by antecedent texts, but this “external” environment, manifested in a poetic subject who has incorporated and assimilated its discipline, is defined almost exclusively by one kind of writing in particular: the canonical regimen of medieval Biblical interpretation. What drives William Langland’s twenty-year labor of composition and revision is, in this view, no more and no less than what drives his reading of the texts he incessantly cites: “Piers Plowman is a poem being controlled from the outside. ... Langland read to discover a description of himself; as he found it, he wrote it down.” He could locate this discourse, and intervene in it, only in books: “the picture that emerges is that of a man eking out his poem slowly, even tediously, while poring over a variety of commentaries and preachers’ aids.”10 Yet both the initial impetus and the end of these labors of authorship remains obscure. If what Langland was composing through this process of voracious textual appropriation was himself, how might such a remarkable authorial intent arise from its alleged immediate sources? How, in other words, might such a relentlessly “external” regimen be assimilated and given back as the “internal,” as the apparent constituents of a subject located in space and time? And even more puzzling, why? What would prompt a writer steeped in such materials to give them back to his contemporaries in this expository form as a “description of himself ”? And what kind of reception might he find for such a project? By aligning the literary forms and social motives for the representation of individual identity, and the formation and recording of names, in the later fourteenth century, I propose to set forth the terms within which naming acquired the standing of a necessary, encompassing, and contested “point at 10 Judson Allen, “Langland’s Reading and Writing: Detractor and the Pardon Passus,” Speculum 59 (1984), 359; John A. Alford, “The Role of the Quotations in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 52 (1977), 99.

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issue” for Langland and his culture. If the age of Shakespeare discloses, as it does to Stephen Greenblatt, an essentially theatrical imagination at work in various ordinary discursive practices, then I suggest that several kinds of social records not confined to the “literary” in the age of Chaucer and Langland show people appearing to each other narratively, and improvising individual and communal identities, not in the unitary rhetorical category of the role, but in the temporal span and generic model of the life.11 To be intelligible is to have a comprehensively revelatory story, and to signify historically or literarily – to “make a name for oneself ” – in this age of heraldic cognizances as well as literary signatures, is, in Huizinga’s happy formulation, to “choose the text of which one’s life is the sermon.”12 II. The function of late-medieval literary signature R.W. Chambers and George Kane have demonstrated that Langland’s internal signatures resemble in form and technique those widely used by other latemedieval writers. This comparative literary context, it is suggested, “explains” Langland’s practice, by rendering it “normal”: internal signature was indeed more pervasive, formally sophisticated, and diverse in vernacular writings of the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries that at any other time in European literature before or since.13 Yet two problems attend this demonstration if, as most scholars have done, we stop rather than start our inquiry here. The one, peculiar to Langland, we have noted: if these self-inscriptions – because widely used at the time and therefore presumably legible as such – were to be understood as communications and records of authorship, they were in this instance a conspicuous failure. The other reframes the first in a more general form: if this practice was “normal” and widespread in late-medieval writing – and indeed confined almost entirely to this period – what then was its function? What are the norms of literary practice and social action and understanding within which it is “normal”? The question has rarely been posed, because it is widely assumed that we already know the answer. The Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 12 Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (New York: Doubleday, 1954), 231. 13 R.W. Chambers, “Robert or William Langland?,” London Medieval Studies 1 (1948, for 1939), 430–62; Kane, Evidence for Authorship and Autobiographical Fallacy. On the genre-specificity of this practice in medieval vernacular writing – its association with romance, as distinct from chanson de geste, lai, and fabliau – see David F. Hult, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Readership and Authority in the First Roman de la Rose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp 30–33. 11

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strange case of William Langland, however, suggests that we know less about the literary and social meaning of this practice than we thought. A good deal of recent discussion of medieval authorial self-representation has regarded this pervasive internal self-naming as but one aspect of the broader late-medieval “discovery of the individual,” and has considered literary manifestations of “poetic individuality” as among several kinds of evidence of new interest in the representative and signifying power of the self. But as the ensuing account will suggest, the pervasive practice of complex literary signature in this period is not an illustration of this cultural phenomenon but an important grammatical operator in bringing about a broader cultural transformation; as such, it is a rearguard action, a gesture fraught with ambivalence and nostalgia, not a sense of discovery or progress. As a means of deobjectifying the written artifact and restoring to it the authenticating presence that has been drained from it by the documentary and administrative culture whose gestures it borrows, it uses the letter to discredit the consequences of a culture of letters, of “writing and hiding myself.”14 It is an almost universal (though almost universally unstated) presupposition that the purpose of late-medieval literary signature is the same as that of more modern and direct forms of declaration of authorship: it is simply attributive. Because the signatures in Piers Plowman have been examined chiefly under the impetus of the “authorship controversy,” this assumption is even stronger in Langland scholarship than in studies of other late-medieval writers. As attribution, internal signature in general is thought to be an authorial intervention in the economic functioning of the work in a system of circulation and reproduction. In this view, the signature is there to satisfy some “natural” wish of readers to be satisfied about who made this poem, and it serves as a kind of proprietary declaration of the author’s craft or “hand” in the work – information which contributes to its cultural worth by specifying the value added to language by a particular fabricator. In other words, it is often discussed as if it were a primitive attempt at copyright. Rousseau; see Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 142. On the pervasive cultural practice of reappropriating authoritative discourses so as to shift their significance, see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), esp. pp. 24–8. This practice, which I have here (somewhat unsatisfactorily) called borrowing, Certeau calls “wigging” (la perruque), and he emphasizes that this “art of diversion” does not permanently alienate anything of value from the ordinary authoritative use of the discourse, but creates – on official time, so to speak – proliferating unofficial meanings. It is Certeau’s general sense of this appropriation as an “art of diversion” that informs my understanding of Langland’s signature practices. For an extended fourteenth-century example that offers a broad analogy to Langland’s “diversion” of the proper, see below, pp. 251–3. 14

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By naming himself, the author is in effect naming his price and attempting to control in his absence from the means of reproduction transactions in what he has made – though his audience may of course pay his price in the form of patronage or prayers for his soul, familiar medieval modes of literary exchange, rather than in the modern ones of posthumous fame, canonical position, or royalties. Since attribution, by whatever methods, is assumed to be an inextricable part of our appreciation of the work (a term which is itself at root economic), it becomes self-evident and unproblematic that an author should wish his name circulated with his work; how he puts it in circulation is thought to be a secondary consideration of technique or vocabulary rather than meaning. The various formal techniques of signature characteristic of late-medieval writing then become simply synonymous means, adapted to manuscript culture, toward the essentially economic end familiar in the age of print. The internality of a signature – the difference between anagrammatic wordplay in the poem and a colophon at the end, for example – does not alter its function, but merely adjusts its tone and placement to the author’s material and social circumstances: it makes a witty game out of the transaction between author and public, while securing the “maker’s mark” against casual effacement. By making his name inextricable from the poetic fabric rather than placing it in a colophon where it may more easily be omitted in transmission, the poet defends his reputation against the deepest ravages of Adam Scriveyn, while he considerately anticipates the interest of later readers in attribution. Internal signatures in medieval texts, then, are commonly read as having the same cultural meaning as both a textually separable declaration of authorship such as a colophon or a title-page in a printed book and the internal “maker’s mark” in other artistic media such as sculpture, metalwork, or painting. Yet both modern analogies from the age of print and those drawn from medieval nonverbal arts (which do not in the same way lend themselves to copying) are in this case misleading. It is only the social and material arrangements for mechanical reproduction of the written text that makes it possible to form the ideas of literary property that underwrite this assumption about medieval motives for internal authorial self-naming.15 In late-medieval literary 15 See Hult, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, pp. 25–64. Perhaps the most complete and helpful formal classification of techniques of medieval literary signature to date, comparing methods used in the verbal and visual arts, nevertheless implies that each of these devices has the same attributive purpose; see Erik S. Kooper, “Art and Signature and the Art of the Signature,” in Court and Poet: Selected Proceedings of the Third Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society, ed. Glyn S. Burgess (Liverpool: Cairns, 1981), pp. 223–32. Evidence from the visual and plastic arts in late-medieval and early-modern Europe, however, suggests that signatures in these media have

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texts, internal signature regulates, I shall argue, proprieties that are in the first instance grammatical and ontological rather than economic: it proclaims and governs the representative claims of the work rather than the circulation or exchange value of the maker’s “hand.” The most widely used forms of internal signature in late-medieval literature, however – those that we will find Langland using with developing complexity and skill as he revises the poem – demand certain ways of reading and using the text in order to be legible as names at all, and the form and terms of that legibility alter their meaning. Their function, I propose, is not attribution but – to use Daniel Poirion’s term for an analogous contemporary practice – autodefinition; their referent is not the absent maker, but his confected presence, a living “entente” animated and reproduced in the act of reading. What the name inscribed in the poetic text proclaims is not the author’s verbal fabrication, but an ethical fabulation of which he makes himself the center; the value signified is not that of his craft but that of his life. Although both modern textual culture and the visual and plastic arts contemporary with the poem provide, as we have suggested, misleading analogies to this practice, late-medieval culture does furnish at least one closer and more provocative parallel: the personal badge or cognizance. It is the social function of these devices that Poirion calls “autodefinition,” and their vogue happens to coincide closely in time with that of complex internal literary signature.16 While neither practice appears to be the immediate inspiration for the other, the use of this individual heraldry in fields of meaning traditionally commanded by the familial coat-of-arms helps to define succinctly the cultural ambivalences we will also find registered in the literary signature. In chivalric warfare, “banners and pennons bore hereditary coats of arms, [while] standards and ensigns displayed personal badges, devises and mottoes,” and during the later middle ages there was an increasing tendency to substitute

at most a publicizing rather than authenticating function. Contracts for specific commissions by painters or sculptors – for example of alterpieces – often specified which parts of the work the master must execute himself in order to fulfill the terms of payment; see Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 3–14, and his The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 102–6. Where they were considered significant in the plastic arts, guarantees of the “maker’s hand” were included in the terms of production, not merely declared after the fact by the object. 16 Daniel Poirion, Le Poète et le Prince (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), pp. 59–67.

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the latter for the former in battle.17 Several practical circumstances of military technology and organization may be cited to account for this change: the redundancy of the shield that bore the coat of arms after the advent of plate armor; the clarity and ease of identifying in the heat of action a simple badge, such as the cockleshell or barbican, in contrast to the increasing difficulty of making recognizable and accurate representations by the complicated – and difficult to document – quarterings of the noble family; the increase in the use of professional soldiers and standing armies along with hereditary nobility and shorter-term occasional warfare; and perhaps a concomitant wish by the crown to signify that its military enterprises rewarded talent and personal loyalty.18 The devices chosen, originally the personal “arms of peace” used in the tournament, manifest, as Vale and many others have noted, “the contemporary taste for allegory” – or, as I should prefer to call it, self-personification.19 To adopt such an autodefinition was “to choose a text for the sermon of one’s life.” As an elective sign of the self, the device “rassemble les actions éparses dans la continuité d’une intention première”: one’s presence on the field of action is proclaimed by such a symbol to be a life with a unitary design, a story for which one has chosen the theme and the genre, and which as an exemplary paradigm serves to unite others around it.20 17 Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry: Warfare and Aristocratic Culture in England, France and Burgundy at the End of the Middle Ages (London: Duckworth, 1981), p. 97. 18 On these developments, see Vale, War and Chivalry, pp. 95–9; 105, 110, 114, and 147-51; Philippe Contamine, Guerre, état et société à la fin du Moyen Age: Etudes sur les armées des rois de France, 1337–1494 (Paris and The Hague: Mouton, 1972), pp. 675–6. 19 Vale, p. 97. As both Vale and Poirion observe, the device chosen, as illustrated in the Italian impresa, which derives from this personal chivalric badge, frequently involved nominal wordplay, whether visual, as in a rebus, or the verbal duplicity of a pun or a common noun enclosed within the proper name; frequently these compacted devices alluded cryptically to a renowned incident or theme in its bearer’s life – an event or sentiment as often amatory as martial. The badge thus devised made an event known to familiars the sign of the knight’s public identity, while its cryptic form continued to differentiate the knight’s “friends,” who would know the story of the badge, from those to whom it was simply the sign of the knight and those of his livery. The device thus simultaneously proclaimed and occulted identity, evoking in effect two different levels or arts of reading: one peculiar to the bearer’s adherents, the other defining the common beholder as outside the circle of privileged interpretation. The distinction between the arms of war and the arms of peace is set out with particular clarity in the will of the Black Prince; see F.H. Cripps-Day, A History of the Tournament in England and France (London, B. Quaritch, 1918), p. 63; Vale, War and Chivalry, 90, 97. 20 This formulation is Poirion’s (p. 63). As Vale notes, “when badges of the kind worn in the tournament were adopted in warfare, the distinction between ‘arms of peace’ and ‘arms of war’ lapsed” (p. 98). In other words, when the “affective theme” compacted in the personal badge adopted for purposes of exercise and ceremonial differentiation also supplants

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These “devices” were brought into currency in England during Langland’s lifetime under the very highest sponsorship: the Garter, badge of the order founded by Edward III, and later the White Hart of Richard II both illustrate the implicit and compacted ideal narrations around which these symbols organized allegiance – stories of the transformation of private or occulted referents into public totems of presence and intention.21 It is not as a possible source of the practice, but for their similar mode of signifying, that the personal devices of late-medieval heraldry offer a suggestive parallel to the methods and contextual meaning of late-medieval literary signature. Like these, the anatomized and inwoven name of the author becomes, within the literary situation in which it is displayed, the title or rubric of a life-as-designed, the sign under which the “menyng” (intent) of the work is declared and made coextensive with the “intente” of the author realized in the purposive and exemplary patterns of a compactly represented life. It is under this modal sign that those who see it are asked in turn to represent themselves – to interpret their actions, and to offer them for interpretation. The “given” name of the author is within the work reinvented as if chosen (or perhaps as if it had chosen him), and his civil or public identity – what Langland will call his “kynde name” – is made to function as a sort of diacritical marker of the narrative of which he is the subject, an artificial memory device operating systematically rather than discretely in “pointing” the familial coat-of-arms as the “published text” of the knight’s identity in battle, an idealized life-story, cryptically encoded in the device, replaces lineage as the primary referent of the knight’s self-identification at war, and his followers are now implicitly defined, not necessarily as hereditary adherents of his family, but as those who know and adopt as their own what the device represents. They are the fit readers of the published story of his identity. 21 The familiar story of the foundation of the Order of the Garter, explicating its motto honi soit qui mal y pense (may the shame be his who thinks evil of it), explains how this intimate object came to be elevated by royal fiat from a token suggesting private duplicity and compromised sexual honor to a publishable collective symbol of loyalty and honor. Although this explanatory anecdote is first related in the sixteenth century by Polydore Vergil, scholars have recently argued for its authenticity; see A.G. Rigg, “John of Bridlington’s Prophecy: A New Look,” Speculum 63 (1988), 601, and Margaret Galway, “Joan of Kent and the Order of the Garter,” University of Birmingham Historical Journal 1–2 (1947–50), 13–50. Implicit in this story is a radically “nominalistic” notion of the power of such an adopted symbol: the badge is by design unintelligible to anyone who does not already know the anecdote of its establishment. The emblematic object has been shifted from its socially customary legibility and transplanted, “raised,” into another sphere of meaning by a process that does not so much presuppose as confect a new bond of social knowledge and intimacy. Authorial signatures likewise play with this confection of intimacy with the poet, and likewise underscore the interpreter’s share, as an initiated reader, in completing their meaning.

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the text and anchoring its ethical legibility and its social designs upon those who read it.22 As the signature techniques Langland uses undergo development in revision from relatively open to more indirect forms, they also acquire systematic relations with each other in disclosing the narrative principles of the work. In this development the surname – foregrounded as a subject of wordplay in A but given realized signatory status in B – is pivotal, permitting the civil circumstances of the authorial project as well as the poetic subject’s spiritual identity to be assimilated to literary form, to become narratable; and it is to this move, intimately tied to the formal choices that enabled the B-C continuation, that I now turn. III. Forms and methods of literary signature Langland’s internal self-naming takes two main forms, both widely used in contemporary French and English writings. The first, the “open” or referential method, requires little discussion – and causes little interpretive controversy; it is familiar in the writings of Chaucer and Gower as well as Langland. By this device, especially frequent in dream-visions, persons in the fiction simply address or refer to the first-person narrator or dreamer by name, or the subject introduces himself (examples from the poem are A-3, C-1, and C-3; see the Appendix). Generally this “open” referential form is used by Langland to display the baptismal name of Will alone, but it also aids in the recognition of more indirect forms of signature, such as the famous anagram of the surname in Will’s speech to Anima, the creature of many names, retrospectively summarizing his quest thus far: “I have lyued in londe ... my name is long wille” (B.15.152, B-3 in the Appendix). While open referential self-naming may be accompanied by further deictic marking, more indirect forms virtually require it, and for this purpose there are several kinds of local signals that an authorial name is to be read in the discourse. Among the more patent devices, illustrated in the examples cited, are the depiction in the narrated events of social or ceremonial occasions (the formal introduction of a new character on the scene to other persons present, formal confession or juridical testimony), or textual forms (such 22 For the term “pointing,” see J.A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), pp. 69–78. Possibly adopted from the vocabulary of the physical presentation and ornamentation of a manuscript text, and denoting as well the rhetorical elaboration of a discourse, the verb “point” in fourteenth-century English seems to have meant, as Burrow analyzes its use, not only “to describe in detail” but to indicate thereby a virtual scale of narration, the proprieties of ornamentation and amplitude.

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as the last will and testament) that require explicit self-naming for their execution as gestures. In these performative moments the subject’s intent is rendered “for the record,” and the representation of these acts in narrative thus calls attention to the constitutive and stabilizing power socially attributed to written documents as such. A more subtle and mobile device, exploited by Chaucer as well as more exhaustively by Langland, is locally intensified allusion to the first-person’s physical characteristics or social circumstances. Jokes about bodily stature and habit (Chaucer’s doll-like “shap” or “noyous” weight, Langland’s tall leanness and “long clothes”) are not simply descriptive specifications, for verisimilitude or “authentication,” but invariably in both poets’ work coincide with – and, in effect, announce – complex and very often “signed” accounts of the poetics of the work. The presence of selfreferences to physical characteristics, like that of the signatures to which they usually point, calls redoubled attention to the author’s modal contract with the user of the text, and evokes as part of that contract both reader’s and writer’s embodiment in a specific sociohistorical situation. We shall find Langland using such moments of bodily self-awareness and occulted signature to translate writerly into readerly self-consciousness. At the opposite end of the spectrum from these explicit, and explicitly pointed, open forms of signature are the wittier and more occulted devices based on anagrammatic methods, in which wordplay upon the name is made by an anatomy of its parts.23 It is the “occulted” technique of anagram, 23 I borrow the term “occultation” from a highly self-conscious and mannered textual interpreter, almost an exact contemporary of Langland, John Ergome or Erghome, who wrote, some time between 1364 and 1373, an extensive Latin commentary on the so-called Bridlington Prophecies – and may have written the prophecies themselves as well; see Michael J. Curley, “The Cloak of Anonymity and the Prophecy of John of Bridlington,” Modern Philology 77 (1980), 361–9, who presents the arguments for and against Ergome’s authorship of the prophecies; and A.G. Rigg, “John of Bridlington’s Prophecy,” 596–613, who argues against the attribution. Ergome introduces his work with a commendation of his endeavors to Duke Humphrey de Bohun, in which he encodes “against envious detraction” his own name in an elaborate riddle, one of the most complicated signatures I have found in this period: “si super consequentiae notam caput miserationis vellitis adjungere, nomen obscurum et obsequium salutare”; it was M.R. James who unlocked the syllables of Ergome’s name in it: “The Catalogue of the Library of the Augustinian Friars at York, now first edited...,” in Fasciculus J.W. Clark dicatus (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1909), p. 11. Following this introduction, Ergome provides three prologues to the commentary, each in a different mode. The first is a highly ramified example of the “four-cause” scholastic prologue, the third a summary of its forma tractatus; see A.J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship (London: Scolar Press, 1984), pp. 161, 168. The second, however, expounds, with examples from the text, the ten “methods of occultation” used in the prophecies to represent names, dates, and historical events. Among these are the representation of noble persons by their cognomens

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Langland’s second main signature method and the basis for his system of cross-referencing signature mnemonics in the B and C versions of the poem, that will require our closer attention – as indeed the device itself demands a peculiar kind of self-conscious attention to be legible, as well as a sustaining repertory of accompanying conventions, some of them requiring social as well as textual skills for recognition. Anagrammatic naming, whether or not it it functions as signature, bases not only its wit but its very legibility on the reader’s consciousness of using partly extratextual knowledge to decode it. Here Chaucer offers an efficient example of how the device works, though not in a signatory function. In the tragedy of King Peter of Cyprus in the Monk’s Tale, we learn that “the wikked nest was werker of this nede”; we could only recognize the name of Olivier de Mauny (OF “mau ni”) – to say nothing of the agency of Bertrand du Guesclin, referred to only by his coat of arms as “the feeld of snow, with th’egle of blak therinne” – if we already knew, as those in John of Gaunt’s circle would have known, the names of the key players in this recent example of Fortune’s treachery.24 This example also illustrates the self-referential, almost self-congratulatory, air that accompanies an act of anagrammatic understanding. An anagrammatic signature turns the reader’s attention back upon itself, so that he is forced not only to acknowledge the dimension of social presence and extratextual competence involved in his recognition of the name but also to delight in the several simultaneous kinds of specifically “readerly” mental acrobatics it demands. Unlike open referential signatures, those made by occultation require the reader to reassemble the proper name dispersed among the common terms of the poem (“I have lyued in lond ... my name is longe wille” [B.15.152]). Their power to disclose a name not only resides in but calls attention to the beholder’s share, as they displace his attention momentarily from the referential to the formal aspect of words. Occulted signatures induce in the reader a momentary high awareness of his operative arts of reading, a or heraldic badges, bilingual anagrams of the syllables of names, and the representation of numbers in the letters of Latin words used as common nouns (e.g. cuculi=ccli, 251). It therefore seems appropriate to collect under the term “occulted” all those signature methods which involve some rearrangement or reconstruction of the discourse in order to yield a name. It is also worth noting that for Erghome, anagrams, number-codes and heraldic cognomens were classified together as forms of secret or initiate’s language. 24 Canterbury Tales VII.2386 and 2383, in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson, 2nd. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957). See Vale on the armorial display and chivalric rituals observed at the memorial requiem for Bertrand du Guesclin in the abbey church of St Denis on 7 May 1389, several years after his death (92).

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perception that is the counterpart of the bodily self-consciousness that both heralds authorial self-reference and supports its use in indicating an operative poetics. By foregrounding for an instant the textual medium itself, forcing one to notice not only the arts of making and reading such disclosures but also the shared social space and physical circumstances within which that art is exercised, they insist on the embodied social dimension of literary processes. Syllabic anagram, Langland’s second main signature device, shares with his first, simple vocative naming, the property of audibility: we can hear as well as see on the page the name, distributed into separate monosyllabic words rather than as a whole. In this respect anagrammatic naming differs from that other occulted form of signature widely used in the late Middle Ages, the acrostic, which anatomizes and redistributes the name by letters rather than by syllables. Though made on the same dispersive principles, the two signature forms are differently legible, and define and regulate quite different interpretive premises, as they also presume different social means of perpetuation – differences that are crucial for understanding Langland’s choice of signature techniques and their social significance. The acrostic signature, depending for its legibility largely on the physical layout of the page and book, rules the order of the parts in which it appears, and it can only be seen, not heard.25 It implies, therefore, not only an authorial commitment to spatial and architectonic form, but access to and confidence in stable scribal institutions for its transmission. It foregrounds and celebrates the “writtenness” of writing: in the acrostic the author becomes entirely and literally a man of letters. But if the acrostic is an efficient little Derridean postulate, unambivalently proclaiming the absence of the author, the anagrammatic signature pointedly raises and repeatedly worries the possibility of authorial presence in the work. It implicitly argues the nonautonomy and non-self-evident character of texts, and proclaims the perpetual inseparability of the author’s life from that which he makes, and from which in some sense he does not – and can not – ever wholly withdraw his sustaining voice.

25 The order of parts in Thomas Usk’s Testament of Love, which survives only in a somewhat garbled early printing, could be reconstructed when it was discovered that the head letters of its sections spelled out an acrostic, margaret of vertw haue mercy on thin usk; see the edition of this work in The Complete Works of Chaucer, ed. W.W. Skeat, vol. 7 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897). Robert of Basevorn’s Forma Praedicandi is likewise articulated by sections whose head-letters spell his name; see Th.-M. Charland, Artes Praedicandi: Contribution à l’Histoire de la Rhétorique au Moyen Age (Paris: J. Vrin, 1936), p. 81. Nicholas Trivet, in his Annales, distributes an anagrammatic signature over fifty-six quarto leaves in the section head-letters; see Nicholai Triveti, Annales, ed. Thomas Hog (London, 1845), p. xvii. (I owe this reference to Michael J. Curley.)

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Anagrammatic naming implies that “menyng” is always someone’s meaning; it resides in, and represents, persons and their “intentes.”26 Here Erik Kooper’s typology of signatures, making a systematic analogy between the forms used in painting and literature, is useful. Though he does not make this specific argument for his analogy, he sees the acrostic as the literary equivalent of the included self-portrait of the painter: each foregrounds and celebrates as such the dominant and basic representative unit of its respective medium – the alphabet, the painted image – the artifice that represents the hand of the artificer. The anagrammatic signature, however, is the literary equivalent of the rebus, or visual pun, and like it, doubles and foregrounds the number and complexity of the acts required for its decoding. The rebus represents a thing, a physical object, whose common name is the same as, or sounds like, the proper name of the painter: Kooper gives the example of Lorenzo Lotto’s signature, in the form of an object called a lotto held by one of the represented persons in the painting. The anagrammatic signature likewise demands that we notice the several acts of translation between representative modes that are required to read the “proper” name in common objects. The wit of the anagrammatic signature thus derives from the perpetual double life of the text, its claim to represent the spoken and audible voice of someone’s “menyng,” as well as visible signs representing the meaning of things. In this way – whether or not the text is in practice ever actually voiced – it tends to problematize rather than celebrate the written as a means of stabilizing communicative authority. Broken into syllables that are also intelligible as words in themselves, the anagrammatized name acquires a double reference, becoming both common and proper at once. Yet its second reference – its signatory aspect – must be called into play either by deictic markers drawing attention to its status as a name (as in the third signature of the B version, “‘I have lyued in londe,’ quod I, `my name is longe wille’”) or by something already known and brought into play extratextually. For example, in order to understand the Lond of Longyng as an anagrammatic signature (as I shall argue it is), we must already know by other means that the author’s If, as I have argued elsewhere, the ultimate ground of signification is conceived by Langland to be transcendent – divine “menyng” – it is nevertheless imagined as sustained by a deity understood in terms of magnified personhood and intentionality, a God from whom emanates not merely the mathematical harmony of the cosmos, but the chief language of mediation between the divine and human, that of historical process, through which intentionality as well as abstract design may most reliably be grasped as “read” and “heard.” See “Two Infinites: Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman,” ELH 39 (1972), 169–88. 26

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surname is Langland, although in this case, as we shall see, the means have been made available to us more openly elsewhere in the text. Both forms of audible signature used by Langland – his open vocative naming and the anagram of his surname – are made so as to seem to complement and interact with what the interpreter presumably knows of the author by social means, whether direct acquaintance or reputation: his stature, his apparently clerical habit, and his habits of delay and evasion. In this respect their effect is much like the open self-naming and comic self-reference of Chaucer to his rotund “shap” and bookishness. If the solitary reader happens to lack social intimacy with the writer, these devices nevertheless confect it as one of the operative fictions of the work. Because unlike acrostics, anagrammatic signatures appear to derive their legibility from a stable social rather than scribal medium, one normally expects to find them in writers who in fact have a fairly secure and enduring institutional base of operations and are known by name and literary reputation over a considerable period of time to their primary audience – particularly court or coterie poets. Though this is widely assumed to have been Chaucer’s actual situation, it suggests that the question of Langland’s immediate circle and his following may require considerable reexamination. Whatever their implications about his relation to an actual primary audience, however, Langland’s signature methods also have fundamental consequences for literary mode. They encourage the reader’s sense that the author’s social, vocal, and even physical presence is also somehow “in” the text, that the words on the page represent a person as well as his product, and that it is his coherence as intelligible actor and the paradigmatic and exemplary form of his life, rather than the formal properties of the work as artifact, that secures its value to the user. They define a problematic of bodily presence and biographical integrity into the act of reading and specify the boundaries of meaning within which signatures are articulated as the literary career, the life-in-writing, not the single work. It is this larger, if largely implicit, poetic argument that supports the use of reference to the “maker’s” bodily shape, a device heavily exploited by Langland and one of the commonest “pointing” conventions to highlight either kind of audible signature. Signalling the presence of the anagrammatized name, it invites the reader to reconstruct the proper, to reassemble the dispersed body of the author, like Osiris, from its syllabically distributed common parts, exactly as the red and blue letters used by the scribe help the reader pick out visually the alphabetically distributed acrostic signature. Stout “Geffrey” as well as “longe wille” uses this pointer repeatedly. The author “points

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to” his person – as Chaucer literally does in the famous Harvard portrait panel – as an image of “myn intente,” using the same gesture with which in the Ellesmere marginal portrait he points to his text, and thereby makes a functional equivalence between them.27 The ultimate referent of the written text, these gestures imply, is the life lived, and the specific finite body becomes the guarantor of the general truth of the discourse. Langland’s work declares its own integrity of form through the systematic interrelations of its several signatures that punctuate the text, marking out milestones in a trajectory of reading as well as living, rendering the name and person of the author as a periodically recurring common place for reflection on what lies “before and behind.” “Pointing” his work with his own name and presence – his social and legal and physical as well as his spiritual history – Langland’s signatures function as an artificial memory device, giving his life-work the usable form of a life remembered. IV. From signature to signature-system: the A version. As the poem stood in the A version, probably at the end of the 1360s, Langland’s signature practices were much like those of Chaucer in the Hous of Fame: openly referential, and largely discrete, using the baptismal name alone in close proximity to “pointing” remarks about the dreamer-author’s distinctive physical characteristics and social habits. Yet even the A text displays some of the elements of cumulative and cross-referential use of signature that will mark out the main narrative movements of the two longer versions. As Langland begins to develop his signature-system at this first surviving stage of composition, signatures that would be immediately apparent as such to readers with social access to the living author – such as the simple ones of A-1 and A-2 naming Will in the third person – are unlocked in retrospect for readers who lack such supplementary knowledge. Signatures such as the third instance in the A version (A-3) not only seal the identification of Will with the author, but force the reader to reintegrate the merely iterative and episodic into a new composite picture. See Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 13–15, on the Ellesmere and “Hoccleve” portraits of Chaucer; for the “Harvard” portrait, see the frontispiece to The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Robinson. David F. Hult reproduces a similar portrait of the author of the Roman de la Rose gesturing toward himself with one hand, like Chaucer in the “Harvard” portrait, while with the other he points to the book that lies before him on his writing desk; see Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, fig. 5, p. 83. 27

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The sequence of three signatures in the A version illustrates this cumulative process and serves as a base for the development of the more complex identifications of B and C. Will, who is named initially in A as the first penitent to weep at Repentence’s sermon (A-1) and then as a writer (copyist) rewarded by merchants for “copying their clause” in the pardon (A-2), is finally identified as the dreamer, “I,” who narrates the poem, as he adds to his roles that of a philosophical seeker (A-3). This cumulative identification process will be repeated and expanded in the B and C signaturesystems, making more and more of the extratextual knowledge needed to identify a signature in A explicit in the text in B and accessible as operative knowledge at an even earlier point in the narrative sequence in C. The third of the three signatures in the A version (A-3 in the Appendix) signals the presence and mode of utility of the name in several ways at once, and the passage therefore provides a little anthology of Langland’s basic signature techniques, and the “pointers” he uses to indicate them. The details and methods of self-identification in this passage will provide the basic repertory of signatory devices and notations of Will’s “character” upon which the signature-system of the two long versions is built. The scene also illustrates the way moments of signature become moments of poetic reflexivity, disclosures of the literary mode and claims to “truth” that the poet proposes for his work. In this passage (A-3), Langland uses multiple “pointers” to draw attention to the presence of the the authorial name. Thought is said to address the dreamer by his “kynde name,” and as if to underscore the point, the dreamer notes his surprise that this new figure knows his name (A.9.62–3). But that name is not actually given in the text until fifty lines later, when Thought finally and formally introduces Will to his next instructor, Wit (A.9.118). This entire encounter with Thought is, however, permeated with further insistence upon the individuating physical and social characteristics that are to remain constant features of authorial signature and self-presentation in the two later versions. To the Dreamer’s first glimpse, Thought appears “a muchel man ... lik to myselue”; Wit, who succeeds him – despite Will’s remark that he looks nothing like anybody we know (“lyk to non oþer,” [A.9.110]) – is also conspicuously “long and lene.” What might at first appear figurative attributes of these instructors are turned as well to a witty notation of relationship and resemblance: whatever Thought’s and Wit’s intrinsic capacities as faculties, the reader may at this signal justifiably begin to suspect that they resemble Will too much to do him any good. The specific condition of the subject of this pedagogical progress – inscribed in a characteristic bodily form that hereafter becomes a ground of both recognition and apology – thus becomes

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a constant point of reference for narrative logic, and a measure of instructive adequacy. This third signature of A, however, also uses the rarefied and elaborate wit of some of its more recondite “pointers” to indicate the register in which further signatures are to be recognized, and how they are to be used, in subsequent versions of the poem. The implicit academic setting of this formal introduction and “dispute” binds Will’s identity, and his artful techniques of self-disclosure, to precisely those aspirations to privileged clerical discourse that are to be contested throughout the subsequent narrative development of all versions. This scene exacts from the reader, and from the narrative subject Will, the capacity to pursue elaborate wordplay, and rewards those who have an eye for the apposite wit of cited scriptural texts. The third signature of A thereby acquires some of the diacritical force that the signatures in concert will have in the long versions: it indicates the kind of reading the work will demand, and signals that such reading is a particular kind of cultural work, with specific – and contested – claims to authority. The wordplay that interweaves the activities as well as the names of Will and Wit, that traditional alliterating pair in moral discourse (A.9.117–18), and the fact that this formal handing-over follows three days of disputation (A.9.107–8), momentarily places this figurative event within a social scene identifiable at the literal level as one of the solemn rituals of a public university occasion. It recalls the commendatio, the formal speech of introduction by which the regent master presented the inceptor, the candidate in theology who had already engaged in the three days of disputation that culminated his proof of himself as beginner or incipiens, to the chancellor. This customary interlude of academic wit often involved puns on the candidate’s name or identifying characteristics, and also might take as its theme a scriptural text that was used as a topic in the disputation.28 In this instance the nearest antecedent scriptural text is the one just cited by Thought, at the beginning of his three-day “disputation” with Will. There he had defined Dobet as one willing not only to practice virtue but to teach it, and cited in support of this moral imperative – apparently without irony – St Paul’s ironic remonstrance with the wisdom-loving Corinthians: “libenter suffertis insipientes cum sitis sapientes” (willingly you suffer fools, since you yourselves are wise, 2 28 Amid the long and arduous trial of wit and learning that was the formal university examination, this one moment was traditionally devoted to the ritual display of intellectual play; see James Weisheipl, “The Curriculum of the Faculty of Arts at Oxford in the Early Fourteenth Century,” Mediæval Studies 26 (1964), 143–85, p. 164; A.G. Little and F. Pelster, Oxford Theology and Theologians, ca. 1282–1302 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), pp. 45–7.

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Cor. 11.19). Its appropriateness here is enhanced by the latent wordplay provisionally linking fools (insipientes) with beginners or those possessing only elementary mastery in a discipline (incipientes). By the B stage of composition, precisely this wordplay has already been marked as pivotal in an earlier episode: it occurs in B’s Pardon scene, which like this one turns on the issue of whether the seeker in question is an earnest and obedient apprentice to the authoritative magisterium or a presumptuous fool.29 The lines surrounding Thought’s introduction thus not only foreground Will’s name as signature, but compactly establish the represented maker of this poem as an aspirant to a specifically clerical and learned legitimacy. This atmosphere of erudite contention permeates narrative development for several subsequent passus, and culminates in the learned riddles at the Banquet of Clergy.30 The identity of the author and the character of his literary project are thus at once both disclosed and “occulted”: hereafter Will’s name and his poetic enterprise claim the privileged company of texts whose intricacies of verbal art both provoke and reward the reader’s full powers of reflection and interpretation. At this last signatory moment of the A text, Langland attaches his vernacular enterprise firmly to the culture and company of high-literate speculation and indicates the arts of reading that will be required to use it well. It is already evident in the A version, then, that acts of authorial selfnaming have more than an occasional function as momentary evocations of actual or fictive social intimacy with an audience. Their self-reflexive and diacritical importance in the narrative is intensified in the B and C revisions, while their dependence for legibility as signatures on extratextual knowledge of the poet’s person is gradually diminished. If in the A-text scene we have just examined these notations of Will’s bodily “shap” functioned for their primary audience as no more than throwaway moments of self-reference, designed initially for the amusement of those of Langland’s contemporary readers who knew him by sight – much like the Eagle’s disparagement of “Geffrey’s” unsuitable weight for visionary air travel in the Hous of Fame – such lines would nevertheless not have been lost on a reader of the C text 29 The priest who challenges Piers over the Pardon in the B version invokes a similar play on these two words, insultingly suggesting that the plowman, who to his surprise is “lettrid a litel,” having learned his ABCs from “Abstynence þe Abbesse,” might well “preche ... as diuinour in diuinite, wiþ dixit insipiens to þi teme” (Ps.13.1; B.7.140–1); the text he suggests at the corresponding point in the A version is “Quoniam literaturam non cognoui” (Ps.70.15). As Judson Allen has shown, Langland would have found both texts discussed together in Hugh of St Cher’s Psalter commentary: “Langland’s Reading and Writing,” p. 356. 30 See my essays “Two Infinites,” and “The Passion of Seint Averoys [B.13.91]: ‘Deuynyng’ and Divinity in the Banquet Scene,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987), 31–40.

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who lacked direct or indirect social familiarity with the author. By this point in the C narrative the reader would not only identify Will as the name of the dreamer and maker (he is named both at C.1.5 and earlier in the C-version of the present episode; see C.10.71, replacing A.9.64), but recognize in Wit Will’s own distinctive stature, already specified as “longe” (C.5.23–4). A reader of C would also have been taught by the form of these signature events to associate something else with moments of self-naming and self-reference: in the revised and expanded versions of the poem, they are staged with increasing fullness both to evoke excuses and apologiae of the subject’s insufficiency, and to exact from him a broad reexamination of his position – in his quest, in his allotted time on earth, and in the trajectory of the work that is the poem. As moments of signature are in revision linked by these additional common features as events, and begin to refer to each other, they declare their diacritical force with increasing clarity in each of the two long versions. The effect of these changes, from moments of signature to a signature-system, is to convert the increasingly expendable fiction of social intimacy with the author into a broader kind of enabling knowledge and textual competence as the ground of the “truth” of the work. The signatures of the B and C versions are disposed through the work not only (as in A-3) sporadically to foreground the poetic and intellectual aspirations of Langland’s project, but systematically to mark and display the critical points of genesis and transformation of that project, realized as a succession of critical turning points in the author’s life. The moments of signature become narratively pivotal events that render biographical and poetic self-awareness synonymous. Access to the “truth” of the poem (that is, to its binding formal principle as well as its objective) is thus realized narratively, not as vertical ascent in an epistemological or eschatological order but in the literary form of a chronicle of a life remembered, disclosing its immanent design in moments of subjective crisis, each of which is marked by signature. For the reader, the activity of recognizing the author’s name is thus gradually set in parallel with the endeavor of following a sustained narration; to those who apprehend the applied ethical and subjective importance of the difficult and abstract questions broached by the poem’s discursive wanderings – and to them alone – will Langland disclose and explain himself. That is, only to someone capable of reading the poem as a narrative with an immanent design – and not simply, as Robert Crowley evidently considered it, a collection of “goodly allegories” or local figurative amplifications of scriptural themes – will the signatures be

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systematically legible as such at all.31 It is a critical commonplace that the poem represents the mode of access to truth as applied, ethical, and grounded in subjective experience. What the disposition of the authorial name in his poem discloses, however, is Langland’s progressively deeper understanding and more fully conscious acceptance – comparable to that of Augustine – of both the literary and social consequences of developing a philosophic and spiritual quest in the narrative form of a historically specific life-story. V. The signature-system of the B and C versions A. Naming and narrative crisis It is only with the B version that the surname is introduced into the signature system, and only at this stage, therefore, that Langland begins to exploit anagrammatic methods: a syllabic anagram requires more than the monosyllable Will to exist. An extreme skeptic might even wish to argue that only here do signatures as such first appear at all: that all occurrences of the baptismal name Will alone denote only the common noun, the faculty, personified in the dreamer, and not a proper name, and hence need not be regarded as references to the author. Such a view offers, as I believe the foregoing analysis of A shows, a less thrifty account of such passages as A-3 than one that acknowledges the additional presence of signatory force. This objection, however, will always have slightly more plausibility than those against the anagrammatized full name of the third B signature (Appendix B-3). The case for Langland’s signature-system as a whole has traditionally rested heavily on this line. In B, as in A, three signatures have been identified, two of them survivals from A: the first and last of A’s three are retained, while A’s second, in which Will as a copyist is rewarded by the merchants, is rewritten so that the merchants’ gratitude is now directed to Piers, “þat purchaced þis bulle.” The keystone for all demonstration that the poem contains an authorial signature in any form is therefore the third instance in B, the anagram of Will Langland in “‘I haue lyued in londe,’ quod I, ‘my name is longe wille.’” Despite Manly’s dissent, and what appears to be skepticism in John Norton-Smith’s recent observation that the line “hints at an English equivalent for the Latin noun longanimitas, longanima, ‘long-sufferance’,” there has been no convincing For an argument that it is this kind of reading that was largely lost soon after 1400, see my essay “The Audience and Public of Piers Plowman,” pp. 119–20. 31

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account of this line that succeeds in explaining away its signatory function – although as we have already seen, that function need not exclude (and in this poem often conspicuously and efficiently includes) other figurative significances.32 Like the third signature of A (now the second in B), this one collects and secures those that precede it: Will’s long leanness, twice evoked in the A passage we have examined, is now elevated from a visible to a verbal distinction, no longer a bodily trait but a cognomen. The identification of full-name signature in the two long versions of the poem does not, however, depend on this line alone. The keystone of the signature-system lies earlier in the narrative, so securely imbedded in the sequence of events that it is beyond removal by the alteration of any single line in C. Langland’s first explicit anagrammatic signature in the B expansion of the poem is in fact the Lond of Longyng – the name of the site of the first episode of the B continuation. Just as it is from this vantage point of suddenly unmasked desire that Will is forced to look both “before and behind” at the course of his quest, it is the name of this visionary place – a semantic field already present but lying dormant in A – that anchors both antecedent and subsequent instances of authorial self-naming. It has never to my knowledge been noticed that the Lond of Longyng is an authorial signature, and on its face the suggestion may seem far-fetched, although we have already met several far more arcane contemporary instances of occulted naming, and more could be adduced. The proof of such a claim, however – to the extent that matters of interpretation lend themselves to proof – lies not in the citation of other poets’ similar practices, but in the quality of the readings of this poem that such a hypothesis enables. Regarding the Lond of Longyng as a pivotal signature, the most deeply-inscribed in a system of signatures first fully articulated in the B-version, renders visible large principles of narrative structure and authorial “foreconceit” that are among the most rarely glimpsed features of Langland’s sprawling poetic production. As a signature, the Lond of Longyng invites us to take our bearings in the allegorical narrative from Will’s position, a position which is realized as historically concrete as well as figurative: such mnemonic narrative marking is, I shall argue, precisely the purpose of the signature-system. In order to demonstrate both the genesis and the literary function of the Lond of Longyng as signature, a place of absolute authorial as well as spiritual selfconfrontation and self-revelation, we too must scan the narrative path leading toward and away from it from “before and behind.” John Norton-Smith, William Langland (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983), p. 89. See also note 5 above. 32

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We may take our first sighting from the uncontested later anagrammatic signature in B (B.15.152), “I haue lyued in londe, ... my name is longe wille.” At the moment when the dreamer identifies himself as “longe wille” who has “lyued in londe” he is speaking to a new instructor. Ordinarily called Anima in the B text, and transformed into Liberum Arbitrium in C, this creature has introduced himself by explaining that he has many names, depending on his several functions in the soul. The topic of discussion thus momentarily foregrounds the proprieties of naming, and sets up an occasion for Will to offer his own in return as a sign of his “menyng,” just as his instructor has explained his capacities by glossing his name. Before introducing himself with this conspicuous, and conspicuously pointed, anagram, however, Will becomes diverted by the sheer rhetorical intricacy of Anima’s gloss, eagerly seeking to know “the cause of all hire names.” For this characteristic deflection of his desire for self-knowledge into curiosity for “science” he draws Anima’s swift rebuke as “oon of prides knyȝtes.” This deferral of Will’s answering self-presentation gives an added function to that disclosure: when Will finally introduces himself, he is not merely declaring but defending his enterprise. The moment thus take its place in a succession of such humiliations and new beginnings that are regularly “pointed” with his signature. The texts of St Bernard that Anima adduces to support his rebuke designate the thematic terms and the kind of narrative incident within which Will’s identity is disclosed to himself as well as the reader repeatedly throughout the poem. Beatus est qui scripturas legit et verba vertit in opera (blessed is he who reads the scriptures and turns their words to works) and Sciencie appetitus hominem inmortalitatis gloriam spoliavit (the appetite for knowledge has robbed man of the glory of immortality) recall the contraposition of words and works which anchor Will’s pivotal formal function in the narrative and imbed them in its verse language.33 They also call up in the reader’s memory several earlier occasions of reversal, framed in like terms: Will’s ambitious ransacking of the world for intricate answers to increasingly subdivided questions is repeatedly disrupted and transformed by encounters that humiliate this ambition. On 33 The sources of these two texts are, respectively, Bernard’s Tractatus de Ordine Vitae (PL 184:566), based on Matt. 7:24, and Sermo IV in Ascensione Domini (PL 183.311); the latter is incorporated by Hugh of St Cher in his commentary on Ephesians 4:9–10 (Post. in Univ. Bbl. v.7, fol. 174v): see John Alford, “Some Unidentified Quotations in Piers Plowman,” Modern Philology 72 (1975), 396, 397. On the importance of this alliterating triad of terms in linking thematic and self-referential authorial disclosures, see John A. Burrow, “Words, Works, and Will: Theme and Structure in Piers Plowman,” in Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. S.S. Hussey (London: Methuen, 1969), pp. 111–24.

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such occasions, Will’s illusory progress through the world of knowledge is deflected inward, toward a strenuous confrontation of the self and its motives. By this point in the poem this recurrent oscillation between resolution and shame has become the governing pattern of narrative development: each humiliation of Will’s striving shatters the preceding line of narrative figuration and in turn become the site of a new one.34 It is these restorative ruptures that are the locus of authorial signatures. We have examined one such moment of self-reflexivity in Will’s A encounter with Thought and Wit. Anima’s rebuke in B – the one that evokes Will’s anagram of his name – most vividly recalls, however, an earlier one by Dame Scripture, multi multa sciunt et seipsos nesciunt (many know many things, but know not themselves; B.11.3), the humiliation that had sent him in despair into the Lond of Longyng. By looking forward in the poem from this moment, we also begin to apprehend what is at stake in looking backward, and to grasp the terms of their equivalence. Conceding to Anima that what he really seeks is not many things (the nice distinctions of the soul’s many names) but only one, charity, Will’s contrite return to a project of self-understanding marks the penultimate turning point in the poem. It initiates the long and sublime narrative sequence, the most sustained of the entire poem, that culminates in the narrator’s vision of Christ’s victory at the Crucifixion. With a fine and characteristic irony, that scene of redemption is realized in precisely the two dramatized forms that Will here indicates to Anima that he least expects: as both “champions fight” and “chaffare” (exchange, B.15.164). That one whom he looks forward to knowing “sooþly,” he concedes, is neither knight nor merchant and embodies the antithesis of that pride of which Will himself has just been accused – non inflatur, non est ambiciosa, non querit que sua sunt (he is not boastful, nor overweening; he asks not after his own goods, I Cor. 13.4–5). Though he has been told that this Christ, the goal of all his longing, “is in all places,” Will admits that thus far he has not found him “bifore ne bihynde,” having glimpsed him only “figuratyfly” (C.16.294), “as myself in a mirour” (B.15.162; hic in aenigmate, tunc facie ad faciem, I Cor. 13.12). Emphasizing, like A’s major signature, the subject’s insufficiencies and his renewed commitment to his project, Will’s anagrammatic introduction of himself in B likewise becomes a moment of long perspectives for the reader. From here forward to Will’s Good Friday sleep lies an unbroken See my essay, “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman,” in The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1982), pp. 91–122. 34

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thematic path toward his one “face to face” vision of charity, the thing itself, acting in human form “in Piers armes.” And just as it is a brief reflection on Will’s name and on the proprieties of naming in general that begins this long motion, it is the true identity and proper name of the champion himself, not at first fully blazoned as he approaches the ground of trial that, as in chivalric romance, becomes a focus of interest at the end of this long arc of development, both before and after the redeemer’s battle (B.18.10–25; 19.10–29). Christ’s blazoned name is thus made to designate the central, unique, unrepeatable event in history that measures and renders intelligible what goes before and after, while Will’s reiterated signature becomes the sign of historical recursiveness and narrative repetition as the condition of the subject in temporal life.35 Yet while Will’s anagrammatic signature-speech to Anima offers a conspectus of what lies “bifore” Will, it also makes present to memory as “in a mirour” what lies “bihynde” him: an earlier signed moment of humiliation and self-confrontation in the Lond of Longyng, an event which in turn recalls and reframes the starting point of his quest. On that antecedent occasion, in the opening lines of the B-continuation, when Will looked at “myself in a mirour,” his gaze met only mortality as far as the eye could see. “Scorned” by Scripture for his inability to find himself and his place amid the speculative intricacies that are all he sees when he gazes at the sacred page – multi multa sciunt et seipsos nesciunt – he falls into Fortune’s tutelage and finds his place in the world. In “a Mirour þat hiȝte middelerþe” she shows Will his land of heart’s desire, promising all the “wonders” he has sought since the opening lines of the poem. The place where Fortune rules is called by his “kynde” name: the Lond of Longyng. This “avanture” into Fortune’s realm, occurring at about the midpoint of the poem in its two long versions, proclaims a new beginning, a re-vision of the nature of his project, enabled by yet another act of retrospection. Will’s fall into the Lond of Longyng restages the first adventure of the poem, his first inquiry into the ownership and end of all worldly provisions, paradoxically instigated by the tutelage of Holichurche. From the moment in the first dream when Will asks Holichurche about the disposition of the “money of this molde” as if the fate of the world’s treasure were inextricably parallel to that of his soul, the mixed motives of the subject’s inquiry and interests are thrown into high relief, and they set the terms for the oscillating order of narrative development. For the duration of 35 See my essay, “Making a Good End: John But as a Reader of Piers Plowman,” in Medieval Studies Presented to George Kane, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig (Cambridge, Eng.: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 243–66; esp. 248–50.

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his life – made co-extensive with that of the poem – he seems determined to approach truth by a kind of peripheral vision, along a circuitous route lying always “on þi left half,” through the perpetually “ravishing” distractions of the false. In such terrain, significance can reveal itself only in opposition, in a series of unrelenting exposures of Will’s apparent progress as merely thriftless repetition. Will’s fall into the Lond of Longyng, a few lines into the B continuation, underscores this pattern of narrative reversal with a chilling economy, for it repeats, motif for motif, his first exploratory “avanture” out into the visionary terrain called up by his first dream of the poem. As in his first dream he had looked on his “left half ” to be “rauysshed” at the sight of Lady Meed, Will is again “ravished” by the “wondres” Lady Fortune presents, and the similarity of their blandishments suggests that they are sisters under the skin: riches, array, carnal favors, a retinue compliant to her followers’ pleasures, and the highly visible aura of public respectability that attends lofty kinship. The deepest ravages of both temptations, however, lie in their effects on history itself as discourse: they consist in the construction of glamorous but false and ultimately ruinous master narratives. Lady Meed despoils the kingdom by rendering both its account of its past and its imagination of its future in purely acquisitive and self-serving terms: she explains her pivotal role in the king’s successes and failures at war, and draws a lesson from this past that countenances future conquest. The realm ravaged by Fortune is no less discursive, and its mode is likewise historical narrative. Although her handmaidens the Three Temptations offer Will all the outward trappings of worldly importance, for Lady Fortune herself, as for Lady Meed, revisionist history is the ultimate temptation: she proposes to reconstruct the story of Will’s own life as a romance of adventures, an endless unfolding of opportunities for glory, to be seized or forever lost. Offering a mollifying alternative to Scripture’s sudden radical exposure of Will’s quest as flight – as a spasmodic pattern of repeated avoidances rather than a continuous approach – Fortune provides alluring hopes for his future, and easy and convenient terms for arranging his end. His life-story is seductively displayed for him in the narrative form of secular romance, in which “middel elde” represents the mean between the extremes of youthful giddiness and the miserliness of old age, a time for the fulfillment of all one’s earthly powers and designs.36 See John Burrow, “Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and the Three Ages of Man,” in Essays on Medieval Literature, p. 30. It is the superimposition of two three-age schemata in the conceptual organization of this scene – one civil and worldly, the other a diagram of spiritual progress – that gives complexity and depth to the representation of Will’s aging over the course of the 36

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The Lond of Longyng is thus patently and schematically a place of temptation for Will-as-common-noun, as the power of ethical volition: Fortune’s two “damsels” are concupiscencia carnis and “Coueitise of eiȝes,” and “Pride of parfit lyuynge pursued hem boþe” (B.11.13–15).37 But it is also a place for Will as author to disclose the massively revised terms of his art in the long versions. It is “Elde” who offers, in contraposition to Fortune’s, a version of Will’s life-history that throws narrative emphasis on making a good end, rather than on the mediate enchantments and negotiations of the prime of life. With the approach of old age Will comes to regret the “forward” (agreement or contract) he made with the friars, while Fortune was his friend, to be buried by them instead of in his parish churchyard. Under Elde’s tutelage he now desires to dispose his life within the integrity of a biographical circle rather than the open and episodic form of adventure-tale: “At kirke þere a man were cristned by kynde he sholde be buryed” (B.11.67). But it is within the terms of his revised desire to represent himself “kyndely” that Langland inscribes his name in the scene. As Will vehemently castigates the friars’ mercenary trade in such spiritual “forwards” as the one he had made at Fortune’s behest and now wishes to rewrite, Lewte intervenes to ask Will to explain and justify his anger (B.11.84– 85); from this point the scene begins explicitly to bring the terms of its own literary “forward” into the foreground of attention. Lewte’s challenge, Priscilla Martin has suggested, raises the question of the morality and limits of satire, particularly the danger to the subject in taking immoderate pleasure in exposing the faults in others while, as a condition of its rhetorical posture, it appears to allow the criticizing subject to remove his own condition, and the limits of his ethical charter, from the field of scrutiny. “It is only on the poem.. As Burrow notes (p. 29), according to Giles of Rome, whose discussion of the ages of man in De Regimine Principum derives from Aristotle’s Rhetoric and was also used by Dante in the Convivio, middle age is the ideal prime of life, a mean between the extremes of unstable youth and pusillanimous age, the “colmo de la nostra vita” (Conv. 4.24.3). Moral poems and homiletic writings, however, found these middle years, precisely because they encompass the fruitfulness of one’s worldly powers, a time of extreme moral peril, when heedlessness of the soul’s good is even more dangerous than it is in youth because more likely to have become a settled practice. As Burrow has shown elsewhere, Will’s confrontation with Ymaginatif, which comes to him at the age of “fyue and fourty wynter,” marks the boundary between middle and old age, when according to homiletic moralists thoughts of one’s worldly projects and ambitions should yield to thoughts of “thin ende” (“Langland Nel Mezzo del Cammin,” in Medieval Studies for J.A.W. Bennett, ed. P.L. Heyworth [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981], pp. 21–41.) 37 See Donald Howard, The Three Temptations: Medieval Man in Search of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 161–214.

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question of satire,” she argues, “that Langland can formulate the problem latent in the entire poem: ... that the ‘personality’ of a literary work may color its ‘doctrine’.”38 This formulation is, however, not an incidental effect in this scene, but defines the terms of its structural centrality and the memorial role of the signature in the poem. In the Lond of Longyng, as in the later anagrammatic signature that points backward to it, the author’s name accompanies a disclosure and renegotiation of the literary terms of the work. Will, who was in the early visions situated at the periphery of the community of the folk as it turns toward its collective penitential enterprise, an engaged observer who forecasts and mimes in his own weeping and seeking the canonical motions by which journeying becomes a penitential labor, here fully introjects this massive social project as his own – indeed, as himself : he does not so much abandon the field full of folk as become it, his wanderings now a prophetically significant mimesis of the story of his people. He marks this development, which enables the B-C continuation, by making his name signify not only the person but the place in which this labor is undertaken: a longe launde is, among other things, the strip of land a plowman plows.39 As a place-name, his authorial surname has the surface form of many that were to become fixed and heritable in this century: it seems to specify the landholding, dwelling or birthplace that could serve to distinguish him in written record from a neighbor or relative with the same baptismal name. Yet the addition that in contemporary usage serves to mark a socially significant difference here serves to redouble the force of the given name alone, underscoring its generic power: though formally a proper name or surname, the “long land” designates what he possesses in common with all mortals, his unsatisfied desire or will. At once disclosing and occulting his identity, Will’s enigmatic authorial name is paradoxically both proper and common, a condensed confession and a device that enables him to go on “writing and hiding himself.” As inhabitant and heir of the Lond of Longyng that has so far defined the space of his life, he has, in Augustine’s words, “become a problem to himself ” – a project of social reclamation and cultivation in the first person – and his literary signature, with its accompanying moments of intensive self-reference, has become a narrative and critical, not an attributive, mnemonic. The ground of this fully signatory moment at the midpoint of the two long versions is not wholly a new invention at the second stage of 38 Priscilla Martin, Piers Plowman: The Field and the Tower (London: Macmillan; New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 70. 39 OED s.v. “land,” sb., I.7.

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composition, however: it already lay dormant, awaiting cultivation, as early as the A version. In A the Lond of Longyng, not yet developed as a place of absolute self-confrontation, appears only as it were in peripheral vision: it lies on the road not taken in the allegorical landscape Will traverses on his way to the episode that launches the B continuation. In the third dream of the A version, Dame Study rudely interrupts her husband Wit’s instruction to pronounce Will unworthy of such pearls of wisdom: he seeks knowledge, she claims, only so that he can retail it elsewhere to general applause for his own cleverness (A.11.5–16). Her accusation is precisely echoed by the “scorn” of her successor Dame Scripture that precipitates Will’s fall into the Lond of Longyng; on this earlier occasion, however, Will succeeds in turning aside his accuser’s wrath. Placated by his protestations of humble devotion to her discipline, Study at last gives Will the road-directions that will bring him to the house of Clergy and his wife Scripture – at which happy turn of events he professes himself, in a compromising simile, “gladdere þanne þe gleman þat gold haþ to ȝifte” (A.11.111). This “hieȝe wey” to Scripture traverses a figurative landscape much like the one Piers had delineated for the folk who asked his guidance to truth, but where Piers’s way led through the social discipline of the commandments and sacraments, Study’s lies through the marked and unmarked hazards of individual temptations:



And rid forþ bi ricchesse, ac reste þou not þerinne, For ȝif þou couple þe wiþ hym to clergie comist þou neuere; And ek þe longe launde þat leccherie hatte, Leue hym on þi left half a large myle or more, Til þou come to a court, kepe wel þi tunge Fro lesinges & liþer speche & likerous drinkes. Þanne shalt þou se sobirte, & simplite of speche, Þat iche wiȝt be in wille his wyt þe to shewen. (A.11.116–23)

It is this “longe launde þat leccherie hatte” – lying, like the domain of Lady Meed, “on þi left half ” – that is developed and populated in the opening moments of the B-C continuation to produce a more extended trial of Will’s motives, not only as pilgrim but as maker. The Lond of Longyng, built up on a slender strip of terrain merely glimpsed by the way in the first version, is in the long versions resituated in medias res, in several senses: Fortune addresses her gratifications to the desires and powers characteristic of the middle of life, and her appeal presents itself both about midway in the poem and

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midway in Will’s life’s journey. As the name of the place, and the surname of the person, from which the long versions begin, it reframes the fundamental narrative premise of the poem by an act of superimposition: Will’s satiric critique of his world is now subsumed in a massive historical reclamation of the subject’s life in the light of salvation history. It is by proclaiming at this point his full name that the poetic subject assumes the prophet’s mantle, and his representative status. He becomes, to adopt a phrase whose contemporary legal usage will prove resonant in understanding the social significance of this move, a “son of the people.” B. Langland’s “kynde name” and narrative “kynde” If the anagram of Will’s name in his meeting with Anima initiates the final progression of the poem – a penultimate turning point much like that experienced by Dante when, for the first time in the poem, the poet hears his own name in the first syllables Beatrice addresses to him – then the Lond of Longyng, to which that later signature alludes narratively, may be understood as Will’s selva oscura, encountered, like Dante’s, nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita (midway in our life’s journey). While Dante’s self-confrontation initiates his poem, however, Langland’s merely alludes by echo to the beginning of his, proclaiming a second “coming to himself ” halfway through its and his life’s duration. Overlaying a second narrative order on his first, he not only associates his poetic enterprise with contemporary civil and religious discourses of social instruction (a chief preoccupation of A’s three visions), but, like Dante, now proposes to understand through cosmic vision his own position in time, developing the deep correspondences between biography and redemptive history. In both cases self-discovery is revealed as a profound and self-conscious transformation of literary genre; Will here rediscovers the resources of “kynde” in his own “kynde name.” John Burrow has recently invoked just this analogy to Dante in his analysis of the episode immediately following the fall into the Lond of Longyng, namely Will’s encounter in Passus 11–12 with Ymaginatif.40 The latter figure not only integrates into a single vision what had appeared to be the conflicting testimony of nature and scripture, but also pointedly commands Will-asmaker to justify his apparently dilatory and distracting way of spending his earthly time and wits: it, too, is a moment of literary as well as eschatological and moral self-justification. Like Dante’s thirty-three years on the Good “Langland Nel Mezzo del Cammin.”

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Friday of the Jubilee Year 1300 on which the poem begins, Will’s age at this critical and extended self-confrontation halfway through his poem is specified explicitly – twice, in fact – in the B-text. It is forty-five years: the duration of Fortune’s favor in the Lond of Longyng (B.11.47), it also measures the time during which Ymaginatif has followed Will, ceaselessly but unavailingly urging him to “mynne on þyn ende” (B.12.4). These ages are in both poems resonantly significant numbers: Dante’s is the age of Christ at the crucifixion, and therefore, in Augustine’s belief, the age of the resurrected perfect body reunited to its soul; Will’s forty-five, however, as the traditional boundary between juventus, the middle term of life’s three ages, and senectus, marks what ought to be a turning point from limitless projects to a vision of their end.41 Ymaginatif rebukes Will for spending these years “medling” with “makynges” instead of with prayers and his psalter. Burrow asks whether this admonitory vision is meant to be understood as “fact or fiction,” and favors – as I do – a factual reading in which, however, there is little functional difference between them. By the process that Judson Allen calls assimilatio, the truth and integrity of a life-history is wholly absorbed into the functions of a massively figurative exemplary narrative.42 But Burrow does not consider the possibility I propose here, that the Lond of Longyng is itself an act of still more pointed authorial self-reference. Such a view tends, however, to confirm both Burrow’s reading of the episode and his understanding of the general compositional technique it involves as broadly comparable to Dante’s way of yoking together the literary uses of biographical and cosmic time to order and articulate narrative time. As Allen says of this method, in his last published essay, it is the multiple figurative determinants of his story that “leave [Langland] free to be selfabsorbed as he writes.”43 It is, of course, the same kind of self-absorption that sustains Augustine’s twin projects of confession and universal history, and for both, the common language of inventio and dispositio, the terms of composition of both self and world, is Scripture. There could be no more decisive mark of this absorption than a signature that transforms the author’s name into the place-name of his own selva oscura, the Lond of Longyng. As a signatory device, it is not unparalleled in the later medieval vernaculars: Antoine de la Salle, too, makes his surname into On the age of thirty-three as the “perfect stature” of the resurrected body, see Augustine Civ. Dei 22.15, in The City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Book, 1972), pp. 1065–6. 42 The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 248–87. 43 “Langland’s Reading and Writing,” p. 357. 41

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a place of exemplary self-discovery: a room or chamber (salle) of reflection and speculation in an allegorical castle. But in Langland’s poem this place is transformed by retrospection: years later, as he has faced all but his final humiliation, he recalls it to Anima/Liberum Arbitrium, the Creature of Many Names, in a new light. The “mirour” that once gave back to his “rauysshed” gaze an image only of his boundless desires is remembered at last in Anima’s/ Liberum Arbitrium’s presence – and thereby rendered for a reader – as the place where Will first glimpsed Charity “as myself in a mirour”: in retrospect his humiliation becomes a felix culpa. Ymaginatyf provides Will with the texts that authorize and render intelligible such a narrative development: quem diligo, castigo (whom I love I chastise: Apoc. 3:19; Prov. 3:12), and virga tua et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt (thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me: Ps. 22:4; B.12.10–15). It is, however, to the extent that this assimilatio in the final revision adduces contemporary social texts as well as scripture in authorial self-disclosure that Langland raises troubling questions about the kind of cultural authority he claims, as well as the narrative genre he asserts, by the disposition of his “kynde name.” C. “Kynde name” as common place and proper place In the C version, Langland engraves his name and identity in the text still more emphatically than in the B text, while at the same time he makes the referential significance of this act of self-disclosure newly problematic. On the one hand, in C the primary loci of signature occur much earlier in the narrative sequence, and are conspicuously pointed as such. As we have noted, minor revisions in C move forward the first unambiguous use of the authorial given name to the opening moments of this version of the poem: in her first speech to the dreamer, Holichurche addresses him at once by name (“Wille, slepestou?” C.1.5). Throughout the C-version, the sequence of self-disclosures that echo and elaborate each other to form what we have described as a mnemonic signature-system is marked more firmly, not only by such revisions as these, and other minor adjustments in already existing signatures, but by their realigned reference to an entirely new episode of extended authorial selfjustification, introduced into the C text between the first and second vision. Here, in a waking encounter with Reason and Conscience in London “in a hote heruest” (C.5.1–108), Will is now forced to account for more than the integrity and form of his project as spiritual history: he must now attempt to justify it as social production.

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The C version of Will’s introduction of himself to the Creature of Many Names is revised to point retrospectively to this new locus of authorial selfjustification. We have noted that the anagram of the full name in B (“I haue lyued in londe,... my name is longe wille”) points back to the Lond of Longyng as the referential center for the B signature-system, at the midpoint of both the poem and Will’s life. At the same point in C, Will introduces himself to Anima (in C renamed Liberum Arbitrium) by his local habitation alone – and that habitation has changed: “Ich haue yleued in Londone manye longe ȝeres.” Yet if the anagrammatic character of the latter version of this line is less obvious in isolation, it serves just as economically as its B counterpart to point to the new referential center for C’s signatures, and to suggest a revised relation between the author’s professed worldly habitation and the character of his enterprise. By changing the locus of Will’s identity and the ground of his work from a fictive rural place to an actual urban one, Langland in the C version opens the authorial project to a newly strenuous and circumstantial interrogation, in which the “point at issue” in justifying the authorial form of living is its conformity not only to scriptural master narratives but to contemporary social discourses concerning the grounds of civil identity, particularly as expressed in recent statutes distinguishing legitimate work, “leel labor,” from idleness.44 In his fullest portrait to date of “myself in a mirour,” Langland projects the question concerning authorial identity in C into decisively “juridical” as well as existential terrain, and his authorial “confession” on this occasion has two distinct dimensions. It is only after his confession to, and release by, his inquisitors as civil authorities that Will, knocking his breast, enacts a confession of sinfulness as part of penitential rectification. By enacted selfassimilation to the discourses of authority between dreaming and waking, civil and spiritual jurisdictions, Langland raises a troubling larger question about the inevitably apologetic dimension of his culturally powerful discourse of equivalence between the world and the book. In its circumstantial fulness, the new episode in C rehearses the entire repertory of signals that enable the “pointing” of subsequent signatures: it The major points of both Reason’s and Conscience’s inquiry, and the form of Will’s replies, follow closely the provisions of the Second Statute of Laborers of 1388; see Statutes of the Realm (London, 1810), II.56–9. The details of this resemblance warrant separate treatment, which I expect in the near future to provide. [See now Anne Middleton, “Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388,” in Written Work: Langland, Labor, and Authorship, ed. Steven Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 208–317.] 44

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is here that the reader first hears of Will’s characteristic bodily “shap” (“I am to long, lef me, lowe to stoupe”), mentioned less directly later in his quest in his encounter with Thought and Wit, and confronts with more sustained attention the pretentions to clerical status implicitly proclaimed by Will’s anomalous hermit’s habit mentioned in the opening lines of the poem. The “truth” of these signals, however, which in B furnish forth the materials for a resonantly enigmatic association of Will with the figure of the prophet-penitent, becomes in C the topic of rigorous cross-examination. Will’s recurrent claims to the elective poverty, otium and learning of the cleric – and hence the very method of his poetic enterprise, grounded as it is in the assimilation of the authorial self to scriptural discourse – are exposed by this encounter as face-saving social rationalizations, apologetic reconstructions of his anomalous outward poverty and perpetually unsatisfied desire that allow him to claim exemplary power for the form of his life and work, while evading the regulation and status definition that could warrant such a defense. His poetic ambitions for his work – specifically, its aspirations to the company, readership, and expository methods of the learned and powerful – are now unmistakably and compromisingly associated with a London dominated by the pursuit of Lady Meed. As an event, the “autobiographical” interlude in the C text has the characteristic form of the other signatory episodes we have examined: a challenge that suddenly interrupts and deflects the course of Will’s designs, producing in succession first a rationalization then an access of shame and confession, and issues in a contrite resolution to embark upon a new course of both life and work, in a narrative of penitential retrospection that reimagines the world under the dispensation of salvation history. Under the dual pressures of its placement in the poem and the historical specificity of its realization, however, this episode of authorial self-disclosure reevaluates the delicate equilibrium between self and world marked out by the signatures of B. In the chief poetic self-disclosure of the C version, Langland exposes the instability of his poetic project of biblical imitatio – of rendering narrated or lived action intelligible by scriptural citation, by reference of the lived to the already written – by emphasizing, through Will’s wily, detailed, and desperate application of it to his own case, its inevitably interested character. By placing this moment of primary authorial self-disclosure, and the reference point for the authorial name, early in the poem, and by staging it as an unsought encounter that befell Will during his youth rather than midway in his life’s journey, Langland now portrays the access of poetic self-awareness as the condition for beginning his grand project rather than the occasion of

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a massive revision and introjection of a narrative of visionary “avanture” initially conceived in other terms. Moreover, where the transformed ars poetica of B is extracted from Will as the price of his second seduction in the poem, in C it becomes a moral – and now also legal – consequence of his first, the Vision of Lady Meed. Reason and Conscience, who advise the King regarding Meed’s marriage, are in C promoted for their good counsel to “cheef chancellor” and “kynges iustice” at the end of the first dream, and it is in this capacity, as powers who invoke at the literal level civil rather than spiritual sanctions, that they accost Will in London. Still young and able-bodied, oblivious not only to the threat of old age but even to the attractions of power that belong to the middle years, Will at the beginning of this encounter is largely unconscious of life-designs of any kind; unreflectively he indulges his bodily appetites and spends his time and wit on “makings” (compositions) about the “lollares of Londone and lewed eremytes” among whom he lives. For these productions (made, he insists, under Reason’s tutelage) he is unpopular with his fellow denizens of Cornhill, but to the view of his interrogators Will’s life is indistinguishable from theirs. The challenge to Will proposed by this inquest is to establish the terms of his difference from these contemporaries, while at the same validating his capacity to represent them. The enterprise he resolves to begin must be licensed by Reason and Conscience as “leel labor,” in which the rest of his life’s work becomes a kind of palinode to the “makings” of his idle youth. Yet it is the civil suspicions attached to Will’s idleness rather than the dangers to his salvation in his further deferral of penitential reflection that in C invokes the corrective attention of the authorities. If at the end of the episode Will once again manages to pass the test to which he is subjected by refiguring his identity in the terms offered by his challengers, the social significance of his reprieve is deeply ambiguous, and the “kynde” with which Will’s “kynde name” associates him remains suspect, transgressive. Even more striking than C’s temporal resituating of the primary authorial self-disclosure early in the narrative sequence and early in Will’s life is its changed geographical locus, which exacerbates rather than resolves the “question of authorship.” The surname – which in B was derived anagrammatically from longe launde, a rural holding transformed into the figurative Lond of Longyng, the “kynde” place of unsatisfied desire that is the author’s sole birthright – is rederived in C as an anagram that embodies as part of his name his urban habitation, London, a locus of impropriety which he is here accused of having chosen in order to evade the bond between man and his “kynde” rural place. In the C version of his duplicitous identity, Will is a man “of ” “London and

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opelond bothe,” enigmatically at once urban and rural. His laboring “lymes” are both verbal and corporeal, and his inheritance and his reward both are, and are not, of this world (C.5.43–62). London now becomes the primary and definitive ground of his identity as author; if not his own native place, it is nevertheless the birthplace of Will’s authorial enterprise. As the adopted basis for his name, London is at the literal or historical level the functional equivalent of the figurative rural Lond of Longyng: the metropolis is the place in the “real world” that is constituted by, and draws to itself, the boundless desires of Will and his “kynde” for reward and legitimacy. Because it appears to be an elective rather than ancestral ground of identity, Will’s prolonged residence in London attracts the suspicions of Reason and Conscience concerning his “liflode.” Fundamental to this encounter is the assumption, which Will apparently shares with his interrogators, that London is virtually no one’s “proper” place; whatever aspects of his identity Will derives from this habitation must be pretensions or disguises, since the commune’s proper work, its collective “liflode,” is based in rural production. This urban encounter is superimposed on, and represented by his inquisitors as, a time urgently requiring participation in the rural harvest in the face of a shortage of laborers. Dense as it is with overtones of the Gospel parables of the harvest and with apocalyptic urgency, it is, in view of the subsequent resonance of this scene, its literal historical terms that are particularly arresting – and it is these that send us into contemporary practices of naming and pseudonymy for further understanding.45 At the historical 45 The present argument does not deny the structural importance assigned to the scene by its rich Scriptural figuration. The “hote heruest” in which it takes place glances back at the tillers of the field in the initial vision of the Prologue, and forward to both the agrarian labors of Piers’s transformed and domesticated pilgrimage and the final vision of a world of agrarian production, again under Piers’s governance, under the apocalyptic threat of Antichrist’s ultimate assault. The plowman’s role as the ideal center of this spiritual enterprise, as Elizabeth Kirk has recently shown, is, however, by no means a traditional representation (see “Langland’s Plowman”), and Will’s pretensions to a place within this rich metaphoric rural economy are similarly ambiguous. The anomalies of Will’s position are most trenchantly figured in scriptural parables, not only those that implicitly govern the figurative structure of the scene, such as the parable of the vineyard (Matt. 13:44 and Luke 15:10; cf. C.5.94–100), but those he seems unwittingly to re-enact. The most telling of these, the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1–13), traditionally one of the most difficult of the parables to render as ethical or eschatological example, profoundly complicates Will’s self-representation. Commanded to specify by what craft he means to “betere ... þat bylyue the fynden” (improve the lot of those that provide you with the means to sustain life), Will’s swift disavowal of the option of manual labor (C.5.23–5)

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level, Will is here taken by Reason and Conscience for a fugitive rural laborer, indistinguishable from the suspect class of ill-defined idlers and poseurs among whom he dwells. His precariously-asserted (and ultimately redefined) sense of worth derives, it seems, from the satirist’s righteous indignation, yet, like Lewte later in the Lond of Longyng, Reason and Conscience here reveal that under the circumstances it is an insufficiently clear distinction to sustain either Will’s life or his work. To the eye of the civil authorities, Will’s “makings” make no significant difference in the good order of the world, and his professed identity is suspiciously fictive. And just as it is under Lewte’s later scrutiny, the legitimacy of Will’s clerical self-identification is also brought under question. Despite these crushing liabilities in his self-defense, however, his accusers release him – surprisingly under his own recognizance (“For in my consience y knowe what Crist wolde y wrouhte”). Exhorted to lead hereafter “the lyif þat is lowable and leele to thy soule,” and fervently resolving to “bigynne a tyme / That alle tymes of my tyme to profit shal turne,” Will goes to church to undertake the penitence that all parties seem to understand is enjoined upon him by this exchange. Knocking his breast, he falls asleep, only to dream the next vision of the several that comprise the rest of the poem. The visionary duration of Will’s life, the making of the poem that records it, and a life of penitential self-knowledge through confession are thereby, as in B, rendered synonymous. Yet the literal and outward mode of this revised life involves no removal of either habitation or habit. To the eye, he is, and remains, a hermit manqué, living a rule of one, still to all appearances a fugitive from honest toil, and still subject to all the suspicions attached to this class: the London layabout slides imperceptibly into the prophet without honor in his own country, and for the remainder of the poem Will is both deserving and undeserving of the scorn he increasingly attracts. He has chosen the texts of which his life is a sermon, and while they are as inescapable as his “kynde name,” they are no less duplicitous in their range of implication. The scriptural texts that underwrite Will’s determination of his identity as habitual penitent, and the prophetic status this confers on his insufficiency and unlikeliness to represent God’s word, have recently been well-studied; these accounts also tend to focus chiefly on the representative force of echoes the desperate – and morally problematic – resourcefulness of the dishonest steward discovered squandering his lord’s property and facing dismissal: to dig I am unable, to beg I am ashamed; “I am resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses” (Luke 16:3–4; cf. C.5.22–9). The sense of his own social status that forecloses agrarian labor simultaneously opens the route of creative bookkeeping as a means of rectification, transforming continued chicanery into the higher prudence.

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the given name.46 But this author has also acquired for narrative purposes a complicatedly typifying surname – or as Derrida would insist that which functions as as surname – and as a “proper” name it both differs from that of the poet’s father and associates the represented author with a place teeming with “improper” labors and identities. What is the significance of this move? What social texts authorize it, and how do they illuminate the form of the “kynde name” and its deployment as a memory device? How in fact does a surname function in late fourteenth-century England? VI. Names proper and improper: identities for the record It is hardly incidental to our story that it is in precisely this period that most historians of personal names place the final general stabilization of the English surname in its modern form: that is to say as the heritable and conventional paternal addition. We may begin to understand the cultural determinants of this practice by letting Langland’s own Virgil – Conscience – explain it to us. In the C version of his long speech refuting Meed’s claim that what she stands for, limitless reward, is what keeps the kingdom running, Conscience invokes the complex grammatical analogy that Skeat labelled “barely intelligible and very dull.” Because it is complex and learned (even the king notes that “Englisch was it neuere”), it in turn requires analogies to support its applicability.47 Mercede is to Meed – exchange on terms specified is to the open-ended seduction of unspecified promised favor – as “rect” is to “indirect” grammatical relation. “Rect” relations, Conscience explains, See Richard K. Emmerson, “The Prophetic, The Apocalyptic, and the Study of Medieval Literature,” in Poetic Prophecy in Western Literature, ed. Jan Wojcik and Raymond-Jean Frontain (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1984), pp. 40–54; Robert Adams, “Some Versions of Apocalypse: Learned and Popular Eschatology in Piers Plowman,” in the Popular Literature of Medieval England, Tennessee Studies in Literature 28 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985), pp. 194–236. John M. Bowers, in The Crisis of Will in “Piers Plowman” (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1985), gives an extensive and usesful account of the intersection of the biographical and didactic designs of the narrative, but he devotes his attention to the given name Will as the locus of enigmatic identity and does not examine the intertextualities of the authorial surname. 47 See Lavinia Griffiths, Personification in Piers Plowman (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1985), 36; Margaret Amassian and James Sadowsky, “Mede and Mercede: A Study of the Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman C IV.335–409,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971): 457–76. Skeat’s remark is part of his note to C 4.292ff., (C 3.332ff. in Pearsall’s edition): The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, in Three Parallel Texts, ed. Walter W. Skeat (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), 2:49. 46

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are those marked by the addition of correct case endings that declare the relation of modifier to modified, and specify the function of the expression in the statement; the “indirect” or unmarked term seeks to grasp to itself all cases, genders and numbers, while evading all regulated connection (C.3.360–69). These additions, he says, may be thought of as working like surnames: if I wish to claim my father’s “ryhte” as my inheritance, “þat is nat resonable ne rect to refuse my syre name.” The surname, like the case ending, regulates proprietary relations; to disavow the paternal surname is to sever one’s connection to a “kynde” ancestral place; it violates the very grammar of “proper” relations. This comparison succinctly declares the chief function of the surname in common law, and explains why in England by the fourteenth century, well before this occurred anywhere else in Europe, anybody who had occasion to appear in or make a written record of any kind – and by this time that included peasants, many of whom possessed their own personal seals for the purpose – already had a name that followed the common modern form: a given or baptismal name plus a heritable surname that matched that of the father, whether or not it any longer actually declared either the father’s own given name (as, say, the name Robertson does) or his occupation (consider, for example, Chaucer, whose father was not a shoemaker but a winemerchant).48 It was by this sustained continuity of heritable surname across generations as a regulatory convention, rather than by its real reference to paternal given name or occupation, that rights, tenant as well as free, were claimed and maintained through time: to be a copyholder was to hold one’s rights by “copy of the court roll” in the manorial court, and it was in this practical sense that the functional name of the father, as the name of one’s paternal ancestors, was powerful. The two names, first and last, virtually divide between them one’s spiritual and civil identity.49 For virtually all matters before God’s tribunal one acted 48 See C.M. Matthews, English Surnames (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 43–4; P.H. Reaney, The Origin of English Surnames (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), 300–316. 49 Here and throughout this exposition, I use the term “civil” for those temporal and publicly accountable activities that fall outside the specific concern of spiritual authority and ecclesiastical jurisdiction and are governed by common and statutory law – in other words, those that in a later age might be said to occupy “public” space and identity, and come to be the concern of the “state.” The term should not be understood to imply the jurisdiction of the civil, as against common, law. Like “public,” “civil” is a term that must be applied with caution, and with alertness to its specific local utility in marking distinctions of heuristic and expository use in interpretation. I do not contend that these were the terms in which medieval writers and thinkers conceived

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under the given or baptismal name, the name that proclaimed the individual’s beginning in this world as a moral agent and marked all his new beginnings of spiritually significant relations. Examples include the custom of the confession and the practice that still survives in the marriage service: both are sacramental performative occasions in which the parties avow their intentions and constitute their own spiritual “estate” by given name only (“I William take thee Catherine...”). This notion of the individual as capable of making provision for the benefit of his soul extended to the making of wills for the disposition of personal property, even by peasants holding in villein tenure, a practice no longer unusual by the latter fourteenth century. These wills, which were proved in the ecclesiastical court, had become customary with the active encouragement of the Church – and not only because such pious benefactions brought to the Church what might otherwise by default have been claimed by the lord; they reflected what a person was in the eyes of Church belief and authority.50 But as the given name regulated all one’s acts of beginning and became the sign of one’s elective relations – imposed at birth, it was one’s own with baptism, and marked every successive sacramental initiative – the surname governed one’s endings, the effective sign of the network of one’s involuntary relations with the world; naming one’s progenitor, it also specified and disposed the real property that would remain for one’s blood kin at death. For all matters that could come before the king’s courts or the manorial court concerning rights in real property, what functioned as the proper name was the conventional surname, which in later usage came to stand alone for the person in such actions (“Wragg is in custody”). And since it was its distributive and regulatory force that mattered – the surname functionally transmitted paternal right, not the father’s given name or personal occupation – the placethe terms of their worldly relations. The special and limited senses in which a nascent “public” sphere was available as an imaginative ground for distinctive forms of late-medieval thought and action is a topic beyond the scope of this essay. I would contend, however, that such a space – in Habermas’s sense of an arena in which participants tacitly agree to relinquish for purposes of discursive exchange their class status and identifications – exists as at least a literary idea, or ideal, in this period, and that it is a distinctive notion of this cultural moment. See my essay, “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Reign of Richard II,” Speculum 53 (1978): 94–114; for an opposing view, see Paul A. Olson, The Canterbury Tales and the Good Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 7 and passim. What makes the discourses of both dissenters and their opponents in the later fourteenth century so remarkable is their explicit contention for the high ground in defining such a space; some of this contest is evident in the documents of the 1381 rebellion cited below. 50 M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1979), 184; Michael M. Sheehan, The Will in Medieval England (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1963).

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name of a paternal holding could have for freeholders virtually the same force locally in differentiating the several properties of the same extended family, marking various seats and holdings within it, as the conventional surname has generally for matters of real property inheritance against claimants outside the kin group. Instances recorded within Langland scholarship demonstrate the utility of this convention. A family in which the same two or three male given names recur in two or more adjacent generations may distinguish the holdings of a son from those of a nephew of about the same age by referring to one by the name of the holding that was or would be his, rather than by the sire’s surname: William Langlond, for example, rather than William de Rokayle.51 Which surname William used, and under what circumstances, would depend on the claims and distinctions he and his family wished it to make for him, and therefore to some degree on where he lived and worked in relation to this proprietary identity – just as a boy tends to lose the appellation Junior to the extent that he moves as an adult outside the territorial and social range of its utility in marking a difference. Whatever we may infer about Langland’s practice in this regard, then, we are not entitled to assume that the difference of his sire’s surname from his own meant that he was a bastard, as a few early critics argued. Yet precisely this identification of the functional person through lineality and land rights, represented in the common form of naming in English, became a focus of considerable new social anxiety in the 1370s and 1380s – the years in which Langland composed the two long versions of his poem that he invested with his surname. If the modern English name form more or less stabilized in this period because it functioned to distribute certain rights, within Langland’s lifetime it also began for the first time to suggest on several fronts various practical functional liabilities and to be exploited in social fictions which had a paradoxical capacity for destabilizing or disrupting proprietary claims. The common law of inheritance of real property rights by now slept so securely that it began to dream monsters, formed out of its own relentless logic. There could be no clearer example of such a demonic consequence than the “exception of bastardy” as it came to be applied in the fourteenth century. Since in the parlance of the common law the bastard was nullius filius, “son of no man” – or alternatively, in a suggestive phrase to which which we have adverted 51 Oscar Cargill, in “The Langland Myth,” PMLA 50 (1935): 36–56 – a largely tendentious argument against the evidential solidity of opposition to Manly’s view of the authorship of the poem – nevertheless contains some valuable if incomplete information from various fourteenthcentury records of the Rokayle and But family names, including just the circumstance we have described occurring within three adjacent generations of the Rokayle family (48).

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before, “son of the people” – by this logic no one could determine that he was by hereditary status a villein, and he was therefore by default defined as free.52 The unseemly numbers of small inheritance claims to property that now begin to appear in judicial records, countered by the defendant’s assertion that the claimant was a bastard, suggest that the social benefits of this supposedly shameful state did not pass unnoticed: by making such a claim one might obtain a final determination, valid against all subsequent commonlaw actions, of one’s status as free, in the very act of having one’s claim to the piece of property in question (not surprisingly often studiously trivial and minute) rejected. The right to the property, it turned out, was the instrument, not the objective, in such actions. Structurally considered, one obtained a civil advantage here through an act of dissociation from traceable paternity, gaining a determination of freedom from a decision against one’s paternal “right.” A second way in which it might be perceived as disadvantageous to have one’s traceable and stable familial or household name a matter of record became immediately apparent with the first Poll Tax, and dramatically more so with its second and third collections not long afterward, when a nationwide investigation into massive tax evasion was met with what quickly became the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Poll Tax was the first tax to be levied by the “head” (poll), or individual person, instead of, for example, by the household or the village, the units of taxation drawn upon by the Lay Subsidies, that fiscal innovation which had immediately preceded the invention of the Poll Tax and remained in place after the disastrous civil consequences of the latter measure had become all too obvious.53 The Poll Tax was imposed at the rate of 4d. per person on all lay men and women over 14 years of age; only those who regularly begged for a living were exempt. The secular clergy were also liable: the beneficed were to pay a shilling, and the unbeneficed a groat; like the lay beggars, the mendicants were exempt. While it was in principle a radically more equitable way of raising revenue than the Lay Subsidies, from the perspective of the great mass of those on whom it was levied it cut across the unit of production and obligation in which their names had meant something, the family holding. The aged grandmother or disabled 52 Norma Adams, “Nullius Filius: A Study of the Exception of Bastardy in the Law Courts of Medieval England,” University of Toronto Law Journal 6:2 (1946): 361–84, esp. 361, 370, 377; Paul R. Hyams, Kings, Lords and Peasants in Medieval England: The Common Law of Villeinage in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), dates the widespread use of this “absurd, if humane, conclusion” no earlier than the second quarter of the fourteenth century (p. 181). (The phrase is that of Pollock and Maitland.) 53 M.W. Beresford, Lay Subsidies and Poll Taxes (Canterbury: Phillimore, 1963).

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uncle or unmarried daughter in one’s own household was liable for the same tax as its primary producers, the man and woman of the house, which is why people in the former categories (women in particular), were suspiciously underrepresented in the returns from the first collection in 1377. The second and third levies, in 1379 and 1381, introduced a slight gradation for personal wealth, yet they were met with still more widespread and conspicuous evasion, on a scale that the Exchequer could scarcely overlook. While the Poll Tax returns are the most massive documentation of English personal names and occupations before the Parish Registers were introduced in 1538, their silences – the unnamed and unaccounted for who raised by their absence the suspicion of the authorities – also speak eloquently about the perceived limits to the advantages inherent in being named and recorded as a being with an individual civil identity.54 Still more dramatic instances of this perception are shown in the suspicion, growing throughout the 1370s and 1380s, that the social signifying power of the conventional naming pattern could be turned to the construction of civil fictions. Throughout the 1370s several Commons petitions begin to speak of “rumor” (in the sense of uproar or tumult), and of “illicit conventicles,” “gatherings against the peace,” and “fals and traitorous allegiances” about in the land; bands of would-be malefactors capable of concerted subversion, and amassing money for some threatened action, are now seen in what had formerly been perceived chiefly as a major public nuisance and a mounting burden on public charity, the “sturdy beggars” and “stafstrikers” of no fixed abode wandering about the country in great numbers. Alan Harding has noted that many of these expressions mark a major transfer of vocabulary: oathbound conspiracies, which during the war scares in the first decade of the fourteenth century had described the activities of lords and knights suspected of fomenting quarrel and revolt as liveried “maintainers,” were now attributed to, projected upon, the laboring and servant classes.55 What the petitioners fear from these amorphous groups is hard to determine – perhaps an English version of the Jacquerie (1358); the possibility of consorting with the French enemy is mentioned. But the common theme of their writings is a threatening indeterminacy of identity in “landless men”: the focus of anxiety is the civil intelligibility of motive that derives from a stable place of work and residence, which in turn is a function of lineality and its “right” relationships. Landless men are those who have detached themselves from the basis for See Mathews, English Surnames, pp. 44–6. Alan Harding, “The Revolt Against the Justices,” in The English Rising of 1381, ed. R.H. Hilton and T.H. Aston (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 188–92. 54 55

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their names, and one scarcely knows what to call them, or what to expect of the communities they could form. Such fears, and a variety of civil fictions to articulate them, are abundant in the literature of the 1381 Revolt. The representative status of the named actors in these events has proved to be very hard to interpret. Actual persons, craft typenames, nonce names, sectarian code names, obvious pseudonyms, and patent evasions mingle in the chronicles under the same naming conventions as purported actors in a newly defined arena of civil events. Persons of indeterminate status between the fictive and the actual become the “one head” under which the rebels, those previously unnamed in chronicles of significant public actions, enter the records and are comprehended by the chroniclers as an improvised, indeterminate, unnameable, and therefore threatening new social body; a “great society” made by common volition and bound together by oath – made, that is to say, chiefly of words and deeds, confected names and improvised identities. A rich collection of such indeterminate beings, suspended between the hypothetical and the actual, populate the so-called Letter of John Ball, recorded by Walsingham as having been addressed to the men of Essex. Identifying himself as Johan Schep “som tyme Seynte Marie prest of York and now of Colchestre,” Ball in his cryptic message greteth wel Iohan Nameles, and Iohan the Mullere, and Iohon Cartere, and biddeth hem that thei bee war of gyle in borugh, and stondeth togidre in Godes name, and biddeth Peres Ploughman go to his werk, and chastise wel Hobbe the Robbere, and taketh with yow Iohan Trewman, and alle hiis felawes, and no mo, and loke schappe you to on heued, and no mo.56

The mix of kinds of signification in these names is dizzying. While a William Trueman is named in King’s Bench records as having berated Nicholas Brembre for injuries suffered during his mayoralty as the latter rode with the king to meet the rebels at Mile End, John Treweman “and alle his felawes” looks to be a coinage allied to the generic typename Lollards gave themselves, distinguishing the correct beliefs of “trewe men” from the false opinions of all outside their sect.57 Hobbe the Robbere may or may not be 56 Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, 2.33–4, as reprinted in The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, ed. R.B. Dobson, 2nd. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1983), 381. Knighton’s account of these subversive utterances or writings makes this message into several by various persons; see Dobson, pp. 381–2. 57 For William Trueman, see Andrew Prescott, “London in the Peasants’ Revolt: A Portrait Gallery,” The London Journal 7 (1981): 133. On special Lollard terminology, see Anne Hudson, “A Lollard Sect Vocabulary?” in So Meny Peple, Longages and Tonges: Philological Essays...

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Langland’s coinage, though Piers certainly is, and Ball’s exhortation later in the letter to “do wel and bettre and fleth synne” seems to close the case for some knowledge on the part of the speaker or writer of these key terms of Langland’s text. John Carter and John the Miller may be meant as typenames of the skilled rural and town craftsmen groups among which the revolt spread most deeply and quickly – though other chroniclers, such as Knighton, soberly list them along with Jack Straw (to whom he attributes the actions assigned by other chroniclers to Wat Tyler) as actual persons in the crowd that descended on London. (Knighton’s version of this report makes Ball’s letter several messages, spoken by Jakke Mylner, Jakke Carter, and Jakke Trewman). The Dieulacres Chronicler also attributes Wat Tyler’s deeds to Jack Straw – and goes on to name Piers Plowman as one of his confederates.58 And what are we to understand of John Nameless? Possibly that the surname Nameless in this context itself counts as an act of defiance and solidarity – that a parody of the common name-form calls into question the social function to which it is perceived to be attached, landed proprietorship. The point to notice here is not simply that Piers’s name appears in this company, or even that some took him for a living rather than fictive contemporary (though this speaks volumes we cannot open here about the social potency of Langland’s invention), but something much more pervasive: the oddly fluid reality of all these named persons and the indeterminate referentiality of their gnomic utterances. Whether we attribute this effect to the perceivers’ and recorders’ beliefs about, or inability to fathom, these events, or to the actors’ designs scarcely matters beyond a certain point: at this historical moment they seem to share a conviction that individuals and groups were suddenly able to constitute and publish themselves at will as something new and credible, to coin and circulate social redefinitions of the self and the community – fictions, if you will – as operative fact. The Dieulacres chronicler who put Piers among the rebel leaders also avers that “Jack Straw” – to whom, recall, he attributed Wat Tyler’s acts – was actually the pseudonym of a disgraced son of a Kentish gentry family by the name of Culpeper. To be sure, one may detect here a bit of the enduring and somewhat snobbish belief, evident in many romance plots, that social articulateness and an air of apparently natural authority in someone of mean social estate is always a sign of gentle birth going about in hiding, since the real lower orders do not possess such skills. But one can also reverse the emphasis of this notion, and put a less presented to Angus McIntosh, ed. Michael Benskin and M.L. Samuels (Edinburgh: M. Benskin and M.L. Samuels, 1981), 15–30. 58 See Rodney Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (London: Temple Smith, 1973), 177–8.

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romantic and sanguine color on it: that articulate disaffection can issue in a radical reconstruction of oneself and an equally radical realignment of one’s communal identity and functional “estate.” The Evesham chronicler’s dark suspicions along these lines are more explicit: he regarded all the rebel names we have considered as adopted pseudonyms, the rebel leaders “imposing” on themselves these names (nomina imponentes) for protection of their plans, and Hilton takes these manifestations as evidence that such names were indeed chosen rather than derisively imposed after the fact by confused or hostile observers.59 It may seem that describing rebel identities as inventions and improvisations slights these actors’ own accounts of their intents as conservative rather than innovative: for both the 1381 rebels and Wycliffite dissidents, “newefangelnesse” was what they most abhorred in the religious and political culture they opposed, and they steadfastly asserted antique warrant for their claims. Yet in standing for the “trewe communes” or as “true men” they claimed the power to recognize and reinstate primal arrangements that had been obscured by various latter-day sophistries of interpretation; their claim of access to this original “truth” lay not in a distinctive method, but in their identity as members of a continuous interpretive community that had never ceded the interpretive authority it asserted, and that insisted that its primary texts lend themselves to direct vernacular understanding. In their own view they are not appropriating or deforming the discourses of authority but restoring them to correct usage. Their names as dissenters, as recognizable calques on canonical proper-name forms, thus become their “true” names, and the “diversionary practice” of putting them in circulation becomes “an art of living in the other’s field,” thereby reclaiming it as always and again their own.60 A final instance from the records of 1381 illustrates, with an impacted pungency of meaning fully appreciated by its chronicler, the contemporary sense of the capacity of dissent to improvise new forms of self-definition by the recasting of traditional social discourses. As an extended narrative, this example illustrates, more precisely than the chroniclers’ briefer efforts to name the agents of current upheavals, how the coining of identities using traditional forms and proprieties can be at once a conservative and transforming act. The incident appears in Walsingham’s remarkably full

Bond Men Made Free, 178. De Certeau, Practice of Everyday Life, 24–5.

59 60

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account in the Gesta Abbatum of the uprising of the tenants on the estates of the Abbey of St Albans. Throughout his description of these events, which he offers as a sustained and stylistically ambitious interlude in a larger work governed largely by different rhetorical principles, Walsingham pays close attention to the constitutive power of ceremonious display in shaping events. Though Walsingham pronounces their objectives unreservedly abhorrent, he nevertheless represents the rebel leaders as eloquent, and their designs as coherent enough to constitute a profound threat to the discourses of power in which they skilfully intervene. They speak with an almost Roman resonance, as if conscious that their actions are watched by a larger world: William Gryndecobbe, local leader of the rebellion, declares himself a willing martyr for a greater cause. Walsingham represents the tenants themselves as self-consciously wielding a powerful rhetoric of allusion to founding texts and constitutive ritual, though their rhetoric of citation is radically different from the Abbot’s. And he is above all pointedly aware that these events occupied Corpus Christi week, a period of explicit liturgical and popular commemoration of the community as, and as the recipients of, the sacramental body of Christ.61 The incident that demonstrates the tenants’ mastery of improvisatory selfdefinition occurred early in the revolt, and it assumes in Walsingham’s selfconsciously dramatic account the status of a virtual leitmotif of the tenants’ prolonged resistance, a pivotal expression of their grievances and a condensed metaphor of the meaning of their outrages. It erupts into luminous narrative intelligibility against a background of long-standing dispute between the Abbots and their tenants over the abbey’s exclusive milling rights: decades before the revolt an earlier abbot had confiscated the tenants’ household millstones and used them as the paving-stones of the floor of the monastery parlor, then under construction. In the first days of the 1381 revolt, the people of the town of St Albans and the surrounding countryside had heard rumor of the events in London and sent a deputation there to learn more of its extent. Rather than defending the abbey precincts against the spread of these disruptions into the abbot’s domain, they had returned from London filled with Wat Tyler’s cause. Besides invading the Abbot’s woods and fields in procession “with great pomp,” releasing his prisoners from jail, and demanding of the abbot a new charter of their liberties, the rebellious tenants See John Bossy, “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200–1700,” Past and Present 100 (1983): 29–61, and his Christianity in the West 1400–1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 57–75, 91–7; Mervyn E. James, “Ritual, Drama, and Social Body in the Late Medieval English Town,” Past and Present 98 (1983): 3–29. 61

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now break into the abbey parlor, pull up the millstones from the floor where they had been “set as a memorial of the ancient dispute between the abbey and the townsmen,” and carry them outside and hand them over to the commons, breaking them into little pieces and giving a piece to each person, just as the consecrated bread is customarily broken and distributed in the parish churches on Sundays, so that the people, seeing these pieces, would know themselves to be avenged against the abbey in that cause.62

The gesture is dense with impacted meaning. An improvised lay transformation of the sacrament honored with special ceremony during Corpus Christi week, it both subsumes and alters its customary purpose. On the one hand it enacts the reformation of the community of the faithful as participants in the body of Christ, but on the other it does so defiantly without benefit of clergy, as the constitutive ceremony of a new definition of community.63 The compacted metonymies implicit in the millstones’ new symbolic function are no less daring: they are made by ceremonial imposition to stand for the commodity, bread, in whose production they are instrumental, while the parodic ritual of their consumption alludes to the traditional iconography of foolery and the social license allowed to its expression.64 The fortunes of the millstones in this narrative – the rise and fall of their imposed meaning – parallel those of the charters demanded by the rebels, and their supplantation by new ones that rewrote the tenants’ liberties in accordance with their wishes (wishes that prominently include the right to household millstones henceforth). As at the end of the story the new charters are abrogated in favor of the abbey’s customary privileges, the millstones are stripped of their new role in a constitutive civil sacrament to return to their formerly imposed function as mute “memorials” of the abbots’ rather than the tenants’ definition of community. 62 Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, ed. H.T. Riley, 3 vols. Rolls Series 28:4 (London: Public Record Office, 1867–69), 3.309. The translation is that of Rosamond Faith, in “The ‘Great Rumour’ of 1377 and Peasant Ideology,” in English Rising, ed.Hilton and Aston, 66; her account of this and other actions of this period expressing “symbolic victories” is germane to the present discussion. 63 Walsingham is sensitive to the rebels’ conscious reimposition of meaning on the term “community”; see Gesta Abbatum 3.305. 64 I owe this perception to V.A. Kolve, who is working on the representation of the fool in medieval art and literature; this information appeared in a lecture by Professor Kolve to the Medieval Studies group at Berkeley in Fall, 1984, and I cite it with his permission.

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The overdetermined significance of this action was not lost on the chronicler – nor on the abbot and the king: first among the reparations exacted from the tenants, once their effective power of resistance is diminished by the collapse of the revolt in London and by the king’s threatened visitation, is the abbot’s insistence, as the price of his intercession on their behalf against the king’s wrath, that they restore the stones to their place as flooring.65 Walsingham focuses insistently on the instigator of this parodic ritual, one Johannes Barbitonsor, as a master of bad faith, a kind of Sinon who is particularly worthy of the execution meted out to him by Justice Tresilian.66 The enactment of this reformed sacrament as a gesture of defiance, which appropriates the discourses of authority to dismantle and reform their constitutive power, becomes the centerpiece of a highly colored and rhetorically unified narrative of contest for command of the community’s history. By this absolute and condensed representation of the issues at stake in the revolt, and its self-conscious stylistic distinction from the rest of the Gesta Abbatum, Walsingham’s narrative fully warrants Marc Bloch’s description of it as a “veritable milling epic.”67 Though the St Albans rebels do not republish their individual identities under new names, their improvised sacrament enacts a similar renegotiation of identity at the level of the community. With a power of interpretive insight that virtually outstrips his own express partisanship, Walsingham’s story of the reciprocal manipulation of public symbols complements the chroniclers’ briefer witness to the unsteadiness of the proper signification of the person, showing how the social space and register of a collective act of defiance as well as the identity of an individual dissenter may be dramatically shifted to the register of the proper, and thereby claim to reinistate rather than overturn primal “truth”: new names become true names, and rebellion and dissent become reinstated tradition, a sacrament of a new “commune.” VII. Authorship, improvisation, and the rhetoric of presence The violence, perceived as well as actual, of 1381, together with considerable interpretive depth in representing a phenomenon that in their explicit moral pronouncements upon it both Commons and chroniclers profess Gesta Abbatum 3:346–7. Gesta Abbatum 3:339, 347, 350. 67 “The Advent and Triumph of the Watermill,” in Land and Work in Medieval Europe, trans. J.E. Anderson (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 157. 65 66

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to find an inexplicable and sinister breach in nature, testifies to a “crisis of the proper” in the latter decades of the fourteenth century. Proper names, like the proprietary rights they represented and regulated, go into a kind of liquefication in these documents. One’s name, in effect, becomes one’s own convention for an identity that coheres around one’s voluntary acts and oath-bound confederates, rather than around stability of seisin and lineal status: as an instrument for claiming rights its “propriety,” the integrity it proclaims, is less paternal than personal; the unit it stabilizes and defends is not the holding but the life, and a community restored to self-presence by constitutively “memorial” acts and rituals. Like Langland’s disposition of his “kynde” name in his poem, these powerful improvisations mark a profoundly revised account of the individual’s powers to interpret, and to represent, the “commune.” The generation surrounding the two long versions of Piers Plowman is filled with notable enactments of this proposition – that the operative unit of thought about identity was the life and community as made through the enacted reclamation of founding texts. It clearly underlies the efforts of Margery Kempe to form her life in the image of the holy woman; it is movingly audible in the testimony of the Lollard Thorpe, who analyzes and rejects the prospect of his recantation in terms of the social example it would give to, and the fragmented and illegible life it would compose for, those who trust him. To renounce the beliefs and practices he shares with the community of Lollard adherents that had formed him would be to “slay so many spiritually that I should never deserve to have grace of God to edify his church, neither myself nor any other life.”68 He would, in effect, be publishing a false and unedifying fictive self that would remain forever untrustworthy as an example to others. Those such as Philip Repingdon who have recanted have become radically and irreversibly unknowable, not only to either side but even to themselves, because they would not, in Thorpe’s revealing phrase, “stretch forth their lives” to be fully known as representative of the texts that ground them. It is in terms like these, of “stretching forth a life,” I believe, that we should understand Langland’s internal self-naming as a sustained formal diacritic in his poem. His increasingly full depiction of his “making” as a life-consuming and life-defining activity, perpetually running counter to both ecclesiastical 68 Thorpe’s testimony in 1407 before Archbishop Arundel – a text known to More, Bale, and Foxe – is printed in part by Anne Hudson, Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 29–33, and in full, in a fitfully modernized English from an early print (Short Title Catalogue 24045), by A.W. Pollard, Fifteenth Century Prose and Verse (London, 1903), pp. 97–174.

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and civil dicta for the orderly disposition of one’s time and effects, and his formation of his name as that of a kind of parodic landholding, a heritage of self-formation through desire – a Lond of Longyng in which there is no secure seisin – become a far less “literary” and conventional practice when set against the simultaneous imagination of the rebellion as made by “landless men,” a confederation of John Namelesses. The social significance of the identity Langland disposes with his signature also takes on a different look in the light of these contemporary developments. It becomes easier to see how a poem in nearly all respects theologically orthodox could seem ripe for appropriation by both civil and religious dissenters. These concurrent social texts not only illuminate certain patterns in the reception of the poem, however, but open new approaches to Langland’s literary intentions, suggesting as they do his full awareness, and increasing assimilation, of the most destabilizing consequences of his own authorial self-representation. It would be mistaken to associate his complex gestures of self-naming, and the concept of the self-authorizing integrity of a life lived in the image of the total scriptural coherence that underwrites it, solely with dissent, even though our examples have been drawn chiefly from such texts; contemporary forms of lay piety that are unmistakably orthodox – indeed the outlook and practices of the devotio moderna generally – are likewise predicated upon such an idea. What Langland’s self-reference seems rather to have in common with these late-medieval discourses, both orthodox and dissenting, is a paradoxical skepticism and anxiety about the established agencies for textual distribution of authority. It is important to avoid attributing a necessarily “progressive” or revolutionary character to these phenomena: indeed, those who enacted them saw them rather as restorative of some simpler and more directly mediated form of exemplification and authority. Orthodox or dissenting, the contemporary discourses to which Langland’s practice of self-representation has its closest affinities are based on a rhetoric of presence, on resistance to the independent intelligibility of texts without reference to their authorship as actions. These late medieval forms of social and spiritual piety enact a powerfully nostalgic rearguard action on behalf of ideas of communal and personal integrity disposed locally and face-to-face rather than from above or outside. They envision individual and communal life as so permeated by lived scripture that its integrity is wholly transparent, as St Francis had insisted, “without a gloss.” Like Langland they speak on behalf of an ethic based on the lived rather than formalized deployment of authorizing texts, and a renegotiation of traditional relations between textual

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fixity and human action. If graven images were profoundly suspect, those which formed spontaneously in the individual memory and imagination steeped in direct assimilation of canonical texts of scripture and the lives of the saints – metonymies or images of equivalence that suggested themselves to Margery Kempe in daily domestic life – were fundamentally trustworthy, because their syntax of relation was implicit in a customary grammar of living. Inscribing in his poem a name and equivocal occupation that loosely allied his improvisatory activities with these, Langland claims for himself and those who undertake to define their own actions within this terrain an extremely risky social authority. That such a move was fully self-conscious I do not doubt. That it assured that he would as author join the John Namelesses of his age to the memory of posterity is one of the profound witticisms of historical process he shows every sign of having accepted with equanimity. VIII. Conclusion: self and world as “nominalist texts” I am, finally, arguing here for a different syntax of relation than has traditionally been proposed between Langland’s formal practices as a poet and the social actualities and discourses he is often said to reflect or represent. Most attempts to account for the felt connection between Langland’s conceptually shifting and disturbing procedures of composition and the contemporary “world,” whether of ideas or of social actions, represented by his poem go no further in characterizing this relation than a richly suggestive homology – at bottom a kind of fallacy of imitative form. His techniques of composition, or his processes of thought, are often said to mirror various discontents with, or breakdowns of, medieval didactic authority and the discursive modes characteristically used to promote it: chaotic times or discredited languages seem to require the semblance of chaos in their representation.69 Among the scholars and critics who have seen Langland’s procedures as a mirror of his discontents with the formal or social discourses that constitute his artistic means are Morton W. Bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961), 34; Charles Muscatine, Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1972), 71–110; Mary Carruthers, The Search for St Truth (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 11, 171–2; Priscilla Martin, Piers Plowman: The Field and the Tower, 10–14. David Aers, in Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), proposes a more active and intentional relation than these broad homologies between Langland’s methods and contemporary dissent, but the dynamics of the exchange he proposes are problematic. It is difficult to see from what source the imagination in such instances, whether individual or collective, might derive the penetrating freedom of 69

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Langland’s increasingly circumstantial self-personification through the construction and mnemonic disposition of his name in his histoire, in its problematic relation to his growing absorption of a historically specific level of social referentiality into the discours of his poem, seems to require a more exacting understanding than the assertion of a resonant cultural simile.70 Regarded as a highly self-conscious special case of what Lavinia Griffiths has called his “nominalist” approach to personification, Langland’s selfnaming contains an implicit argument about the constructive nature of the social improvisations he both depicts and fictively enacts. As she describes the capacities of Langland’s technique: “The personification trope allows for some exploration of an abstraction – and of a person. It also allows for the exploration of the relationship between experience and the words used to make sense of it, and of the relationship between words and the fictions they compose.”71 Langland’s practices in characterizing himself as a named actor draw extraordinary and somewhat unsettling speculative attention to the ways in which, in life as in art, making sense of one’s world is a matter of publishing a powerful fiction, and self-discovery or self-revelation a process of aligning oneself in relation to the distributive narratives of authority. The border of legitimacy between “making,” making known, making believe, and making up, is always open to question, and it is at these boundaries that Langland inscribes his authorial name. In allowing the contemporary world of social fiction-making, exemplified by the disposition of the proper name and the evasion of status-determination, to penetrate the discourse of his poem, and to dispose the development of its narrative action, Langland makes a powerful argument about the nature of such social practices – an argument substantially different from that of vision that it counterposes to orthodox or established practices, to understand by what means it is sustained, from what sources it takes voice, or – as in the case of Langland – why it is so often rewarded with social approval within the very discourses to which it is in sentiment opposed. The possible middle term in such a relation, namely oppositional practices which themselves have a substantial social history and a richly allusive (and elusive) language of word and gesture that is everywhere parasitic upon, and renewed by, those that nominally support “official” ideology, requires more examination. 70 Griffiths, Personification, adapts this distinction between story and discourse from Benveniste as discussed by Todorov (8). She suggests that Langland’s techniques of personifiction are distinguished by the intensity and diversity of the exchanges between these two levels of organization: his mercurial willingness to collapse a nascent event back into the discursive term from which it arose, as well as his quickness at the procedure more frequently associated with personification-allegory, the generation of expository distinctions from narrative events. 71 Personification, 63.

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his contemporary Gower about the same phenomena. Such improvisations of identity may be disruptive of stable grammatical referentiality (a point Langland makes repeatedly in his own application of grammatical analogy), but they are also for this very reason constitutive of all rhetorical discourse, including his own. For Langland it is these transgressive interventions that renew rather than decompose cultural meaning. For Gower and Froissart, the contemporary arguments-in-action of the 1381 rebels were, in the original sense of the term, barbarous incursions: invasions of bestial nonsense into the world of intelligible action. For Langland, as for several of the more perceptive (if still unremittingly hostile) monastic chroniclers such as Walsingham, the threat posed by these acts was precisely that they were intelligible, all too powerfully so. These writers disapproved of the text being written before their eyes, but they could read it perfectly well – and therein lay its power. If Walsingham merely registers the forceful legibility of such improvisation, Langland foregrounds its consequences by incorporating this way of making sense of experience into the narrative order of the poem, and into his construction of authorial identity. Scriptural assimilatio is in their narratives a malleable activity, the language of discovery and disclosure of both self and world, and as a vernacular it is in principle available to all, and limitless. The contemporary circulation of “imposed” names, and the publication of new identities sanctioned by the traditional representational syntax and semantics of scriptural citation, are constructive forms of social discourse, arguments in action. Langland identifies such practices as both the tools of his authorial trade and the means by which his society may “come to itself.” The terms of his art become the nature of the community: as “commun craftes” they are as inescapable in sustaining life as breathing or speaking. Langland’s alignment with the new pieties of the later middle ages is discernible not merely in his aversion to fixed and stable images and methods of interpretive mediation, but in a positive practice implicit in this negative tropism: his equally strong insistence on the first person as the necessary locus of such mediation – on enactment rather than image as the center of exemplification. Such principles underlie both Margery’s project and that of William Thorpe, both the Lollard distrust of graven images in favor of individual and communal identities that were thought to recreate those of scripture directly, and the noble sponsorship of eremitical rather than

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cenobitic forms of regular observance.72 The model invoked in every case is the reconstructed self in a reconstituted community. It is in his acknowledgment of the full implications of the “nominalist text,” and not in explicit doctrinal or political allegiance, that Langland declares his deepest affinity with what can only to historical retrospection appears as reformist or heterodox sentiments and practices, expressed in forms that had not yet fully precipitated their differences into dissenting and orthodox aspects. It is in his perpetually inadequate yet obsessively necessary “making” that he best represents the communally as well as individually restorative project of salvation history as the confrontation, at once shameful and exhilarating, of “myself in a mirour.” APPENDIX: Signatures in Piers Plowman I. Note on verso of last leaf of copy of C version, Trinity College Dublin MS D.4.1 (c. 1400): Memorandum quod Stacy de Rokayle pater willielmi de Langlond qui stacius fuit generosus & morabatur in Schiptoun vnder whicwode tenens domini le Spenser in comitatu Oxoniensi qui predictus willielmus fecit librum quui vocatur Perys ploughman. George Kane, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London: Athlone, 1965), p. 26.

II. Internal signatures recognized by Kane (Evidence). Citations are from: Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. George Kane (London: Athlone, 1960) Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed.George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone, 1975) Piers Plowman: The C Version, ed. Derek Pearsall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979).

72 See W. R. Jones, “Lollards and Images: The Defense of Religious Art in Later Medieval England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (1973): 27–50; J. Anthony Tuck, “Carthusian Monks and Lollard Knights: Religious Attitudes at the Court of Richard II,” Reconstructing Chaucer: Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Proceedings, No. 1, 1984, ed. Paul Strohm and Thomas J. Heffernan (Knoxville, Tennessee: The New Chaucer Society, 1985), 149–61.

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A-1) þanne ran repentaunce and reherside his teme And made wil to wepe watir wiþ his eiȝen. A.5.43–4; B.5.61–2; C.6.1–2 A-2) þanne were marchauntis merye; many wepe for ioye, And ȝaf will for his writyng wollene cloþis; For he copiede þus here clause þei couden hym gret mede. A.8.42–4; cf. B.7.38–9, C.9.41–2: þanne were Marchauntȝ murie; many wepten for ioye And preiseden Piers þe Plowman þat purchaced þis bulle. B.7.38–9 A muchel man, me þouhte, lik to myselue, Com & callide me be my kynde name. ‘What art þou,’ quaþ I þo, ‘þat my name knowist?’ ‘þat þou wost wel,’ quaþ he, ‘& no wiȝt betere.’ ‘Wot ich?’ quaþ I; ‘who art þou?’ ‘þouȝt,’ seide he þanne... ...þouȝt & I þus þre dayes we ȝeden, Disputyng on dowel day aftir oþer, Ac er we ywar were wiþ wyt gonne we mete. He was long & lene, lyk to non oþer, Was no pride on his apparail ne no pouert noþer, Sad of his semblaunt & of a softe speche, I durste meue no mater to make hym to iangle, But as I bad þouȝt þo be mene betwene, To putte forþ som purpos to prouen hise wittes. þanne þouȝt, in þat tyme, seide þis wordis: ‘Where þat dowel, & dobet, & dobest beþ in londe, Here is wil wolde wyte ȝif wit couþe hym teche.’ A.9.61–5, 107–18; B.8.70–4, 117–29; C.10.68–72, 112–24; cf. C:

A-3)

‘That wost þou, Wille,’ quod he, ‘and no wyht bettere.’ C.10.71 B-1) = A-1 B-2) = A-3 B-3)



‘What is charite?’ quod I þo; ‘a childissh þyng’, he seide: ...’Where sholde men fynde swich a frend wiþ so fre an herte?

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I haue lyued in londe’, quod I, ‘my name is longe wille, And fond I neueree ful charite, bifore ne bihynde.... I seiȝ neuere swich a man, so me god helpe, þat he ne wolde aske after his, and ouþerwhile coueite þyng þat neded nym noȝt and nyme it if he myȝte. Clerkes kenne me þat crist is in alle places Ac I seiȝ hym neuere sooþly but as myself in a Mirour: Hic in enigmate, tunc facie ad faciem. And so I trowe trewely, by þat men telleþ of it, Charite is noȝt chaumpions fight ne chaffare as I trowe.’ B.15.148, 151–53, 158–64; cf. C: ‘Charite,’ quod y tho, ‘þat is a thyng forsothe That maistres commenden moche; where may hit be yfounde? I haue yleued in Londone monye longe ȝeres And fonde y neuere, in faith, as freres hit precheth, Charite, þat chargeth naught, ne chyt, thow me greue hym... ...For thogh me souhte alle þe sektes of susturne and of brethurne, And fynde hym,, but figuratyfly, a ferly me thynketh; Hic in enigmate, tunc facie ad faciem. C.16.284–88, 293–94a C-1)

What the montaigne bymeneth and þe merke dale And þe feld ful of folke y shal ȝou fair shewe. A louely lady of lere in lynnene yclothed Cam doun from þe castel and calde my by name And sayde, ‘Wille, slepestou? seestow þis peple, Hou bisy þei ben about þe mase?’ C.1.1–6; cf. A, B: ...Com doun fro þat clyf & callide me faire, And seide ‘sone, slepist þou?...’ A.1.4–5; B.1.4–5

C-2) = A-1, B-1 C-3)

‘That wost þou, Wille,’ quod he, ‘and no wyht bettere.’



C.10.71; cf. A-3, B-2

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III. Anagrams and signatory cross-references. 1)

And ek þe longe launde þat leccherie hatte, Leue hym on þi left half a large myle or more, A.11.118–19 For I was rauysshed riȝt þere; Fortune me fette And into þe lond of longynge and loue she me brouȝte And in a Mirour þat hiȝte middelerþe she made me biholde... Couetise of eiȝes conforted me anoon after And folwed me fourty wynter and a fifte moore.... B.11.7–9, 46–7; cf. C.11.169–73, 194–5 2)

‘I am ymaginatif,’ quod he; ‘ydel was I neuere Thouȝ I sitte by myself in siknesse ne in helþe. I haue folwed þee, in feiþ, þise fyue and fourty wynter, And manye tymes haue meued þee to mynne on þyn ende, And how fele fernyeres are faren and so fewe to come... B.12.1–5; cf. C: 3)

Y haue folewed the, in fayth, mo then fourty wynter... C.14.3 4)

þus y awakede, woet god, whan y wonede in Cornehull, Kytte and y in a cote, yclothed as a lollare, And lytel ylet by, leueth me for sothe, Amonges lollares of Londone and lewede ermytes, For y made of tho men as resoun me tauhte.... ... ‘Y am to wayke to worche with sykel or with sythe, And to long, lef me, lowe to stoupe, To wurche as a werkeman eny while to duyren.’ ‘Thenne hastow londes to lyue by,’ quod Resoun, ‘or lynage ryche That fynde the thy fode? For an ydel man þow semest.’... ... ‘When y ȝong was, many ȝer hennes, My fader and my frendes foende me to scole,... ...That laboure þat y lerned best þerwith lyuen y sholde. In eadem vocacione in qua vocati estis. And so y leue yn Londone and opelond bothe.... C.5.1–5, 23–7, 35–6, 43-4

IX

Life in the Margins, or, What’s an Annotator to Do? What should the annotation of a medieval vernacular literary work do to represent that work to our contemporaries? Annotation is ordinarily regarded in medieval vernacular literary studies as a blameless, selfless work of mediation between what is complacently called the “otherness” of medieval literary texts and their world and those of modern readers, a labor that is considered virtuous precisely because it does not lend itself to theoretical or interpretive display. Its nominal goal is to render that work more legible than it might otherwise be to that supreme fiction of this enterprise, the student – whether by that we mean those we actually teach, or colleagues or other interested readers. I should like to call into question whether annotation can be conceived in these terms as the “service profession” (as Ralph Hanna ironically calls it) that it is currently imagined to be within medieval literary studies, if we take seriously what textual studies can demonstrate about the texts we propose to represent.1 The following reflections on annotation come from the threshold of what may be a foolhardy enterprise, and looks increasingly like a quixotic one. Five of us – John Alford, Stephen Barney, Ralph Hanna III, Traugott Lawler, and I – have constituted ourselves a team to annotate the magisterial Athlone Edition of Piers Plowman. We expect to gather at the University of California at Irvine in the winter and spring of 1990 to contemplate just what it is that we think we’re doing, and to try to do some of it. In anticipation of some of the issues we will face, my effort here will be to propose a kind of job description, and a set of possible objectives for such an enterprise. Not merely this poem, but the specific edited text of it that we propose to annotate, and the difficulty of identifying appropriate models for the task, seem to me to present exemplary instances of some larger issues confronting textual study at the moment – or perhaps what might more accurately be called problems of textual representation – in medieval literary scholarship.

1 I refer to his paper, “Annotation as Social Practice,” presented at a symposium on “Annotation and Its Texts” at the Humanities Center of the University of California at Irvine, April 8–10, 1988. I am grateful to him for allowing me to see a typescript of this paper.

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In both my practical and speculative interests in this task, I am especially concerned with the ways in which the work that we propose to annotate, and the Athlone texts of it (they are, significantly, plural), exemplify, in their form and in the problematics of their textual interpretation, some features of what Jerome McGann calls “modern scripture,” though very much avant la lettre.2 Piers Plowman is a work to which the “classicist model” of scholarly exposition is in some respects appropriate, yet in some ways not wholly sufficient. To be sure, like an ancient text it has long seemed to need considerable mediation to be legible at all – more, for instance, and usually of a different kind, than Langland’s contemporary Chaucer is usually thought to require. In this scheme Chaucer is a solidly canonical “modern” author – that is, one for whom a literary reception history is a dense and continuous story that is itself of cultural importance and representable as such within a regimen of annotation. Despite continuous awareness of Piers Plowman by readers since the fourteenth century, Langland is not, for historical reasons that offer fundamental challenges and constraints to the annotator; until close to the twentieth century the poem more often attracted the kind of interest usually accorded a historical document rather than a literary work. Though it is axiomatic that every text is in some sense legible as both, the mixed reception history and classification of this work has affected the editors’ decisions about their presentation of the text, even if the presence of such considerations remain largely implicit in the physical format of their volumes: their choice of textual display would be virtually unthinkable for a twentieth-century edition of Chaucer, for instance. An annotator cannot evade the difficult question of 2 Jerome McGann, in A Critique of Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 10, 56–9, uses the term to designate literary works produced not only in the age of print, but in eras when documentary evidence of several distinct states and kinds of authorial intervention in the process of production and reproduction survives, hence greatly complicating the very meaning, not merely the practicality, of the editorial desideratum of recovering the authorial “original,” the nominal goal of “classical” textual criticism. While like classical or biblical “scriptures,” Langland’s work asks of the textual critic the reconstitution of a lost “original” – and his Athlone editors therefore, and rightly, expressly situate their enterprise within the “classical” traditions of textual criticism – its forms of survival, in this respect like those of more recent works of “modern scripture,” also attest to distinct layers or iterations of authorial production and intentionality, interlaced almost impenetrably with several kinds and states of scribal practice and habit. The enterprise of disentengling these is not only practically but theoretically of the most fundamental difficulty, and the kind of difficulty it involves allies the labors of textual criticism on this poem with some aspects of those that must be applied to some notable instances of “modern scripture.” I discuss below some of the ways in which the Athlone editors have conceived, and represented in the format of their volumes, this interestingly mixed task.

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the categories of writing to which the poem belongs, and yet he cannot easily resolve that question – in general, or in any particular place where it arises, as it does in the poem with astonishing frequency. Indeed, one of the reasons that Piers Plowman’s challenge to the editor and the annotator is exemplary of more general questions that attend contemporary textual studies is that it is a work massively both of, and even about, this interesting and provisional category of “modern scripture” – made, I would argue, in the era when the cultural formation of this category first presented itself to vernacular writers as a theoretical and practical possibility.3 Ralph Hanna has argued that annotation is “a socially sanctioned form of aggression, directed at both the community which sanctions annotation and the text which inspires it.” While this sweeping proposition goes beyond my own limited experience at the craft, I do find that many annotators’ ministrations upon vernacular medieval texts resemble some of the more creative forms of guerilla warfare. Both activities are, in Michel de Certeau’s phrase, “arts of living in another’s space,” doing cultural work using somebody else’s materials and time, and constitute, in Certeau’s terms, tactical rather than strategic approaches to meaning.4 In each of its minute iterations, annotation theorizes the entire text to which it is nominally in service, while in no single place is it forced out from underground to acknowledge this dimension of its enterprise, which it presents on each occasion as merely an ordinary practical activity, a modest attestation that a working public utility is indeed working as it should for the general benefit. Keyed to a specific word, phrase or line of the text, the intellectual reach of the note is similarly confined: it can at best adduce what it considers similar instances, but it cannot well develop the notion of similarity or relevance that has guided its citation. In its usual form of display, the systematic annotation of a text is ultimately still bound to the framework of the discrete single note (as in Notes and Queries) as a scholarly genre, a genre that has long been for Piers Plowman studies the site of what I have called a kind of “guerilla theorizing” of the text to which it is appended. If an annotated version of Piers Plowman were to be no more than a collection of such scattered raids upon local meaning, then its corrosive effects would largely vitiate the nominal larger objectives of annotation. Such a project would also, for reasons that will shortly become clearer, largely undo the work of the Athlone editors. In systematically annotating the whole work (an entity 3 See Lee Patterson, “Historicism and Its Discontents,” in Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 74. 4 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

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not as easy to identify as it sounds), we will have to consider whether the “guerilla theorizing” latent in the note as a scholarly genre can be deployed so as to overcome the liabilities inherent in this form of dispersed elucidation. Can annotation or commentary speak about and theorize its own systematic objectives, or must these remain marginal considerations if the notes are to do their work? And what is their work? The very grammar of annotation is strangely evasive: it is phrasal, not clausal, eschewing open predication, and largely confined to the appositive mode. In other words, it is insistently anti-narrative (or counter-narrative) in discursive form, tending to occlude the horizontal coherence of the text for the vertical plenitude of superimposed or parallel forms of information: it adduces endlessly, but it does not explain itself – or, finally, its text. In this way, annotation tends by its very nature to allegorize that to which it is appended, while, at least in its form as the “ordinary science” of the makers of editions, it everywhere manages to obscure the points at which allegory as a narrative practice arises into life in the act of authorial production. That is, it lends to the text it elucidates a rich vertical density, a thickness of possible referentiality to the “life-world,” to other texts, to other discrete points in the text itself, at the cost of repeatedly cutting across the horizontal strands of development along which poetic invention and rhetorical development proceed. Annotation as normally practiced has special difficulty, in other words, representing the temporal dimension of the author’s production, either across what might be called fictive time, the unfolding of a narrative sequence, or within the actual time over which the work was made. Thus by its very mode of proceeding it tends to obliterate rather than support broader understanding of the work as production rather than as static product: as a cumulatively iterated process it has a powerful built-in tendency to reify the text to which it is appended. Annotation thus also serves with each new application to a canonical text to reinscribe still further its “canonicity” – if by canonization we mean, among other things, the imputation to the text of the capacity to represent, to “stand for,” forms of order far more culturally encompassing than those of the text itself, such as those of its “era” or “world,” or of its genre or style. All of these effects of annotation are largely accidental: they are byproducts of the kind of textual display that annotation is, and of the historical customs of annotation, rather than of the individual annotator’s intentions or her conscious theories about this text. But they are pervasive, and unwittingly lend credence to a now-largely-discredited view of the literary work.

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Paradoxically it is precisely by their interpretive reticence, their professed aim only to display to view “what went without saying” in the author’s production of the work, that explanatory notes to medieval vernacular texts generally tend to suppress or even misrepresent larger consideration of the relations they both assume and mean to disclose – relations of the “life world” of the author to his production, or of antecedent texts to either of these, and also relations between the various forms of adducing the known: of the citational to the allusive to the fortuitously included cultural and textual knowledge of the writer.5 Such local referential annotation assumes that for us as modern readers this text has gaps that need to filled by cultural knowledge we happen no longer to possess, but it also presupposes that within the time and place of its production, for its author and perhaps for its primary contemporary readers, the work came into the world as an achieved unity. To its contemporaries, it had no gaps or lacunae: it was, in other words, deeply and totally legible in its own time; it must be rendered legible, by a series of replacements and mediating representations, to ours. Annotating it, like editing it, is in this view an act of painstaking restoration – and thus a complement to, and logical extension of, the goals of classical textual scholarship. The restorer may declare his hypotheses about the work upon which he operates – as by and large the Athlone editors have done – or, as is more frequent, remain silent about them. But whether stated or unstated, these hypotheses about the relations between text and world, and hence about the status and origin of its form, govern the ordinary annotating regimen, and disclose their practical consequences in the content and implicit argument of any particular note. Without having explicitly set out to do so, much annotation thus implicitly proceeds with medieval vernacular literary texts as if they qualified as historical narratives in Hegel’s sense: not merely narrative in form, but monolithically reflecting and rationalizing an implicit centrality, the sociopolitical order of the state. The “unity” that was the chief value and expository objective of much literary study conducted under new-critical dicta of the intrinsic and totalizing meaning of the text has as its historiographical counterpart the totalizing master-narrative of natural and cultural development that leaves no gaps or lacunae, and presents the prevailing sociopolitical order as the only

It thereby enacts the essential form of philological production, according to Philip August Boeckh’s famous definition of philology as “the knowledge of the known.” Cited in Stephen G. Nichols, “Introduction: Philology in a Manuscript Culture,” in Speculum 65 (1990): 2; the essay introduces a special issue of this journal, devoted to “The New Philology.” 5

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imaginable order of things, the answer to all questions that can be asked, and the condition under which only answerable questions can arise. Here Hayden White’s fascinating contrast between the notion of fullness or completeness implicit in the writing of medieval annals and that which later governs the writing of histories is instructive: It is the absence of any consciousness of a social center that prohibits the annalist from ranking the events he treats as elements of a historical field of occurrence. And it is the absence of such a center that precludes or undercuts any impulse he might have had to work up his discourse in the form of a narrative. ... The presence of [those] blank years in the annalist’s account permits us to perceive... the extent to which narrative strains for the effect of having filled in all the gaps, of having put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of the fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time.6

At least as served by annotation as a “ordinary science,” the author’s work is imagined as the counterpart of the state’s historiography, and the annotator’s task under this dispensation is keeping its apparatus in good working order. Suppose, however, that both the text and its explanatory notes are imagined, and embodied in textual display, in some other way. The medieval annalist’s principle of fullness, White notes, is real, but decentered from the saeculum: the principle of possible gratification that the annalist counterpoises to the gaps in his record of worldly events is “the fullness of time itself, the list [of anni Domini, ‘years of the Lord’]: There is no scarcity of the years: they descend regularly from their origin, the year of the Incarnation, and roll relentlessly on to their potential end, the Last Judgment.” But the annalist’s account, which appears in a textual form much like that of early estate accounts, is merely a list; it “calls up a world in which need is everywhere present, in which scarcity is the rule of existence, and in which all of the possible agencies of satisfaction are lacking or absent or exist under imminent threat of death.” This description of the life-world of the medieval writer of monastic annals, as realized in the very disposition of his textual space, is also one of the most accurate descriptions I have ever found of the premises that seem to me to underwrite the making of Piers Plowman, and it suggests that a means of rendering that space visible and legible might be considered one Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 11. 6

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reasonable task for an annotator. That is, if we suppose that the work that is Piers Plowman is not, and never was, conceived, by its maker or its primary users, as itself that ideally complete artifact that defines the literary text as conceived by new criticism, or a state narrative of the formation of nature or culture, but rather as a text that evokes the possibility of these as lying outside itself, then to annotate it as if that were the condition to which it aspired would be, in a quite strict sense, to misrepresent it. If it is, rather, constituted as “modern scripture” by its second thoughts, gaps, and – in a word that has considerable precision and richness as applied to this poem – re-visions, and if its wit and depth, and the narrative allegory that generates it and sustains its horizontal momentum, arise in the effort to fill with meaning the gaps in that which the author did not make, “the fullness of time,” then the work of the annotator takes on a different relation to the work of the author than that imagined by classical scholarship. In putting a set of notes to a work that the late Morton Bloomfield described as reading like “a commentary upon an unknown text,” the annotator might well have second thoughts, not merely about the “classicizing” model of textual presentation, but about the “restoration” model for the annotator’s as well as the editor’s enterprise. In Piers Plowman scholarship the free-standing note as miniature article has been in recent decades one of two favored modes of scholarly publication, the other being the long interpretive essay; yet scarcely ever does the kind of illumination offered in the one scholarly form penetrate the other. In considering how the former activity – playfully dubbed “crux-busting” by admirers of some of its virtuoso practitioners – might realize its full potential through the systematic application of work too often occasional and scattered, one is virtually forced to seek models that differ from those that prevail in the either the “student edition” or the “variorum” text. The evidence of the Athlone edition – its chosen format, and its austerity of presentation – argues implicitly that the editors recognized a need for different models of annotation than those that normally attend Middle English texts, even though they nowhere state explicitly what these models might be. They have, however, by the way they represent their texts, foreclosed some avenues and rendered others, largely unexplored, particularly inviting to their successors. In order to reach this inference, and to discern the paths suggested by their choices, one must consider both the state of survival of the poem in three versions and the making of the Athlone edition. In particular, we must strive to understand in other than purely pragmatic and operational terms how we came to be in the peculiar position of having a formidably authoritative edition that did not in the course of its production generate such notes. Since Piers Plowman is not a

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work that, in Macaulay’s phrase, “every schoolboy knows,” it will be necessary to review these matters briefly. The poem survives in three distinct versions, called the A, B, and C texts since the Rev. W.W. Skeat identified them as such in the mid-nineteenth century, attested by over fifty manuscripts in all, none of them clearly a copy of any other, and all of them at least several removes from an authorial holograph.7 There is no evidence to suggest that any of these versions was, in any sense that we would normally understand the term, “published” – that is, released by the author for copying with an eye to some sort of circulation or presentation. Indeed, there is substantial evidence to the contrary: that the three states of the work are those that happened, under exigencies we cannot pretend to know, to escape the author’s control at some point. The editor of the C, or last, version, George Russell, argues that this text may have been put into circulation by a literary executor of some kind. The A text, probably produced in the latter part of the 1360s, contains about 2400 lines. The B version, which probably attained this form in the latter years of the 1370s, is about three times this length, with new material inserted at various points into the earlier form of the poem, revision and cancellation in places, and more incident and conceptual development extending the poem well past the stopping point of the earlier version: A’s three dream-visions become eight in B, for example. It is not clear when the C text took its surviving form, but it is a revision of B, sometimes massive, sometimes minute, leaving the final two cantos or passus, as they are called, unchanged from the B state, though throughout the rest of the poem these passus are redivided, and large passages are transplanted to other parts of the work. A loose and largely unexamined consensus assigns the C version a date of about 1387, and claims that Langland did not live to see its release in this form. There can be no question, then, of an edition of “the” poem. Although by all the evidence it is in intentio a poem, its production apparently virtually co-extensive with its author’s writing life, it survives as three blurry snapshots of something that was in some sort of motion over about twenty years. The best that can be done, it seems, is to restore the three snapshots to the best The following account is necessarily brief and imprecise; for a bibliography and critical introduction to the textual problems associated with the poem, and a full listing of editions, see my chapter on Piers Plowman (Chapter XVIII), A Manual of Writings in Middle English 1050–1500, gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986), vol. 7, pp. 2211–34 (critical introduction) and 2419–48 (bibliography). A convenient summary of the state of scholarship on several aspects of the poem, including the text, is A Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). 7

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condition that the material and evidence allows, if we are to have any idea of what that work in motion was, let alone the “intente” that sustained this motion, and the circumstances in which these snapshots came to be made. Yet implicit in this act of restoration is the premise that it is not these snapshots, but what they record, that “is” the work of art, and one object or level of our interest. It is at once “a work,” and irresolvable into “a text,” much like Wordsworth’s Prelude. This distinction between text and work, invoked by Michel Foucault as a useful one for literary history, is also a necessary and problematic one for the annotator of this poem.8 It renders doubtful, both practically and theoretically, the possibility of sustaining a distinction, familiar in student editions, between “textual” and “explanatory” notes. But it also suggests a desideratum, however elusive, for our enterprise: can this work (or any medieval literary work, though for several reasons I shall consider, Piers is an exemplary instance) be represented by its annotators for “consumption” or use – offered to and as an act of reception – so as to disclose anything of interest and importance about the means and motives of its production? Can we say anything about the text that will conduce to understanding of the work? Is it useful, or fatal, to this or any effort at annotation to admit such a distinction into our project? The editors considered it self-evident why they themselves did not and would not produce notes. Even if we set aside its complex prehistory in a series of unpublished British dissertations and preliminary work by a variety of hands – including R.W. Chambers, J.H.G. Grattan, and A.G. Mitchell – the Athlone edition has consumed now more years in the making than the poem did in all its forms. The A Version, edited by George Kane, was published in 1960; the B Version, by Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, in 1975; the C Version, by George Russell, is finished but not yet published; and a fourth volume, to contain a glossary to all versions, will probably appear simultaneously with C. The Notes we propose would constitute volume 5. Each of the editors has given forty and more years of his life, off and on, to the editing task; in the end they simply did not have time, Donaldson once said when asked, to include notes as well. This is not disingenuous, but neither is it the whole truth, and it is what remains unsaid about this road not taken that tells us something quite profound about the nature of their edition, and the possibility of our “tagging their verses.”

8 The problematic nature of the “work” as an ideational entity distinct from text or writing is dicussed by Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), pp. 103–4.

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Lee Patterson describes the monumentally full yet elusive effect of the Athlone text: The result is a visual text that is curiously at odds with itself. On the one hand the plethora of brackets and the thick band of variants at the foot of the page continually remind the reader that he is dealing with an edited text: the false security of unmarred print, such as we find in any edition of Chaucer, for instance, is here denied us. On the other hand, the data on which the text is based is resolutely hidden away in an introduction that is arranged not as a scientific exposition but as an elegantly written narrative [emphasis mine]. The editors’ purpose, I think, is not to protect themselves from scrutiny but to accommodate two finally irreconcilable imperatives: to offer, on the one hand, a text that is marked as a reconstruction and that therefore requires of the reader not merely an awareness of but an assent to the fact of editorial intervention; and on the other hand, to offer a text that is fully available to current critical interests and to the institutions of literary consumption.9

Yet this is strange: among such “institutions of literary consumption” for medieval literary texts, explanatory notes are perhaps the most common form. One might have thought that episodes or fits of “crux-busting” might have been a normal by-product of the making of an edition, generated in the course of deciding upon readings, and anticipate that the Athlone editors might have filled the usual scholarly journals over those forty-odd years with a regular procession of such notes, even if these small perceptions did not find their way at least into the back pages, if not the text-pages, of the edition, as systematic annotation. But this is far from the case: during the years in which the edition was being made, the “crux-busters” of this poem have been other scholars altogether for the most part – chiefly those masters of this genre, the Cornell scholiasts Robert Kaske and Thomas Hill – and these have a rather substantial argument to make about the ground and background of Langland’s work and methods, and those of medieval writers generally, that in fact corresponds loosely to the view of the poem that I earlier suggested is virtually produced by, rather than simply registered in, annotation as “ordinary science.” That is, their “crux-busting” forays are predicated upon a poem that “The Logic of Textual Criticism and the Way of Genius: The Kane-Donaldson Piers Plowman in Historical Perspective,” in his Negotiating the Past, p. 108. This essay appeared earlier in a slightly different form in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome McGann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985). 9

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means as a monolithic and unproblematic summa of its life-world, iconically full, seamless and complete – the kind of work posited by both old-historical and new-critical literary history. The poem was, in these scholiasts’ view, in turn, made as a sustained act of citation, with a harmonizing and unifying purpose: to bind up the scattered leaves of the phenomenal world, to compose the book of creation that is their common referent, and read that book for its transcendent spiritual meaning. It is this ultimate referent that in turn the annotator, like the Augustinian memory or Dantean vision, must render whole and complete for the modern reader. This is a serious and plausible hypothesis, and the obvious macaronic character of the discourse immediately visible on any page of Langland’s text give it considerable aid and comfort: the poem does indeed imbed citation, chiefly Latin, and mostly scriptural, in its vernacular texture. From Morton Bloomfield’s perceptive remark to the more recent discussions of the poet’s compositional method by Judson Allen and John Alford, evidence has been growing that what we are seeing is not simply “sources” or “allusions” but nodes of invention in these incorporated Latin lines. But it is not yet widely agreed what status these passages have in Langland’s discourse, or whether we can get at how they work by adducing their discoverable pre-texts or “sources” – still less that the form in which we have access to these sources was the same as that in which the poet encountered them. The Athlone editors, by contrast, have quite a different theory of this work, one that emphasizes the intensely local process rather than the general achievement of meaning. It is this conception of the poem that explains, better than the limits of their mortal years, why the Athlone editors did not become annotators by the way. Over the years all of them have become formidable repositories of the kind of knowledge that belongs in the explanatory notes, and they have been generous with it when asked – but the fact remains that they did not publish it either with the edition or piecemeal as “crux-busting.” It is plain that the annotator’s task was conceived from the start as fully extraneous to the editor’s, since these small explanatory and contextualizing forays had in fact very little to do with the determination of any particular reading, according to their editorial principles. We do not find in their editorial narrative any counterpart to Skeat’s puzzling over a reading by trying out the sense of the offered scribal alternatives. Hence such annotative ventures could remain for the time being scattered and unconcerted, and largely made by different hands than those that brought us a magisterially edited text. While I do not attribute Godlike prescience to the Athlone editors’ decision about annotation, I venture to suggest that they could at least see that textual evidence theorized

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as this has been simply did not lend itself to any of the models of annotation available for the presentation of medieval literary texts – and they left it to others to propose new ones. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they may have been right to decline to represent that theory disjunctively – in the form of discrete rationales for specific readings – and to present it instead, and only, in that “elegantly written narrative” that is nowhere cross-referenced at the point of occurrence of any emendation. Astonishingly, every user of this text must do that by hand, for herself, if she expects to use this edition. As annotators, would we give page-numbers to the place where each reading or emendation is discussed in the 220-page introductory narrative? We would save those in pursuit of “current critical interests” a lot of work. Should we? Or should we endorse the Athlone editors’ apparent view that only that reader who is forced to come to terms with their entire theory of the production of the work in its succession of surviving forms would be qualified to judge their emendations in any particular instance? If, as Patterson argues, it is not merely the form of presentation of their knowledge, but the Athlone editors’ theory of this text that is self-divided, that may be its singular strength rather than a weakness.10 In their editorial narrative, as well as by their choice of mode of textual presentation, the Athlone editors manage to keep in mind two distinct and equally necessary foci of scholarly and critical inquiry: the three states of the text, and also that elusive thing, the work, to which each state somewhat arbitrarily witnesses. While the latter is never an object of their direct and synoptic attention, it is nevertheless always visible, not as an ideal or immanent form, but as a specific and minutely-realized practical process. These two conceptual levels, the text and the work, exist in a kind of dialogic contraposition, the one entity stabilizing and giving specificity to the other. The versions are not sealed off from each other ontologically in their treatment. For example, Kane and Donaldson argue that in making the C version, the reviser was using a scribal 10 Patterson, Negotiating the Past, pp. 93–9, offers a somewhat different description of the self-divided literary conception of the poem implicit in the editors’ treatment of lectional evidence in individual instances, and their cumulative sense of the author’s usus scribendi that is both produced by and guides these judgments. I find less conflict in practice in the editors’ operations than Patterson seems to here, and certainly do not find, as Charlotte Brewer has recently suggested, that these vitiate the integrity of the editorial project throughout its course – though her account of differences between the edition of A and that of B in the treatment of the three versions in the method of arriving at readings is worrying, and must be taken into account by users of the editions; see “The Textual Principles of Kane’s A Text,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 3 (1989), 67–90. As I suggest below, the editors have two conceptually distinct though materially coincident entities in view in their treatment of these matters.

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copy of B that was better than any surviving B manuscript; hence C readings occasionally figure in the establishing of the B text. On the other hand, they do not mystify or essentialize, as a kind of Platonic idea, the work captured in these three “takes,” or purport to read “intente” or telos behind or beyond the textual evidence.11 Their theoretical framework thus manages, in my view, to allow conceptually for the continued mobile and even opportunistic development of Langland’s project, while also granting the intense imaginative craftsmanship in its making at every point. Another way of putting it is that they have in principle admitted both a temporal and a textual-spatial dimension into Langland’s work as a writer – and hence introduced the notion that the work as well as the text is as at least potentially legible. The problem is how to represent between covers of books the scope and implications of this knowledge. If as annotators we grant this as part of the achievement of the Athlone edition, our problem is how to sustain in our efforts the full scope of that vision of what is knowable, legible, and representable in it. One of the available protocols would certainly have been that of the variorum edition. Yet the foregoing considerations should already have suggested why this cannot be a model for the annotation of the Athlone Piers Plowman. Donald Baker, the general editor of the Variorum Chaucer, makes the point: A variorum text, as the term is generally understood, is primarily a text which will bear the weight of the notes variorum. It should, of course, be as good and useful a text as it is possible to achieve, but it must always be borne in mind that its purpose is not chiefly to be a text but to serve as a means of sorting and organizing the mass of commentary.12

Many critics of the B Version have accused the editors of vatic ambitions. Ralph Hanna III discusses provocatively in a recent paper presented at the Medieval Academy (1989) the “coming to consciousness of editorial process” that has been the delayed effect of the Athlone edition in Middle English studies (“The Mark of Kane[-Donaldson]: Textual Criticism in Disarray”); I am grateful to him for allowing me to see a typescript of this paper. A recent critique of some Athlone readings that is more systematic than those of early reviews is, significantly, itself underwritten by a coherent theory: Hoyt Duggan’s theory of late Middle English alliterative versification. I mention it not to take sides, but merely to underscore what the editors themselves saw with admirable clarity: that to engage this edition – and indeed this work – at all requires a massive confrontation with issues inescapably theoretical and with matters that must be subject to systematic demonstration. 12 A Facsimile and Transcription of the Hengwrt Manuscript with Variants from Ellesmere, ed. Paul G. Ruggiers, intro. Donald Baker, in Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, vol. 1 11

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Baker notes that many variorum editions do not find it necessary to produce their own text to hang the notes on, but key them to an edition already considered standard and authoritative (he cites the Milton Variorum). But variorum commentary, in turn, is not attentive primarily to authorial production but to reception history; here I cite Baker again on the common aim of the several Variorum editors: “In short, we hope to provide both what Chaucer wrote and what, for centuries, it was assumed that he wrote” (xviii). At this, one can almost hear the Athlone editors muttering darkly in concert: a man cannot serve two masters. The primal act that renders the Athlone edition possible is the premise that scribal and authorial usus are distinguishable. In practice, it is the record of reception rather than production that has a firm upper hand in the Variorum Chaucer; this primacy of reception over production is probably inevitable in the variorum model of commentary, perhaps especially of a vernacular author. A corollary assumption of any variorum project is that its subject is an already canonical author, one continuously read, and “part of the language” of literary cultivation. Yet in the case of Langland it is the authorial reception and transformation of the language, and not primarily the disrupted and uneven after-life of the work – its effects upon the language and thought of his successors – that it is the goal of the Athlone edition to render visible, as its central premise is that the difference between the two is determinable, and qualitatively absolute. At this point one begins to see the full dimensions of what the Athlone editors have wrought. The format of their edition has presented Langland’s work, not a primarily as a canonical text, requiring an annotation regimen emphasizing reception-history, but as a classical text, a text of antiquity – that is to say a text in a (socially) dead language – which demands of the annotator a focus on authorial production and on reconstructing those circumstances that impinged upon the realization of an authorial project. To this mode of textual presentation, the evidence of reception is by definition contamination. Yet while the logic of the editorial project has been monumentally rationalized, its sociologic remains unfinished business. Those aspects of the work that, as I have suggested, make it at least proleptic of the vernacular “modern scriptures” in the form of its realization and survival have not as yet found their full rationale. The problematic middle ground almost necessarily constituted by any work surviving in multiple versions, in which the author’s labors as maker also situate the author himself within its reception history as reviser, may be the most promising territory for the annotator’s mediations. (Norman, Okla., University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), p. xvii. See also Ralph Hanna’s review essay, “The Chaucer Variorum,” Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography 8 (1984), 184–97.

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The Athlone editors have made some projects possible, but they have also in effect foreclosed others: they have, I think, made it not merely awkward but quite impossible either to append variorum annotation or to build a student edition onto the Athlone texts. For most of the projects that might assimilate this work to “the institutions of literary consumption” as they are now constituted, they have not cleared the ground; they have sown it with salt. But because this monumental experiment in textual study seems so immediately unpromising to developers, who in literary studies as in real life like to see immediate returns on their investments, the editors have also paradoxically assured that those who do return to the site with the right resolve and right tools – and a willingness to bring to it the most fundamental thinking that literary or textual studies can afford – will find it in a state from which something important can be learned.13 Seen from this perspective, the long austere prefatory narratives that in effect theorize the production of the work may be the single most user-friendly feature of the Athlone Piers Plowman. They explain the fertility of the premises they have marked out as the ground of the most interesting questions we might ask of these texts about the nature and process of Langland’s work. And yet again paradoxically, they do this by making visible and imaginable the ways in which Langland’s work resembled in its material and intellectual exigencies that of other producers of texts – a perspective quite other than the one of which their detractors accuse them. To move, then, from the immediately serviceable and mediatory to the more visionary possibilities of our quixotic enterprise – to ask what annotation might do to make deeply legible what the Athlone editors have made knowable and imaginable – we need to return in conclusion to some models of modern textual representation. Strangely, the first is the indefatigable W.W. Skeat, who identified and edited all three texts, publishing his editions of each almost exactly five hundred years after each of Langland’s attained its transmitted state. Until Athlone, his has been the citation text of this poem in all its versions. What makes it a model in this connection is not only its admirably practical notes – manifestly generated in the course of arriving at readings, though his textual inquiry was not by any means as deep as that of the Athlone editors – but the second form of the issue of his editions of the three texts, namely in one volume in parallel texts (with his apparatus, notes, and glossary in the second volume). This is a very serviceable and long-standard way to represent a work 13 Jerome McGann, in “The Monks and the Giants: Textual and Bibliographical Studies and the Interpretation of Literary Works,” Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, p. 194, calls the Athlone edition “a model of an experimental critical edition.”

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surviving in more than one version, and one can still hardly get on without it. Were the Athlone edition to be reissued in this fashion, with the full panoply of lections similarly displayed in forms that made possible visual access to comparison across versions, it could only further enable what the editors have severally made possible. On a far grander and more fully reasoned scale, this is the kind of access to the temporal dimension of production in all its woven complexity that has been offered for Ulysses by Professor Gabler’s “critical and synoptic” edition. I should think that this representation of the unfolding of the work is in principle possible, though quite likely on a far coarser grid, for Piers. Yet as Professor McKenzie has observed, what is rendered less visible by such representation is the textual-spatial dimension of invention and conception – the aspect of Joyce’s working-out of the text as such through its material realization in print, in part through response to the accidents of how it was disposed on the page, that as I understand it John Kidd wishes to foreground in his representation of Ulysses.14 It should also be possible by cross-text comparison not merely to identify scribal contamination, but to offer examples of Langland’s working in revision in such a way as to make something fortuitous or miscopied in one version the base for invention in the next. Kane and Donaldson’s rationales for emendation, especially as they move between versions, already accept in principle this well-attested fact of authorial life, as well as scribal misdeed, as part of the genesis of the revisions.15 My point is certainly not to prefer one or the other form of display as model, but to underscore the obvious: that both are deep and complex forms of representation of authorial process in the product. Because of the Athlone edition, Langland’s work lends itself to deeper understanding and legibility than it has ever attained through some of the disciplines that now comprise textual studies, and the making of this monumental edition is not the end of that enterprise, but the condition of its possibility. John Burrow has recently noted that the really major new developments in Middle English studies are taking place around Piers Plowman, not Chaucer.16 I think that this is because of the final paradox of the Athlone 14 D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (London: The British Library, 1986), pp. 47–50. 15 To the extent that Charlotte Brewer has successfully demonstrated that such crossversion comparison was not consistently part of Kane’s method in establishing the Athlone A-Text, while they are part of the editors’ method in B, her findings suggest that such retroactive comparison should be included in users’ assessment of A readings in future. 16 Times Literary Supplement (16–22 December 1988): 1401–2.

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edition: an artifact “restored” by austerely “classical” principles now lends itself only to fairly revisionary “institutions of literary consumption.” The edition we five propose to annotate not only allows us, but virtually commands us, to render visible its character as “modern vernacular scripture,” a character legible not only in its formal and final causes – its achieved “thought,” the usual focus of annotators’ attention – but more minutely in its material and efficient causes: we can understand its coming to being as a work not through its immanent ideas, but also through its specific fortunes as a text. This should be an exemplary project for what is of late coming to be called the “new philology” in medieval literary studies. But while I relish the prospect of the rethinking and revisionary work this annotation project will entail, I would consider my investment quite safe if I were to wager that we’ll be as far advanced in age as well as wisdom as the Athlone editors were when they sent their work to press before we finish the notes.