Title Background

A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England

A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England

The rapid spread of vernacular literacy in Ricardian England, driven by the bureaucratic and legal demands of an increasingly authoritarian central government, brought about a fundamental shift in popular attitudes to the nature of evidence and proof. The paradigm for “truth” shifts over the course of the fourteenth century from communally authenticated troth-plight to the judicially enforced written contract. By the Ricardian period, the element of fidelity to an oath becomes the essential ingredient of all ethical senses of the word. In its intellectual sense, “truth” is opposed not to error but to deceit, until by the late fourteenth century when the word begins to usurp the sense of “sooth.” (The problem of indeterminacy between these meanings is most acute in PPl, where the morality of not revealing what one knows to be the “truth” is not divorced from ethical considerations.) But at the fringes of literate culture, the concept of truth had to correspond to ideal principles of fidelity to family, kindred, lord, etc. This sense lingers at least down to the Enlightenment, though increasing reliance on written records forces people to confront not only the fallibility of human memory, but the unreliability of human “trouthe.” In the case of the oath, the plighting of troth imbues the word with the qualities of a piece of property, one to be guarded and defended. Oaths are solemnized by the exchange of tokens, symbolic objects, which perform a mnemonic reinforcement of the oath itself. In the fourteenth century, written charters could be invested with talismanic properties, as they replaced traditional tokens of “wed.” Documents were seen to symbolize, rather than to record, the legal facts to which they attested. The translation of authority from token to parchment contributes to a demystification of tokens in general, to which Berengar’s heresy, that the eucharist symbolizes rather that consists of the body of Christ, is indebted. As evidenced by such tokens as “earnest pennies,” pledged to saints in return for intercession, medieval oral culture viewed the relationship between supernatural beings and their followers in the same reciprocally contractual terms that bound earthly neighbors. This attitude informs the covenantal notion of Christ’s relationship to humanity, in which he acts as a “borowe,” or as a trickster, on our behalf. PPl B makes use of these traditions. For L, patient poverty is a positive theological virtue for which God is obliged to reward those who practice it with a place in heaven. The dreamer is obsessed with the paradox at the heart of the baptismal contract: If Dowel is not possible for sinful humanity, how can God justly enter into a contract whose fulfillment is impossible? If it is, how can salvation be denied to the virtuous unbaptised, since they go so far as to respect a contract not formally binding on them? The theology of entitlement presented by Ymaginatif is modified by Scripture’s assertion that works of charity form a condition of God’s covenant. The demonstration of Will’s faith at the end of B.18, contrasting Haukyn’s pessimism, aligns L with traditional covenentalism, as Christ’s victory restores the rights of humanity to salvation.


Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.


Green, Richard Firth