Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388
The waking interlude of C.5 exhaustively applies to Will’s condition every possible pertinent clause of the 1388 Statute of Laborers, as his meeting with Reason and Conscience, appointed at the end of the previous vision as the two chief judicial officers of the realm, stages an incipient prosecution of Will on the charge of idleness. The Statute, proposing to subject the disturbing performative indeterminacy of vagrant populations to documentary fixity and accountability, enacts a project of textualizing and authorizing identity. Its language suggests that the state has been reconceived by 1388 as the primary source of ameliorative policy, rather than the guardian of customary, static social arrangements. The main term of social identity shifts from “estate” to “work,” especially insofar as the latter involves agrarian cultivation, increasingly seen as the “true” occupation of mankind. At the same time, the statute identifies stability of habitation with that of identity. Will’s apologia constitutes a covert attack on the premises of the statute itself. By appealing to the statute’s injunction for beggars who can’t find work to migrate to other towns, Will paradoxically offers his itinerancy as proof that he is not an idler, challenging the statute by citing it. He also implicates Reason himself as his accomplice in idleness, since his “making” has proceeded from Reason’s own teaching (C.5.5). The placement of the waking interlude is determined by L’s desire to exert a synchronic intentional integrity over the diachronic facts of the poem’s production. Appearing between the first two visions, Reason’s “arating” parallels his sermon calling the entire folk to repentance, just as Will’s resolution to reform himself projects him suddenly into the prospect of agrarian work bringing in the harvest, which in turn will be paralleled by Will’s unreadiness in the episode with Need, as the world’s final harvest will once again catch him unprepared. L’s use of the term lollere, especially as applied to Will, must be understood to refer to one who intrudes religion into social space commonly seen as secular. With the C 5 apologia for his vernacular social commentary, L stages the double claim that his work is vernacular theology, and that it is literature—that it is a legitimate work, to which his itinerant and suspect way of living is not only appropriate, but in fact necessary.