Title Background

<i>Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England</i>.

Books Under Suspicion: Censorship and Tolerance of Revelatory Writing in Late Medieval England.

This book explores in part the influence of revelatory theology on the writings of L, and how influential non-Wycliffite radical writings may have been on Piers audiences. Three case studies of “Dangerous Reading among Early Piers Audiences” examine a sampling of anonymous Latin pieces found together with PPl in three different manuscripts. These include revelatory texts transmitting radical or officially suppressed ideas about schism, disendowment, sedition, women’s spiritual leadership, and inclusive views on salvation, suggesting that the company PPl keeps in certain manuscripts is sometimes daring.
      Case I involves a Joachite Schism prophecy in a manuscript containing PPl (Cambridge University Library Dd.i.17).  This prophecy, which traveled under the pseudonymous authorship of the Italian canon lawyer, John of Legnano, was composed from Joachimist exegesis of the coming “Age of the Spirit” and from Jacobus de Theramo’s Belial, a suspect text cited during the trial of Jan Hus for heresy at Constance in 1414.  “The manuscript gives us a new window on the early reception history of Piers—and makes us re-examine whether it was dangerous reading by looking at what it was being read with.” (111).
      Case Study 2 looks at a collection of three broadside poems now in British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra B.II, providing clues about the kinds of anti-prophetic sources that were infiltrating the Wycliffite movement.  The first two poems, “Prest” and “Of thes,” are written in Middle Hiberno-English, and reflect the kind of anti-Franciscan Joachite material known to have traveled in Anglo-Ireland. The third poem is the very early pro-Wycliffite, “Heu quanta desolacio,” composed for circulation in the weeks and months after the Blackfriars Council of 1382.  It contains what seem to be a previously unnoticed allusion to or borrowing from  PPl, which may be the earliest after those of the rebel letters of 1381. The poems “Preste” and “Heu” in Cotton Cleopatra B.II are heavily cancelled with large X’s, perhaps owing to their controversial content. Later chapters of Books under Suspicion build on the evidence of this one by examining the C text for “mounting evidence that Langland, in return, was trying to shake off some of this kind of borrowing” (187). The poem “Heu” is also discussed in the context of another suspect manuscript, MS Digby 98, where it survives alongside prophecy by Hildegard of Bingen and other items of clerical controversy, collected probably by one-time closet Wycliffite, Peter Partriche.
      The Benedictine readership of Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 851, containing the Z text of PPl  as well as a Latin poem lamenting the execution of Archbishop Scrope in 1405, is the focus of Case Study 3.  The poem, “Quis meo capiti,” describes the events that sparked a spectacular, long-lasting popular cult of Scrope, and it is the only extant version to contain stanzas so critical of the king (Henry IV) that they were apparently suppressed when it was copied elsewhere. Later material on Scrope, including accounts of miracles and visions experienced at his tomb, came under official censorship by April 1406. In “Quis meo capiti” Scrope’s death is set in the tradition of the deaths of two earlier archbishops, Becket, and Simon Sudbury (during the rising of 1381).  To find PPl together in the same manuscript as a poem that laments the death of Sudbury at the hands of John Ball’s rebels challenges our modern tendencies to privilege political extremism and political correctness in studying the reception of L. This snapshot of a monastic audience for PPl in the Lancastrian period shows third generation of Langlandian readers who also came to him for reformist critique, but in this case critique by the “possessioner” or pro-endowment forces.  Among those things that would make the Z- text redaction particularly at home in a monastic setting are its profound understanding of visionary narrative, and Langland’s passionate interest in political history. His habit of obliquely invoking dangerous political issues or events would be appreciated by monastic readers of chronicles.
      In addition to these case studies, this book discusses various passages from the A, B, C texts of PPl that address alternative salvation theories and revelatory theology, including the controversial writings of radical theologians such as William Ockham and Uthred de Bolden (Chapters 9 and 10).  A new reading of the John But Passus shows evidence that its writer (or redactor) had Uthredian empathies that leaned toward a more optimistic, inclusive salvation theory, in contrast to the predestinarian ideas promoted by Wycliffism.  The But Passus may contain an overlooked allusion to Uthred’s condemned doctrine of clara visio, which, along with its cluster of Latin quotations on keeping silent, suggest that the author was concerned with lack of freedom of speech on issues of salvation theology, perhaps further evidence of the radical following PPl commanded.

Rev. by:

  • John H. Arnold, Dyan Elliott, Anne Hudson, and Scott Lucas, with a reply by the author, in a roundtable discussion, Journal of British Studies, 46 (2007), 746–73;
  • Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Review, 07.06.22 (http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.baj9928.0706.022);
  • Allan Westphall, Geographies of Orthodoxy: Mapping English Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ, 1350–1550, posted 8 November 2007 (http://www.qub.ac.uk/geographies-oforthodoxy/discuss/2007/11/08/review-books-under-suspicion/);
  • James G. Clark, American Historical Review, 113 (2008), 560–62;
  • Andrew Cole, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 30 (2008), 378–84;
  • Ralph Hanna, Medium Ævum, 77 (2008), 372;
  • Michelle Karnes, YLS, 22 (2008), 244–48;
  • Barbara Newman, Catholic Historical Review, 94 (2008), 356–58;
  • Ryan Perry, College Literature, 35.4 (2008), 222–24;
  • Steven Rozenski, Jr, Comitatus, 39 (2008), 293–95;
  • Paul Strohm, Modern Philology, 106 (2008), 149–52;
  • Rosalynn Voaden, Speculum, 83 (2008), 447–49;
  • Mishtooni Bose, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 77 (2009), 123-26; 
  • James Carley, Times Literary Supplement, (8 June 2007), 25; 
  • Cindy Carlson, Rocky Mountain Review, 62 (2008), 98-100; 
  • Alexandra Gillespie, English Historical Review, 123 (2008), 715-17; 
  • Martha Dana Rust, JEBS, 10 (2007), 260-63; 
  • Nancy Bradley Warren, Church History, 77 (2008), 165-68.


Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.


Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn