By Angel’s Hand: Piers Plowman and London’s Crowning Gesture
In the coronation pageant of 1377, a golden statue of an angel bent down and proffered the crown to the young Richard. This chapter looks at how contemporary chroniclers read this event, the first of its kind in European history, and asks how this angelic automaton made its way into PPl. Little has been said of the possible connections between the pageant’s mechanical marvel and the appearance of the angel in B.Prol.112–32. The image of L’s angel, if related to the pageant’s automaton, may help to explain the textual crux at line 113, the image of a king given power by the commons, and an angel descending from on high to lecture the king on right rule. The term commons is repeatedly applied in contemporary records to the craftsmen at the lower end of the political spectrum — the ones who formed the bulk of the audience in the streets before the coronation pageant. In this context, L’s allegorical image and claim that ‘might of the commons made him to rule’ is less an affront to the new king’s prerogative than a signal of acquiescence or support, a voice for the craftsmen and commons whose stake in Richard’s kingship would otherwise go unheard. The retention of the angel and the king in the C text signals, on the one hand, a connection to the goldsmiths’ need to heal the contentious atmosphere of London’s mayoral and intra-guild politics in 1377, and on the other, the ongoing need to instruct the young king in the mode of ‘advice to princes’. In PPl we see shades of the Goldsmiths’ assertion of fealty to the Crown, an assertion that lost importance as local politics shifted and L continued to revise his poem. In this context we can join L in imagining a localized civic identity with a pressing need to hand a crown to the next day’s monarch.
Manmade Marvels in Medieval Culture and Literature (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), pp. 27–53.