Civil Death and the Maiden: Agency and the Conditions of Contract in Piers Plowman
Through personification allegory, PPl brings together the concept of unity of person, the theory of just price, and that of constitutional monarchy to interrogate the notion of agency in contract. In presenting an image of female sexuality out of intention’s control and not subject to legal coverture, Meed shows the need for moral agency in the economy. The allegory of her marriage litigation argues that wages, commuted into monetary qualifications and wrenched from their context in fealty, become a kind of sexual promiscuity. Conscience’s refusal to marry Meed manifests the failure to secure economic justice through the specific model of agency found in marriage law; women’s agency, detached from moral intentionality, must be banished from the social contract. Conscience arranges instead a mock marriage of the king and Reason (B.4.188-95) in which, because the “bride” is male, neither party experiences any degree of civil death in a union that aims to balance absolutist and conciliarist political theory.
Speculum 70 (1995): 760-92.