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Conscience on Knights Kings, Kings, and Conquerors: <i>Piers Plowman</i> B.19.26-198

Conscience on Knights Kings, Kings, and Conquerors: Piers Plowman B.19.26-198

Prompted in part by Sarah Wood’s article in YLS 21 and also by Stephen Barney’s 2006 Penn Commentary, this essay reconsiders the argument in the account of the life of Christ given by Conscience (B.19.26-198). Conscience distinguishes three phases there: as a knight, known as filius Mariae, up to his first miracle, at Cana; as a king, filius David, in his public ministry and on the cross; and as a conqueror, Christus, at and after the harrowing of hell. Wood describes the whole speech as a ‘sermon on Christ’s kingship’; but I argue that this is to elide distinctions that Conscience is careful to make. Thus, the gifts offered by the three kings represent, in this context, virtues that are to be understood as knightly, not kingly (as Wood and Barney suggest). In particular, undue emphasis on kingship obscures the fact that the chief point of the passage lies in its representation of Christ as conqueror. It is not as a king but as a conqueror that he has the power to cast down or raise up his subjects, and it is this conqueror’s privilege that he deputes to Peter as that power of the keys with which the rest of the poem is to be much concerned. (JAB)