Dating Piers Plowman: Testing the Testimony of Usk’s Testament
Skeat’s dating of the C text between 1385-87, widely accepted by scholars of L, derives largely from his conclusion that Usk’s Testament of Love quoted from C, and that the Testament was completed near the time of Usk’s execution in 1388. But the Testament has subsequently been more precisely dated to 1384-85 (Ramona Bressie), and the “parallels” that Skeat finds between the Testament and C are either insubstantiable or wrong: some are widely documented commonplaces; almost all are also present in B; and four appear only in B, not C. As for the similarity between PPl’s Tree of Charity and the tree of love in section III of the Testament, the various components of the two trees have different correspondences, and each image may derive from diverse sources incorporating the tree allegory, such as Anselm’s treatise on free will, De Concordia Praescientiae or The Legend of the Holy Rood. Skeat’s perception of his role as editor and annotator, “to illustrate the social condition of the English people of the past,” influences his tendentious assertions of these parallels since he assumes a temporal and cultural succession from L to Usk to Chaucer, all of whom may in fact have been writing contemporaneously. Skeat’s model abets the notion of an early humanist renaissance (Chaucer) following and displacing a religiously obsessed Dark Ages (L).