This article considers the relationship of lists and literary ekphrastic descriptions in late medieval English writing, with particular focus on the early fifteenth-century alliterative poem Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede. It considers various uses of the list form, discussing their numerous aesthetic and ethical functions and effects, and argues that while lists can be associated with a ‘plain’ vernacular style and the moral values attached to it, they were also used extensively as part of the ornate style of ekphrases. Reformist and lollard writers were particularly attuned to the list as a stylistic device that allowed ‘needful’ knowledge to be foregrounded; at the same time, reformist writings were often critical of precisely the kinds of sumptuous material productions that were described in ekphrases. Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede exemplifies how the various aesthetic and ethical positions associated with the list are played off against one another; here, necessary spiritual knowledge and excessive worldly desires are both presented in list form. While ekphrases are usually said to ‘contain’ numerous lists, this relationship is upended as the poem demonstrates that it is the ‘needful’ list that takes precedence. The article concludes that the list’s variability, and its association with different intellectual, ethical and aesthetic values made it an exceptionally flexible, playful, and powerful rhetorical tool.
Style, 50.3 (2016), 261-79.