Title Background

Half-Acre Bylaws: Harvest-Sharing in <i>Piers Plowman</i>‘  , 

Half-Acre Bylaws: Harvest-Sharing in Piers Plowman‘  , 

This essay reinterprets the half-acre scene to suggest that Piers’ controversial pardon is a harvest-sharing contract that combines Last Judgement theology with the regulatory exclusion of the village bylaw. The idea of spiritual pardon, as well as the community of the saved that the pardon articulates, is figured in L’s poem as communal agricultural labour. The Latin text that constitutes the pardon (et qui bona egerunt ibunt in vitam eternum; qui vero malo in igenm eternum) comes from the Athanasian Creed, which was recited daily at Prime. The content of the pardon also resonates strongly with the treatment of Judgement and penance in the Gospel of Matthew, which outlines the Corporal Works of Mercy, the outward expressions of charity that feature so prominently in late medieval wall paintings and devotional handbooks. For L, penance and salvation are imagined in terms of a formulaic labour agreement in which lay people are rewarded—or not—for their work. This formula, as in Matthew and the Athanasian Creed, relies on the binary opposition of the saved and the damned. In PPl, this familiar formula is cast in distinctly agricultural terms, and Christian community is figured as a team of labourers who work both collectively and individually toward salvation. In this light, Piers can be seen as a local bylaw custodian who reinforces the agricultural basis of community on the half-acre. Although other late medieval authors, notably Chaucer and the author of the Northern Homily Cycle, treat devotion in agricultural terms, this essay contends that L is uniquely attentive to the distinctly collective nature of harvest as a way of exploring Christian spiritual community on the half-acre. (EKR)

Volume

YLS, 25 (2011), 95-115.

Author

Rentz, Ellen K.