Title Background

Harlots’ Holiness: the System of Absolution for Miswinning in the C Version of <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Harlots’ Holiness: the System of Absolution for Miswinning in the C Version of Piers Plowman.

Readers of L have not sufficiently appreciated his consistent satiric emphasis on the corrupt system by which thieves, extortioners, and other fraudulent takers, ‘miswinners’, are granted absolution—invalid, of course–in confession, usually by friars but also by seculars, in return for a donation, with no requirement of restitution. Lawler argues that this ‘system,’ as he calls it, is never far from L’s mind: a major theme in the B and C versions, and strongest in C; that L indeed regards it as the chief evil facing the church in his time; that in undermining penance it undermines the poem’s major value; and that its importance both accounts for and is verified by the final scene of the poem, in which for the last time a friar absolves a thieving lord in exchange for a donation.  Though he offers numerous analogues from other late medieval writers, and suggests the particular influence of Peter the Chanter and Richard Fitzralph, Lawler does not posit sources, claiming only that though L did not invent the issue he drives it home more insistently than any other writer. The system has been touched on long ago by Hort, Frank, and Bloomfield, and more recently most specifically by Wendy Scase, less so by Penn Szittya and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton.  References to it in the poem are usually indirect, even opaque. The most explicit treatment occurs in the C version at 17.32-50, but Lawler argues for its presence in numerous places in the poem, beginning in the Prologue, and offers new readings of many lines, such as 4.113, ‘And harlotes holynesse be an heye ferie,’ the source of its title (‘harlots’ holiness’ being the false appearance of holiness brought about by phony absolution granted to thieves), or 13.142, ‘y sey …/ how þat men mede toke and mercy refusede,’ which is taken to mean, ‘I saw how friars took meed, and refused absolution till they got it.’ The final two passus receive extensive discussion; Lawler insists that the issue all through the siege is not sin in general but miswinning, and lax treatment of it, in particular; in the final confession, Contrition is a lord, his sin is miswinning, and the friar’s glosing consists in offering absolution (‘comfort’) without requiring restitution. Five appendixes offer in turn: twenty-three passages illustrating the treatment of the theme in other writers, particularly Peter the Chanter, Richard Fitzralph, and the author of Memoriale presbiterorum; a chart showing the growth of the topic across the three versions of the poem; and analyses of C.3.77-127 (Non-clerical Miswinning), C.9.256-80 (Bishops), and C.15.42-50a (Feasting on What Men Miswon).


YLS, 20 (2006), 141-89.


Lawler, Traugott