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Hunger and the Clerical Canine: The Dog as Metaphor in <i>Piers Plowman</i> B

Hunger and the Clerical Canine: The Dog as Metaphor in Piers Plowman B

(Addendum to the 2016 annual bibliography.) The contrary messages of the Hunger episode in PPl B.6 can be resolved by recognizing Hunger as Piers’s watchdog which comes running to attack the ‘wolveskynnes’ at its master’s call. The dog is a polysemous sign in medieval literature which matches point for point the multiple ambiguities, good and bad, in Hunger’s portrayal. The dog can act as a symbol for carnal, physical excess, the ‘dog-like appetite’ of Psalm 58 which is never quenched, but the dog can also represent moral rectitude, rationality, and the true Christian’s relentless hunt for Christ and spiritual fulfillment. The canine also holds particular association in medieval literature with the clergy: the dog and its healing tongue can allegorize the priest. Thus Hunger’s moral homily in passus 6 on the importance of a moderate diet anticipates in reverse Clergy’s later canine figure in passus 10, one taken from Isaiah 56:10 in which irresponsible priests are ‘doumbe houndis’. Hunger in contrast acts as a clerical hound very much willing and able to bark, and his bite is considerably worse, until that is, he falls asleep at the dinner table (for which see also Isaiah 56:10). Hunger’s moralizing advice on moderation and beggary, wonderfully ironic in light of the rapacious clerical canines found elsewhere in the text and also his own insatiable canine appetite, plays on the dog’s reputation in literature for exemplary conduct and on the wondrous powers of the hound’s tongue to heal.