Kindly Similitude: Marriage and Family in Piers Plowman
WL’s references to marriage and family function as literal elements in the life led by the ordinary Christian on the road to salvation; as ways to figure other social relations; as a mode of explaining the mysteries of the Trinity, Incarnation, and Redemption; and as a strategy for expressing arguments in familiar and affective terms. Although the Meed episode is not primarily about marriage, the metaphor here likens Meed’s workings to abuses of a sacramental bond, of faith and duty, and of sexual propriety. Revisions in BC introduce the idea of moral similarities within families, stress urban and curial abuses, and steadily darken Meed’s character. The comprehensive marriage metaphor allows WL to display Meed’s workings in a wide variety of social contexts. Wit’s speech (B.9) on the origins and nature of Dowel suggests that it is fostered through the fulfillment of social duties to teach and support one’s immediate kin and the comune. Wit’s discourse on the lawful love of marriage seems to attach progressively greater value to the ideal, first in examples from nature and references to kynde (BC), then in the praise of a marital ideal and condemnation of marriages that pervert that ideal (C). C.18 elaborates upon and goes well beyond B.16’s honoring of marriage as one of the three grades of chastity, by stressing the mysteries reflected in the institution – the mysteries of the Trinity, and of Christ and his church – as well as marriage’s original procreative purpose and the divine blessing it has received. Rather than sounding any call for universal contemplation and continence, WL insists on the value of the active, married life “as intended by God from the beginning, in reflection of his own nature.” Marriage and family constitute for WL the central social arena for the activity of law and love; they likewise figure the frequent conflict and potential cooperation of Nature and Grace; and they illuminate such themes as the ordinate and inordinate use of material goods, worldly and spiritual work, and the proper use of time.
Rev. Anna Baldwin, YLS 10 (1996): 212-15; H. L. Spencer, N&Q 43 (1996): 466-67; John M. Bowers, SAC 19 (1997): 319-21; Myra Stokes, RES 48 (1997): 380-81; Hugh White, MÆ 66 (1997): 138; C. David Benson, Archiv für das Studium der neuren Sprachen und Literaturen 235 (1998): 427-29; John Bugge, Speculum 73 (1998): 272-75; Rob Adams, JEGP 88 (1999): 256.