Kings Commons, Commons, and Kind Wit: Langland’s National Vision and the Rising of 1381
The article opens with a brief excursus into certain key elements of postcolonial theory, particularly as seen in the work of Benedict Anderson, and ideas about the modern genesis of nationalism. Central to Anderson’s definition of nationalism is the notion of community, and it is this definition that Scanlon seeks to re-examine here. By confronting the “vernacular articulation [of] ‘the commons’ [that] informs certain radical visions of political sovereignty current in later medieval England,” Scanlon hopes to “offer a significant complication to the apparent modernity of nationalist ideals,” without, however, positing some evolutionary model (194). At the same time, he also wants to suggest that Middle English studies generally underestimate how radical vernacular political thought can be in this period. Scanlon begins by reminding us that L’s conservatism, which is almost a critical commonplace these days, is relatively recent, whereas he was already established in an older tradition as a visionary spokesman for radical reform, an account “dovetailing with progressivist and Whig interpretations of history” (195). Scanlon juxtaposes L’s quasi-modern “macaronic, disjunct, visionary poetic[s]” with the Rising of 1381, which also poses a chronological problem similar to L’s poetry for him (196). He argues further that since the Rising, for all its traditional characteristics, had an “authentically radical” long-term effect: “Langland’s apparent conservatism [should not] necessarily signify opposition to the rebels or antipathy to their goals” (197). Scanlon then offers a brief survey of twentieth-century scholarship that sought to establish L’s credentials as a conservative, or at best, a moderate reformer, ending with the tradition that establishes him firmly as a London poet. He then takes as his point of departure the fact that the poem’s initial “visionary moment” occurs in the West country (199), and for him, the “nationalist” die that is cast here is retained throughout the poem through the “waking interludes [that] enforce an autobiographical continuity” and the periodic reinforcing of the “initial opposition between the agrarian western periphery and the corrupt London center” (202). In B.Prol.112-22 L provides a “radical communal notion of political sovereignty,” which “provides a compelling gloss on the political concerns” of the rest of the poem (204). This passage, and its counterpart in C (with some variants), is then discussed at length, particularly with reference to Donaldson’s use of this passage to establish L’s conservative credentials. For Scanlon, however, this passage initiates a discussion of kingship as part of a larger reconceptualization of the estates from the point of view of labor, and as such, “has the character of a concise foundation myth” after Anderson’s definition (208). Alongside this argument, Scanlon proceeds to read the rebel understanding of kingship as found in With King Richard and the true commons, which might be said to express similar, radical notion of the “commons” (214). According to Scanlon, Richard’s promises to the rebels at Mile End, ending the Rising, recall “end of Langland’s myth: the king and commons, with the assistance of kind wit, shape ‘lawe and leute'” (223). The implications of this reading are that we should no longer dismiss the B version’s radicalism as a misappropriation by rebel readers, but should rather recover its “ideological specificity,” which will enable us to read it as “a serious and distinct stage of L’s career” (224).
Lavezzo, ed., Imagining a Medieval English Nation, 191-233