Knighthood as Trope: Holy Church’s Interpretation of Knighthood in Piers Plowman B.I.
For Holy Church, the custodian of propositional truth, knighthood represents in B.1 not only a social relation but also a cognitive capacity–namely, the power of discrimination or definition. Good knights set and maintain boundaries, or “define” in the etymological sense. Knighthood sustains the division of the social continuum into significant units, just as clergy fix meanings so as to differentiate one sign from another. Holy Church’s claim to speak authoritatively about society depends on the possibility of dividing the social continuum into distinct classes. Thus, Holy Church construes the social world as a text, and particular social organizations (e.g., feudalism) as ways of interpreting that text. Knighthood for her is the social analogue of correct interpretation. On the other hand, the metaphoric structure of Holy Church’s discourse on love undercuts the hermeneutic of definition. Holy Church’s tropes of love are drawn from the realm of the feminine, the relative, and the commercial, as opposed to the realm of the masculine, the absolute, and the feudal. The tropes call into question whether Holy Church’s notion of authoritative, truthful interpretation can coexist with the activities of love. As custodian of propositional truth, Holy Church speaks strongly via the trope of knighthood for the hermeneutic of definition. As proponent of love, she implies the necessity for a hermeneutic of mediation, via a family of tropes opposed to knighthood. This dissonance raises the most disturbing question of all: can Holy Church still claim to speak authoritatively for a society based on the new money-economy, if her notion of truth rests on a hermeneutic of social reality that is fundamentally connected with the vanishing feudal economy? Holy Church’s thought demonstrates how for L the issues of textual interpretation and social reform are a single issue.
Sewanee Mediaeval Studies 9 (1999): 205-18.
Rogers, William E.