Major Episodes and Moments in Piers Plowman B
This chapter discusses some of the major episodes in the B text of PPl: Meed; pilgrimage; plowing and pardons; the promise of atonement heralded by the crucifixion and the harrowing of hell; and the dissolution of the poem, and possibly the church along with it in the final two passus. Discussion situates these episodes within contemporary issues: war with France; economic instability, and critique of institutionalised church practices. Barr suggests that one of the issues with the pardon tearing scene is that nothing in its presentation adds up consistently: its material form, its wording, or its purpose. There is no consistent reading on a literal, material or allegorical level that can paper over its cracks. As such, while it is a shock when Piers tears it in two, his response attends honestly to the muddle, socially and theological that this episode enacts. Only with the more congruent narrative treatment of documents that lead up to the harrowing of hell episode can there be hope that the impasse in passus 7, and the problem of reward/redemption initiated so early in the Meed episodes may find a narrative answer. All, however, unravels in the final two passus, as the carefully built allegorical church is fatally wounded by the joint ministrations of Conscience and the friars. But while trust in institutions is as shattered as the Barn itself, a new search is initiated. Conscience seeks Piers Plowman and his cry for God’s Grace wakes the dreamer. In these final lines, as earlier in the poem, the memory and the promise of Piers are an affective touchstone that the surrounding turbulence is unable to dislodge or engulf. If, at the end of the poem, L gives up on his church, he does not give up on the memorial hope of Piers transacted between plowman as knight as man as God.
The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 15-32.