Making History Legal: Piers Plowman and the Rebels of Fourteenth-Century England
PPl‘s “constant projection of legal ideals into the ancient past” may be best appreciated in relation to fourteenth-century efforts “to use antiquity to transform or maintain legal status or capability,”even though such uses of history and law together compose a general “context of historical debate that… complicated or even hollowed out belief in the very traditions on which the legal and social order of English culture was being established.” Thus in contrast to Steven Justice’s argument in Writing and Rebellion, the author argues that neither PPl nor the monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham were unaware of or unprepared for the uses of history by the Rebels in 1381 to assert their claims as free townsmen; rather, both engaged those and other topical uses. The essay falls into three parts. The first surveys a series of places in the poem where law is challenged or defined by way of historical vision: Will’s rebuke of learning (B.10-377-11.404); Trajan’s interruption (11.140-45); and Jesus’s freeing of the souls in hell (18.278-85). The essay’s second part proposes two specific links between the poem and a series of historically focused legal efforts of the period: between Clergy’s comments at B.10.311-33 and an effort by townsmen to impeach their landlord, the Abbot of Abingdon, in 1368; and between Sloth’s “rymes of… Randolf Erl of Chester” and the struggle at Coventry in the 1340s over Earl Randolf of Chester’s twelfth-century grant of the town to the townsmen. More generally, the narrator of the C.5 “apologia” seeks to define “the legal identity of his vagrant dreaming”: the narrator’s complaint against the decay of traditional social identity (C.5.70-81) expresses “the consequence of” the poem’s “ideals of justice as freedom from custom and traditional identity.” The essay’s third part considers in detail Walsingham’s account of the efforts by the Rebels of St. Albans in 1381 to use history to support their legal case (their claim to an ancient endowment of the town), and argues that slips in Walsingham’s presentation show that he was cognizant of the cogency of the Rebels’ uses of history, in spite of his derision of it. His awareness was due to the similar uses of history by the St. Albans monks to manipulate the abbey’s legal status and claims over the preceding half-century. Thus in contrast to Justice’s argument that the Rebellion of 1381 was essentially incomprehensible to “official England,”the author argues that Walsingham’s subtle treatment of the rebels’ uses of history for legal purposes shows that he understood their endeavor all too well, as PPl shows an understanding of the similar struggles by townsmen before 1381.
Hewett-Smith, Book of Essays, 7-39