Parsing the Peacock: Langland’s Wills and the Limits of voluntas
L’s allegory of the peacock in B.12.236-63 maps a troubled testamentary system onto the body of a conflicted bird, animating one of PPl‘s central tenets: Redde quod debes. In this passage, traditional associations with peacocks are brought together with commonplaces surrounding false executors and other dangers of the testamentary system. L explores the limits of voluntas by arguing that the testament is a false document if the intentions it records are not matched in life by habitual restitution. The testator’s salvation is also jeopardized if he relies on executors to pay his debts. Yet Piers’s paradigmatic testament in passus 6 is valueless as far as the testator is concerned, as it testifies that the testator owes nothing. It can, however, act as an exemplum for those who do not regularly give back what they owe. In complementing Piers’s paradigmatic will in passus 6, the peacock allegory contributes to the notion that L’s poem employs an archive of documents that charts the path to salvation in terms of documentary culture. Indeed, L’s pun on ‘tail/tally’ in the peacock passage suggests that his reading of the bird may have been informed by the most widespread method for recording debt in his day: the tally stick. (MVD)
YLS, 25 (2011), 77-94.
Van Dussen, Michael