Piers Plowman and Prophecy: An Approach to the C-Text.
WL was greatly influenced by the biblical books of the prophets (chiefly the major prophets and especially Isaiah), considered in their true sense of pointing out sin and urging repentance rather than predicting future events. The prophets balance individual with social responsibility, and closely tie together the religious, political and moral, as does WL. All express unwillingness to become prophets; none is mystical or predominantly apocalyptic. The situation of fourteenth-century England parallels that described in the prophetic books with regard to the corruption of rulers, priests and people punished by God with natural disasters. PPl shares with Wycliffite thought the primacy of the biblical text and an attempt to reform, and Wyclif is seen as a persecuted prophet. WL’s humble approach to the role of prophet has good biblical precedent, and his description of God’s minstrels is similar to the role played by individual prophets. His sleep is best seen as the image of prophetic visions, rather than sloth or narcolepsy. The call to prophecy comes with a sense of isolation; the “autobiographical passage” of C.5 can be profitably compared to Isaiah’s description of his call (ch. 6). Like WL, Isaiah uses allegorical names, includes personifications of the Four Daughters of God, and (ch. 29) provides an analogue to the speech of Book. The opening vision of PPl expands and develops Isaiah 1:3-6, 11-14. The Vitae are largely based on Isaiah 1:17-18. C.2-4 make vivid Isaiah 1:24; C.6-7, the confession of the sins, recall Isaiah 1:18; the Pardon scene relates to Isaiah 1:17-20, and the fact that it is sent to a plowman perhaps shows the influence of Isaiah 28:24-26. WL’s message, like the prophets’, is recognition and reform, not the enunciation of doctrine.
Rev. Daniel F. Pigg, Chaucer Yearbook 1 (1992): 286-89; Richard K. Emmerson, YLS 6 (1992): 156-59.
Garland Studies in Medieval Literature 5. New York and London: Garland, 1991.
Steinberg, Theodore L.