Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages
Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages discovers in England’s great Middle English poem PPl a mutually productive interaction between literary and normative “makyngs.” It argues that L’s poetic art is shaped by ecclesiastical procedures and principles and, reciprocally, shapes an understanding of them. This study focuses on PPl’s preoccupation with sin and its juridical correction in relation to treatises written to handle sinners according to the rules (“canons”) of ecclesiastical jurisprudence. In the poem’s representations of trials, confessions, penalties and pardons, there is a resourceful interaction with the core digests of, and commentaries on, canon law (such as Gratian’s Decretum, Pope Gregory’s Decretals, Hostiensis’ Summa aurea, and Boniface VIII’s Sext), as well as confessors’ manuals. Throughout the book, Thomas explores the extent to which characteristics we understand as “literary” inform and transform those we would distinguish as “legal.” Specifically, he uncovers the ways in which the poem’s narrative voice, metaphor, syntax and style not only reflect but also act upon properties of canon law such as penitential procedure, authoritative maxim, and decretist or decretalist gloss. L’s mobilization or modification of juridical terms and concepts, Thomas contends, not only engenders a poetics informed by canonist thought but also expresses a vision of canon law alternative to that offered by medieval jurists or by contemporary medievalists.
Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages is fundamentally historical but without being bound by strict periodization. It is contextual but without ignoring PPl’s internal reworking of the institutional materials L draws upon. Ever since Walter Skeat’s famous edition of the three versions of the poem over a hundred years ago, L scholarship has sought to identify their borrowings from penitential and legal traditions. But despite amassing a wealth of knowledge of the poet’s debts to legislative sources, we still know little about how the poem’s versions themselves contribute to an understanding of the discourse of medieval Church law. For the most part, scholars tend to treat PPl’s recourse to authoritative texts as passive—as one of derivation or reflection, rather than of re-creation or co-production.
This book challenges this mode of reading and spotlights a juridical agency indigenous to the poem itself and, hence, meaningful to both literary critics and legal historians. In essence, Thomas argues that the places in PPl where one detects an indebtedness to normative treatises are, at the same time, sites of poetic re-envisioning and re-founding Church law. In such places, the words of the poet invoke and impact the world of the lawyer.
Nowhere is this twofold sense of poetic-legal invention more evident in PPl than in the differences between the B and C versions of the poem. By attending to the various additions, excisions, and interpolations that differentiate the two versions, Thomas tracks the shaping of Church law in and across both B and C versions of PPl. Acutely aware of the current scholarly dissension over the nature, number and authorship of the poem’s versions, this study treats B and C as exemplifying a range of approaches to Church law rather than as illustrating stages in the development of a single poet or poem.
Composed of five chapters along with an epilogue, Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, is structured around the stages of handling sin in the Church’s forum of penance: confession, contrition, restitution, and satisfaction. In each chapter Thomas tells three stories. The first is a story aimed at any reader curious about the creative interdependence between poetry and law in the late medieval period. The second is a story for historians interested in the construction of Church law in fictional compositions. The third is a story for L scholars invested in the poem’s versions and their interrelations.
Together, these readings describe a poetic-legal state of affairs that remains relevant up until the closing of the Middle Ages. In the epilogue, Thomas casts a retrospective glance at PPl and ecclesiastical jurisprudence from the perspective of Martin Luther’s burning of papal law books. He does so in order to suggest why we may have lost sight of L’s legal makings: they belong to a historical moment that flickers and fades forever in the wake of the Reformation when Church law ceased to hold the institutional power and imaginative potential that once allowed for its shaping by poets and thence beyond in the world of lawyers. Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages seeks to recover that moment and to make it visible at a time when the legislative role of ecclesiastical institutions remains a deeply relevant issue in the Anglo-American world. (AT)
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019