Piers Plowman and the Subject of the Law
Begins by noting that criticism on PPl and law has reached a new level of sophistication and importance, especially with the appearance of Anne Middleton’s essay, “Acts of Vagrancy” (annotated in YLS 12 : 237-38]) and Richard Firth Green’s Crisis of Truth (annotated in YLS 14 : 219-20). Along with Alford’s inestimably important materials, we are now at a point where we can explore literary examples and contexts in methodologically complex ways, based on the resources these two latter studies provide. Middleton emphasizes the constructed nature of “the public legal text,” and her example linking C.5 with the Cambridge Statutes of 1388 points to a “mimetic”use of the law by Ricardian writers to define their own social authority. She does not consider broader developments in legal history, or other points in the C text that might parallel a movement toward this mode by the C-poet. Green’s monumental study is more philological and thematic; pursuing a long time-span, it does not seek to identify where authors might have been conscious of the broad changes he describes. Both studies may be used in tandem to explore a point in the poem where the changes from B to C parallel the increasing “mimetic” use of law, and perhaps show L aware of the general cultural change from the “folklaw of legal reconciliation” to the “king’s law of legal truth”: the suit of Peace against Wrong in passus 4. Here, in A and B, Wrong and his cronies are “characters’ in the endearing sense” and, with Peace’s encouragement and Meed’s abetment, strive to reconcile him to Wrong. There is some pathos in the A and B display of how Peace is not his own subject but the king’s, whose principles of truth suggest “a doubled social and judicial world.” But in C, Wrong and his associates are clearly evil, and the values of the king’s justice now dominate the poem’s perspective. L thus recapitulates in passus 4 the long historical process that Green surveys, and achieves the “mimetic” authority of the law that Middleton emphasizes in C.5.
YLS 15 (2001): 117-28