Title Background

<i>Piers Plowman</i> as Poetic Pillory: The Pillory and the Cross

Piers Plowman as Poetic Pillory: The Pillory and the Cross

L responds to, and reworks, some of the legal discourses (and punitive practices) surrounding the pillory in late medieval London. Designed to display, humiliate, and silence a criminal, the pillory, as a punishment itself, was graduated between fines and expulsion from the community. Sometimes a criminal would be displayed along with a token of his or her crime; other times, a deviant would be paraded to the pillory (from Newgate to Cornhill) so as to involve the community in the punishment itself, a practice that has its added benefit of deterring others from crime. L refers to the pillory twice in PPl, first at B.2.204-05, and again at B.378-84. In the first, he shows the King to threaten Liar with the pillory, which seems to be an appropriate punishment for this character, seeing as the principle aim of the pillory is to expose and denounce the crimes against truth that Liar so well represents. In the second, L (or the narrator) urges mayors to use the pillory for social control, for curtailing the illicit practices of “Brewesters and baksters, bochiers and cokes” (B.3.79). This use is especially germane since offenses involving food (forestalling, the selling of rotten meat, and so forth) seem to have been, judging by the contemporary legal evidence such as the Liber Albus, Liber Custumarum, and Statute of Bakers, frequently punished by pillory. L offers a third potential reference to the pillory in C.5-the reference to Cornhill, notorious for its busy commercial activity and spectacles of punishment by pillory. Broadly speaking, PPl is very much a “poetic pillory” in its specific focus, in the Visio (the passus above) but also in the Vita, on social justice, but L himself is not so much interested in the pillory as a form of social control as much as a symbol that allows for a deeper commentary about justice and possible forms of redemption, as figured by Christ on the Cross (B.18), which is itself like a pillory. Indeed, Christ’s crucifixion emblematizes and reverses a number of predominant discourses regarding the pillory-from those surrounding victimhood to that of the spectator.


Aers, 31-54

Cross Reference



Benson, C. David