Piers’s Good Will: Langland’s Politics of Reform and Inheritance in the C-Text
Early in passus eight of PPl (C text), L has his allegorical figure, Piers, prepare a will in the manner of a man going on a literal journey: “Forthy y wol ar y wende do wryte my biqueste./ In dei nomine amen: y make hit mysulue” (94-95). Piers’s will actualizes his decision to undertake the pilgrimage to Dobest; it also determines the specific disposition of his goods, narrowing a field of potential behaviors into a single social reality. A will’s efficacy is dependant upon the actions of individuals other than its maker, and the person who writes a will must take on faith the willingness of the social group to enforce his or her desires. The social group is bound to follow those desires by custom and law, but in the absence of the person leaving the bequest, such bonds can be tenuous. The successful operation of Piers’s will in C.8 demonstrates some of L’s attitudes towards social authority and illustrates the poet’s political positions in regard to the inevitable conflict between individual and social desires. Though L is clearly in favor of social reform, he argues against revolution: the poet is unwilling to change the social structure, and equally opposed to replacement of the individuals who hold positions in its existing hierarchies. L’s use of holy writ in Piers’s will also complicates the relationship. Although Piers’s command to his son to obey the biblical text would seem to ossify the existing social system, L’s example of the Pharisees raises the question of the fallibility of higher ranks. Piers thus calls the existing social structure into question in the same breath that he exhorts his son to fit into its hierarchy. Critics have called this position paradoxical, yet L’s stance on reform, hierarchy and obedience is an outgrowth of his faith in the voluntary but traditionally authoritative social bonds exemplified of the will. Though much of this clarity and faith in human communities is lost between passus eight and the poem’s final apocalypticism, the depiction of Piers’s good will is one of the kernels of hope in and idealism about humans and their communities that keep L from despair.
Essays in Medieval Studies 13 (1996): 51-59.
Drout, Michael D. C.