Political Forms and Institutions in Piers Plowman
This chapter provides an introductory overview and analysis of the various political institutions that make up the structural backbone of PPl. Political institutions are introduced from the start of the narrative in passūs 1-7 in the opening visions of the Fair Field of Folk and the Marriage and Trial of Meed. Here a constitutional-political inquiry into the foundations of monarchy and the estates, as well as a critical inquiry into the operations of legal and royal courts, organize the allegory. The interior visions of passūs 8-18 also maintain a consistent focus on political institutions of governance and on the question of dominium. Different aspects of institutional discourse are highlighted: the importance of leute, the repeated appearance of ‘translation moments’ in authoritative documentary and political practice, and the conflation of secular and ecclesial institutional forms. All of these focus on issues of lordship, power, and political authority. At the end of PPl in passūs 19-20, the allegories of the Division of the Graces and the invasion of the Barn of Unity also exploit institutional forms for envisioning the continuing problems of social order. Overall, PPl offers a comprehensive and challenging representation of contemporary institutional and political forms. Through them, the poem achieves a powerful critique of social estates, a searching inquiry into legal justice, and a uniquely compelling vision for reform.