Practices of Satisfaction and Piers Plowman‘s Dynamic Middle
PPl suggests glum conclusions. The poem ends in disaster with the total corruption of the Church and the undoing of the penitential self as the pitiful Contrition abandons his own allegorical essence. No wonder some of the poem’s best readers have identified failure as its chief engine of invention and closure. Yet this essay argues that L designs the poem to reframe failure within a history of salvation in which Christians can participate sacramentally to redeem failure, especially by penitential satisfaction. Satisfaction, then, not failure itself, motivates the poem’s inventive impulse. L conceives of sacramental and literary satisfaction not as the termination of a discrete penitential sequence (contrition, confession, satisfaction), but as an ongoing, open-ended habit of beginning again and making good ends. The essay examines two central types of evidence: chiastic patterning at the verse level and across longer passages; and the history of rubrics used to express satisfaction in penitential rites. Placing PPl in a history of sacramental satisfaction that includes Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Robert Crowley, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Christopher Marlowe, the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the essay illuminates continuities and contrasts in the theory and practice of satisfaction along multiple passages to modernity.
Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 36 (2014), 169-207.