Radical Nostalgia in the Age of Piers Plowman: Economics Apocalypticism, Apocalypticism, and Discontent
Explores the ways in which the changing demographics and growing profit economy of fourteenth-century England troubled the author of PPl, fanned society’s apocalyptic fears, and induced the Rising of 1381. After exploring the increasing dissonance between religious tradition and economic life and language, this book examines late medieval expressions of social dissatisfaction, including the actions and communications of the 1381 rebels, L’s moral objections in PPl, and the complaints central to the other “plowman poems” of L’s imitators. After contrasting regenerative agrarian metaphors and apocalyptic visions with eschatological, urban visions of paradise, the author argues that L and the 1381 rebels exhibit “radical nostalgia”–a longing for agrarian Christian roots that projects the traditional social structure of the past onto a renewed, if not millennial, society. The phrase “radical nostalgia” addresses this backwards glance disguised as a vision of the future, this longing for early Christian roots as the basis for social regeneration. Chapter 1, “PPl and the History of Apocalypticism,” examines the importance of apocalyptic thinking to medieval notions of history. In the later Middle Ages, the Church nurtured the urban, eschatological, teleological vision, while the rural imagery that promised the great communal renovatio mundi fell mostly to literary, popular, and sometimes heretical culture. L embraced both views: his restored world and idealized plowman reflect the agricultural, regenerative tradition, while the changes in the individual from “dowel” to “dobet” to “dobest” represent the individual’s salvation and the linear, eschatological view of history. Examining concepts such as redemption and satisfaction as salvific exchanges, chapter 2, entitled “Economics and Salvation: Paying for Sin and Reaping Reward,” discusses the conflated nature of economic and religious ideas in the Middle Ages and explores the relationship between individual and communal salvation. The agricultural signs and metaphors in apocalyptic representations often suggest the proper “work” for salvation, a problem with which L is preoccupied throughout PPl. Chapter 2 also discusses how changes in the administration of the sacrament of penance put additional emphasis on the sinners’ intentions and reflected the growing importance of both working for salvation and labor in general. Chapter 3, “Demographics and Discontent in Fourteenth-Century England,” examines shifts in demographics, changes in the money supply, and imbalances of trade in order to present an overview of the economic trends that stimulated discontent in the late fourteenth century. Contemporary scholars continue to debate whether the period was one of prosperity or economic devastation, and these conflicting observations signal a rift in England’s economic and social organization. One’s impression depends on just which sector of the economy one examines: in general, the fourteenth century saw the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the frustration of those who were becoming poorer became fuel for the era’s apocalyptic hopes of remedy. Chapter 4, “Fellowship and Apocalypticism: PPl and the Nature of Association,” explores the changing basis of fellowship and society in the fourteenth century and examines the clash between the beginnings of the capitalist economy and the values of feudal and religious life. Adapting the apocalyptic scheme of the saved and the damned in final conflict, L presents a society divided into fellowships of good and evil, of Holy Church and Meed. The millennial society awaited in PPl is marked by its conservative roots; while radical in the sense that he wished society to return to early Christian roots, L envisioned a transformed society by re-inscribing traditional social organization and orthodox religious belief. The fifth chapter, “Reading and Rebellion: Imagining Radical Change and the 1381 Revolt,” explores the rebels’ manipulation of L’s language and imagery. In the hands of revolutionaries, L’s apocalyptic imagery, potentially inflammatory language, and persistent calls for reform are no longer the musings of a conservative idealist, but the fuel for social action. When John Ball and other rebel leaders reiterate the spiritual allegory of PPl–the progression from Dowel to Dobet to Dobest–so that L’s salvific pilgrimage becomes a series of code-words to indicate stages of the revolt, they transform the allegorical framework of PPl into a plan and rationale for action. This study concludes by examining the legacy of PPl and surveying the significance of plowman figures in poetic works which PPl inspired. Poems such as Mum and the Sothsegger, Pierce the Plowman’s Creed, and The Complaint of the Plowman demonstrate how poets advocating religious and social reform adapted the language and imagery of PPl to further their own causes. Such poems reflect the changing economic realities of the later Middle Ages and even embrace idealized work as the means to build the kingdom on earth and earn individual salvation.