Religious Forms and Institutions in Piers Plowman
Which comes first: institutions or selves? This chapter argues that, for L, the self is fundamentally dependent on institutions, and in particular the institution of the Church; ecclesiology— how the Church is shaped as an institution—is not separable from ideal forms of selfhood. For him, ecclesiastical satire is inseparable from imagining the self’s ideal form. For all that, L’s is indeed a poem of dissent, in which the conscience does challenge the Church. One hundred and forty years before Luther’s courageous act of conscience-driven dissent in 1517, L imagines that same dissent. He is also, however, deeply skeptical of that dissenting act, since he knows that a damaged Church produces a damaged conscience. Simpson argues that this is one of the many reasons why L’s is a great poem: PPl inherits a model of the Church that had become untenable, and it knows it. The poem’s extraordinary and disrupted range of formal choices is the form that knowledge takes. The essay also provides a sketch of the sets of institutions that comprised historical Church in late fourteenth-century England.