Romance Patterns of Naming in Piers Plowman
Naming is often of key thematic import in medieval romances. The protagonists may not know their own names, or they may conceal them; they may go under pseudonyms or bynames; they may be known by lineage, or by some identifying symbol, most often their coat of arms. Distinctions are often made between what their name is, what they are called, and who they are in terms of lineage. Changes in the way a character is named will often be used to signify a process of change, of self-becoming. L employs a comparable range of naming strategies, likely to have been familiar to his readers from their more overt use in romance. Names for the more straightforward personifications are a given of the narrative, but other figures will be given more elaborate introductions or self-namings (Anima is a notable example) to produce a multiplicity of identifiers that signify different qualities within the personification. Some, such as Haukyn/Actyf and Abraham/Faith, have both a personal and an allegorical name, plus an allegiance or affiliation. Christ is given a number of names and titles and two different sets of heraldic arms, some designed to conceal and some to declare who and what he is. By contrast with this plethora of naming, and apart from B’s single late line on ‘Long Will’, it is only in the C text that the dreamer is clearly identified as Will: to readers of the other texts, he remains in effect anonymous, and so potentially a place-holder for the reader. Piers is always known by name and byname, Piers the Plowman, but the meanings within the name unfold as the dreamer’s understanding enlarges.
'Truthe is the beste': A Festschrift in Honour of A.V.C. Schmidt, ed. by Nicolas Jacobs and Gerald Morgan (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014), pp. 37-63.