Title Background

Scribal Hermeneutics and the Genres of Social Organization in Piers Plowman.

Scribal Hermeneutics and the Genres of Social Organization in Piers Plowman.

Cole’s essay takes up in two parts the issues of how L’s allegorical effects are anchored in the newly emergent material and legal culture of the day and how “labor dysfunction and revolt” can be imagined within these contexts. He begins by considering the list of professions that ends the Prologue (B.Prol.217-31), and goes beyond standard critical readings of this passage and instead locates such list-making within the legal, scribal contexts of registering labor, such as “ordinances, statutes, guild returns, and inquisitions” (184). Cole argues that L uses such legal genres as a means of regulating the tempo of reading this alliterative, allegorical poem, and as a means of focusing attention on the materiality of the genre, rather than emphasizing the occlusive and abstractive process of allegory. He goes on to detail the methods of compiling such labor lists and suggests that the slow, close reading of this passage should enable contemporary details to spring up in the text, as in the cry of the Taverners of l. 228 who echo, and distort, a widespread London regulation that states “no white wine of Gascoigne, of La Rochel, of Spain…shall be laid in taverns where Rhenish wine is for sale” (187). Thus, following Bloomfield and Jusserand, Cole suggests that PPl might well be read as a commentary on the civic regulations of London and its “culture of writing” (188). In the second section, Cole moves from labor lists to consider their analogue – the assemblee – in PPl, such as the one described as part of Lady Meed’s retinue in B.2. Citing examples from the Anominalle Chronicle and Knighton’s Chronicle, Cole explores the way in which assemblies came to be seen increasingly in the late fourteenth century as an anti-type of the more regulated labor associations like fraternities and guilds, and how such assemblies were often the subject of restriction and regulation since they inverted the licit processes of registered membership and labor association. It is from this “legal and literate perspective” that Cole suggests most contemporary commentators viewed the 1381 uprising with horror, since “order goes awry right at the very center of the literate fantasy about social control” (191). Thus, L’s cessation of the list at the end of the Prologue can be read as a suppression of action, a looking away from the assembly of labor that threatens to get out of hand. Yet, argues Cole, it is against this very cessation that we must read the “scene of local labor rebellion” in Passus 6, “where Piers cannot look away” (192). Cole returns again to the London Letterbooks to look for a model for Piers’s role in this scene and explores the idea of “Piers, the agrarian, as something or a ‘surveyour’,” in the genre of overseer who is “obliged to make order out of disorder” (193). Piers’s failure at organizing the half-acre not only echoes the history of the problems leading up to the Rising of 1381, but also makes way for other strategies to be tried in the context of failed labor; plowing will now be exchanged for penance. Through the figure of Piers, then, L is able to express how “limited the terms are by which to express the failure of work,” since Piers’s declaration that “work won’t work” is effectively a consolidation of the “law’s demands for labor organization and its counter-tendencies [that] depict the dissolution of labor” (195). Even the scriptural citations in this passage send us back to the real and material matters of labor law, since they are the very sources cited in ordinances for the over-seers in London. Thus, Cole contends that L draws his allegories from institutional sources that already contained within themselves the expectation of rebellion and its accommodation.


Robertson and Uebel, The Middle Ages at Work, 179-206

Cross Reference



Cole, Andrew