Shearing the Shepherds: Violence and Anticlerical Satire in Langland’s Piers Plowman‘ ,
This essay interrogates the enduring assumption that ‘L’s denunciations of the clergy seem to be underpinned by aggression, or even motivated by it’ (p. 189). Both violence and anticlerical satire are prominent in L’s vision, but the two concerns rarely overlap: ‘In fact, at several stages the poem actively seems to shy away from allowing anticlericalism and mutilation to converge’ (p. 191). Whenever violence appears, it dissipates upon the introduction of the Church to the text. Significant instances include the episodes of Hunger’s onslaught, the moral harangue delivered by Conscience (A)/Reason (B/C), the king’s threat to torture the members of Meed’s wedding party, Will’s desire to assault the Doctor of Divinity at Conscience’s dinner, and the Ophni and Phineas episode. L’s inhibition stems not from satirical conventions, but from his use of violence as a means ‘to convey particular significance to the abstractions in his work’ (p. 196), and to organize L’s conceptions into systems by creating patterns of subordination and authority. L’s reluctance to depict the injury of priests ‘is bound up with the issue of his own authority as a writer’ (p. 198). ‘His rejection of anticlerical violence shows a desire to engage with broader themes and ideas, and to devise a mode of attack which can extend its focus beyond single priests in isolation. […] It signals his ambition as a commentator, and a wish to address the ecclesiastic structure in its entirety’ (p. 200). More important, as Will’s dialogue with Imaginatif shows, L is suggesting that the proper role of the Church is to moderate and eliminate aggression, actively seeking to curtail hostility.
Medium Ævum, 79 (2010), 189-206.