Title Background

Signes and Sothe: Language in the <i>Piers Plowman</i> Tradition.

Signes and Sothe: Language in the Piers Plowman Tradition.

PPCreed, Richard, Mum, and The Crowned King, all written between 1393-1415, make up a tradition of indebtedness in varyng degrees to PPl, understood primarily as a social document. The letters of John Ball and early annotations, interpolations, and continuations of the poem by copyists identify an early community of response to PPl as a communal work of society and not, as with Chaucer, an authored act of self-fashioning literary tradition. Such responses are continued in the PPl tradition, in which the social implications of reading well or badly are explored, and attention to language is enjoined on all members of the community to fulfill their assigned roles. Though written in a climate of institutional censorship, in speaking out against corruption the poems seem to have recognized and perpetuated PPl’s interrogation of established discourses. In the tradition as a whole, but especially in PPCreed, an appeal to the distinction between physical and intramental language reconciles the apparent incompatibility of monosemic “sothe” and polysemic poetic texture; the poems perpetuate the seriousness of wordplay of PPl. The narrative strategies of PPCreed and Mum reflect the struggle of two discourses generated through the ecclesiastical suppresssion of Lollardy, as exemplified in Peres against the friars, Mum against Sothsegger. The third estate commands a position of authority in antithesis to the clerical estate; ecclesiastical persecution is commented on from a Wycliffite position. A sect vocabulary turns the meaning of words in authoritarian discourse into a language of solidarity; echoes and quotations from PPl are altered, as a result, in their political significance. Criticism of contemporary society is grounded in a legal framework in all four poems, as in PPl, but without the latter’s emphasis on theological and spiritual issues.

Rev. Stanley S. Hussey, N&Q 43 (1996): 78-79; Gillian Rudd, MLR 91 (1996): 958-59; Christina von Nolcken, SAC 18 (1996): 173-75; Hugh White, MAE 65 (1996): 130-31; Britton Harwood, YLS 11 (1997): 203-09; Myra Stokes, RES 48 (1997): 85-86