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Songes of Rechelesnesse. Langland and the Franciscans

Songes of Rechelesnesse. Langland and the Franciscans

PPl’s reformist mendicant polemic has been mistaken for antifraternalism. The language, imagery, and accusations of external critics of the Franciscans differs markedly from L’s treatment, which more closely resembles the self-critique offered by the internal debate among the Franciscans themselves. L’s position on such mendicant issues as begging, and the papal privileges of right of sepulture, hearing confessions, and preaching, parallels that of Franciscan internal critiques, especially those of moderates like Pecham and Bonaventure, but also having some affinities with Olivi and rigorists such as Ubertino da Casale. The remarks of Rechelesnesse, Patience, and Anima reflect the concept of Christ’s poverty advanced by the order before John XXII declared the teaching of Christ’s absolute poverty heretical. A Bonaventuran exemplarist theology informs the poem, positing a universal analogy between the persons of the Trinity and every individual and thing in this world. This orientation accordingly generates an exemplarist allegory that asserts an analogical relationship between creation and the inner reality of the Divine Being. These analogies often take trinitarian form, as with the moral actions of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest, which reorient the individual to the divine imago in the soul and eventually reveal the historical Christ in his exemplary action to save mankind. L’s manipulation of the trifunctional image of the three estates reveals his political orientation. The Visio can be read as a political treatise. With regard to matters of this world—rulership, dominium, temporalia—L consistently places aristocratic lords at the head of his formula with the result that he implies, as is later argued in the Vita, that the first estate alone has licit dominium of temporalia and that Clergy should neither have nor desire possessions. The position is consistent with the mendicant one—as opposed to the monastic—on church temporalities, and is more extreme than that allowed by most secular clergy. Equally important, L’s exemplarist thinking sanctifies some members of the commons in a unique fashion and rearticulates the obligations that the ruling classes, the aristocracy and the clergy, have to the commons. The poor and simple commons are said to be the repositories of the Holy Spirit and the means by which the rich and learned of this world achieve heaven. In the New Testament idiota is used to refer to two different groups of people, the uninformed laity (Langland’s “lewed” men) and the apostles before their persecutors; they were men (viri apostolici) who were sapiential. Franciscans conflated the two traditions when they referred to themselves as idiotae. The concept also informs the Franciscan image of the brothers as joculatores dei (both minstrels and fools of God). L’s construction of these idiotae—”Goddes mistrales,” his “lunatyk lollares,” and Piers, the sapiential plowman—is necessary to the larger project of reminding the friars of their identity and role in history. The figure of Rechelesnesse embodies the Franciscan concept of absence of solicitude, both in the sense of being reckless about one’s physical welfare as well as being careless about the morrow in the interests of one’s salvation. As the Dreamer roams through the landscape of his mind, he encounters exemplars of “rechelesseness”: Patience, Anima, the Samaritan, and Christ himself. These figures manifest the apostolic or Christlike attitude to the world that is necessary for institutional and personal reformation. The ambivalence toward learning in the poem reflects the Franciscan concern as to whether schooling, especially in speculative and scholastic theology, was appropriate for those who had abandoned solicitude. Imaginatif and Conscience adopt the position that “clergye” is a means to a higher form of knowing (sapientia), a kind of learned ignorance that has the capacity to inspire all people to an appropriate form of “rechelesnesse.” L’s treatment of history from Abraham to the last days, which begins with Anima’s sermon on Charity and the Tree of Charity sequence which follows, also reflects exemplarist theology, in which historical events retain the imprint of the Trinity upon them. The friars are seen as future reformers and as renewers of the apostolic ideal. The portrayal of Will, at times emblematic of the false friars and hermits he attacks, acts as a mirror in which the poet sees his failings and also the ideal and the difficulty of achieving it. Will’s question of whether he is one of “Goddes minstrals” operates as a means of recalling the friars to their original mission: to bring the image of the poor Christ before the people so that the latter would model their lives on those of Christ and his apostles.

Rev. D. N. Baker, Choice 35 (1998): 1705-06; R. K. Emmerson, Catholic Historical Review 85.2 (1999): 301-02; Wendy Scase, YLS 13 (1999): 213-15;. Joseph Wittig. Speculum 77.2 (2002): 492–94.


Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.


Clopper, Lawrence M.