The Charters of Christ and “Piers Plowman“: Documenting Salvation. Studies in the Humanities: Literature-Politics-Society 42.
Several fourteenth-century Middle English poems use the language of feudal retaining and land charters to talk about Christ as both the Lord and retained servant of humanity. When the language of bastard feudalism is incorporated into the language of affective devotions, the reversal of roles emphasizes both the personal bond between humankind and God and the possibility of union between them. At the same time it subverts the legal system of feudalism by pointing out its injustice. Chapter 1 treats Jesus as a judge who is retained by the speaker and therefore must be lenient to him at Judgment Day. In his translation, William Herebert adds specifically legal imagery to his Anglo-Norman original. The study uses documents issued by abbots and other landholders to royal justices to explicate the language of the prayer and to show how a common judicial abuse becomes a metaphor for God’s mercy. The Charters of Christ (chapter 2) treat salvation as a feudal grant of land, in which Christ’s body becomes the guaranteeing document. First, the Short Charter of Christ is compared to royal charters. Besides the poem’s legal language, scribes made particular efforts to include Latin rubrics, drawings of seals, and other material to give the poem the appearance of a legal document. The second section considers the use of the documentary image in the Long Charter, A- and B-versions, which place the charter in the context of Christ’s Passion. The legal document granting entrance into Heaven points out the contrast between earthly, legal injustice and God’s mercy. Piers Plowman presents a series of documents to show the untrustworthiness of legality as opposed to both justice and mercy. Favel’s formally correct but wicked charter (C.2) contrasts with later, decreasingly legalistic and increasingly simple documents. The series culminates in Piers’s divine pardon (C.21), which is the most effective of all, but is not a document as such. Chapter 3 makes three comparisons: between Favel’s charter and the royal charters described in chapter 2, between Truth’s pardon and royal pardons, and between Truth’s pardon and papal indulgences. Chapter 4 compares Moses’s letter, Peace’s letter and Piers’s pardon with various legal writs. As the legal form of the documents becomes more vague, their salvific action becomes more effective.