Title Background

The Crisis of Will in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

The Crisis of Will in Piers Plowman.

PPl, written by an intellectual poet uncommitted to scholasticism who was probably educated in a cathedral school, is a depiction of the crisis of the fourteenth century in which, inter alia, theological and philosophical questions were raised regarding the place of reason and experience in God’s plan and the power and freedom of God’s will. Langland was neither systematic nor doctrinaire concerning the topics of the voluntarist debate, the issues of which were exaggerated and distorted as discussion of them spread outward to the laity through the sermons of the secular clergy: generally Augustinian in his outlook, he appears to have been influenced by Duns Scotus’s emphasis on the operation of the will independent of reason and its freedom to suspend judgment in the face of contending alternatives. The complex, multifaceted and argumentative character Will may have been influenced by Ockham, who invested the will with powers of cognition and reason. Acedia, early conceived of in the monastic and eremitic traditions as a spiritual phenomenon involving laziness and somnolence, was broadened in the twelfth century to include allied psychological states of mental slackness, boredom, etc.; with the rise of popular theology after the Fourth Lateran Council worldly and social manifestations of the sin were explored. By dividing the poem into the Visio and Vitae, Langland is able to examine Sloth as a social sin whose roots stem from spiritual idleness and a lack of caritas. Langland avoids all standard orderings of the Seven Deadly Sins, but always places Pride first and Sloth last; of these two sins, sloth is more impressive in Langland’s handling. Sloth’s confession (B.5.385-460) emphasizes omissions relating to the sacrament of penance that are developed at the end of the poem in Sloth’s assault of Castle Unity after Flattery has caused Contrition to fall asleep. The presentation here of Sloth as a fierce warrior is probably unprecedented. Elsewhere (C.7.70-119), Sloth is shown through a tree image as the vice towards which others move. Will is described as slothful, either as an unholy hermit or as one who disguises himself as a hermit to avoid work. A superior will, embodied in the king, is shown to be necessary to compel individual wills to law and order. English writers in particular show the potential of the monarch’s will to corrupt the law. Langland’s king at first lacks the guidance of ratio, and is guilty of sloth in his lack of vigilance to corruption and his decision to marry Conscience to Meed. True reform requires that the king’s good intentions be joined by all members of society, represented by Will. Emphasis on Will’s repeated falling asleep, the details of his sleeping, the suggestion of wilderness and fairies, Will’s identification as a fool, his world-weariness and forgetfulness are all quite possibly evocative of sloth and suggestive that the dreamer does not profit from the teachings of his visions. The Dreamer’s account of his life (C.5) is not an autobiographical confession by Langland so much as a fictional pose that gives insight into the dreamer’s moral predicament, with reference to Langland only in terms of his potential for willfulness. The form of the “autobiography” is a conventional debate of Wit and Will. Langland’s anxiety over the act of “makyng” is perhaps never finally resolved. His constant revising may have served as a means to explore his slothful temperament; his neglect of poetic game-elements denies poetry’s recreative function. Poetry-as-process accords with the notion of the poem that intentions count more than what is achieved, and perhaps is intended to justify the act of poetic composition.

Rev. Robert Adams, YLS 1 (1987):135-40; Anne Middleton, Speculum 64 (1989): 130-34.