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The Nature of Need Revisited

The Nature of Need Revisited

After sketching the critical debate about Need, Mann poses the problem of Need as two interrelated questions: “why he advocates theft, while at the same time making the highest moral claims for the life of Need, and why the ius necessitatis is introduced here” (12). Mann agrees with the former group of critics: she begins her rehabilitation of Need by addressing the principle “need has no law” in medieval legal thinking, pointing out that it established that the goods of another might be appropriated in extreme need since the common ownership of all things, as guaranteed by natural law, supersedes private property, a creation of positive law. Further, given the way L’s characters switch between allegorical and linguistic status when necessary, Mann suggests that we should not view Need’s appearance in passus 20 as separate from its prior linguistic manifestations: “the noun ‘need,’ . . . the verb ‘neden,’ the adjectives ‘needy’ and ‘nedefulle,’ and the adverb ‘need(s)'” (14). Thus Need’s first appearance would be in Holy Church’s speech in B.1.14-36, which stresses his divine origins and his moral, disciplinary “role in establishing ‘mesure'” (16). Further in that same speech, Holy Church invokes “the principle of need” in her answer (ll. 52-57) to the dreamer’s question about the place of money, situating money between Truth and Wrong, and “tying [it] into the natural order” (18). Mann argues, further, that both in this section and the episodes of the Plowing of the Half-acre in 6 and the Pardon scene in 7, the principle of need points simultaneously in two directions – justice and mercy. For instance, “Need calls for the production of food by labor; need also constitutes a reminder . . . [that] one’s goods are not one’s own but held in common” (21-22). Need is further identified as the accounting principle that ultimately regulates charity and distribution of wealth in the discussion of beggars in Truth’s pardon. Mann moves to trace L’s thinking through Need about such contradictory ideologies as labor and waste or wealth and charity, in numerous linked passages such as Trajan’s speech and the account of the Crucifixion in B.18, before analysing the infamous speech in B.20. She reads the narrative of Redemption in B.18 as “a fusion of justice and mercy,” against the ideas in Hugh of St. Cher’s commentary on Luke and Middle English affective texts such as The Orcherd of Syon and Julian’s Showings, suggesting that “it is the ius necessitatis that justifies the Redemption;” Christ’s thirst for souls overrides the old law which grants the Devil the possession of those souls – necessitas non habet legem (25, 27). Accordingly, in B.20, Christ himself becomes the very figure of Need, representing the culmination of L’s attempts to reconcile justice and mercy. Mann concludes, however, that this meditation in Need does not offer any overall, coherent solution to the economic problems of L’s society, so acutely represented in PPl.


YLS 18 (2004): 3-29


Mann, Jill.