The New Plow and the Old: Law Orality, Orality, and the Figure of Piers the Plowman in B.19
This essay begins with the other definition of Middle English plouȝ, meaning ‘unit of arable land,’ and uses it to read the figure of Piers the Plowman in a different light. The ‘plow-land’ unit was an archaism by the fourteenth century, but its survival in the Domesday book and in early monastic charters gave it the authority of antiquity. These early, informal records are surprisingly present in the major and minor power struggles of Langland’s day, because their very existence exposed the novelty of bureaucratic professionalism itself. Through a reading of B.19, this article argues that Piers, as the man who governs ‘plow-land’, presents an idealized and nostalgic alternative to the class of fourteenth-century administrators who exploited church and household for selfish ends, whose portrait is based not only in Biblical agrarian imagery but also in the ancient records of English law.