The Pardon Formula in Piers Plowman: Its Ubiquity Its Binary Shape, Its Binary Shape, Its Silent Middle Term.
This essays returns to the ever vexed issue as to whether or not the document the priest reads to Piers is a pardon (B.7.109-18). It is unquestionably a pardon, and, more importantly, it conveys what is arguably the most fundamental organizing structure for L’s poem, a binary structure at the heart of the pardon itself: “Et qui bona egerunt ibunt in vitam eternam; / Qui vero mala in ignem eternum.” Yet L also points to, and offers the hope of, a silent middle term: “that to do evil but repent is to do well”; “that to do well does not mean to be without sin — everyone sins: Sepcies in die cadit Iustus (8.20a) — but to repent, to be “carefulle” [1.203], and to make amends by acts of love, and that grace intervenes.” By “doing-well,” then, one “‘lets out’ grace,” rather than assuredly earning it through an accumulation of good deeds; on this point, the poet is semi-Pelagian. By reading PPl with this dual-structure, and its middle term, in mind, it becomes evident that L intended the poem to be recursive, rather than developmental, returning again and again to variations on the pardon formula. L likely derived this binary formula directly from scriptural sources such as the Gospels and Psalms, for one can find structural and narratological likenesses between, say, passus 1 and Luke 6: 17-49. The C-text revisions underscore L’s design according to the pardon formula, often bringing to the fore that silent middle term. “Because the evidence is so overwhelming that the pardon is a pardon, and because the pardon has been so well articulated in the poem so long before this document appears,” it must be concluded that Piers does not “reject its contents.”
YLS 14 (2000): 117-152.