Title Background

The Secular Clergy in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

The Secular Clergy in Piers Plowman.

The secular clergy have a “crucial role in L’s social and religious visions” and his ideas about reform. An analysis of the vocabulary associated with various forms of the clergy and their functions proves that in PPl “priest” always means “secular priest” and the word “religious” almost invariably refers to those living under a rule. Equally, while L acknowledges that friars preach, teaching is almost exclusively the remit of the secular clergy. Five “estates” passages from the Visio (the Fair Field in the Prologue, Conscience’s prophecy of a golden age in passus 3, Reason’s impossibilia speech in passus 4, Reason’s sermon in passus 5, and the pardon in passus 7 [A.8, C.9]) are examined to build an image of L’s idea of the ideal parish priest, which seems to conform in all particulars with Chaucer’s Parson. L never associates any parish, flock, or cura aniMAE images with the regular clergy, nor are they ever associated with “holy church.” His satire considers the two groups very differently and he does not speak at “the general level [of] ‘all clergy’.” It is further found that the terms “clerk,” “holy church,” and “charity” all refer to the secular clergy including bishops. The next section argues that B.11.154–319 and C.12.89–13.128 are directed at the secular clergy, and while both versions advocate that priests “concentrate on living in a Christlike poverty” and while, indeed, the passage “invoke[s] a Franciscan ideal” and “radical poverty in priests it does not advocate begging.” A consideration of B.15 (C.16.158–17.321) follows in the next section and “confirms the use of ‘clerk’ and ‘holy church’ and ‘lettered men’ to mean the secular clergy,” and the passage, especially in its C version, would seem to offer a “positive version of the more perilous future envisioned in the Prologue couplet ‘But holi chirche and charite choppe adoun suche shryuars, / That moste meschief on molde mounteth vp faste’.” The concluding section of the essay offers “seven more thoughts” on how the “simple parish priest and . . . episcopal leadership” play a more significant role in PPl than is generally accepted.