Trifunctionality and the Tree of Charity: Literary and Social Practice in Piers Plowman
The traditional model of society, emphasizing the role of each of the three estates, the responsibility of each individual to function appropriately and productively, and the somewhat contradictory principles of cooperation and hierarchy, aimed to re-interpret social problems as political ones with a focus on religion. WL adopts the conventional model, but reveals the contradictions of the ideology. The half-acre scene (B.6) features a knight who fails because his service was improperly sworn to Piers, a peasant; yet the hierarchy that is violated has already been obviated by Piers’s proto-capitalist relations. The Tree of Charity scene (B.16) exhibits close similarities: Liberum Arbitrium holds a lease of land (to ferme) under Piers; in the inner dream, reappearing as a knight-figure, he fails to protect the Tree against the devil. Piers again must take the initiative, and by so doing manifests the obsolescence of the social model. WL is severe with the landed class but never advocates its disendowment. Nor does he offer any alternative to feudalism, “since he presents a crisis in Christianity solvable only on Christian terms.”
ELH 62 (1995): 1-27.
Cole, Andrew W.