Title Background

What then does Langland Mean? Authorial and Textual Voices in <i>Piers Plowman</i>

What then does Langland Mean? Authorial and Textual Voices in Piers Plowman

This paper looks at the never-ending critical concern with authorial meaning in PPl, which contains so many teachings and opinions that readers assume that they are all the poet’s own; even the best interpretations of any single version of the poem (Dunning, Frank, Simpson) “need to produce a coherent account of an unruly work.” Critics often impute L’s voice to the narrator’s or to different characters in the poem, such as the voice at the end of the Belling of the Cat fable and the Latin speaking angel in the prologue (Schmidt, Baldwin, Robertson and HuppĂ©); or Wit’s speech on marriage (Tavormina) and Anima’s anticlerical polemic (Justice, Kane, Schmidt); or even Holy Church, Conscience, Reason, Piers, and Hunger (Aers, Bloomfield, Frank). Whereas earlier readers such as Crowley homogenized all the different voices in the poem as L’s own, not a few contemporary readers (the author included) acknowledge that polyvocality, but impute it to a single L. By contrast, Chaucer’s characters seem somehow to maintain their distinctive voices even when they are discussing traditional subjects; L’s initially start out as distinctive and then fade into generalities, such that readers often forget who is even talking. Trajan is a case in point. What about Jesus, whose words cannot but help be consistent, authoritative, and ultimately L’s, as argued most recently by Watson? Christ, in the harrowing of Hell, exercises “absolute power” on his passive subjects, and often his views conflict with those promises for salvation in the rest of the poem. Christ is not a liar, of course; rather, his message is not directly authorial.


YLS 15 (2001): 3-13


Benson, C. David