William Langland’s Uncertain Apocalyptic Prophecy of the Davidic King
This chapter explores the content and meaning of Conscience’s apocalyptic prophecy in Passus 3 of the B-Text. Fonzo notes that that some critics, notably Morton Bloomfield and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, have linked this discourse with texts and ideas ultimately stemming from Joachim of Fiore and his eschatological tradition. By contrast, others, like David Aers and Robert Adams, have read Conscience’s speech as a derivation from the writings of St. Augustine and St. Jerome. She shirks both interpretations, contending that this prophecy is a critique of the self-serving motivations often implicitly expressed in apocalyptic—and political—pronouncements. She points to several propaganda poems written during the Hundred Years War; these works connect the notion of an anointed, Davidic king—an image found in Conscience’s prophecy—with the French crown. The English, the true heirs of the translatio imperii—or so the argument goes—have the real claim to power over and against the French pretenders. In certain cases, these works were written for war profiteers. The Prophecy of John Bridlington was, for example, produced for the notable war profiteer Humphrey de Bohun. Having observed these resonances, Fonzo notes that Conscience’s speech appears during an argument with Lady Mede, the personification of greed and pecuniary power. They debate the merits of the 1360 Treaty Brétigny, with Mede contending that the English ought to have stayed in the war because then they would have further enriched themselves. Conscience retorts by reminding Mede of Saul and David. Coming right before the Davidic prophecy, this section implies, according to Fonzo, a critique of Edward III, who, like Saul, trusted bad counsel and put profiteering first. Seen in this light, Fonzo argues that L uses Conscience to show the need for penitence, rather than wars and get-rich-quick schemes. This passage thus becomes a mode of political critique, not an Augustinian or Joachimite prophecy. (CP)
Catastrophes and the Apocalyptic in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. by Robert Bjork (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), pp. 53–64.