Cole and Galloway, Companion to “Piers Plowman”

My review of The Cambridge Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:

This volume is the second of its kind. A Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley, 1988), marked a high point of sophistication and diversification in the study of this challenging Middle English poem. Following in the tradition of Alford’s volume and capitalizing on research progress since 1988, Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway’s Companion offers a panoptic view of major issues in the historical and literary interpretation of Piers Plowman.

The contributions are organized into three parts: “The poem and its traditions” (Helen Barr, Ralph Hanna, Steven Justice, and Jill Mann), “Historical and intellectual contexts” (Robert Adams, James Simpson, Matthew Giancarlo, Cole and Galloway, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari), and “Readers and responses” (Simon Horobin, Lawrence Warner, and Nicolette Zeeman). The volume’s tripartite arrangement (for a medieval poem obsessed with trios and trinities) invites linear reading, leading, in a familiar critical arc, from the poem qua literature, to its wider historical contexts, and finally to its importance for subsequent histories. At the same time, each essay is designed as a self-contained introduction to the poem.

Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen

My review of Stephen Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), appears in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. Here’s the opening of the review:

This book constructs a new genealogy for the Piers Plowman tradition of Middle English alliterative verse. Through a combination of discourse analysis and close reading, Stephen Yeager situates the Piers Plowman tradition in a literary and documentary longue durée extending back through twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative verse to the tenth/eleventh-century homilist Wulfstan.

In the introduction, Yeager forswears belief in the continuity of alliterative meter and nominates “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” (p. 4) as a pre-Norman-Conquest ancestor for “the school of Langland.” Chapter 1 defines this discourse as a symptom of transitional literacy, expressed in a cluster of self-authorizing rhetorical strategies, such as proverbs and alliterating lists. Chapter 2 reads the rhetorical, generic, codicological, and cultural contexts of Wulfstan’s writings as exemplary of this discourse. Chapters 3 and 4 take the recopying of Old English texts at Worcester as the occasion to explore the ideological functions of Anglo-Saxon discursive forms in three twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative poems: the First Worcester Fragment, the Proverbs of Alfred, and Lawman’s Brut. Chapters 5 and 6 read similar discursive forms (now fraught with new ideological functions) in two post-Langlandian alliterative poems: Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger. In the conclusion, Yeager indicates how his arguments recontextualize other canonical Middle English poetry.

This account of the evolution of a group of formal strategies from Old to Middle English succeeds on a number of fronts. […]

Chaucer the forester

My article, “Chaucer the Forester: The Friar’s Tale, Forest History, and Officialdom,” appears in the Chaucer Review. This article argues that the Anglo-Norman forest bureaucracy provides a point of contact between Chaucer’s life and the social satire of the Friar’s Tale. Here are the opening and concluding paragraphs:

Some time between 1390 and his death in 1400, Chaucer served as a substitute forester in North Petherton, Somerset. Although it probably required little more than occasional desk work, and although it was the last and worst-documented of Chaucer’s many dalliances with the administrative machinery of late-fourteenth-century England, the position affirms the persistence into the reign of Richard II of the decadent Norman royal forest system. While it is uncertain whether art imitated life or vice versa in each case, a number of Chaucer’s literary works mention forestry and make use of its specialized vocabulary. In the Book of the Duchess, for example, the poet employs a slew of technical terms over the course of Octavian’s hunt (344–86). The Knight’s Yeoman and (as will be shown) the Friar’s Tale’s devil-yeoman are especially important in the present connection because they are foresters, albeit of a more practical variety than the historical Chaucer. In what follows, it is argued that the Friar’s Tale, by a series of dramatic ironies, critiques the royal forest system in which Chaucer was (or was to become) a minor official. The first section outlines fourteenth-century English forest history and its reception in poetry of the period; the second presents a reading of the Friar’s Tale, with special attention to the figure of the devil-yeoman and the tale’s satire on the royal forest and other administrative systems.


Read in the context of forest history and the rise of bureaucracy in England, the Friar’s Tale’s summoner’s morbid curiosity about demondom recapitulates a growing contemporary fascination with officialdom, making the Friar’s Tale a kind of brief speculum officiale. Within the predictable logic of the devil-and-advocate fable, the summoner’s inquisitiveness leads to his damnation, while on a metatextual view, it signals a departure from the world of good and evil. As in the tale’s sources and analogues, Chaucer’s devil does not lower or cackle; his respect for “entente” marks him as an exemplary officer. By casting the devil as a forest official, Chaucer goes one step further than his sources in suggesting an administrative rather than a theological moral for the tale. The devil’s double instantiation as demon and yeoman invites a comparison between divine and secular administrations, and if Chaucer seems to suggest, or to have his Friar suggest, that clerical administration by its nature encourages corruption, the obvious irony of selecting the despised royal forest as its well-ordered opposite reveals the outlines of a much more nuanced critique of officialdom. When the devil-yeoman forcibly invites the summoner to “knowen of oure privetee” (III 1637), Chaucer not only makes perfectly clear the Friar’s heavy-handed point that it is in the depths of the abyss that “somonours han hir heritage” (III 1641); he also raises for his audience the narrative possibility of embarking on the Dantean journey to hell and back, for a working knowledge of the divine and infernal “privetee” that takes the form of an administration, and in whose image human organization is bound to discover its form.