Piers Plowman / social upheaval

William Langland’s Piers Plowman (composed 1370s-1380s) is a poem of social upheaval. It grapples with new social realities in the wake of the plague, which devastated England in 1348; its title character became a codename in an uprising of peasants, laborers, and artisans in 1381; fictionally, it depicts a society on the brink of implosion.

The 1381 connection has, rightly, attracted a lot of attention from Langland’s modern readers (Justice). During the uprising, rebels beheaded government officials, burned legal documents, and exchanged letters calling on Piers the Plowman to “go to his work.” To adapt a phrase that Ben Lerner uses to characterize the ideology of the avant-garde, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel” (39). There are not many poems that come with a death toll–and none that I can think of that are such good poetry.

Piers Plowman is a poem of social upheaval in another sense, and here I’m moving from critical commonplaces to a new argument that I make in a forthcoming article. Langland’s poem takes the form of a search for truth and justice in this world, including social justice, but a search that is known ahead of time to be an abject failure. Why? Here Langland would spread his hands theatrically wide. The wretchedness of the world was, for him, self-evident. A truth that Piers Plowman repeatedly discovers is this: perversely, describing a better world drives home how awful this one, the actual one, is. Langland expresses this truth by obsessively hitting the poetic reset button that was available to him in the dream vision form (first-person dreamer falls asleep in springtime, has a disorienting allegorical vision of dubious significance, etc.). Other medieval dream visions are one long dream; the dreamer of Piers Plowman is always falling back asleep.

In the article, I write:

Piers Plowman deepens or intensifies but does not progress. It is a tensile poem, responsive to the world, but it does not move, really. Running in parallel with the successive invocation and dismissal of [literary] genres, Piers Plowman proposes extrainstitutional principles for the refoundation of Christian society, all of which fail in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. This is Langland’s “negative utopianism,” as identified by Karma Lochrie [164]. […] The whole poem expands and expounds the opening dream of a society gripped by debilitating hypocrisy.

(In making this argument I join one strand of modern commentary on Piers Plowman, which sees its structure as basically recursive, like a Möbius strip [Middleton]. There is another strand that views its structure as basically progressive, like a pilgrimage. This scholarly schism is fascinating in its own right and tells you a lot about the poem.)

My article defines Piers Plowman‘s recursive form and proposes a new analog for it, the tradition of political prophecy (think Merlin). But there is maybe more to say about the political implications of literary recursivity and failure. Lerner again: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Langland felt that. Piers Plowman is a massive failure, and knows it. It is a theological failure; it is a political failure; it is a social failure; and it is therefore a poetic failure. It has to be: it is a “particular poem,” not a sublime abstraction. Piers Plowman includes asides in which the narrator/poet Will is berated by a range of allegorical figures–Reason; Conscience; even imagination, who might be expected to be a fan–for wasting time writing all that dumb poetry.

Piers Plowman‘s circuit of frustration and failure conforms to some modern political and social problems. The sterile debate about whether everything or nothing in society nowadays is neoliberal, and, interlocking that debate, the sniping at and among the various strands of socialism share a structure that will be familiar to a reader of Langland. The problem of a term meant to encompass an entire mode of social organization, like feudal or neoliberal, might be that it is being pressed to do too much conceptual work; or it might be that it is too apt, that a mode of social organization is at that moment oppressively total (Song).* Correspondingly, the problem with political labels/ideologies like socialism–but equally small-l liberalism, and fascism–might be that their political content is inimical to a given person’s disposition, experience, and social placement; or it might be that the distance between the world as it is and the ideal state of affairs that those terms differently demand is insufferable. We are all familiar with how fruitless it is to argue against one of the isms armed only with an actual example. It is always possible, and in practice easy, to exclude the example from the ideal. Socialists, liberals, and fascists all do this: actually existing inequity can only ever be blamed on someone else’s abstraction. To an extent, this is understandable. One’s political ideals are ideals precisely insofar as they’ve never been put into practice. Nothing will wreck the beautiful poem in your head faster than trying to write it down.

This two-sided discursive problem–a political description that seems uselessly repetitious with the totality of lived experience, and one that seems uselessly abstract and unattainable–maps onto what I see as the major poles of Langland’s vacillating thought throughout the poem. It’s not as if there is for Langland a middle ground, where terms are just useful enough. It’s failure all the way down: either a failure to imagine anything different, or else a failure to imagine anything achievable. Piers Plowman expresses its optimism that things could change for the better in a fashion that would seem strangely pessimistic if it were not also the signature move of academic ideology critique: to demolish, one by one, ideas that won’t work.

But social upheaval does occur. We know this. Langland knew this, too. Piers Plowman alludes more than once to the time “before the plague,” a period represented in the poem as obviously better than the present but sealed off from it by the cataclysm of 1348. The political and social realities which vexed Langland in the 1370s, in turn, gave way to something else. And our unacceptable present reality, whether neoliberal is a perfect or an inane descriptor for it, will end, too. Song on 2010s neoliberalism could be Langland on a post-Edenic world and post-plague England: “a kind of postlapsarian moment that exists ever in the shadow of a time before” (283). Langland did not expect or want his poem to inspire a rebellion, but it did anyway. There seems to be an inevitable asymmetry, a slippage, between the experience of one political/social moment and the remediation of texts and ideas from that moment. Maybe we can just call this slippage (literary) history. It’s something that will continue to fascinate me; and it holds out hope for achieving some measure of justice in a world that is often intolerable. At the same time, it suggests that Langland was right to sense that a poem, no matter how brilliant, would not cut it. “A kind of value no particular poem can realize. . .” A devastating critique of the status quo does not normally change things. It can only be a starting point.


*Hugo Raine has a splendid essay for Verso’s blog on “Marxism and the Middle Ages,” in which he argues that a fundamental error of some Marxist medieval historians is to assume, with Marx, that the totalizing structure of modern capitalism implies prior totalizing modes of economic/social organization. (Hence feudalism.) What if there weren’t any? What if capitalism is in this respect unique? It’s a very smart thought, and I think that in general I agree with it. But Langland does seem to represent the economic/social system of fourteenth-century England as totalized, as implicated in every sector of human existence, even if feudal isn’t the right word for it.

further reading

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016.

Lochrie, Karma. Nowhere in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Middleton, Anne. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Mortwon W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 91-122.

Song, Min Hyoung. “An Ethics of Generosity.” In Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 281-98.

Weiskott, Eric. “Political Prophecy and the Form of Piers Plowman.” Viator (forthcoming).

on liking Chaucer

First, some background. I began reading medieval English poetry the summer after high school (a failed attempt at my parents’ copy of Chaucer). What attracted me initially was the linguistic challenge:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
. . .

I sensed that Middle English belonged to me as an English speaker, that no one else could claim an upper hand in it except by dint of the same sort of study I was putting in. This was even truer of Old English, the language of Beowulf. There are words in Old English whose meanings are simply unknown. More than dead liturgical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, Old English is a lost language. That appealed to me. At the end of college, I decided to become a medievalist.

This was my preprofessional formation. I linger over it because the issue of who the Middle Ages are for is politically fraught. There has rightly been a movement to decolonize medieval studies, still an overwhelmingly white field. It is Eurocentric by definition, since the sequence ancient-medieval-modern originated in European historiography.

In graduate school, I learned that medieval literature was related to the places in which it was made. Chaucer spoke for London and the royal court. Most other writing in English was “provincial,” a catch-all term and often pejorative. I studied this literature long before setting foot in England, so that my mental map of the country was drawn out of a reading of the literature. I was once challenged at a conference on my definition of “southern” for tenth-century England. My definition conflicted with modern UK regional nomenclature. On reflection, I was glad the issue came up. It’s an issue of different social trajectories in the academy. My own perspective made me receptive to weird, dislocational arguments like that of Nicholas Howe (a Yale PhD from the New York metro area, like me), who theorized that the capital city of early medieval England was Rome.

*

I teach Chaucer every other year to undergraduates, and I have a professional obligation to like him. It’s an obligation that’s taken some years to fulfill. I dutifully published an essay on him in graduate school in the Chaucer Review, connecting the Friar’s Tale to medieval forest bureaucracy—a topic that interested me more than Chaucer, at the time. The essay was intended to prove to potential employers that I could “do” Chaucer. One reader wrote that the historical dimension of the essay was stronger than the literary one. It was probably supposed to be an insult. But it was true.

I found Chaucer’s writing smug. I could feel the author winking at the reader through his characters. His stories were too comfortable being stories. The Canterbury Tales were poetic in form, but their style reminded me of modern novels and reminded me why I did not choose to study modern novels. Chaucer was so urban (at least to this rural reader), but his urbanness was deflected, almost never present on the surface of the work itself. You had to go to grad school to learn about it.

It has taken me years to place Chaucer to my satisfaction. My first book gave him only a cameo appearance. That book was more concerned with bridging the subfields of Old English and Middle English, which parted ways in the nineteenth century. In my second book, I have a trio of chapters that plugs Chaucer back into a literary context that makes sense to me. I realized what I really disliked was the gravitational pull he exerts on late medieval English studies. Instead of seeing Chaucer as (I think) he was, an initially insignificant sliver of his literary world, the field treats him as a benchmark for other writing in English. This remains the case whether he is read as prototypically English or, more recently, as a minor French or Italian writer. The field looks back on Chaucer through fifteenth-century goggles, for it was then that he became a benchmark. I teach Chaucer as an aberration, intentionally deflating students’ expectations about studying “the Father of English Poetry.”

My book puts Chaucer back in his place through the histories of English meters. Chaucer was a great innovator in this area. He invented the iambic pentameter. But Chaucer’s invention had a minimal impact prior to c. 1450. That’s a missed connection of half a century after the poet’s death. I wanted to write scholarship that recovered the weirdness of pentameter prior to that moment of mainstreaming.

Part of my reconciliation to Chaucer involved deeper study of his pre-CanterburyTales writing, the dream visions: the Romaunt of the RoseDeath of Blanche the Duchess,* House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. Less commonly taught than the Canterbury Tales, these poems are less novelistic, more ‘medieval.’ The first three are in iambic tetrameter. They show us a Chaucer who has not yet had the pentameter idea.

The other missing piece fell into place when I read William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Langland provides vital context for reading Chaucer. You would almost think the two men belonged to different worlds. Their poems belong to different orders of reality.** Chaucer is a ubiquitous London bureaucrat, Langland a shadowy western cleric. But Langland lived in London, as well. His poem has a doubleness of place that corresponds to a certain flatness I detect in parts of Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is a pretext for stories; for Langland, being in transit is the main thing. The House of Fame, my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, is not coincidentally the work of Chaucer that shows most clearly (we think) the influence of Piers Plowman. Langland, the “provincial” author, provincializes Chaucer. Piers Plowman thematizes that which Chaucer can’t or won’t say about himself.

I’m writing this blog post to record the chain of events that, over time and through many discussions with my students, has generated my take on Chaucer. My book simply unspools this take as achieved knowledge, but perhaps there’s value or interest in the personal backstory.

It’s OK not to like the texts you study or teach. Sometimes there’s something to be learned, about the text or about yourself, from sitting with dislike.


*Known today under the title The Book of the Duchess. But see Ellis.
**Bourdieu’s field theory has been helping me sort out the relationship between social placement and literary style in my research into early English poetry. The term “social trajectory” is Bourdieu’s.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ellis, Steve. “The Death of the Book of the Duchess.” Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58.

Grady, Frank. “Chaucer Reading Langland: The House of Fame.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 3–23.