discussion of how the "backbyter" and his lot, like "grete wynedes and grete tempestis," blast a "vair tre, vul of fruit, bewtewus of bowes" (Three Middle English Sermons From the Worcester Chapter Manuscript F. 10, ed. G. M. Crisdale [Leeds: School of English Language, 1939], 36-37).
79 On "suture," see note 45.
80 Frank (note 9), 3. An inner dream is also found in passus 11, of course.
81 Liberum Arbitrium's sharing the functions of two estates is itself a violation of trifunctionality.
In nineteenth-century studies of Piers Plowman, which emerged in the thick of Hegelian modes of aesthetic analysis, the orchestration of literary history and social history often produced (from a later, non-Hegelian perspective) discordant effects. Following Hegel but perhaps more closely Hyppolyte Taine, J. J. Jusserand implemented a kind of Wissenschaft in 1894 that enabled him to delve within and beyond the literary form of Piers Plowman to get at the poem's essential psychological content.(1) This method affected the way Jusserand understood the poem's social content also. For Jusserand, when the poem took up the social, it dropped its literariness - its relation to English mystical writings - and assumed the immediate, nonliterary, documentary nature of laws or statutes.(2)
Others emulated Jusserand. In 1898, Vida Dutton Scudder drew attention to Piers Plowman's social content by placing the poem alongside the social(ist) writings of Carlyle, Ruskin, and the Fabians, not by locating it within a tradition of medieval texts, alliterative or otherwise.(3) Scudder found nothing the least bit literary about Langland's poem.(4) Nearly two decades after Scudder, Dorothy Chadwick, in a sweep of scientificity, extricated all of the poem's references to social life, cast them into citations by passus and lines, relegated them to footnotes, and translated their content into a consumable historical narrative, all in the attempt to let the poem speak to its own history entirely and sufficiently alone: held against a certain social history, literary history had become invisible.(5)
This brief account of some early literary/social criticism of Piers Plowman should be kept in mind as we visit, nearly sixty years later, Barbara Nolan's review of David Aers's pioneering, quasi-Marxist reading of Langland and Chaucer. Nolan protests that Aers
fails to consider the literary complexity of the works he discusses (they are poems after all). . . . [I]n every case he manages to translate the medieval texts into troubled tracts for the times, supporting his own distinctly modern social biases.(6)
However justified this complaint, if for "modern social biases" we are to read "Marxist criticism," Nolan's charge may be misleading. Contemporary critical theory, even of the materialist ilk, does not necessarily lead to a neglect of literariness; as I began by suggesting, the most appreciative, humanistic studies have readily passed beyond it.(7) The problem is to manage literary and social history together.
That Piers Plowman is inseparably part of both histories makes this problem acute. Nonetheless, dealing with it can simultaneously help dissolve some of the poem's critical difficulties. One of these is the Tree of Charity scene, where I will argue that Langland modifies an iconographic (that is, literary) history at the cost of a provocative incoherency within his own text - what Pierre Macherey calls a "conflict in meaning."(8) Although the enigmas of the Tree of Charity have been explained variously, I will suggest that its perplexities can be better understood when both histories are continuously taken into account.(9) Particular sermon conventions that bear on the Tree of Charity may explain its unique iconography when they are read by the light of the ideological climate in which they and the poem itself emerged.
I wish to begin on the formal level by looking at one of the Tree's peculiarities, the fact that it exists both before and after Christ's life. In an effort to make a theological statement, Langland produces a puzzling movement in the narrative. The dreamer, Will, is puzzled himself when he sees the Tree, which is top-heavy with apples/prophets that straddle two different moments in Christian history.
On the one hand, the devil carries the apples/prophets off to hell despite Piers's best efforts to "hitte after" him with a pile.(10) With the prophets in "derknesse and drede" (16.85), the Tree of Charity scene ends (16.89). Then the story of Christ's life begins, going from the Annunciation to the events in Easter week (16.90-163). Christ's Passion, however, which follows, is abbreviated (16.164-66) for at least two reasons: first, it is out of chronological order, since Will thereafter meets the Old Testament characters Abraham/Faith (16.172-271) and Moses/Spes (passus 17). Second, the full life of Christ is treated in passus 18 - the joust in Jerusalem. With the Annunciation and the Passion thus situated after the Tree of Charity scene, it is clear why the apples/prophets are abducted to hell: Christ's saving grace has not yet been realized.
On the other hand, one of the apples on the Tree is John the Baptist, Christ's contemporary, who is contradictorily represented as dead even before the Annunciation and his baptism of Christ. The two-faced Janus may provide a useful way to explain this anomaly and anachronism: from the post-Annunciation element of the Tree (John the Baptist), the face that looks forward in the narrative to the rest of passus 16 also looks back in Christian history to Abraham and Moses. The scene is Janus-like twice over: from the pre-Annunciation elements of the Tree (the prophets fallen to hell), the face that looks back in the narrative to passus 15 also looks forward in Christian history to the apostolic missions, one of the central concerns of passus 15.(11)
As part of this looking forward and looking back, the Tree uses the iconography of contemporary Septuagesima Sunday sermons. Briefly, Septuagesima Sunday, sixty-four days before Easter (not seventy), marked the beginning of the sixteen-day period of Septuagesima, in which the singing of alleluia during the mass was ceased.(12) One of the texts that the Sarum Missal prescribed for Septuagesima Sunday was Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.(13) Contemporary Septuagesima Sunday sermons develop this parable by several conventions: a vine, stewarded by workers of the three estates, is supported by props, as the Tree of Charity is, and menaced by various external threats, such as winds and ground marauders, also like the Tree.
There is no vine in the Tree of Charity scene, but there is a vineyard in passus 15, where Matt. 20 is quoted: "For Cristene and uncristene, Crist seide to prechours, / Ite vos in vineam meam &c" (15.498). This vine, however, does not come from the parable in Matt. 20 but rather from Christ's sending out the apostles into the world, the theme of the preceding reference to Mark 16:15: "What pope or prelate now parfourneth that Crist highte - / Ite in universum mundum et predicate &c?" (15.489-89a). Both exhortations illustrate Christ's commands for apostolic duty, one that is ultimately the responsibility of fourteenth-century English prelates.
With such an emphasis on the apostolic missions, it is no coincidence that another plant, a tree, metaphorizes them.
As holynesse and honeste out of Holy Chirche spredeth Thorugh lele libbynge men that Goddes law techen.
Right so persons and preestes and prechours of Holi Chirche Is the roote of the right feith to rule the peple Ac ther the roote is roten, reson woot the sothe, Shal nevere flour ne fruyt, ne fair leef be grene.
The quality of the clergy's preaching affects the quality of the tree's fruit, "the peple." Bad preaching is barren in its effects. Good preaching yields bountiful blooms. Anima is perhaps thinking of this tree as, at the beginning of passus 16, he first describes the Tree of Charity to Will as the "ful trie tree" (16.4). The relationship between both trees is also Janus-like: the precious tree in passus 16 both looks back to the apostolic tree and to the vine of Matt. 20 in passus 15 and looks forward to the inner dream, the Tree of Charity scene proper, where the rest of the iconography of Septuagesima will appear.
Septuagesima Sunday sermons portray the workers of Matt. 20 as the three estates of the medieval model of society (those who pray, those who fight, those who work), travailing harmoniously in a vineyard where a vine is supported by staves or props. One peculiar and problematic image at the Tree of Charity is, surely, the props or piles: Will speaks for himself and critics alike when he asks of Anima, "Whi stonde thise piles here?" (16.24). Septuagesima sermons, however, offer conspicuous analogues to the Tree's props and give us a better understanding of one of the literary contexts in which Langland wrote.
The first sermon containing a close resemblance to Langland's props is Thomas Wimbledon's Redde rationem villicationis tue. Espousing the trifunctional theory, this sermon assigns to each estate a specific duty at the vineyard, a metaphor for the "chirche." The knightly estate, in particular, aside from keeping the vineyard "fro enemyes of other londes," makes "forkes and rayles to beren vp the veyne."(14) Without these forks - essentially props - "netles" and "wedis" will balefully burgeon in the vineyard. Props also appear in a Wycliffite sermon, where the care of the "rayling," however, "falleth to prelatis and othre vykerus of God."(15) But the props, in turn, uphold the estates, keeping the "wyndis or other wedris" from putting "down these statis to the eurthe." The sermon's imperative is that "eche cristene man schulde helpe to this vynegherd," else "cool wortis and othre weedis" will grow, as in Wimbledon's sermon, with detrimental consequences.(16)
In a third Septuagesima sermon, one by a Lollard preacher, it is the knights again who use "stiffe forkid trees" to "bere vp the vine of rightwisnesse that it were not ouergon and oppressid with breris and wedis of weiward and worldeli tirauntis."(17) The three estates maintain this "'vyne of goodwill' or of charitee" by opposing the "other three whiche ben aboute night and dai to destrue this vine, whiche ben the world, the flesch, and the fende."(18) These three threats are metaphorized in the Tree of Charity scene as the winds from the second sermon: Anima's reply to Piers's question - "Whi stonde thise piles here?" (16.24) - is "For wyndes, wiltow wite, . . . to witen it [the Tree] fro fallyng" (16.25). Anima then explains these threats: "The world is a wikked wynd to hem that willen truthe" (16.27); "The flesh is a fel wynd" (16.31); "And thanne fondeth the fend my fruyt to destruye" (16.40).(19) Moreover, the …