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Trifunctionality and the Tree of Charity: Literary and Social Practice in Piers Plowman

From: ELH
Volume 62, Number 1, Spring 1995
pp. 1-27 | 10.1353/elh.1995.0003

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

ELH 62.1 (1995) 1-27

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. 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.

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. Scudder found nothing the least bit literary about Langland's poem. 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 all but invisible.

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.

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 necesarily lead to a neglect of literariness; as I began by suggesting, the most appreciative, humanistic studies have readily passed beyond it. 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." 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. 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

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. 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...