- ‘Piers Plowman’ and the Poor
'Piers Plowman' and the Poor succeeds admirably in casting into doubt the claim that Langland, having recognised the plight of the poor, retreats into an other-worldly piety. Scott argues instead that Langland distinguishes among five views of poverty: the greatest of all evils; a scandal to be eradicated; a liberation from care where riches are a corrupting influence; a virtue fundamental to Christian life; and, for some, a voluntary state by which to imitate Christ. Langland's approaches to poverty are not comprehensive only because the language available to him 'lagged behind the reality' (p. 21); it is among the poem's achievements to forge new vocabularies in its effort to effect social change.
Chapter 1, in surveying these distinctions, covers a wide range of materials, from liberation theology to the World Bank, from patristic commentaries to modern criticism. Piers Plowman emerges as a poem that exploits the juxtapositions [End Page 165] among the five views of poverty, and that 'places unusually specific emphasis on the social condition of poor people' (p. 51). Chapter 2 argues that Langland identifies the poor as a model for all the estates of society, suggesting that the provision of food and care for the needy is directly linked with the terms of the Last Judgement. After a perhaps too-brief engagement with passus C.9's invective against vagrants, Scott offers an extended reading of B.6-7, which demonstrate the necessity for each person both to do the works required by his or her station and to relieve the needy.
Chapter 3 develops that last imperative by arguing that 'Langland's poor achieve salvation simply by virtue of being poor, whereas his rich must identify themselves with the poor by recognizing their need and sharing their goods with them in the practice of charity' (p. 117). The focus here is B.13-14, in which Patience teaches both Will and Haukyn that 'poverty is to be the measure of a person's worth' (p. 154). Scott ends the chapter attempting to reconcile the seeming contradiction between poverty as pathway to heaven and as a scandal to be eradicated.
Scott's discussion of the Dreamer, Will, in chapter 4 constitutes the book's biggest departure from the standard critical tradition. Usually seen as a buffoon at best ('Thow doted daffe!') or pernicious vagrant at worst, Will here plays the hero: his poverty 'brings Will close to Christ and gives him … the authority to fight against forces that oppose Christ's kingdom' (p. 157), making him 'an outstandingly important medieval literary figure' and 'the unifying force within the poem' (p. 161). The centrepiece of this discussion is a reading of the apologia pro vita sua of C.5.1-108 in which Will 'embodies the questions that must be asked of his society and of himself, and in his answers, the only quality that justifies him is his adherence to a life of apostolic poverty in order to do the will of God' (p. 174). In her 'poor reading', Scott makes a distinctive and important contribution to the sizeable critical discussion of this episode.
The final chapter suggests that Study, Trajan, and Will 'speak for the poor in the context of banquets where over-consumption and waste are allied to perversion of truth' (p. 193), and concludes with a discussion of how images of treasure, redemption, and reward articulate the need for dignity for the poor. In B.17-20, Langland 'stresses the entitlement of all human beings to a reward which is simultaneously spiritual and temporal' (p. 230).
This is a careful and measured book, which convinced me both that poverty in all its forms is a much more important focus of Piers Plowman than anyone has ever considered, and that Langland is as conscientious in treating it as was [End Page 166] possible in the language available to him. Some readers might be uncomfortable with the extent to which 'Piers Plowman' and the Poor apologises so forcefully on...