- From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland by Stephen M. Yeager
Stephen M. Yeager resists the idea of the “alliterative revival” in the Piers Plowman tradition, opting instead for the idea of a shared origin in Anglo-Saxon legal and homiletic writing. “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse” is based on forms of proverbial wisdom, which he calls “sententious formalism.” By considering literary and documentary forms and restricting his investigation to the Worcester area, Yeager seeks to illuminate two features of the Piers Plowman tradition: the alliterative idiom and the poem’s evolution. The juxtaposition of the Anglo-Saxon form and late medieval texts is not meant to demonstrate a continuity of the alliterative tradition so much as it is to derive an explanation for the use of this form in late medieval literate society. Yeager suggests that the Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic form lent itself as an authorizing force to later satirical writing that articulated anxieties about bureaucratic literacy.
The book has a brief introduction, six chapters, and a brief conclusion. The introduction explains Yeager’s notions of “sententious formalism” and what he means by “Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse.” The forms of sententious statements conveyed a sense of orality through their proverbial nature of “self-evident truths” and alliteration. The first chapter elaborates on legal-homiletic discourse by pointing to the porous nature of Anglo-Saxon legal and homiletic writing, a fact that makes disciplinary study (literary critical or legal historical) of its documentary culture difficult. In chapter two Yeager discusses Wulfstan’s use of sententious formulae and shows how specific themes, tropes, and phrases in Wulfstan’s writings transgress generic boundaries, such as the Pauline list of crimes that appears in both the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos and I-II Cnut. The chapter ends with an investigation of the early twelfth-century Anglo-Latin Quadripartitus and Leges Henrici Primi, which seem to use sententious wisdom, Wulfstan’s two-beat phrasing, and similar complaints of the English as are found in the Sermo Lupi.
The third and fourth chapters present thirteenth-century texts that also use Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse: chapter three discusses The First Worcester Fragment and The Proverbs of Alfred, and chapter four focuses on La3amon’s Brut. While the poems under investigation in the third chapter use the legal form of Old English, they do not contain the same legal content. In contrast, La3amon’s Brut presents similarities to—and possibly a familiarity with—Old English law, such as the parallel between the list of Britain’s land and the Anglo-Saxon Hit becwæð legal formula. The final two chapters turn to the Piers Plowman tradition, which marks a shift in the use of the form. The “older and more homiletic authenticating strategies” in the Piers Plowman tradition allow it to criticize [End Page 444] contemporary clerks such that ecclesiastical power becomes a problem to be addressed rather than a tradition to be upheld. Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger exemplify this shift, and the former is included in defining the tradition in the fifth chapter, with a comparison between calling Richard “redeless” and the Anglo-Saxon Æthelred the Unready. In chapter six Yeager locates the poet’s “literate” anxiety in Mum and the Sothsegger in the inability to ensure that a reader’s interpretation corresponds to the writer’s intention.
The book does excellent work in locating the legal-homiletic discourse in Old English writing that may have influenced late medieval satirical writings. The first two chapters are rich and convey current research in the field well, and the last two chapters contain insightful readings of the Piers Plowman tradition. Chapters three and four, however, seem unnecessary for the discussion of connections that the introduction promises, and the third chapter is especially weak owing to a lack of contextualization. For example, Yeager uses the version of The Proverbs of Alfred that shares a manuscript with a version of Poema Morale, fragments of which also appear in...