Political Allegory in Late Medieval England

Political Allegory in Late Medieval England

Political Allegory in Late Medieval England

Political Allegory in Late Medieval England


Ann W. Astell here affords a radically new understanding of the rhetorical nature of allegorical poetry in the late Middle Ages. She shows that major English writers of that era--among them, William Langland, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Gawain-poet--offered in their works of fiction timely commentary on current events and public issues. Poems previously regarded as only vaguely political in their subject matter are seen by Astell to be highly detailed and specific in their veiled historical references, implied audiences, and admonitions. Astell begins by describing the Augustinian and Boethian rhetorical principles involved in the invention of allegory. She then compares literary and historical treatments of key events in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, finding an astonishing match of allusions and code words, especially those deriving from puns, titles, heraldic devices, and personal cognizances, as well as repeated proverbs, prophecies, and exempla. Among the works she discusses are John Ball's Letters and parts of Piers Plowman, which she presents as two examples of allegorical literature associated with the Peasants? Revolution of 1381; Gower's allegorical representation of the Merciless Parliament of 1388 in Confessio Amantis; and Chaucer's brilliant literary handling of key events in the reign of Richard II. In addition Astell argues for a precise dating of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight between 1397 and 1399 and decodes the work as a political allegory.


In many ways this book has taken me by surprise. It began with a thrill of discovery in the summer of 1996, when I happened to be reading English chronicles alongside Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and noticed connections between and among them that I had never imagined possible. In other ways, however, this book is neither surprising nor recent in its origins. Rather, it brings to a certain culmination years of sustained research and reflection on medieval allegory--in particular, on the ways in which biblical hermeneutics and allegorical interpretations of classical authors affected vernacular composition.

Several factors served to inspire me for this work. I recall with gratitude, for instance, a particular session I attended at the 1996 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. David Aers, Jim Rhodes, and Frank Grady delivered "historicizing" papers that excited me greatly. Since then I have corresponded occasionally with each of them, and the exchange has been stimulating for me.

In the fall of 1996 I was fortunate to be able to teach a graduate seminar on medieval rhetoric and poetics. During that time I was able to study theories of rhetorical invention in the supportive atmosphere generated by a small group of zealous students: Alison Baker, Margaret Dick, Holly McBee, Margaret Reimer, and Thomas Wright. To them I owe heartfelt gratitude.

For the 1997 International Medieval Congress I organized three sessions on rhetoric and poetics in loving memory of one of my teachers, Jerome Taylor. This book, which is dedicated to him, reflects in part the atmosphere of those sessions. I wish, therefore, to thank all of the participants: Mary J. Carruthers, Tom Clemens, Rita Copeland, Jody Enders, Dolores Warwick Frese . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.