Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Songes of Rechelesnesse": Langland and the Franciscans

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

"Songes of Rechelesnesse": Langland and the Franciscans

Article excerpt

"Songes of Rechelesnesse Langland and the Franciscans. By Lawrence M. Clopper. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1997. Pp. xviii, 368. $52.50.)

Lawrence Clopper's "Songes of Rechelesnesse," a provocative, challenging, and fascinating book, is one of the most important studies of William Langland's Piers Plowman published in the past twenty years. It confronts directly the commonplace view that this fourteenth-century poem-along with Chaucer's "Summoner's Tale"-is the artistic culmination of the antifraternal tradition in England, a view strongly argued in Penn Szittya's highly influential book, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). Clopper maintains instead that Langland "systematically exhibits a Franciscan mentality, ideology, and spirituality" (p. 3) and that the poem's insistent castigation of the mendicants is the criticism of an insider determined to reform the fraternal orders rather than the attack of an outsider dedicated to their eradication. Although not denying the central place of antifraternal polemic in the poem, he shows how "Langland has characters respond to specific arguments of external critics" (p. 11) and argues that the poet's "engagement with the external critics of mendicancy indicates that Piers is not so much a defense as a meditation on the impediments and difficulties of that life" (p. 14).

The eight chapters are divided into two major groupings: the first three link Langland to Franciscan ideology, whereas the second five, building on this historical framework, investigate Franciscan issues central to the poem's thematics. Readers of this journal will likely find the first three chapters, which draw on a wealth of historical detail, the most immediately useful. Chapter 1, "Mendicant Debate and Antifraternal Critiques," summarizes the rich tradition of late medieval antifraternalism; Chapter 2, "Langland's Friars," examines the many ways in which Langland represents friars in his poem; and Chapter 3, "Langland's Exemplarism," argues strongly for the influence of Bonaventure on the ways in which Langland organizes his poem and even on his poetic style, the alliterative long line. …

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