Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Songes of Rechelesnesse': Langland and the Franciscans

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Songes of Rechelesnesse': Langland and the Franciscans

Article excerpt

Lawrence M. Clopper, `Songes of Recheleznesse Langland and the Franciscans (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997). xviii + 368 pp. ISBN 0-472-10744-5. L39.50

Professor Clopper's book is the outcome of research and consideration over many years; his publications on Piers Plowman go back at least to 1979, and his conviction of the centrality of Franciscan thought to an understanding of Langland's poem has been defended many times against scepticism and even attack at conferences and seminars by other critics with rival explanations for the poem's genesis and impetus. After a series of brief papers dealing with individual aspects of his case, it is thus very good to have his full-length account of the intricacies of his views. And those views are certainly challenging: far from accepting the common presentation of Langland's attitude as one of outright anti-fraternalism if not of proto-Protestantism, Clopper sees Langland as writing for 'a coterie of reformist Franciscans' (p. 3 3 3), with some probability himself a Franciscan at some point in his life, and that he was concerned to debate the issues that had rent the order and to defend a return to the original simplicity and poverty of its foundation. Clopper's familiarity with the basic texts of that foundation, and with the complex negotiations through which the papacy attempted to control the challenge that the order posed to ecclesiastical ideology and administration, is formidable.

Within the space of a short review it is hard to question, let alone challenge, such a large-scale revisionary undertaking; picking out details for disagreement will inevitably seem trivial. Moreover, the critic is effectively disabled from the enterprise of refuting the overall argument: if Piers Plowman is indeed an encoded contribution to the arguments between the reformist Franciscans and the mainstream of the accepted order, intended for a `coterie , any charge that the surface message of the poem appears to be at odds with Clopper's reading is blocked by the counterargument of the need for a language only properly comprehensible to the initiated. …

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