Shearing the Shepherds: Violence and Anticlerical Satire in Langland's Piers Plowman

By Parsons, Ben | Medium Aevum, Fall-Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Shearing the Shepherds: Violence and Anticlerical Satire in Langland's Piers Plowman


Parsons, Ben, Medium Aevum


In her study of patristic influence on Piers Plowman, Margaret Goldsmith raises a suggestive point about its author's attitude towards the Church. (1) She writes: 'We cannot doubt that William Langland was an angry man. One part of him would certainly like to take a stick to cheats, spongers and corrupters, and double-dealers of all kind - especially if they walk under the protection of a tonsure and a habit.' (2) As this statement makes clear, Goldsmith sees a firm connection between Langland's anticlerical satire and corporeal violence. She sees in his text a clear desire to bruise, break, or otherwise damage the bodies of ecclesiastics, as they attract his hostility above any other target. Beneath his critiques, in other words, is a wish to inflict actual injury on priests, as Langland's denunciations seem to be underpinned by aggression, or even motivated by it.

What makes this comment valuable is not that it is necessarily correct or well founded, but the fact that it articulates an assumption which echoes throughout Piers Plowman scholarship. The link Goldsmith posits between Langland's criticism of the clergy and aggression pervades commentary on the poem. Barbara Johnson, for instance, finds similar beliefs among the poem's early readers, noting that 'the Lollards and English reformers' saw Piers as a 'prophet ploughing for Christian truth by the violent action of attacking thorns and briars', while the idea that Langland 'lashed the vices of the clergy ... with savage energy' attains the level of a cliche among nineteenth-century scholars. (3) The same conviction appears in the work of more recent critics, as George Kane also sees Langland's satire as analogous to physical attack, stating that he 'was obliged to speak out ... with loud violence' when addressing the priesthood. (4) The connection Goldsmith describes is therefore a long-standing one in criticism. Langland's anticlerical remarks are often held to resemble violence, as assault seems to provide their underlying stimulus.

The purpose of the present article is to interrogate this enduring assumption. Its main objective is to determine whether Langland's satire on the clergy is indeed supported by an implicit pattern of violence, or whether a different interplay is at work between his censure and his portrayal of wounding. However, it will also broaden this enquiry to consider what such an association can reveal about the poem as a whole, especially regarding Langland's position as a critic of the Church, and his understanding of the proper social function of the Church.

One of the first points to note is the sheer importance of violence and anticlerical satire in Langland's vision. There can be little doubt that each of these issues occupies a fundamental place in his writing. Both leave a deep imprint on Langland's polemic position, his ethical schemata, and his rhetorical strategies alike. The presence of anticlerical satire in his work, for instance, has attracted attention throughout the history of the poem. As is well known, early modern readers treated such concerns as the dominant aspect of Piers, placing Langland's outbursts against 'the pride of the Romane Clergy' at the centre of the text. (5) Thus Robert Crowley's 1550 edition directs the reader towards such 'principall poyntes' as 'what shameful Simony reigneth in the church' and 'Howe Wrath teacheth the Fryers', while John More, writing in 1593, regards the poem as wholly concerned with castigating the priesthood, placing it 'against shrift, Popes curse, Friers, sacrificing priestes, single lyfe, Cannon lawe, purgatorie'. (6) Although modern criticism has tended to regard such a view as 'a gross renaissance distortion', and relocated the poem's 'deepest' or 'primary' meaning in its 'subtle spirituality' and 'religious function', the importance of satire in the poem remains undeniable. (7) Langland draws from a wide range of traditions opposing or ridiculing particular orders within the Church: this is clear from Penn Szittya's study of his antifraternalism, and Jill Mann's analysis of his satire against monks, bishops, parsons, and nuns. …

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