From Lawmen to Plowmen

From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland

STEPHEN M. YEAGER
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 280
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt9qh9ws
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  • Book Info
    From Lawmen to Plowmen
    Book Description:

    By comparing Anglo-Saxon charters, sermons, and law codes with Langland'sPiers Plowmanand similar poems, Yeager demonstrates that this legal and homiletical literature had an influential afterlife in the fourteenth-century poetry of William Langland and his imitators.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9616-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-17)

    Though examples of persistent alliterative sound-patterning appear in poetry and prose from every century of the medieval period, there are many reasons to be cautious about positing the existence of a continuous tradition of alliterative writing with its origins in the Anglo-Saxon era.¹ The alliterative poems dated to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, once grouped together as the works of “the alliterative revival,” have proven particularly difficult to explain in relation to thelongue durée.² Scholars have been rightly sceptical for some time that the poets who wrote these texts could have known classic Old English poems likeBeowulfor...

  6. 1 From Written Record to Memory: A Brief History of Anglo-Saxon Legal-Homiletic Discourse
    (pp. 18-59)

    In his introduction to his edition ofPiers Plowman, W.W. Skeat provides a description of the narrator Will’s voice, which could just as easily be applied to the homiletic voice of the Anglo-Saxon author Wulfstan: “He does not write to please, but to express earnest and deep convictions, and from a love of contemplating the great problems of life; and there is much that may teach a reader to be earnest, pure, loving, and simple-minded, much that may profit all such as care to be instructed in such things.”¹ For Skeat, Langland writes with the “earnest” intention of defining the...

  7. 2 Leges Cnuti, Sermones Lupi: Homily, Law, and the Legacy of Wulfstan
    (pp. 60-98)

    In the preceding chapter I showed how legal and homiletic modes coexist in the traditions of the Anglo-Saxon charters, so that modern legal-historical and literary-critical methodologies can quickly run into problems when they attempt to rely on a priori distinctions between literary texts and legal documents. I proposed the concept of “sententious formalism” as a way of describing the attributes of medieval texts that are the cause of this critical problem. In this chapter, I will begin my genealogy of sententious formalism inPiers Plowmanwith a study of the Anglo-Saxon legal-homiletic discourse in the writings of Wulfstan. I will...

  8. 3 Ecclesiastical Anglo-Saxonism in Thirteenth-Century Worcester: The First Worcester Fragment and The Proverbs of Alfred
    (pp. 99-120)

    In the last two chapters I have shown how formal authentication in Anglo-Saxon legal texts is dependent on sententious formulae and wisdom motifs found also in Anglo-Saxon poems and sermons, rather than the formulaic patterned language that came to dominate legal discourse in later ages. By implication, the “literary” formal qualities of these texts were central to their ideological purposes. Because these texts were continuously copied and studied at the same time and in the same places that “Middle” English literature first emerged, they ought to be integrated into existing critical narratives about the evolution of vernacular English literature after...

  9. 4 Laȝamon’s Brut: Law, Literature, and the Chronicle-Poem
    (pp. 121-149)

    The thirteenth-centuryBrutis a poetic retelling of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legendary history of pre-Saxon Britain, theHistoria regum Britanniae. The poem follows the Anglo-NormanRoman de Brutby Wace so closely it is essentially a translation, though Laȝamon appears to have used supplementary sources as well.¹ TheBrutis of key importance to philologists and literary scholars as an unusually late witness of many Old English words and poetic conventions. As a result, studies of the poem have generally looked backwards to identify its origins in post-Conquest Old English literature.² In one such study, particularly relevant for the current...

  10. 5 Defining the Piers Plowman Tradition
    (pp. 150-182)

    In chapter 2, I cited the bequeathment formulaHit bicwæðas an example of the repetitive, alliterative lists characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, homily, and law. As I noted then, the formula’s alliterative catalogue of territorial rights has parallels in early Anglo-Latin charters, and therefore its basic structure has some claim to oral antiquity.¹ However, the appearance of the wordploȝinHit bicwæðsuggests that its precise phrasing of the formula is relatively late. The only other pre-Conquest texts in Old English attesting the Norse loanwordploȝdate to the reign of Cnut, and originate in the diocese of York.²...

  11. 6 Documents, Dreams, and the Langlandian Legacy in Mum and the Sothsegger
    (pp. 183-204)

    IfRichard the Redelesscriticized the king’s ability to understand the ræd of wise counsellors,Mum and the Sothseggeris focused instead on the ability of would-be counselors to provide it.¹ Jon Whitman has noticed the tendency of allegorical modes towards self-exposition, as characters that personify wisdom necessarily provide commentary on the appropriate method for reading the allegory in which they appear.² If we apply this observation to the titularsothseggerof this poem, then the commentary of “sothe-saying” in the text is implicitly a comment on thePiers Plowmantradition as a whole. In this senseMum and the...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 205-216)

    In a recent study of Piers’s pardon in passus B7, Alistair Minnis has provided a compelling account of the document’s symbolic function in terms of the conventions governing indulgences in the fourteenth century.¹ The one lacuna remaining in Minnis’s study is an explanation for the pardon’s highly unconventional text. The document contains only a Latin quotation from the Athanasian Creed: “Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam aeternam; qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum (he who does well will go to eternal life and he who does poorly will go to eternal fire).” As Minnis observes, the “utter simplicity and...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-268)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)