Penitential reform and Canon Law in "Piers Plowman" B and C texts

Arvind Thomas, Fordham University


This study examines the contrast between the B and C texts of Piers Plowman in order to offer an explanation for Langland's revisions from the perspective of the church's penitential norms. Through close readings of various penitential scenes in both texts of the poem, I show that canonical ideas about confession not only inform the revisions but are also themselves transformed by it. On the one hand, Langland's invocations of canon law are doctrinally orthodox as they are well attested in penitential discourse. On the other hand, they are rhetorically radical as they are leveled pointedly against specific institutional members: fraternal, royal, and papal confessors as well as parish priests. Directed to clerics and located in visibly dramatic settings, Langland's invocations of canonistic procedures acquire a rhetorical force that they do not possess within contemporary penitential discourse. Even as Langland draws upon penitential norms, he seeks to affect those who are supposed to be guided by them by clarifying them in terms of a dramatic rhetoric rendered explicit in the C revisions. Specifically, Langland's revisions supplement juridical procedures for administering the penitential sacrament by investing them with a sharpened anticlericalism. In so doing, Langland forges a vision of reform at once revolutionary in its attack on false confessors and reactionary in its affirmation of sacramental confession. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Medieval|History, Medieval|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Thomas, Arvind, "Penitential reform and Canon Law in "Piers Plowman" B and C texts" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3438464.