1. J. A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the 'Gawain'
Poet (London, 1971; rpt. 1992); the quotations in the text are from p. 4. Anne Middleton has
adapted some of his terms, and the spirit of this inquiry, in her essay, "The Idea of Public Poetry
in the Reign of Richard II," Speculum 53 (1978), 94-114, as has Richard Firth Green,
with radically different results, in A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England
2. It may be the case that even the difference in language may be somewhat overstated.
Burrow notes (pp. 8-9) that editing practices routinely modernize Chaucer's and Gower's spelling
and orthography; Langland and the other alliterative poets are not so updated: "The result of this
and other divergences in the editorial handling of the manuscripts is that the texts of Gower and
Chaucer are given a relatively modern appearance, while those of their contemporaries are left
under the imputation of barbarism; and this in turn helps to perpetuate our essentially bifocal view
of the period. " Some of the "other divergences" are alluded to by John Fisher, "Piers
Plowman and the Chancery Tradition," in Medieval English Studies presented to George
Kane, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig (Cambridge,
1988), pp. 267-78. The details of these arguments are beyond the scope of this essay and outside
my competence, but the issue helps to show the nature of the problem of Ricardian poetry or a
3. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Steven Justice, "Langlandian Reading Circles and the Civil
Service in London and Dublin, 1380-1427," New Medieval Literatures 1(1997), 59-83.
Their work accounts for the sort of detailed knowledge of political event possessed by Langland
and, one presumes, his readers.
4. See Seth Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval
England (Princeton, 1993), especially chapters 1 and 4.
5. Langland makes abundant contemporary allusions, as the multiple and ongoing
date the versions of his poem show. There is also the complicated problem of how the author's
revisions of his work interact with events of the day, notably controversies over Wycliffite
thinking and the events of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Chaucer's works, too, may have
considerably more historical content than has been thought. Many of the shorter, lyric pieces
engage contemporary political discourse; the Prologue to the Legend of Good
Women and the Parliament of Fowls both depict contemporary events and persons,
the House of Fame at the very least engages the language and modes of legal and judicial
procedure, and recent work on the Canterbury Tales, such as that of David Wallace, has
shown their potential political content. Finally, Troilus and Criseyde circulated with
Piers Plowman in manuscripts. Other Ricardian poets made contemporary allusions,
including Gower and the Gawain-poet. For an analysis of political content in a broad range of late
medieval English writing, see Ann Astell, Political Allegory in Late Medieval England
(Ithaca, 1999), pp. 117-37.
6. Because of some confusing evidence in the chronicle records, Blanche was thought
years to have died on the 12 September 1369. This evidence was sorted out in 1974 by J. J. N.
Palmer and confirmed by Sumner Ferris, though critics still sometimes give the later, incorrect
date. See Edward I. Condren, "The Historical Context of the Book of the Duchess: A
New Hypothesis," Chaucer Review 5 (1970), 195-212; J. J. N. Palmer, "The Historical
Context of the Book of theBook of the Duchess: A Revision," Chaucer
Review 8 (1974), 253-61; Condren, "Of Deaths and Duchesses and Scholars Coughing in
Ink," Chaucer Review 10 (1975), 87-95; Sumner Ferris, "John Stow and the Tomb of
Blanche the Duchess," 18 Chaucer Review (1983), 92-93.
7. For a detailed description of the way that Chaucer uses multiple sources in multiple
see Barbara Nolan, "The Art of Expropriation: Chaucer's Narrator in the Book of the
Duchess" in New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism, ed. Donald M. Rose (Norman,
OK, 1981), pp. 203-22.
8. There are two good pieces of evidence for this. First, the signature moment at the end
the poem—the same section that links Gaunt to the Black Knight and Blanche to White—describes
the Gaunt figure as a king. Gaunt was not a king until after his second marriage in 1371. In fact,
he became a king as a result of his second marriage, to Constanza of Castille. Gaunt's new title,
King of Castille and Leon, though disputed, was clearly important to him, and was also public
knowledge; he issued coins showing his coat of arms quartered with those of Castille and Leon.
For photos, see the plates to Sidney Armitage-Smith's biography, John of Gaunt
(Westminster, 1904). For more on the signature moment, see Howard Schless, "A Dating for
the Book of the Duchess: Line 1314," Chaucer Review 19 (1985), 273-76. The
second piece of evidence is the poem's relationship to Froissart's Dit dou Bleu Chevalier,
which latter poem concerns events from late in the year 1371. That there exists a relationship
between the two poems is undisputed, though Wimsatt argues that the inlluence is of Chaucer on
Froissart, rather than the other way around. See James I. Wimsatt, "The Dit dou Bleu
Chevalier: Froissart's Imitation of Chaucer," Mediaeval Studies 34 (1972), 388-400. I
find this unconvincing, given the relative status of the French and English vernaculars in this
period, the wealth of other lines borrowed from Machaut's and Froissart's other works, and the
signature lines from the Book of the Duchess mentioned above. Rather, Chaucer was
almost certainly borrowing from the Bleu Chevalier here, confirming a date after 1371.
Gaunt returned to England in 1374, after a long continental campaign. In this year, he
ordered an elaborate mass on the anniversary of Blanche's death, leading some to argue that the
Book of the Duchess was commissioned for this occasion rather than written just after
Blanche's death itself. See D. W. Robertson, Jr., "The Historical Setting of Chaucer's Book of
the Duchess," in Mediaeval Studies in Honor of Urban Tigner Holmes, Jr. (Chapel
Hill, 1965), pp. 169-95. While the possibility that the piece was commissioned is slim, it is worth
reviving the possible date of composition. If nothing else, the anniversary mass, an elaborate and
public event, would have reminded London dwellers, including both Chaucer and his audience, of
the original event. For records of the anniversary mass itself. See N. B. Lewis, "The Anniversary
Service for Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, 12th September, 1374," Bulletin of the John
Rylands Library 21(1937), 176-92.
10. Marc M. Pelen points out that about half of the lines of the Book of the
are more or less translated from either Froissart or Machaut, "Machaut's Court of Love Narratives
and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," Chaucer Review 11(1976), 128-55.
11. For comparative work on larger features of these poems, rather than source work
focusing on individual lines, see Pelen, "Machaut's Court of Love" and Barton Palmer, 'The
Book of the Duchess and Fonteinne Amoureuse: Chaucer and Machaut
Reconsidered," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 7 (1980), 380-93. There are
also two critics who have done book-length comparative studies, though both seem somewhat
disappointed in the sources Chaucer has chosen; Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French
Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley, 1957, rpt. 1973); and James I. Wimsatt,
Chaucer and the French Love Poets: The French Background of the Duchess (Chapel
Hill, 1965) and Chaucer and His French Contemporaries: Natural Music in the Fourteenth
Century (Toronto, 1991).
12. In addition to positive work on who Chaucer's audience may have been, there is also
evidence about who it was not. We have known since the publication of James Hulbert's
dissertation, Chaucer's Official Life (Menasha, WI, 1912) that Gaunt was not Chaucer's
patron, and hence not his primary audience, if he was part of his audience at all. The more recent
work on Chaucer's audience tends to confirm rather than contradict Hulbert's position. See Dieter
Mehl, "The Audience of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde," in Chaucer and Middle
English Studies in Honour of Rossell Hope Robbins, ed. Beryl Rowland (London, 1974), pp.
173-89, and Mehl, "Chaucer's Audience," Leeds Studies in English n. s. 10 (1978),
58-71. See also Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, 1989), and "Chaucer's
Fifteenth-Century Audience and the Narrowing of the 'Chaucer Tradition,"' Studies in the Age
of Chaucer 4 (1982), 3-32; and the special section of Chaucer Review 18 (1983),
137-81, Chaucer's Audience: A Symposium, which includes essays by Strohm, Richard
Firth Green, R. T. Lenaghan, and Patricia J. Eberle.
13. For details of how the Fonteinne amoureuse might relate to its immediate
and economic context, see my essay, The Patron in the Poem: Machaut's Dit de la fonteinne
amoureuse in its Historical Context," forthcoming in Romance Languages Annual 11
14. For work on political engagement, or the lack thereof, in Chaucer's life, see S.
"Chaucer and Ricardian Politics," Chaucer Review 22 (1988), 171-84, and Paul Strohm,
"Politics and Poetics: Usk and Chaucer in the 1380s," in Literarv Practice and Social Change
in Britain, 1380-1530, ed. Lee Patterson (Berkeley, 1990), pp. 83-112. Strohm's comparison
with Usk is particularly illuminating, as it shows how Chaucer does not write for an explicit
political purpose, as Usk does routinely. In this view, while Chaucer's politics may be reflected in
his poetics, particularly in a constant emphasis on dialogue and plurality, he differs fundamentally
from a poet like Usk who understands writing as a political tool.
15. See George Holmes, The Good Parliament (Oxford, 1975). "The rich
the few weeks of the parliament itself are therefore a fertile oasis. The surrounding area is rather
thinly supplied with narrative evidence. The contrast is perplexing and the difficulty of
interpretation arises partly from this" (p. 4).
16. Alice Perrers was King Edward II's mistress in the last years of his life. The
was a public one, or at least not particularly discreet, and involved economic and political
concerns. Alice Perrers had an account with the exchequer, wore the dead queen's jewels in
public, and was widely believed to have had an inappropriate influence on the king in matters of
kingship. She was one of the small group of favorites impeached by the Commons in the
Parliament of 1376 and was sent into exile. This Parliament's work was undone in the next year,
and Alice returned to court and to Edward, but these events were nonetheless to stick in minds of
English writers from poets to chroniclers. For arguments about the relationship of Piers
Plowman to the events of 1376, see, in chronological order: Paul Franklin Baum, "The Fable
of Belling the Cat," Modern Language Notes 34 (1999), 462-70; G. R. Owst, "The Angel
and the 'Goliardeys' of Langland's Prologue," Modern Language Review 20 (1925),
270-79; Eleanor H. Kellogg, "Bishop Brinton and the Fable of the Rats," PMLA 50
(1935), 57-68; Bernard F. Huppé, "The A-Text of Piers Plowman and the
Norman Wars," PMLA 54 (1939), 37-64; Huppé, "The Date of the B-Text of
Piers Plowman," Studies in Philology 38 (1941), 34-44; J. A. W. Bennett, "The Date of
the B-Text of Piers Plowman," Medium Aevum 12 (1943), 55-64; Bennett, "The Date of
the A-Text of Piers Plowman," PMLA 58 (1943), 566-72; Huppé, "The
Authorship of the A and B Texts of Piers Plowman," Speculum 22 (1947),
578-620; E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and its Poet (New Haven,
1949), chapter 4, "The Politics of the C-Reviser," pp. 85-120; Huppé, "Piers
Plowman: The Date of the B-Text Reconsidered," Studies in Philology 46 (1949),
6-13; Elisabeth M. Orsten, "The Ambiguities in Langland's Rat Parliament," Mediaeval
Studies 23 (1961), 216-39; and John
L. Seizer, "Topical Allegory in Piers Plowman:
Lady Meed's B-Text Debate with Conscience," Philological Quarterly 59 (1980),
17. I used personification fiction to describe that literary technique through which an
abstract concept is named and becomes a character in the narrative, e. g. Holy Church,
Conscience, Hunger, Truth and so on. Allegory is a separate technique by means of which a
second meaning is present in a text which makes narrative sense without that additional meaning.
Allegory is often associated with oblique speech and with an explicit need for interpretation.
18. "Two Infinities: Grammatical Metaphor in Piers Plowman," English Literary
History39 (1972), 169-88. The relevant passage: "Meed, or bribery, is to 'measurable hire' as
adjective without appropriate syntactic markers is to a rightly declined one. Meed is not merely
immoral behavior, 'poor usage,' but outside meaningful human discourse altogether: the point of
the analogy is that there is literally no place in the Christian commune for Meed; her claims are
not merely seductive, but, in the ideal body of the faith, unintelligible" (p. 184). Middleton
certainly gives the better reading of the passage itself, but the idea that Conscience's attitudes are
necessarily those of the poet or the poem as a whole is disputable. Meed is as much a
personification as Conscience is; any ambiguity in the poem's marshaling of this technique would
be present in both of these characters.
19. "Mede and Mercede: A Study of the Grammatical Metaphor in 'Piers Plowman' C:
335-409," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971), 457-76. They may go a little too far,
as their reading involves some juggling of the text's syntax (p. 465), where they reverse the
analogy because Mede and Mercede is "far more euphonious than the reverse," attempting to
prove that Langland chose the order of the terms of the analogy for aesthetic rather reasons rather
than those of content. The larger point, however, is quite useful; namely that Meed is, at least
potentially, both positive and negative, and that Lady Meed has therefore a dual nature (p. 459),
"On the one hand, she is all society's ruination. . . . On the other hand, along with her unsavoury
qualities, Lady Mede also represents God's just, loving reward to His faithful. "
20. Meed is not the only character who works this way, both as a personification and as
things as well. The king, for example, can be a particular king, the king of England in general, or
kingship, yet more generally. The narrator, too, seems to have this multiple existence. As he is
named Will, he can be a faculty of the soul. But he can also be a faculty of a particular person's
soul, like the narrator or the author, and the Christian name of a particular person, again, like the
author or the narrator. Only the first of these meets both criteria for personification:
abstract/general and unisemous. We also occasionally run across personifications whose names
are so exaggerated that they are comical, such as Tomme Trewe-tonge-tel-me-no-tales- / Ne
lesynge-to-laughen-of-for-I loved-hem-nevere. / And set my sadel upon Suffre-til-I-se-my-tyme"
(B-text, Passus IV, 18-20). These personifications are exaggerated, I think, to show how even the
idea that one can just say what something is, and thus somehow make it clear, can be a problem.
(I also think they are meant to be funny.) Meed, for example, could do with some qualifying terms
if we are to know whether she's a good paying-someone-to-do-something or a bad
21. For this observation, see Anna Baldwin, The Theme of Government in Piers
(Cambridge, 1981). She argues that, given a choice of several theories of government,
Langland prefers absolute monarchy. I think, rather, that Langland sees all theories of
government, and possibly even all theories, in the context of the particular, and that this
contextualization makes them problematic for him. The particular absolute monarchy of 1376
presents significant problems for a theory of absolute monarchy as the best choice. Baldwin resists
this problem, reading Lady Meed's relationship to Alice Perrers, for example, as a way of
typifying the nobility, that is as another sort of abstract concept.