Arvind Thomas has written a meticulous and innovative book arguing that Piers Plowman not only reflects the language of canon law but intervenes in canonical ideas about contrition, confession, restitution, and satisfaction, understood here as juridical in character. Indeed, taking a cue from John Alford, Thomas's argument is an extension of the idea that William Langland pushed the analogies between law and theology “further than anyone else dared” (24, quoting Alford 1977: 947–48). His argument is not simply that the poem takes up legal discourse (Sobecki 2020)—others have seen common law as the more prominent legal source for the poem—but that the entire edifice of Piers Plowman has a legal purpose that refers to and overlaps with its central penitential concerns. Thomas traces thematic and formal moments throughout Piers that are particularly informed by the discourses of canon law; in addition, he finds “a poetic remaking of canon...
“Piers Plowman” and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages
Elizabeth Allen is professor and chair of English at the University of California, Irvine. Her book Uncertain Refuge: Sanctuary in Medieval English Literature was published in October 2021. Her essays have appeared in JMEMS, New Medieval Literatures, Speculum, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and elsewhere.
Elizabeth Allen; “Piers Plowman” and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages. Poetics Today 1 September 2022; 43 (3): 587–589. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-9780459
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