Kalamazoo 2014: two sessions

I am organizing two sessions on Piers Plowman at the 2014 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo: “Langland’s Line” and “Piers Plowman and the Rich.” The first session concerns the poem’s meter; the second, the poem’s intersections with social history. These two sessions are sponsored by International Piers Plowman Society, which is also sponsoring a session on “Langland in Time” and a roundtable on teaching Piers Plowman. Descriptions of all four sessions will be posted at the Society’s website. Paper proposals by 1 Sept.

Piers Plowman and the Rich

This session proposes that a class of persons whom Langland simply called “the rich” constitute an insufficiently analyzed component of the poet’s implied and intended audience. Phrases of explicit address—that is, ye riche and variants—occur about a dozen times in the Athlone edition of the C Version, beginning in Passus 1 with Holy Church’s advice, “Forthi I rede 3ow riche . haueth reuthe on þe pore.” While the poem’s complex attention to and opinions about the poor have rightly commanded the attention of modern readers, its locutionary acts of addressing and advising the rich have rarely received sustained analysis.

This session invites paper proposals that take up questions such as the following: Does Piers Plowman present a coherent opinion of and message for the rich? (And who are the rich? How does this designation intersect with other identity markers, such as gender and clerical/lay status?) Are there notable differences in advice for or views on the rich, either between actants within the poem, between versions of the poem (scribal or authorial), or between the poem and other contemporary discourse? To what genres do the poem’s acts of address belong? What light do they throw on Piers Plowman‘s relation to satire, prophecy, preaching, or advice to princes? What relations can we draw between the poem’s internal acts of address and its material circulation among lay and ecclesiastical ‘possessioners’ (as observed by Anne Middleton)? Finally, does a fuller assessment of these issues enable a fresh take on the problem of Langland’s patronage?

For readers of Piers Plowman, this session title is likely to evoke the alliterating alternatives, “Piers Plowman and the poor” (title of a 2004 monograph by Anne M. Scott) or “poverty and poor people in Piers Plowman” (title of a 1988 essay by Derek Pearsall). By building on this scholarship, the present session hopes to clarify Piers Plowman‘s imbrication within problems of wealth, class, and government.

Langland’s Line

What do we mean when we say that Piers Plowman is written in alliterative verse? The metrical form of late Middle English alliterative verse has been substantially clarified in the last twenty-five years, thanks to a run of highly productive research activity for which Thomas Cable has provided a valuable review (YLS 23[2009]: 243–64). However, the scholarship to date has devoted its attention most productively to the “formal corpus” of alliterative verse—that is, to a group of poems always recognized as more regular than Piers Plowman. As a result, the task of clarifying Piers Plowman‘s metrical form is interpretable, at least initially, as a problem of comparison: that is, a testing of Langland’s verse against the metrical norms evident in poems of the formal corpus.

This difficult research program was pioneered by Hoyt Duggan. In recent years the problem has received fresh attention from Stephen Barney (YLS 23[2009]: 277–88), J.A. Burrow (N&Q 59.3[2012]: 316–320, YLS 25[2011]: 117–129) and Nicolay Yakovlev (YLS 23[2009]: 237–39). This work, which is only just beginning, promises to change the way that we understand Langland’s verse form and his relation to the alliterative tradition; it will also have implications for our understanding of the alliterative tradition itself, and for our assessment of the surviving textual witnesses of Langland’s poem. Finally, as Macklin Smith has observed (YLS 22[2008]: 98-99), metrical scholarship to date has been able to gain traction on Langland’s line only by treating him as a monolingual writer. Even if the bracketing of Latin is excusable as a research expedient (that is, as a way of isolating problems one has some hope of solving) it is clear that any account of Langland’s versification will remain incomplete for as long as we omit an account of its multilingual interfaces.

This session invites paper proposals that explore questions such as the following: what significance should we give to Piers Plowman‘s relatively longer line length, compared against poems of the formal corpus? Does Piers Plowman have three-lift b-verses and, if so, should these lines be understood as a loosening of versification norms or as an expression of ambivalences internal to the meter of alliterative verse? Does Langland favor syntactic frames that weaken the expression of the line’s metrical caesura? Is it possible to elaborate a typology of Piers Plowman‘s Latin words and phrases, classifying them according to the degree of their integration into the metrical rhythm of the English verse? What phonological assumptions is one entitled to make in scansion of embedded Latin words, phrases, and half-lines? What metrical differences are observable across in the versions of Piers Plowman (scribal or authorial)?

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