Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation argues that in writing Piers Plowman Langland was attempting something extraordinarily difficult: to negotiate between two poles of authority, bardic and clerical, and in so doing to create something not quite of either pole, a literary tertium quid, a remarkable hybrid of the discourses and values associated with oral and written culture. In contrast the many studies that focus on the clerical bias of the poet, I demonstrate that Langland writes not only as a clerk, bearer of the cultural authority of the book, but also as a traditional seer, speaking of and for an oral culture that was gradually disappearing.;In each chapter I examine various sites of contest in the B-Test of Piers Plowman, episodes that reveal an often fractious dialectic between the values and assumptions of written and oral culture, which Langland tries to link, not always clearly, to the Old and New Laws respectively. The first chapter deals with the poet's search for spiritual (and poetic) authority, the second with the search for legal authority. The final chapter examines the way in which Langland wavers between oral and literate biases in his exploration of covenantal theology.;Although Langland's quest for the roots of authority in matters spiritual and temporal is often marked by conflict and ambivalence, he finally embraces the ideals of a past before the processes of rationalization had begun. He protests the growth of eccleslastical and governmental bureaucracies, associating their abuse of power with their manipulation of documents. These institutions had corroded fundamental bonds of trust and loyalty and replaced them with pieces of parchment that would say whatever those with enough silver to pay the scribe wished them to say.;The emphatic traditionalism of Piers Plowman, its attempt to re-evoke the ideals of a primarily oral culture, is also the source of its radicalism. The leaders of the Rising in 1381 certainly discerned the radical potential of the poem. They did not, in my view, misread Piers Plowman. It became their rallying cry because they recognized the extent to which Langland articulated their concerns, and spoke for their world.



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