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Bibliophobia: Hatred of the Book in the Middle Ages

by Professor Tom Shippey

Part 1: The Canterbury Tales

My theme for today (and for tomorrow) is ‘bibliophobia’ - hatred of books in the Middle Ages, but also: hatred of documents; hatred of literacy; and inevitably to some extent, hatred of those who use books and documents; which means, of course, hatred of us.

It is accordingly a rather sensitive field, and not a very popular one. Nothing could be more orthodox these days than to proclaim an interest in reversing patriarchal hegemonies and rescuing from the past its many ‘silenced voices’, whether they are those of women, of heretics or of politically suppressed classes. However, in all these cases it is possible for the modern critic or modern historian to locate the guilt of suppression elsewhere. When it comes to literacy we are inevitably on the wrong side of the suppression, and the issue becomes part of the ‘political unconscious’ of the academic profession itself. Just to personalise this point further, I am sure that the audience tonight is quite mixed, with people from different disciplines and different stages of their academic careers, and also with people who have no intention of pursuing academic careers. But one thing we can be fairly sure of is that everyone here, no matter how much they differ in other ways, is a literate, indeed a full-time user of literacy, and moreover a literate who has been one for further back than most of us can remember. We have no awareness of non-literate experience, at first or even second-hand, and the attempts made in recent times to include the excluded, to rescue the silenced voices, and so on, have tended accordingly not to look at illiteracy as a defining feature of their subjects. There may after all be nothing to look at, or listen to, or, actually, read: some voices have been silenced for ever.

Still, there can be no doubt, I think, that it is hard for us to avoid being ‘prejudiced in favour of literacy’. To quote M.T. Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record:

‘Writing gives the historian his materials and it is consequently understandable that he has tended to see it as a measure of progress. Furthermore, literate techniques are so necessary to 20th century western society, and education in them is so fundamental a part of the modern individual’s experience that it is difficult to avoid assuming that literacy is an essential mark of civilisation.’1

Since I hold the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Chair at Saint Louis University, I feel I ought also to cite Father Ong in this context, and he agrees with Clanchy about the difficulty of avoiding prejudice:

‘Freeing ourselves of chirographic and typographic bias in our understanding of language is probably more difficult than any of us can imagine, far more difficult, it would seem, than the “deconstruction” of literature, for this “deconstruction” remains a literary activity.’2

I have nothing to say about ‘deconstruction’, and I am not at all sure how one goes about freeing oneself from ‘chirographic and typographic bias’, but I do think that it requires something of a leap of the imagination to put oneself in the place of a medieval illiterate: and this leap has rarely been attempted. Indeed I cannot help noticing that the trend in medieval English studies is to assimilate medieval poetry to the familiar model of the literary bureaucrat - the metropolitan literary bureaucrat - and to insist that this is a medieval model as well as a later one.3 Possibly this is an effect of the increasing domination of universities by bureaucratic structures. Be that as it may, we have a number of books now with titles like The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages, or subjects like the history of literary criticism in the Middle Ages,4 which tend - the modern term is revealing - to ‘inscribe’ our modern experience in or on the past. It is much less common to look for any opposing view, and indeed, while I hope it is not unprofessional, it is certainly likely to be anti-professional.

So, since this leap of the imagination is such a difficult one for us to take, I propose to start my argument not with the earliest examples I have been able to find. but with the easiest. My easiest examples of the attempt to dramatise ‘bibliophobia’ come from Chaucer.

Chaucer, of course, was not a bibliophobe, indeed he was the best example we know in medieval England of the exact opposite. In the first place, the list of books which he knows, cites, mentions, translates, or silently appropriates would be a long one. He used books, furthermore, by his own account, in an entirely modern way. As H.J. Chaytor pointed out long ago,5 he describes himself as a silent reader in The House of Fame, where the eagle says of him scornfully:

For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges,
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book,
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look.6 (652-8)

We might note also that Chaucer’s job was ‘reckoning’, and that unlike nearly all of his English contemporaries - this is a point that has, characteristically, only recently been noted, for arithmetic is another area of the critical profession’s ‘political unconscious’ - he could clearly do Arabic numerals: in fact I think he could do numerology, but he only did it once.7 Chaucer was, in short, a bibliophile, indeed a bookworm, as well as a professional full-time bureaucrat.

It is, then, the more surprising that if you look at the way documents are used inside the Canterbury Tales - I do not mean as sources for the tales, I mean as items of plot-structure within the worlds of individual tales and prologues - they are very strongly negative: not 100 per cent negative, I have to admit, but perhaps getting on for 90 per cent.

The recent Glossarial Concordance to the Riverside Chaucer gives some 90 uses of the word ‘book’ in The Canterbury Tales, with others for ‘text’ and ‘Bible’, and many more for ‘read’ and ‘write’.8 A high proportion of these, however, are citations of books which play no part in the action - both ‘The Tale of Melibee’ and ‘The Parson’s Tale’ contain frequent uses of such phrases as ‘The book seith’. By my count, there are only some 16 or 17 cases of books or documents actually being used within the Canterbury Tales, and this count must inevitably involve some subjective decisions as to what does or does not constitute ‘use’.

However, within this count, only two examples are unequivocally positive. In ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’, the knight who accuses Constance falsely is made to swear on ‘a Britoun book, written with Evaungiles’, and is struck down by a supernatural hand for his perjury; in the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’ an angel appears to read a book of faith and to convert Cecilia’s pagan husband. There is, then, a strong underlying sense that Christianity is a ‘religion of the book’, and that the book in this sense is sacred and powerful.

More neutral are the hundred written tragedies which the Monk keeps in his cell - though it is true that he is eventually cut off from reciting them by the Knight, who has nothing to do with books in his own person and is devoted to the notion of the binding oral contract.9 Also neutral are the accounts and books of the merchant in ‘The Shipman’s Tale’ - though the merchant’s wife does express a certain unparticularised contempt for them, whether justified or not, with her cry:

‘How longe tyme wol ye rekene and caste
Your sommes, and your bookes, and your thynges?
The devel have part on alle swiche rekenynges!’ (VII, 216-8)

A further example of a book viewed not quite neutrally is the ‘litel book’ which the ‘litel child’ is learning in the ‘The Prioress’s Tale’, evidently a grammar book. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but the child-hero is well aware that he will be beaten for not learning it, literacy in Latin being customarily acquired in the Middle Ages (and for long after) sub virga, ‘under the rod’; while to the Prioress at least, if it is a choice between learning a song in honour of the Virgin and learning one’s book, between piety and knowledge, oracy and literacy, then the former is infinitely superior.

Fairly clearly negative are what one might call documents of misogyny, literacy seen as an instrument of oppression and deception, especially against women. Jankin’s book of misogynist texts in the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, mentioned more often than any other book in The Canterbury Tales, is the obvious example - she first tears it and then makes him burn it, a very clear case of bibliophobia. Chantecleer meanwhile, though he does not own a book, uses citation of authorities to crush his wife in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’: his flagrant mistranslation of Latin is only an extreme example of a series of literate devices which we will see used again. In ‘The Franklin’s Tale’ the scholar’s book ‘of magyk natureel’ is used to deceive and almost to seduce Dorigen. In ‘The Miller’s Tale’ Nicholas the student owns ‘Bokes grete and smale’: it is true he never seems to read them, but on the other hand, the attitude of belief in and deference to written authority is vital for his plan to deceive and cuckold his illiterate landlord. In ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ the illicit lovers exchange letters: the private letter is an aid to seduction, just as the book can be a Pandar in the scene of Piero and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno:

‘Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse,
Quel giorno piu non vi leggemo avanti’ (Inferno, V, 137-8)
[‘The book was a Pandar, and he who wrote it. That day we read no further.’]

But then we come on to outright counterfeits. Besides its positive example given above, ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ contains the oldest motif as regards literacy in European literature, the false letter which carries fatal meaning.10 King Alla’s mother counterfeits letters two ways, to announce falsely the birth of a monstrous child, and to order the mother and child’s exposure. It is noticeable that already the idea of a forged seal is commonplace. In ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ the marquis similarly has counterfeit papal bulls prepared, to appear to annul his marriage. Perhaps the most revealing examples in this area, though - apart from the cases of the ‘Friar’s’ and ‘Summoner’s Tales’, which I shall discuss in more detail - are those of the ‘Physician’s Tale’ and the ‘Pardoner’s Prologue’. I am surprised (or rather, I am not surprised, but I feel it ought to be surprising) that critics have not been more sceptical about these cases.

Take the ‘Physician’s Tale’: quite a simple story. A judge becomes infatuated with a beautiful young woman. To gain possession of her, he gets a churl to swear that she is his runaway slave - once she has been handed over to the churl, she can be handed over to the judge. But her father kills her rather than hand her over, and the judge and churl commit suicide or are exiled as a result of popular indignation. The moral of the story, we are told, is that ‘the worm of conscience’ may uncover wickedness, however secret. But this seems to have nothing to do with the story, nor does the story make much sense - for after all the young woman is, we are told, ‘strong of freendes’, and there is a crowd of witnesses to state she is her father’s daughter. Modern criticism has accordingly written the tale off as a failure, or seen it as an ironic revelation of the Physician’s character, or re-interpreted it as self-betrayingly patriarchal, all predictable enough.11 An alternative moral which has however so far found no favour, but which is perfectly clear within the action of the tale, is that in court a written charge, a ‘cursed bille’, no matter how false, will outweigh the most convincing and first-hand oral statement. Literacy - and this is a complaint which comes up again and again, and is of course still operative in modern times - makes illiterates, or sub-literates, or people who have just lost their documents, completely powerless, whatever the rights and wrongs of the affair.12

‘The Pardoner’s Prologue’ is furthermore a very obvious case of a literate person (I think the Pardoner is meant to be seen as literate, but see below) using documentation to completely hoodwink illiterates. It leads straight on from ‘The Physician’s Tale’, though the point of the connection I am suggesting has not to my knowledge been made. Anyway, the Pardoner, who is quite unblushing about his dishonesty, says that he always starts off by showing his papers:

‘First I pronounce whennes that I come.
And thanne my bulles shewe I, alle and some,
Oure lige lordes seel on my patente,
That shewe I first, my body to warente,
That no man be so boold, ne preest ne clerk,
Me to destourbe of Cristes hooly werk.
And after that thanne telle I forth my tales,
Bulles of popes and of cardynales,
Of patriarkes and bishopes I shewe,
And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe...’ (VI, 335-44)

Show the bulls, show the seals, use some Latin, sell the phony relics: I take it that all these activities are parallel. They all trade on false or doubtful authority, and the point is that the illiterates simply have no way of checking. They have no idea whether the documents are false or not, just as Pertelote cannot deny Chantecleer’s Latin. At the end of his tale and his sales-pitch the Pardoner will say:

‘Boweth your heed under this holy bulle!
Cometh up, ye wives, offreth of your wolle!
Your names I entre heer in my rolle anon;
Into the blisse of hevene shul ye gon.
I yow assoille, by myn heigh power...’ (VI, 909-13)

I take it (others do not) that the joke here is that everything is false. The Pardoner has no power of absolution; he is not a priest; he writes names on a roll, but then he throws them away later; the bull is a fake, and the seals, as in ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’, are forged. But the joke would not be funny if Chaucer’s literate contemporaries did not realise both the enormity and the simplicity of what the Pardoner does. Modern scholars have once again generally lacked skepticism over scenes like this: some, for instance, take it for granted that the Pardoner really is ordained, because he says he has power of absolution,13 and many assume that his papers, though not his relics, are meant to be taken as genuine.14 That gullibility is in a way the gist of my major points tonight, which concern the ‘Friar’s’ and ‘Summoner’s Tales’.

*I will take ‘The Summoner’s Tale’ first, which is a tale about a friar. This begins with a very clear account of what I have to call a ‘literacy racket’. In Yorkshire, in Holderness, a friar makes a career of going round preaching in parish churches, presumably by arrangement with the incumbents, with whom he has a part-cooperative, part-competitive relationship, and then begging door to door. Part of his routine is to sell trental masses for the dead; part of it is to offer prayers for the charitable. But how is anyone to know that these masses and prayers are in fact said, back at the friar’s convent (not the parish church)? The friar writes down the names of those who give on a set of wax tablets. But, of course, once he gets out of sight he planes them off again. The illiterates see the act of literacy, which seems to them to be a guarantee - ‘Lo! Heere I write your name’ - but they never realise how ephemeral the act can be.

But this is only the most visible and apparent end of the ‘literacy racket’. There are several connected leitmotive in ‘The Summoner’s Tale’, for instance the friar’s intense competitiveness with curates and ‘possessioners’ and rival friars; his insistence on the antiquity of the fraternal orders - we know they are creations of the thirteenth century, but he declares they go back to the first, indeed to the Day of Pentecost; and his persistent use of French and Latin tags and loan-words to make him seem superior to his monoglot English victims. But perhaps the most relevant one for my purpose is his complex attitude to texts and glosses. The friar in a sense takes texts very seriously - when he is trying to persuade Thomas the Yorkshire churl to contribute, one of his clinching arguments is that if Thomas does not fork out, ‘elles moste we oure bokes selle’. But in a sense he ignores them. His sermon is, he claims, ‘Nat al after the text of hooly writ’, but rather based on glossing, for ‘lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn’. He can find ‘no text’ for his assertion that the friars are apostolic, ‘but I shal finde it in a maner glose’. There is a joke in this about friars’ intellectual habits, and the ironies of that have characteristically been well seen and well drawn out.15 But there seems to be another point in there, which is concealed from us by our professional literate gullibility. At one moment the friar is pressing Thomas to give money for his convent to build a church, and he says, claiming literary authority for the cause:

‘Thomas, if ye wol lernen for to wirche,
Of buyldynge up of chirches may ye finde
If it be good, in Thomas lif of Inde.’ (III, 1978-80)

He is referring to the apocryphal account of the travels of St Thomas of India (doubting Thomas, that is), and it’s clear that what he means is that the Acts of Thomas will confirm that building churches is a worthy activity. But that is the exact opposite of what the Acts of Thomas actually say. The story given in chapter 2 of that work is perfectly clear. St Thomas emigrated to India. There, as a carpenter, he offered to build a palace for King Gundaphorus. But after he got the money for the palace from the king, he spent all of it on the poor. When the king found out about this, he ‘rubbed his face with his hands, and shook his head for a long space’; but then he cheered up, deciding first to skin Thomas and then to burn him alive. However, fortunately for Thomas, the king’s brother had a vision in which he saw the palace which Thomas’s good deeds had created in heaven - in heaven, note, a purely immaterial palace - so King Gundaphorus realised the money was doing good after all and let Thomas off.16

So, what the friar said was true, in a way. You can find out whether it is a good thing or not to build churches in the life of St Thomas of India. It isn’t. You should use any money you have to give to the poor, and build palaces in heaven alone. But of course the churl Thomas, who cannot read, does not know that, and is expected to take the friar’s equivocal claim in the opposite sense. The friar, then, is only practising a slightly more subtle version of the trick played by Chantecleer. However, the joke really only unfolds, and in a direction which Chaucer cannot have intended, when one reads the note on this passage in the new Riverside Chaucer, our normal authoritative student edition. This still says - the note has not been revised from F.N. Robinson’s original from 40 years ago:

‘The usual story...suggests that the churches accredited to Thomas were congregations, not buildings...but the account in the South English Legendary...seems to indicate literal construction of the sort mentioned by Friar John.’17

The note, in fact, instead of exposing the friar’s impudent reversal of his authority, looks high and low for some text which will back him up, coming up with a doubtful case which is once again not actually quoted! I’m afraid my conclusion is that no-one has bothered to check the original text of the Acts of Thomas at all (which furthermore says nothing about congregations).18 So literates, like Friar John, can deceive illiterates by appealing to the authority of texts which they know the illiterates cannot read; but they can deceive literates too, by appealing to the habit of literacy, the assumption that if a text is cited, there must (somewhere) have been a text to correspond.

The incident makes me wonder further about the friar’s French and Latin. Does he really know any? After all, if you know the people you are talking to do not know any, a few phrases will create a marked effect. In the same way, if you are quite sure your references to texts will never be checked, then there is no need actually to have read them. The Pardoner has a trick, surely part of his professional patter, of telling people, ‘Looketh the Bible...In Hooly Writ ye may yourself wel rede’. But his audience can’t ‘look it up in the Bible’, or ‘read it in Holy Writ’ for themselves. Why not? Well, to borrow the cadences of Mr Snagsby in Bleak House: ‘Can’t read. No Latin. No Bible.’ But then, for all we know, the Pardoner might be in the same position. He operates orally, his bulls, whether phony or not, are authenticated above all by their seals, not their words. Maybe he is an illiterate too, pretending to be literate as he pretends to have power of absolution and the friar pretends to know French and Latin. In an illiterate context you do not need to be literate to claim the privileges of literacy, and in such a context those claiming literate authority can not only tyrannise over illiterates like Thomas the churl, but over literates like the friar’s and pardoner’s competitors - or, I’m afraid, like modern editors. It is not the literate person who holds power, it is not even the text (for texts can be planed off or simply invented), it is the threat of the text. And this can be wielded by illiterates against literates, as well as the other way round.

We ought to be able to see this even more clearly from ‘The Friar’s Tale’. This is also a tale about a literacy racket, and about the professional deformations which arise from the complex power-structures of literacy. It begins by introducing us to a summoner, who works as an agent for an Archdeacon’s Court, which has jurisdiction over members of the clergy, and over matrimonial and sexual offences. The summoner’s job is to deliver the summonses, but he has worked out a more profitable scheme. He runs a string of (in modern terms) call-girls, who report to him the names of their clients. Once he has these, he goes to the client, and says there is a summons out against him - but he, the summoner, can get him off. To give you Chaucer’s words instead of mine:

‘He hadde eek wenches at his retenue,
That, wheither that sir Robert or sir Huwe,
Or Jakke, or Rauf, or whoso that it were,
That lay by hem, they told it in his ere.
Thus was the wenche and he of oon assent,
And he wolde fecche a feyned mandement,
And somne hem to chapitre bothe two,
And pile the man, and lete the wenche go.
Then wolde he say, “Freend, I shal for thy sake
Do striken hire out of oure lettres blake;
Thee thar namoore as in this cas travaille.
I am thy freend, ther I thee may availle.” ’ (III, 1355-66)

The black letters, you notice, are themselves intrinsically ominous. Where are they written, and what do they have to be crossed out of? The answer is given a bit earlier, when we are told about the summoner’s boss, the strict archdeacon, who is very severe on lechers, and on people who pay short tithes:

‘For smale tithes and for smal offrynge
He made the peple pitously to synge,
For er the bisshop caught hem with his hook,
They weren in the erchedeknes book.
Thanne hadde he, thurgh his jurisdiccioun,
Power to doon on hem correccioun.’ (III, 1315-20)

Again, you notice, symbols are opposed: the bishop’s hook, or crook, is a sign of pastoral care, but the archdeacon’s book is the sign of unforgiving ecclesiastial control, power to flog or to fine. Especially frightened, one should also note, are other clerics. The ‘Sir Robert’ and ‘Sir Hugh’ of the call-girl racket are probably not knights, whom Chaucer does not call ‘Sir’ (a provincial habit) but straying parsons.19 At this point we need to think more carefully, and more sceptically, about how the summoner’s racket works.

There is no difficulty in understanding what he says. He says, to the straying parson, ‘You’re in the book. And here’s the summons. But don’t worry, I can get it crossed out. Give me the money, and I’ll see it never comes to trial’. And the parson, duly terrified, pays up. But we should ask ourselves whether any of this is true. Does the summoner in fact have a proper summons - no, we’re told he has a ‘feyned mandement’? Does that mean he has gone to the trouble of having something forged, like (perhaps) the Pardoner’s bulls? If so, it must severely reduce his profit margin, and involve someone else, for there is no sign that the summoner is himself a literate, at least at the level needed for counterfeiting documents. Janet Coleman, commenting on this, suggests (I’m sure correctly) that the summoner is a ‘pragmatic literate’, one who is able to recognise the nature of a document and perhaps some familiar phrases, but who cannot really read20 - exactly parallel to Chaucer’s image of the Summoner on the pilgrimage, who shouts out in Latin when he gets drunk (‘No wonder was, he herde it al the day’) but who does not know what any of it means. Furthermore, were Sir Robert and Sir Hugh ever in the archdeacon’s book? To be crossed out later? It seems very unlikely. We do indeed have some examples of archdeacons’ books, in the sense of records of the consistory courts, but though they are full of examples of abuse - including people pretending to be summoners sine aliqua auctoritate - there’s no sign of extensive crossings out.21 Nor would there be! Can you imagine the scene if the strict archdeacon were actually to pick up the book, and find people in it who had never in the end come to trial? Questions would be asked! Nor is it at all likely that a low-level functionary like the summoner would have access to the book. So, once again, either he has literate helpers on a much higher level than himself (in which case they would be running the racket), or else it’s all lies. I assume the latter. The Summoner says he has a summons, perhaps waving a document without letting the parson-malefactor read it, but he does not; he may have a blank which has not yet been filled in.22 And though he says to the offender, ‘you’re in the book, but I can get you crossed out’, the offender is not ‘in the book’ and never was, while it would be quite beyond the summoner’s power to get anyone crossed out of the book even if he wanted to.

So why does no-one call the summoner’s bluff? Evidently, from fear, not of the summoner, not even of the archdeacon, but of the archdeacon’s book. And this fear, note, is felt by literate clerics who are being blackmailed by at best a semi-literate. The racket that the friar works in ‘The Summoner’s Tale’ is based on the respect felt by illiterates for texts which do not exist, or do not say what he says they do. The racket the summoner works in ‘The Friar’s Tale’ is based on the fear felt by literates for texts which also do not exist, as entries in the book, and which in fact have never existed - though the ‘archedeacon’s book’ itself is real enough.

These symmetries of power have another effect, which lead me to wonder about Chaucer’s source for ‘The Friar’s Tale’, and indeed his whole way of working. I should say that the whole question of sources for ‘The Friar’s Tale’ is extremely muddled, and has been since Archer Taylor wrote his article on it for the standard volume of Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales.23 However, without trying to unravel all the confusions, one can learn something by comparing two of the ‘Friar’s Tale’ analogues, one by Caesarius of Heisterbach, and an anonymous one from Waldhausen.24 The Caesarius version is similar to Chaucer in the profession of the villain, who is an advocatus. This does not mean ‘lawyer’ (though people often translate advocatus that way), rather, a bishop’s secular agent and hatchet-man - like a summoner, in a way, but on a higher level.25 This version is dissimilar to Chaucer’s, however, in being quite sensible. Once the advocatus realises he is travelling with a devil, he is appropriately frightened, and tries to get off by providing substitute victims, without success. One might note, though, the phrase used by the devil as he rejects a substitute, ‘talis est consuetudo hominibus loquendi’, ‘that’s (just) the way people talk’.

The Waldhausen version is much more like Chaucer, in that the villain, though here only a rusticus, does not recognise the devil, who instead has to tell him, ‘ego sum demon’; and then the rusticus, just like the summoner in Chaucer’s tale, is not frightened, only curious. His first words in reply to ‘ego sum demon’ are, ‘O maledicte, quid tu vis facere in foro?’ ‘O accursed one, what are you going to do in the market?’ Why is the rusticus so implausibly unfrightened? It is as if Chaucer, reading some version like this one, had asked himself that very question, and provided an answer, which is ‘professional deformation’. The scene in which the devil reveals himself to Chaucer’s summoner is very like the Waldhausen one - with one critical difference. When the summoner asks his travelling companion what is his job, the devil smiles and says:

‘Brother,’ quod he, ‘wiltow that I thee telle?
I am a feend; my dwelling is in helle.’ (III, 1447-8)

The summoner is startled, but that’s all:

‘A!’ quod this somonour, ‘benedicite! What say ye?
I wende ye were a yeman trewely.’ (III, 1456-7)

Ego sum demon’ becomes ‘I am a feend’. But maledicte becomes benedicite, vocative noun becomes imperative verb. Now benedicite, ‘bless me’, might well be a proper response to the appearance of a devil, like making the sign of the cross, but in the idiolect of the summoner it has become just an explanation of surprise, now devoid of meaning: ‘talis est consuetudo hominibus loquendi’, that’s just the way people talk.

That’s the way the summoner talks, because he is an atheist. He has been made into one by his job. On one level summoners are exposed all the time to Latin, which they can then parrot - but they never know what the Latin means, and assume that it is just something that clerics say, as meaningless to the clerics as it is to them. On another level they are exposed to documents all the time, which they use but cannot read: they come to assume that they too are just emblems of power, whose sense is entirely on the outside, where the seals are. On a third level they are exposed all the time to the language of religion. And they come to assume that this too means nothing, is just another elaborately-constructed racket.

That is the central irony of ‘The Friar’s Tale’. The devil always tells the literal truth, tells the summoner exactly what he is, warns him of his danger and gives him every chance to repent. The summoner does not respond because he simply does not know what the words mean. When the devil says ‘I am a feend’, the summoner takes no real notice because that is the kind of thing he habitually says himself, ‘I am thy freend’. He does not mean it when he says that kind of thing, why should anyone else? The summoner says ‘feith’ some six times, but he has none. To him, ‘by my feith’, par ma fee, is just a mild but essentially meaningless swear-word. He uses the word ‘trouthe’ just as often, and it does have a serious meaning for him, but this is not ‘truth’, but ‘troth’: and to him ‘troth’ is the sign of an oral contract, which like most people in The Canterbury Tales the summoner regards as sacred. It is because he has given his ‘troth’, his word, to the devil that he will not go back on it. Giving your word, you might say, is much more important to people like this than signing your name would be - the latter would be just part of a racket, the former is serious. Finally the word ‘entente’ is used eight times in the ‘Tale’, and is central to it. It can mean ‘meaning’ - when the devil says, of the swearing carter, ‘It is nat his entente’, he means ‘he doesn’t mean it’. But it can also mean ‘intention’ - when the summoner tells the old woman at the end that he will not let her off his feigned summons, he says ‘that is nat myn entente’; and by this he does not mean ‘I don’t mean it’, he means ‘I have no intention of doing that’. And that in the end is why he is carried off to hell. He does not know when people mean what they say; he does not in fact know what meaning is; he does not know the meaning of the words he uses; he does not know they have a meaning. And all this is caused by his job, in which he is surrounded by meaningless words, in a meaningless language, supported by meaningless documents, in all of which and on all of which he trades.

It should be clear that these images of literacy, and illiteracy, and pragmatic literacy, in The Canterbury Tales provide an unexpectedly nuanced account of what was going on in the medieval world. One might have thought that there would be a simple literary and linguistic hierarchy, with fully literate Latin- and French-using bishops and judges at the top, working its way down through parsons and knights and reeves and sergeants, who could all read a bit, or read English anyway, till you got to the mob of rustici at the bottom, who couldn’t read at all. But the way Chaucer tells it, there are all sorts of back-eddies and counter-currents, so that literates may be at the mercy of illiterates, if the latter have the power or threat of a document behind them; and literates may use illiterates to present or deliver, or just sell documents which have been prepared for them. The phrase I would use to summarise this is that we are looking at a world of ‘degraded authority’, a phrase which I use in the same sense as when one speaks of ‘degraded information’. If information passes through too many stages of translation, bits of it are lost, and eventually a message becomes garbled. The same is true of authority. A major accusation against documents in Chaucerian culture is that they transmit authority. Transmitting authority is all right in itself - no-one has any trouble with legates speaking for the Pope, or the Pope as vicarius Christi, or with parsons appearing as vicars, or with judges as representatives of the Crown. The trouble with documents, however, is that unlike human proxies, or instructions backed up by a personal token like a ring, they are impersonal.27 They claim the respect due to their issuers; but most people cannot tell whether they deserve that respect.

And there is another problem, which is simply that the fourteenth-century world had not yet developed fully adequate strategies for authentication. We all know, now, to read the small print; not to sign something till you’ve read it; to look closely at someone’s identity card if they say they’re a policeman, or a representative of a charity; and above all, always to get a receipt. These strategies are clearly missing for many of Chaucer’s characters. Although modern scholars have not felt the matter worth remarking, Chaucer’s ‘Shipman’s Tale’, in its deviations from all other versions of the story, turns on the absence of either a witness to money being handed over or a pledge put down to authenticate and personalise a transaction.28 Also relevant is the scene at the end of ‘The Friar’s Tale’, when the summoner, showing the devil how to operate, calls on an old lady and tells her she’s summonsed:

‘Tomorn before the erchedeknes knee
T’answere to the court of certeyn thynges.’ (III, 1588-9)

She says:

‘May I nat axe a libel, sire somonour,
And answere ther by my procuratour,
To swich thyng as men wole opposen me?’ (III, 1595-7)

She wants, in other words, a written charge. ‘Yis’, says the summoner - and then he doesn’t give her one, because of course he doesn’t have one: he operates entirely orally. No-one would fall for this kind of thing any more. We have become too sophisticated in the handling of written documents (though I should add that gullibility, and the problems once associated with the arrival of literacy, have just moved sideways into the sphere of electronics. You don’t know who you’re talking to, or flirting with, on the Internet, and email conversations have developed some of the problems once felt to be associated with the use of letters). But until protocols of care, and methods of checking and authenticating documents, had become widespread, literacy was, for many, unsupervised territory. And that was the breeding ground for bibliophobia.

Tomorrow I will continue this theme, looking at some slightly more difficult cases, and trying to set the theme in a broader chronological context.

Part two: Poems from Harley MS 2253

Yesterday I discussed the way in which documents are presented to us in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and pointed out that in spite of Chaucer’s own evident personal bookishness and bibliophilia, the image of documents which we actually encounter in the Canterbury Tales is overwhelmingly negative. I suggested further that Chaucer gives us several clear examples of what I call ‘literacy rackets’, which literate scholars of the present day have been unable or unwilling to recognise. I now mean to go on by pointing to further examples of the same kind of negative presentation, of literacy seen from the outside by disempowered and vulnerable illiterates, in other Middle English poems, and in particular in two poems from Harley MS 2253, conventionally titled ‘The Song of the Husbandman’ and ‘A Satire on the Consistory Courts’. Before I begin that exercise, however, I would like to set what I have to say in some slight context, both chronological and ideological.

One can for instance do with the Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records29 what I did with the Concordance to the Riverside Chaucer: look up in both all references to words like ‘book’, ‘writ’, and ‘write’. The corpora are of similar size; but the results are very different. The words boc and (ge)writ, in their various morphological forms, occur some 77 times in Old English poetry, not counting compounds, but in a very limited range of contexts. The most common use is simply to declare books and writings as the poet’s authority, with some variation on ‘as books tell us’. Books are repeatedly indicated as ‘holy’ or ‘Christian’. There is almost no indication of books or writing in a secular context, and almost no indication of either seen negatively. We do find the ominous phrase ‘black letters’ once, baswe bocstafas, but they are the letters written on the wall by an invisible hand to prophesy the fall of Belshazzar (Daniel, line 723). By far the most interesting and individual references to books occur in the two verse dialogues of Solomon and Saturn (still the most neglected works in the poetic corpus). In the second of these the two disputants, Solomon and Saturn, put aside their differences to engage in an antiphon of praise for books. Solomon asks, ‘What is the dumb creature that lies in a valley? It is extremely wise, it has seven tongues, each tongue has twenty tips, each tip has the wisdom of an angel (etc.)’ Saturn has no trouble answering the riddle, ‘It is books which are glorious...they cheer the heart of every man to rise from the pains which afflict one’s mind in this life’. Each speaker goes on with one further statement in praise of books - ‘anyone who knows how to use them will always be the wiser for it’ - before they continue with their contest of almost entirely oral and traditional wisdom.30 Even this close to immoderate veneration for book-learning is however outdone in the first dialogue, in which I can only say at this point that books, and in particular the Pater Noster seen as a written document, are ‘fetishised’.31 Every individual letter of the Pater Noster is a powerful charm on its own; they are a protection, among much else, against the bealwe bocstafas, the ‘baleful letters’, of the powers of evil, which may fall paralysingly on any man who draws sword without them. The use of documents as charms continued as a superstition into the later Middle Ages and into the present day,32 but in the Solomon and Saturn dialogue this is not a superstition of the uneducated but the belief of the literate.

One might sum up by saying, with inordinate brevity, that in Anglo-Saxon times scepticism about books and literate technology had not yet dawned. They are still seen as they are in the two positive uses which I noted in the Canterbury Tales, as authenticators of faith. King Alfred strikingly and familiarly associates writing with wisdom and with wealth in his ‘Preface to the Pastoral Care’. One may recall his oddly naive statement that translation into English is justified on the model of the Romans, who translated the Bible into Latin, ‘and all other books as well’.33 A century later the highly literate Ælfric was aware that some books were heretical and misleading - he picked out, indeed, the life of Saint Thomas which was so improperly used by Friar John in Chaucer’s ‘Summoner’s Tale’ - but it is also clear that his skepticism was not shared: that was what made such books so dangerous.34

Of course, the situation changed. Some have thought that the traumatic event for Anglo-Saxon culture was not just the Norman Conquest, but the ‘Domesday Book’ which followed it, and which associated alien invasion, occupation and dispossession with literate technology in grossly coercive form;35 though doubtless literate technology would in the end have taken much the same path if wielded by natives as by foreigners. Be that as it may, negative attitudes to writing begin to appear after the Conquest. Two interesting and apparently real-life situations are cited by Michael Clanchy: in 1101 a dispute broke out between Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry I, in which the ecclesiastical party relied on a papal letter, the royal party on a verbal message confirmed by the word of three bishops. The king’s supporters eventually said contemptuously that they preferred to rely on the bishops than on ‘the skins of wethers blackened with ink and weighed with a little lump of lead’.36 In similar style the Earl of Warenne is said, when asked in the thirteenth century to show title to his lands, to have produced an old and rusty sword, a relic of the Conquest, and said, ‘This is my warrant!’ The story has been found unacceptable in detail, but Clanchy defends it as at bottom credible.37 Both stories describe a doomed attampt to ‘turn the clock back’, to re-assert oral or symbolic primacy over documentation.

A less realistic example, which nevertheless shows writing as an essentially hostile art, is the story of ‘The Devil in Church’, the devil who is seen writing down all the sins of inattentiveness committed by idle churchgoers, clearly to be produced against them on Judgement Day: this is one of the insertions made into his base text by Robert Mannyng in his thirteenth-century Handlyng Synne.38 An earlier and even more ominous example of the same fear can be seen in the twelfth-century Sawles Warde, where Prudence asks Fear about Death’s entourage, and Fear replies:

‘Of hire hird þet tu easkest, Ich þe ondswerie: ha lihteð hwer sa ha eauer kimeð wið a þusent deoflen, ant euchan bereð a gret boc al of sunnen iwriten wið swarte smeale leattres, ant an unrude raketehe gledread of fure, forte binden ant to drahen into inwarde helle hwuch se he mei preouin þurh his boc, þet is on euch sunne enbreuet þet he wið wil oþer wið word oðer wið werc wrahtte in al his lif-siþe, bute þet he haueð ibet earþon wið soð schrift ant wið deadbote.’

[‘Of her household that you ask about, I answer you: she appears wherever she comes with a thousand devils, and each one carries a great book all of sins written in little black letters, and a huge chain red-hot from the fire, to bind and to drag into the depths of hell whoever she can convict through his book, which is inscribed with every sin that he ever committed in all his life, in thought, word or deed, unless he has previously compensated for it through true confession and penance.’]39

The ‘great book all of sins written in little black letters’: this is a good image of why literacy is terrifying. A big book full of little letters - books contain prodigious anounts of information. And black letters too - there is something ominous about the colour, and the permanency, of ink. One might note retrospectively that Chaucer’s lying summoner was relying on something like this fear when he offered to have the straying parson’s sexual sins struck out of ‘oure lettres blake’ - our black letters, note, for these books of sin are always in someone else’s possession, and to them sinners have no access. The idea of the liber vitae, the ‘book of life’, had long been familiar from Apocalypse 20:12, and from monastic practice. But it seems to have generated by opposition an even more powerful sense of a liber mortis, a book of death.

This fear of ‘black letters’ remains strongly alien to literates, and especially to literate scholars, whose power derives from them. To them - perhaps I should say, to us - the idea that a book is just a set of black marks on paper seems ridiculous, less than literal. To us a book is what it says, or what it conveys, something that notoriously may be different at each re-reading, something almost spiritual, and with a spirituality very much detached from the mere cheap mass-produced unchanging physical object itself. To the person who has not mastered literate technology, however, both the object and its mysterious technology may seem very much more worthy of respect, even awe. To quote Geoffrey Shepherd on the subject, referring to the Book itself, the Bible, and taking us back to Anglo-Saxon attitudes:

‘familiarity with the text was not the measure of the importance of the Bible in Anglo-saxon life. Power radiated from it in all directions. Physically any copy of the book would be mysterious as well as precious: to the illiterate full of wonder-working black marks; to the literate esoterically meaningful and theurgic; by all men recognised as having some connection with the ultimate forces and forms of creation.

‘It had then something of the impersonal authority that we attach to a legal document.’40

But there is something ominous in Shepherd’s last qualification; and it is to this area that I now turn.

The two poems I mean primarily to discuss today, ‘The Song of the Husbandman’ and ‘A Satire on the Consistory Courts’, come from Harley MS 2253, a large macaronic manuscript in English, French and Latin, written in the handwriting of a Ludlow scribe identifiable in many other documents, mostly legal ones, and dating from about 1347.41 It is familiar to literary scholars mostly because it contains a substantial corpus of English lyrics of quite unusual skill, beauty, and interest. Today’s two poems, however, remain curiously ‘underprivileged’. When in 1948 Professor G.L. Brook brought out his standard and influential edition of The Harley Lyrics, he decided on presumably generic grounds that these two poems (similar though they are metrically and poetically to the others) were not ‘lyrics’, and accordingly left them out: I can only suppose that he thought they were too serious to be lyrical.42 Ever since they have remained outside the unexpressed ‘canon’ of ‘English literature’, a state which has persisted even after we are told that the canon has been abolished.43 I think it is fair to say that they have received no attention at all as poems, though they have as historical documents.

I am of course going to take them now as historical documents, but I hope I may just allude to their nature as poems. Taking ‘The Song of the Husbandman’ first, it is a poem of 72 lines, divided into six 12-line stanzas, each twelve lines being further sub-divided into an eight and a four. In every case but one the first line of the 4-line unit echoes the last line of the preceding 8-line unit in sound (usually) or in sense (once, lines 32-3). Similarly, in every case but one (lines 36-7) each stanza opening echoes the preceding stanza conclusion. The echoes are usually marked, however, by inverted word-order, so:

‘nede in swot & in swynk swynde mot swo.
Nede he mot swynde, þah he hade swore...’ (20-21)44

or:

‘þat ich alle zer spare, þenne y mot spene.
Nede y mot spene þat y spared zore...’ (48-9)

The stanzas meanwhile rhyme abababab cdcd, and as can be seen from the lines above, also alliterate heavily if not quite according to the rules of non-rhyming alliterative poetry. They show the marked parallelism of alliterative poetry, as for instance in lines 15-17:

‘þe hayward heteþ vs harm to habben of his;
þe bailif bockneþ vs bale & weneþ wel do;
þe wodeward waiteþ vs wo, þat lokeþ vnder rys,’

though one should note that while the first five words in each line are strongly paralleled, the second half of the line is always grammatically varied. The poem also uses heavily the device of ‘pararhyme’, the ‘tit for tat’ or ‘love you and leave you’ construction, as in line 22:

‘Nede he mot swynde, þah he hade swore,
þat naþ nout en hod his hed forte hude’ (21-2).

As said above, syntactic reversal is frequent (and has proved puzzling for scholars used to the simpler device of parallelism); echoing is common inside as well as across stanzas; the poem is strongly end-stopped, and accordingly strongly verbal, almost every line containing one or more complete clauses (the only exceptions are 30, 42, and 69); it repeatedly uses the device of ‘causal parataxis’, by which lines follow each other in cause-and-effect relationship which is however not stated syntactically. In brief, I would say that the impression it makes is one of extraordinary speed, skill, and driving energy.

We must however ask, ‘what is it saying, or trying to say?’ And this has proved hard to recapture, I believe for the kind of reason I have been trying to indicate. That it is trying to say something rational, and even something complex, is suggested by the fact that almost the commonest word in the poem is ‘Thus’, used ten times, and nine times out of ten to open a line: the poem is describing a process, not just a situation. But this, and the particular nature of the process, have been obscured by modern prior expectations. The poem was (thus) given the title ‘The Song of the Husbandman’ by its first editor, Thomas Wright. Quite what Wright meant by ‘husbandman’ I do not know. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word means above all ‘A man who tills or cultivates the soil; a farmer’, which is both general and appropriate enough. More particularly, though, it may mean the rank immediately below a yeoman, a holder of two oxgangs (i.e., cutting the OED’s definitions short, some 20 to 36 acres). The standard modern edition, that of R.H. Robbins, accepts the title and the term ‘husbandman’ withut comment; but a more recent editor, Thorlac Turville-Petre, decided to rename it ‘The Evils of Taxation’.46 These changes and uncertainties do at least raise the questions: ‘what is the social status of the imagined complainer, and what is the central point of his complaint?’

Taking the first question first, I would argue that on internal evidence alone, the complainer does not seem to be imagined as especially poor, or rather as especially without resources. He is the head of a family, for a start, for he has ‘many dependants’ (‘monie hynen’, line 14). He claims to have little (line 13), he expresses sympathy with ‘the poor’ (lines 19, 24), and says people are reduced to wearing rags (line 36), but his point in that last line is precisely that this is what people have been reduced to: ‘He who once wore robes, now wears rags’ (my emphases).47 When it comes to raising money, it is surprising quite how much the complainant has in the way of convertible resources. He has roast hens for sale (line 41), lamprey and salmon (line 42), a set of tools (line 44), corn which he is able to sell in advance (line 46), and a mare to ride (line 54). He is rich enough to have to keep accounts (line 62), is a landowner (line 64), and an owner of domestic animals (line 65). In line 66 he talks about ‘my wealth’, though admittedly it is wealth which has gone, ‘When I think of my wealth I almost weep’. Actually, if the complainant were a ‘poor peasant’, much of the point of the poem would vanish. What it keeps on saying, with great insistence, is that the complainant would be perfectly prosperous if only he were left alone. And what is bringing him down does not affect the poor alone, but everyone in his society. Lines 25-6 run:

‘Þus me pileþ þe pore and pykeþ ful clene,
þe ryche me raymeþ wiþ-outen eny ryht.’

Thomas Wright translated these lines as ‘Thus they rob the poor and pick him full clean,- the rich lord it without any right’,48 but he was led astray here by the poem’s habit of syntactic reversal, mentioned above, and perhaps by his own assumptions about class hostility. Really the lines mean, ‘So they rob the poor and pick them quite clean, (and) they rob the rich without any right’. Everyone is being victimised, in other words, as it says in line 30, one of the three verbless lines, ‘baroun & bond, þe clerk & þe knyht’. The poem ends with clear statements that something new is being created, something that was not part of normal subsistence-farming hardship: ‘So many bold beggars are bred’ (line 67), ‘There wakens in the world hardship and woe’ (line 71), my emphases again.

I would sum the poem’s complaint up so far by saying, with only apparent paradox, that the complainant is not exactly poor - he seems indeed potentially quite well-off, definitely higher up the social ladder than a labourer or a cottager. It is just that he has no money. And a further point which the poem insists on, and which is relatively unusual, is that all the extortion being complained of does no-one any good, not even, in the long term, the extortionists. In order to get money, ready cash, the complainer has to sell his farm-tools, sell his crop in advance (no doubt at very disadvantageous rates), and sell his mare. But worse than that, he has to sell even his seed-corn. Lines 63-6 go:

‘to seche seluer to þe kyng y mi seed solde,
forþi mi lond leyeþ liþ and lerneþ to slepe.
Seþþe hi mi faire feh fatte y my folde,
when y þenk o mi weole wel neh y wepe.’

[I sold my seed to get silver for the king, so my land lies fallow and learns to sleep. Since they took my fine cattle out of my fold, when I think of my wealth I almost weep.]

Once a farmer has lost his seed, and his animals, his land is useless and unproductive, and he can never pay taxes again. The central point of the poem, I repeat, using deliberately anachronistic language, is not that extortion is morally wrong, but that it is counter-productive.

Turville-Petre’s title, ‘The Evils of Taxation’, might then seem a highly suitable one, and one which avoids the social condescension of ‘Song of the Husbandman’, but I think there is another point one needs to consider, which is what exactly these evils are: what is the racket? At the heart of this, and of the poem, are the complaints of lines 37-44. The poem has complained bitterly about manorial officials, haywards and woodwards and bailiffs, but it reserves the deepest dislike for royal officials, beadles carrying documents authenticated with the green wax seals of the Royal Exchequer:

‘zet comeþ budeles, wiþ ful much bost:
“greyþe me seluer to þe grene wax:
þou art writen y my writ, þat þou wel wost!”
mo þen ten siþen told y my tax.’ (37-40)

[And still beadles come, with great parade: ‘Get me silver for the green wax: you are listed in my writ, you know that well!’ I paid my tax more than 10 times.]

One needs to ask what is going on here. Certainly the beadles are collecting the king’s taxes, the ninths, tenths and fifteenths on property granted from time to time as a special measure by Parliament. But what do lines 39 and 40 mean? Even a realist like Michael Clanchy has accepted the words at face value, commenting that:

‘[the Song] depicts the beadles collecting taxes from the peasants, ‘the men on the earth’...by the authority of an Exchequer writ. The beadles say, ‘You are written in my writ, as you know very well’...The beadles may not have been exaggerating...In theory at least, Edward I’s government thus had access to lists of every place of habitation, however small, and every man, however lowly his status.’49

‘The Friar’s Tale’ and ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue’ should have taught us, however, to beware of men waving documents in the face of people who cannot read. All the ‘husbandman’ sees, obviously, is a seal. The beadles do not even offer to show him the document. And it seems to me very likely that line 39 should be taken as the usual impudent assertion of the literate facing the illiterate. ‘You know very well you’re written in my writ.’ But of course the illiterate does not know that; he just knows he cannot, or dare not, dispute it, just like Chaucer’s straying parsons faced with the threat (but not the reality) of ‘the archdeacon’s book’. As for line 40, what this seems to me very strongly to suggest is that the real complaint is that, having paid his tax once, the complainant is forced to pay it again and again because he has no written or acceptable receipt.50 It all ends up, just as in ‘The Friar’s Tale’, with the threatened party bribing the document bearer to go away.51 Even the threats are much the same. Chaucer’s summoner threatened to take the old widow’s pan if she did not pay him 12 pence, the master-beadle more ambitiously threatens to take all the ‘husbandman’s’ furniture of he does not pay ‘a mark or more’. It is not just taxation, then, that it is evil. It is repeated taxation; taxation with no receipts and (possibly - illiterates cannot tell) no warrant; and official taxation shading into unofficial extortion. The core of this poem’s highly specific and economically rational complaints, I would suggest, is a sense of the complete powerlessness of the illiterate in the face of a document, and the corresponding complete irresponsibility of the document-bearers (who, once again, do not even need to demonstrate their literacy). Black letters, indeed.

Cutting matters short, I will say only that it seems to me that this view is broadly confirmed by ‘A Satire on the Consistory Court’. Its five stanzas, and 90 lines - the metrical scheme is even more complex than with the last poem - describe a case of fornication brought before an ecclesiastical court, like the archdeacon’s court in Chaucer. It is not clear who presides over this one, bishop or archdeacon; whoever it is is described angrily as ‘an old cherl in a blake hure’ (line 19). The middle three stanzas give a detailed, hostile, but largely uncomprehending picture of what such a court looks like to a man who is up in front of it: presiding bishop (?), a fellow in hanging sleeves (what is his function? ), a clutch of summoners (they are readily recognised), a beadle in yellow with a staff to present the charges, but worst of all, more than 40 scribes (like the devil in the church) busily writing everything down. The poem gives a vivid picture of what writing looks like, and sounds like, to those who cannot do it:

‘heo pynkes wiþ heore penne on heore parchemyn,
ant sayen y am breued ant y-broht yn,
of al my weole wlonke.’ (25-7)

What is ‘pinking’? I would suggest, ‘scritching’. ‘They scritch with their pens on their parchment, and (then, mysteriously, no-one knows how) they say I am liable and indebted to (the sum of) all my fine possessions.’ Hostility to the clergy, and to literacy, runs all through the poem. The complainant equates and rhymes ‘writing’ with ‘back-biting’ in lines 33-4; the charge against him is made in writing in line 51, but here he rhymes ‘book (i.e. document)’, with ‘hook’ - it is the hook these liars will hang on in hell for their sins.

If they are liars, that is. The charge on which the narrator is brought up is one of fornication (Chaucer says of his archdeacon, ‘But certes lecchours dide he grettest wo’). R.H. Robbins summarises as follows:

‘The poor peasant relates his appearance before a consistory court on charges of immorality. After his graphic desription of the judges and his accuser, the sompnours and the beadle, he rails at the verdict which requires he marry the woman involved.’52

This seems to me as usual to beg a number of questions. In the first place, just as in the ‘Husbandman poem’, the complainant does not give the impression of being a ‘poor peasant’. Actually, he seems to think rather highly of himself. He associates himself with a ‘hyrt’, a court - presumably a baronial court, for it can hardly be a royal one (line 2, and again line 40).53 He bitterly resents the fact not only that he has to pay a bribe, but that he has to thank them all for taking it, master and men as well (lines 30-32) - they make him grovel. He resents their ‘privilege’ (line 47); he calls them ‘thralls’, black and sweaty (lines 51-2); he has to fall at their feet, to grovel literally (lines 48-9, and again line 59). And what really annoys him is that he has to grovel before people he despises as ‘fayly’, bankrupts, nobodies. What makes him do it is fear of shame. The threat the court has is public flogging, to be whipped ‘like a dog’ round the church and round the market-place, ‘to care of al my kynne’, to the sorrow of all my family (lines 64-6).54 Rather than do this, he accepts ‘disparagement’: the court makes him marry his sex-partner, which he clearly resents as a lowering of social class. Perfectly consistent in all this is not injured innocence - the poem-narrator never says he didn’t do it - but a feeling that true social standing is not being recognised, that traditional rankings are being overturned, that (just as in ‘The Physician’s Tale’) oral defences and oral explanations simply carry no weight in the world of jumped-up clerics and scritching scribes.

I am sure there might be another side to this - clerics as the protectors of the weak and of gender rights, perhaps, though celibate clerics are not famous in the Middle Ages for their protection of women. The way the poem puts it, though, is first that customary practice has been put aside, ‘y ne mot me lede þer wiþ mi lawe’, ‘I cannot conduct myself according to my own law’ (whatever that may be, line 10);55 second, that what has put it aside is ‘bokes vn-brad’, the narrow books of court records; and third that the literates now have it all their own way, ‘heore is þis worldes wynne’, ‘theirs is this world’s joy’ (line 60). The first line of the poem could be taken different ways. It runs, ‘Ne mai no lewed lued libben in londe’, and (especially in the context of a case of fornication) one could dispute the meaning of the word ‘lewd’. However in this case I think it is quite clear that the word has no trace of its later meaning, and what the poem means to say is, ‘life in this country has become intolerable for illiterates’ - ‘so lerede vs biledes’(line 3), ‘we are so dominated by the literate’.56

A question one has to raise at this point is, ‘what kind of man can have written the poems I have been discussing?’ They have survived in writing, obviously; furthermore their complex metrics suggest that they were always literary productions, with no question of oral circulation or ‘oral residue’. Yet if I am right, they take the part of the ‘lewd’ against the ‘learned’, the illiterate against the literate. An obvious point is that sympathies can extend outside one’s own class and against one’s own interests. Chaucer the bookworm was aware of ‘literacy rackets’, for instance, though his sympathies do not seem to be as engaged on the part of the illiterate as is the case in the Harley poems. J.R. Maddicott, the historian who has paid most attention to ‘political poems’, suggests that they were written by clerics, ‘possibly friars, possibly university masters, possibly the educated parish clergy’.57 Thanks to the researches of Carter Revard, we can be quite sure that the Harley MS itself was copied (which does not mean that these poems were written) by a Ludlow cleric, who may at one point have been in the familia of Bishop Adam de Orleton58 - just the kind of person who would have been the right side of the table in consistory court. But at any rate we have a place, Ludlow in Shropshire, and a date, 1347: neither of them very far from what we now know about the origins of William Langland. Recent research has indicated that Langland’s native dialect can be identified as that of a small area of south-west Worcestershire, about 25 miles from Ludlow,59 while the A-text of Piers Plowman is still given a traditional date of around 1360. How does Langland fit into the kind of picture I have been drawing?

There is of course no doubt about Langland’s literacy. Nevertheless Langland seems to have been at least a different kind of literate from Chaucer. Where Chaucer, for instance, shows concern about the accurate transmission of his text, Langland appears almost criminally negligent. Not only did he rewrite the same work continually, as if he did not accept the notion of a fixed and final text, if we are to believe his greatest editor, Professor Kane, he did not even keep accurate copies of his working text, and when he came to revise it used an inaccurate copy, perhaps without noticing and certainly without.60 All this suggests at least a relaxed attitude to ‘the book’, which never reaches final form, and (a little like an oral-formulaic epic) is continually being re-composed. Meanwhile the most famous and disputed scene in Piers Plowman, the ‘Tearing of the Pardon’ in B VII, does seem to be illuminated by awareness of a dispersed ‘bibliophobia’ in fourteenth-century England, as well as its official bibliophilia.

What happens is this. After Piers has organised the pilgrims into plowing the half-acre, which was originally only going to occupy them till they set out on their pilgrimage to Truth, but which has insensibly turned into a lifelong delay, Piers is delighted to receive a pardon from Truth, which implies that their plowing - life in the world - is legitimate, and an acceptable substitute for spiritual pilgrimage. Piers has possession of the document. But can he read it? And could he understand whatever language it is in, if he could? It seems not, for a priest, a professional literate and presumably Latinist, invites him, or rather orders him to hand it over:

‘Piers’, quod a presst þoo, ‘þi pardoun moste I rede,
For I [shal] construe ech clause and kenne it þee on englissh’ (B VII 107-8)

Piers hands the precious document over, but the priest then says it is no pardon, but only a statement that justice will be done. Piers, in rage (with the priest? with the Pardon? with his own impotence?) tears the document up and swears that he will plow no more. Opinions about this have been extremely varied, and never completely convincing. To quote Geoffrey Shepherd once again:

‘Wise and ingenious men have written about this scene and given learned and ingenious interpretations. What remains surprising is that the scene should require so much ingenuity to give it meaning. All readers realise, with some dumb literary instinct perhaps, that they have reached a climax at this point of the poem...The reader is surely right in feeling that the scene is relevant to the meaning of the poem. And yet the relevance is never made explicit.’61

Now, I have no better solution to the overall problems of the allegory than the ‘wise and ingenious’ scholars of the past, but I would like to say this. It is surely clear by now that a wish to tear documents up, a fear of them which was mingled with unwilling respect, and with strong dislike of those who claimed the monopoly of interpreting them, must have been widespread among the lower classes of Edwardian and Ricardian England.

And possibly not just the lower classes. I have used the phrase ‘the political unconscious’ twice already in these lectures, and indeed it is quite widely diagnosed.62 However, as I have again said before, the academic profession has its areas of ‘political unconsciousness’ too. Members of a literate and literary bourgeoisie, with strongly liberal tendencies (usually not extending as far as any personal inconvenience), academics are very ready to point the finger at the upper classes, protest their sympathy with the lower classes, and look benignly on the rise of the middle classes (us, professional literates, the bourgeoisie). What is not particularly welcome is any suggestion that the bourgeoisie, rather than the seigneurie, has been the source of the worst and most resented oppression.63 But that is what one might conclude from poems like ‘The Song of the Husbandman’, which pointedly includes barons and knights among those victimised by officialdom, and ‘A Satire on the Consistory Courts’, where the victim at least thinks he is of higher social status than his persecutors. In the ‘Second Letter of John Ball’, a work whose connection with Piers Plowman is now more readily accepted than it was64 - though it is still insisted upon that John Ball must have read Piers Plowman very carelessly65 - ‘Iohan schep’ greets his accomplices John Nameless and John Miller and John Carter, and bids them ‘þei bee war of gyle in borugh, and stondeth to-gidere in godes name, and biddeþ Pers plouzman go to his werk’.66 Guile in borough; urban trickery; bourgeois deception; literate pettifogging - everything that is the antithesis of truth, plain dealing, your word is your bond, bargains on a handshake. I have suggested elsewhere how strange it is that a whole class (the medieval yeomanry) can have been blotted out of literature, as politically inconvenient.67 And I am suggesting here that a real antipathy, of illiterates for professional literates, the ‘lewd’ for the ‘learned’, has been buried under the less personally challenging model of antipathy between the lower and the upper, the rich and the poor. It requires, as I have said, something of a leap of the imagination for modern literates to grasp this, without any personal involvement with ‘literacy rackets’, and no experience at all of how it feels to be an illiterate in a world where authority increasingly comes from incomprehensible documents. However, if the leap could be made by Chaucer, and by the unknown poets and only half-known scribe of Harley MS 2253, I think we should at least make the effort. If we cannot sympathise entirely with the 1381 cry of Margery Starre, burning books in the marketplace at Cambridge, ‘Away with the learning of clerks, away with it!’,68 we might be able to feel more for the manifesto of Dick Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II (IV ii): ‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’. Jack Cade replies - but he is saying no more than many more respectable predecessors had done:

‘Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man? Some say, the bee stings: but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax.

‘Green wax and scritching scribes: it is when “the book” turns into “the law” that “black letters” turn threatening.’

Notes and references

1 Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. (Second edition, Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1993) p.7.

2 Walter J. Ong, S.J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (London and New York: Methuen, 1982) p.77.

3 Some medieval English poets of course were London bureaucrats, such as Chaucer, Thomas Hoccleve, and perhaps the author of Mum and the Sothsegger. I note however the growing insistence that authors like the Gawain-poet, despite his marked dialect and apparent use of local Staffordshire place-names, must have been writing for a London audience, as for instance, if temperately, by Ad Putter, An Introduction to the Gawain-Poet (London and New York: Longman, 1996), pp.23-37; while the plainest statements of hostility to the metropolis and apparently to literacy (as in Winner and Waster) are written off as ‘thoroughly fictive...palpably fictive’, see Ralph Hanna, ‘Alliterative Poetry’, in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.488-512 (pp.502-3).

4 See Jesse M. Goolrich, The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages: Language, Theory, Mythology and Fiction. (Ichaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985) and Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c.1100-c.1375, eds A.J. Minnis and A.B. Scott, with the assistance of David Wallace (Oxford and New York: Oxford Universiy Press, 1988). Such topics are of course perfectly proper and relevant, but they stress the continuity from medieval to modern literacy; they have no interest in the book as object, or from the point of view of the excluded/illiterate.

5 H.J. Chaytor From Script to Print: An Introduction to Medieval Vernacular Literature. (Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1945) p.16.

6 All quotations from Chaucer are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (third edition, London: Oxford University Press; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

7 The point about Arabic numerals was made by my colleague at Saint Louis University, Paul Acker, in ‘The Emergence of an Arithmetical Mentality in Middle English Literature’, Chaucer Review 28 (1993-4) 293-302. For my argument about numerology, see ‘Chaucer’s Arithmetical Mentality and The Book of the Duchess’, Chaucer Review 31 (1996-7) 184-200.

8 See A Glossarial Concordance to the Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Two volumes, New York and London: Garland, 1993).

9 The Concordance shows that books are mentioned three times in ‘The Knight’s Tale’, always as authority for what is said, but I do not think that the characters of Chaucer’s tellers are always faithfully reflected in their tales: see further note 20 below.

10 Seen in the story of Bellerophon in The Iliad, Book VI. It has often been noted that this tale is told as if by someone who has heard of literacy but is not exactly sure how it works.

11 Modern interpretations are summarised by Edwin Eleazar, ‘With Us Ther Was A Doctour Of Phisik’, in Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. eds Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lambdin (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1996) pp.220-42, esp p.239. For the ‘patriarchal’ approach, see especially John C. Hirsch, ‘Modern Times: The Discourse of the Physician’s Tale’, Chaucer Review 27 (1993) 387-95.

12 Or people whose documents have been damaged. Barbara Hanawalt, Crime and Conflict in English Communities, 1300-1348. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), pp.78-9, mentions the unfortunate Richard Sapling, who kept tight hold of his vital document (a royal pardon), only to find that his damp dungeon had made it illegible. He spent seven more years in the dungeon before the law decided to release him.

13 N.R. Havely, for instance, in his student edition of The Friar’s, Summoner’s and Pardoner’s Tales (London: University of London Press, 1975), remarks of the Summoner in his first paragraph that ‘Unlike the Friar and Pardoner he would not have been ordained’.

14 The question is never even raised by Elton E. Smith, ‘With Hym There Rood a Gentil Pardoner’, in Chaucer’s Pilgrims, ed Lambdin and Lambdin, pp.314-23. By contrast A.C. Spearing, in his edition of The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965) p.7, argues that while the Pardoner ‘might possibly have had a genuine licence’ from the local bishop, ‘only the very simple’ would expect him to have all the others claimed: ‘These other documents must surely be fakes’. Peggy Knapp, in Chaucer and the Social Context (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp.78-81, notes such opinions, but still proceeds on the basis that the Pardoner has ‘valid licenses’. My main point, again, is that (with the exception of Spearing) most modern readers of Chaucer find it difficult to put themselves in the radically disempowered position of the medieval illiterate faced with a document.

15 By John V. Fleming, ‘The Antifraternalism of The Summoner’s Tale’, JEGP 65 (1966) 688-700.

16 I paraphrase the story here from The Apocryphal New Testament, trans M.R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924) pp.371-5, but see further note 18 below.

17 The Riverside Chaucer, p.878, note to line 1980.

18 One can of course not be exactly sure what version of the life of St Thomas Chaucer may have been thinking of, and The Riverside Chaucer is correct in saying that the version in The South English Legendary, eds Charlotte D’Evelyn and Anna J. Mill (Two volumes, London: Oxford University Press, 1956, Early English Text Society, OS 235-6), does lay stress on Thomas’s missionary rather than his charitable activities - ‘Churchen he rerde manyon’, indeed, see vol 2, p. 577. There is no sign, though, that Chaucer had read The South English Legendary, and the point about riches being best expended for rewards in heaven remains the same in all versions. Meanwhile Roy Peter Clark, ‘Doubting Thomas in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale’, Chaucer Review 11 (1976-7) 164-78, does note that ‘Chaucer’s comparison of the friar to Thomas of India is bitterly ironic’ (p.168), but sees no special irony in lines 1979-80.

19 See J.A. Burrow, ‘The Title “Sir”’, in Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) pp.69-73.

20 See Coleman, Medieval Readers and Writers, 1350-1400. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981) p.25. James Keller, ‘A Sumonour Was Ther With Us In That Place’, in Lambdin and Lambdin, pp.300-313, believes that literacy was a normal qualification for being a summoner, and more tentatively that Chaucer’s summoner too was imagined as literate: ‘After all, he does cite ancient authorities in the digression on anger in his tale’, p.308. But this is to assume that Chaucer’s tellers always remain ‘in character’ throughout their tales.

21 See Brian L. Woodcock, Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury. (London: Oxford University Press, 1952) pp.45-9. The phrase sine aliqua auctoritate is cited on p.49, note 3. Thomas Hahn and Richard W. Kaeuper, ‘Text and Context: Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer 5 (1983) 67-101, make it clear how realistic Chaucer’s picture of the summoner is, but do not consider how the ‘archdeacon’s book’ is being used in it.

22 The issue of blank citations is mentioned by Keller, in Chaucer’s Pilgrims, p.303, but without close application to the circumstances of the tale. Indeed Keller assumes that what happens is that ‘when the liaison is exposed and the couple brought before the bench, the summoner releases the woman and fines the man’, p.307. This would be a very shocking breach of procedure, summoners having no more authority to pronounce sentence in court than modern Vice Squad detectives. Once again a modern critic has not thought a ‘literacy racket’ through.

23 Taylor, ‘The Friar’s Tale’, in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, eds W.F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1941), pp.269-74. Some of the problems with Taylor are explained by Peter Nicholson, ‘The Analogues of Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale’, ELN 17/2 (1979) 93-8, and further ‘The Rypon Analogue of the Friar’s Tale’, Chaucer Newsletter 3 (1981) 1-2, but the matter needs further clarification.

24 The Waldhausen tale is in Taylor, see note 23, but he regards it as ‘probably derived ultimately’ from Caesarius, p.270. Caesarius’s very different text is however printed in The Literary Context of Chaucer’s Fabliaux: Texts and Translations, eds Larry D Benson and Theodore Andersson (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merill, 1971) pp.362-6, from which one can see that it is virtually identical to a text also printed by Taylor, pp.270-1, but there ascribed to a friar from Basel called Johannes Herolt. I distinguish these as ‘the Waldhausen version’ (about the rusticus) and ‘Caesarius’s version’ (about the advocatus). Probably neither is Chaucer’s direct source, see Nicholson in note 23.

25 As is pointed out by Benson and Andersson, p.363.

26 Richard Firth Green’s excellent A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) discusses the transit ‘From Troth to Truth’ in his opening chapter, pp.1-40.

27 See again Green, A Crisis of Truth, pp.278-82, for instances of exactly this complaint, as well as other reasons for preferring ‘token’ to document.

28 Chaucer has covered the hole in the story rather neatly, but the fact is that in his story, as in none of its analogues, it would be open to the merchant’s wife simply to deny that she had ever received the money. It would then be her word against the monk’s. In her essay ‘Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron VIII,i: Retelling a Story’, in Courtly Literature: Culture and Context, eds Keith Busby and Erik Kooper (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990)pp.261-70, Carol Heffernan does note the discrepancy, but remarks only that in Chaucer’s tale ‘the energy of characterisation displaces the need for ingenious plotting’, p.267. In the modern world, and I suspect in Chaucer’s business world, ‘energy of characterisation’ would not be accepted in lieu of a witness, pledge, or written receipt. The question turns on the meaning of the word ‘tokenes’, on which The Riverside Chaucer is once more evasive, see pp.207, 912, gloss and note on line VII, 359.

29 Edited by Jess B. Bessinger (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978).

30 The translation comes from my own Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer; Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976) p.89.

31 I take this term from Green, A Crisis of Truth, p.263: late medieval England was still ‘a culture where books and charters were regularly fetishised as objects of awe and mystery’.

32 Green gives examples in his section on ‘Writing as Talisman’, pp.251-7. They include the champion of the bishop of Salisbury being stripped of written charms before fighting a judicial duel in 1355, and Chief Justice Tresilian mounting the scaffold in 1388, still allegedly relying on written charms to save his life.

33 See Alfred the Great: Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ and other contemporary sources, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983) p.125.

34 See Ælfric’s Prefaces, ed.Jonathan Wilcox (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994) pp.113-4, 116-9, 124-5 for repeated statements about the dangers of unauthorised texts in unqualified hands.

35 The point is made by two of the contributors to The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. Wallace. In ‘Latinitas’, pp.122-51, Christopher Baswell mentions a ‘sense of almost apocalyptic dread’, p.124; in ‘Writing history in England’, pp.255-83, Andrew Galloway calls it ‘documentary appropriation...an especially violating act’, p.259.

36 Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, p.261.

37 Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, pp.35-43.

38 The story is discussed by John M. Ganim, ‘The Devil’s Writing Lesson’, in Oral Poetics in Middle English Poetry, ed. Mark C. Amodio (New York and London: Garland, 1994) pp.109-23.

39 Sawles Warde is cited here from Early Middle English Verse and Prose, eds J.A.W. Bennett and G.V. Smithers (Second edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968) p.250.

40 Geoffrey Shepherd, ‘Scriptural Poetry’, in Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. E.G. Stanley (London: Nelson) pp.1-36 (p.1).

41 Besides Harley MS 2253, the scribe was responsible for Royal MS 12.C.xii and parts of Harley MS 273. For the many legal documents since identified, which pin down the scribe’s area of activity very sharply to the Ludlow area, and to the period 1314-49, we are indebted to the researches of Carter Revard. These still continue, but see for instance ‘Three More Holographs in the Hand of the Scribe of Harley MS 2253 in Shrewsbury’, Notes & Queries NS 28 (June, 1981) pp.199-200.

42 Brook, Harley Lyrics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1948).

43 As one can see from the fact that, despite a professed concern for manuscript complexity, linguistic diversity, and interdisciplinary connections, the index entries in the new Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature for ‘Harley 2253’ and ‘Harley Lyrics’ are identical. The modern ‘construct’ (Brook’s edition) continues to be what is perceived, not the medieval manuscript. Neither of the poems I discuss here is mentioned at any point in this volume’s 1043 pages.

44 All quotations from the two Harley poems are from the edition by Rossell Hope Robbins, in Historical Poems of the XIVth and XVth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

45 Thomas Wright, Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II, first printed 1839, reprinted with new introduction by Peter Coss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

46 In Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology, ed.Turville-Petre (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1989).

47 For the sake of brevity, I have here and sometimes in what follows given only my translation of single lines. Important or contentious passages are given in the original and translated.

48 Wright, Political Songs, p.150.

49 Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, p. 46.

50 Tally-sticks might possibly have been used as a kind of receipt, but it is not certain that they were used in these precise circumstances, see Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, pp.123-4.

51 Turville-Petre assumes, in two footnotes on p.19 of his anthology, that the roast hens, the lamprey and salmon, are the bribes. It seems to me that what happens is that the taxpayer has to go off to the market, the ‘chepyn’, to sell whatever he has, hens, fish, tools, whatever, in order to raise ready cash. It is not clear to us (and perhaps not to the taxpayer) whether what he is paying is really official royal taxation, or unofficial private bribe-money. It may also be significant that there was a serious shortage of coin throughout England from 1337-1342, so that ‘At market...a man can do no business, although he may have cloth or corn, pigs or sheep to sell’, see J.R. Maddicott, The English Peasantry and the Demands of the Crown 1294-1341. (London: Past and Present Society, 1975) p.49.

52 Robbins, Historical Poems, p.258.

53 ‘Hyrt’ can mean ‘household’, and this would make good sense in line 2, but line 40, ‘Hyrdmen hem hatieþ’, suggests that ‘hyrdman’ is a particular rank or category - retainers, perhaps, a group (like yeomen) of relatively high status but very likely to be in trouble with and to despise the law, see further note 67 below.

54 Woodcock, Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts, p.98, shows that this was normal practice.

55 Turville-Petre, Alliterative Poetry, p.28, translates ‘I may not bring testimony for my own defence’, but Green, A Crisis of Truth, makes clear that besides canon law and king’s law, there was still in England a powerful sense of ‘folklaw’, see especially pp.78-120.

56 Turville-Petre, Alliterative Poetry, p.28, translates ‘lewed lued’ as ‘layman’. Laymen and illiterates were two largely overlapping categories, as were literates and ‘the learned’: but the complaints here repeatedly dwell on literacy.

57 J.R. Maddicott, ‘Poems of Social Protest in Early Fourteenth-Century England’, in England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium, ed.W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1986) pp.130-44 (p.144).

58 This last point is made by N.R. Ker, in his ‘Introduction’ to the Facsimile of British Museum MS Harley 2253 (London: Early English Text Society, OS 255, 1965), p.xxiii.

59 See M.L. Samuels, ‘Langland’s Dialect’, Medium Ævum 54 (1985) 232-47.

60 See George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, Piers Plowman: the B Version (London: Athlone Press, 1975) pp.98-127.

61 G.T. Shepherd, ‘The Nature of Alliterative Poetry in Late Medieval England’, PBA 56 (1970) pp.57-76 (pp.57-8).

62 The term is Fredric Jameson’s, but one sees the idea being used, for instance, in Stephen Knight, ‘The Social Function of the Middle English Romances’, in Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, History, ed. David Aers (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1986) pp.99-122.

63 R.F. Green notes for instance that in the struggle between royal law and folklaw, ‘we should not be too quick to assume that the gentry and peasantry would automatically have found themselves on opposite sides of the fence’, A Crisis of Truth, p.169.

64 Largely through the work of Stephen Justice, Writing Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).

65 An actual majority of the contributors to Written Work: Langland, Labor and Authorship, eds Stephen Justice and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), feel constrained to make this point in one way or another. It is not often that modern scholars feel they have to deny the known reactions of contemporaries, but this case has struck a nerve (or perhaps tweaked the academic ‘political unconscious’).

66 Robbins, Historical Poems, p.55.

67 In ‘The Tale of Gamelyn: Class Warfare and the Embarrassments of Genre’, in The World of Popular Medieval Romance, eds Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert (London: Longman, 2000), forthcoming. The point is strengthened by the explicit refusal of David Aers to discuss the Robin Hood and outlaw poems in his ‘Vox Populi and the literature of 1381’, Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. Wallace, pp.432-53, because the yeoman outlaws keep on aping the gentry, as true plebeians, seemingly, would not: see pp.451-2.

68 Often cited, but see Green, A Crisis of Truth, p.200.