03.04.12, Keen, Charters of Christ and 'Piers Plowman'

Main Article Content

Dr. Andrea Schutz

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.012


Keen, Jill Averil. The Charters of Christ and 'Piers Plowman': Documenting Salvation. Studies in the Humanities, Literature - Politics - Society, Vol. 42. NY, NY: Peter Lang, 2002. Pp. x, 122. ISBN: 0-8204-4006-x.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Andrea Schutz
St. Thomas University

This book seeks to connect legal documents, such as charters of enfeoffment or letters of pardon, to some fourteenth-century examples of devotional literature. This study examines William Herebert's poem "Thou wommon bout uere," the so-called "Short" and "Long Charters of Christ" and Langland's Piers Plowman. Keen finds that all these works use legal prototypes as a metaphor of salvation, and she traces the metaphor's roots in contemporary practice. She argues finally that those literary documents which most closely follow contemporary models are rendered ineffective by that very likeness, whereas those which depart from the forms are much more effective, because "strict adherence to earthly legal forms indicates a departure from God's love."

Keen first outlines the kinds of literature to use the metaphor of legal document issued by Christ: Charters of enfeoffment and retaining; letters or charters of pardon; Sunday letters; Christ's last will and testament. Keen asserts that these works interpret "Christ's salvific action at the Crucifixion in terms of a legal document." The genre is characterised as much by the speaker -- Jesus or God -- as by the intent -- the redemption of humanity. In the course of the study, Keen outlines the various generic traits of each legal document. But the most interesting facet of the literature is the implication of the connection between devotion and the law: "the document recording the charter sometimes becomes a metaphor for Christ's body..." That is, the enfeoffment makes Christ mankind's liveried servant by means of the very common topos of Christ clothed in human flesh.

She begins with William Herebert's poem "Thou wommon bout uere," which she argues is one of the earliest literary uses of a charter of enfeoffment. The poem turns on two paradoxes: first, that Mary is both mother and daughter of God; second, that Christ will be lenient to the speaker on judgement day because He is the speaker's retained servant ("my robe he hath upon"). Since the idea of the retained servant might also include royal justices retained by secular or ecclesiastical landholders -- hinting at contemporary anger over corrupt legal realities -- Keen argues that the poem thus "invites both a devotional and political response."

Chapter two deals primarily with the two Charters of Christ (the "Short" and the "Long"). These poems actually present charters of enfeoffment. In the "Short Charter" the grant is of Heaven's bliss to all those who repent; Jesus is the "chief lord of the fee"; the rent is true love of God and one's neighbours; the seal is the wound in Christ's side; witnesses are all those watching the Crucifixion (including the sun, earth and veil of the temple); and it is given on Calvary, and dated "the first day of the great mercy." The "Long Charter" adds an account of the Last Supper and the Passion, and exists in three redactions of increasing length and didacticism. The charter itself is identified with Christ's crucified body: "Thus He becomes both the speaker of the charter and the document itself." This poem's relation to its legal models is quite complex, and Keen describes in detail the legal formulae most contemporary charters contained, so that one may clearly see which are reflected in the poem.

Chapter three turns to what she calls the "rejected documents" in Piers Plowman (C-text). The relation between legal documents and poem is more complex here than in the shorter poems: while the shorter poems concern an individual's contract with God, Piers Plowman is a reflection of life in either a secular or religious community. Nonetheless, Langland still uses the figures of livery and documents as metaphors of salvation. However, Keen argues that here livery means disguise rather than identity, and that all documents are untrustworthy, even if they promise salvation. Keen's argument here diverges from those which see Favel's charter and Truth's pardon as proof of an unjust and just society (respectively). She argues that neither charter nor pardon actually corresponds to its historical prototype and that neither is legally valid. She also argues here that both are rejected. The greater contrast is between these rejected documents and the less studied ones of Moses' writ (C. 19) and Love's letter (C. 20). These documents are "possibly flawed, but are unquestioned in the poem." They receive her attention in Chapter four. There are five documents in total within the poem: Favel's charter to Fals (C. 2.78a - 115); Truth's pardon to Piers et al. (C. 9.1-293); Moses' unsealed letter patent (C. 19.11-16); Love's letter to Peace (C. 20.185-92); Piers' pardon. Of these, "[t]he first four documents are all flawed in ways that show the greater efficacy of the final pardon from Piers. This last pardon is not represented in the form of a document at all, but it is the one the narrator considers best."

Keen's central idea is intriguing; one can easily imagine making similar connections between the law and certain medieval plays, for instance: the implications of Christ being "clothed" in humanity and the contemporary outrage about maintenance in "Thou wommon bout uere" find obvious echoes in the play Wisdom, for example. Furthermore, the notion of mercy as the central idea in an indulgence would add a fascinating dimension to consideration of that virtue in Mankind, the Croxton Play of the Sacrament (and even The Merchant of Venice, allowing for changes in renaissance thinking).

That said, however, there are a few problems with this work. Keen very helpfully translates all the Latin quotes, making the book very accessible for students, but an appendix with the complete short poems she examines would also be helpful. Her two references to the poem Quia amore langueo are also confusing: on p. 5 this poem is given "In the vaile of restles mynde" as its first line; on p. 17 another reference to the same poem-title is glossed as "In a tabernacle of a toure." The "title," in fact, is the refrain to two very different poems, but this is not clear in Keen's references to them within her text or in any footnote.

It is also true that her discussion of Piers Plowman is -- necessarily -- interrupted by her explanation of legal terms. Such explanation is vital, but the particular handling means that the reader can too easily lose track of the application of argument to text. In any case, one has the feeling that there might be a great deal more to say about the poem if only the author could liberate her argument from the narrowness of finding documents in the poem and then finding historical models to which they might conform. One does not have the sense that this study has gone very far beyond the dissertation stage: it is a very clear unfolding of thesis and evidence, but does not go much beyond that. One reason for this may be that the research is not nearly as recent as it ought to be. The most recent item in the bibliography is the edition of Hrotsvit of Gandersheim's plays (1998); very few items are even from the 1990s, and there is no mention of more recent articles on the conjunction of literature and law in Piers Plowman, like Traugott Lawlor's "The pardon formula in Piers Plowman: its ubiquity, its binary shape, its silent middle term" (Yearbook of Langland Studies 14 [2000]); Emily Steiner's "Langland's Documents" (YLS 14); or the responses to Steiner by Bryan Davis and Bruce Holsinger (YLS 14).

However, a bigger problem even than these is a gap in logic: in the last paragraph of the introduction, Keen compares the "effective documents" (see above) with "various royal writs which the allegorical documents may have been intended to depict." In an introduction, such caution is reasonable, even though it opens the possibility that the relevant parts of the poem might not be intended to depict any such things at all. But as the introduction ends, one finds that this caution turns into a very firm argument: "strict adherence to earthly legal forms indicates departure from God's love." One can already descry a problem here: is it really possible to make so firm a claim out of a possible (or even not possible) connection? Keen admits, in Chapter four, that these allegorical documents do not adhere to contemporary practice at all (i.e., they are not representations of any royal writs), and do not have the force that legal ones would have. To argue then that this lack of fit between contemporary practice and poetic use makes one of the poem's points is, as it stands, to negate the rest of her book's argument. It is finally all the more unconvincing because she herself admits at one point that her reasoning "may push the metaphor too far" (81). While this problem is partly resolved in the conclusion, and while repeated readings clarify her argument to an extent, one must remain bothered by any line of logic which on the one hand demands a determined linking of certain ideas and then demands that one agree to the problems of such linking. Again, the narrowness of the approach has boxed the author in: faced with the possibility that something very different could be at work when literary documents do not conform to legal ones, author and reader are left with a sense of contradiction.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dr. Andrea Schutz

St. Thomas University