2. William Langland’s Parodic Prophecies

As the last chapter has illustrated, political prophecies like those of the Last Emperor were repeatedly revised to endorse different and even opposing leaders. Langland adapts these and several other prophecies to suit his own purposes, but he does so in a radically creative way. The Vision of Piers Plowman presents predictions that satirize the self-serving nature of political prophecies while also promoting a better cause – social and political reform instituted for the common good. By putting elaborate prognostications into the mouths of Conscience, Will, and Clergy, Langland not only responds to but amends several English political prophecies. Revising political prophecies that would have been familiar to a fourteenth-century audience, Langland uses his narrative position as a morally guided prophet to endorse social ethics above personal gain.

Critical recognition of these prognostications’ satirical nature has been hindered by their unusual reception history. Fueled by sixteenth-century historians’ early efforts to present Langland as a proto-Protestant, readers and editors continually interpreted Clergy’s prophecy as a prediction of the English Reformation for centuries. In the famous prognostication, Clergy declares:

Ac þer shal come a kyng and confesse yow religiouses,

And bete yow, as þe Bible telleþ, for brekynge of youre rule,

And amende monyals, monkes and chanons,

And puten hem to hir penaunce – Ad pristinum statum ire,

And barons wiþ erles b[iy]eten, þoruȝ Beatus vires techyng,

That hir barnes claymen, and blame yow foule:

Hij in curribus et hij in equis: ipsi obligati sunt …

And þanne freres in here fraytour shul fynden a keye

Of Costantyns cofres [which þe catel is inne]

That Gregories godchildren han yuele despended.

And þanne shal þe Abbot of Abyngdoun and al his issue for euere

Haue a knok of a kyng, and incurable þe wounde.

Quomodo cessauit exactor, quieuit tributum? Contriuit Dominus

baculum impiorum, virgam dominancium cedencium plaga insanabili.1

If one pays little attention to the middle of the prophecy and focuses solely on the king who will “bete” and “amende” the monks and “knok” the Abbot, this looks from hindsight like a prediction of the Reformation to anyone willing to see it. Specifically, it appears as if it foretells Henry VIII’s dissolution of the English monasteries, Abingdon included. This interpretation of the prophecy is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it has never truly gone away. Pedagogical materials often highlight the proto-Protestant interpretation of Clergy’s prophecy without giving other explanations for its content. For instance, the Longman Anthology of British Literature states that Piers Plowman “was ultimately regarded as a prophecy of the English Reformation” without pronouncing that reputation to be earned or unearned.2 In his introduction to Piers Plowman on the British Library’s webpage, Lawrence Warner asks, “Was Langland a prophet, foreshadowing Henry VIII’s spearheading of the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41)?”3 Although Warner does not proclaim Langland to be a prophet, he leaves the provocative question unresolved. The question has remained unresolved because few critics have offered a satisfactory explanation for the several elaborate and enigmatical prognostications within Piers Plowman.

Morton Bloomfield and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton have made efforts to better historicize the prophecies within Piers Plowman by viewing them within the context of medieval religious thought rather than England’s Protestant future. However, they have done so by situating the prophecies in the tradition of reformist apocalypticism, especially that which was inspired by Joachim of Fiore.4 Joachim of Fiore was a twelfth-century Calabrian monk who believed that the Antichrist had already been born and that a “third age” of spiritual perfection on earth would arrive after his defeat.5 Although the Fourth Lateran Counsel condemned several of Joachim’s ideas in 1215, his perspective on the apocalypse remained influential in certain circles.6 Most notably, sometime around 1240, some of the Franciscans began appropriating Joachim’s prediction that two groups of viri spirituales (spiritual men) would lead the resistance against the Antichrist.7 Joachimist Franciscans perceived these viri spirituales as themselves and the Dominicans, and they looked forward to the reign of an angelic pope in the third age.8 Bloomfield and Kerby-Fulton both see Joachimist influences in Piers Plowman, especially in Conscience’s and Clergy’s prophecies of a king described as a new David, who will bring about an era of peace and the reform of monastic orders.9 Yet, both Bloomfield and Kerby-Fulton struggle to explain how Langland knew of Joachimism in fourteenth-century England, so this explanation for the prophecy within Piers Plowman has not convinced most scholars.

David Aers, Robert Adams, and Richard K. Emmerson have questioned the Joachimist influence on Langland, arguing that he could have gotten similar ideas from the more orthodox writings of St. Jerome and St. Augustine, who describe Christ’s post-apocalyptic kingdom on earth.10 While these apocalyptic interpretations of the prophecies account for their positive view of the future, they do not explain their enigmatical symbols as coherently as the Joachmist readings do. They also overlook the more immediate meanings of the prognostications, which offer practical solutions to the major problems that Piers Plowman underscores. It is unlikely that Langland was knowingly echoing Joachim’s prophecy of a third age. However, Joachimist predictions of an ideal third age did shape medieval incarnations of the Last Emperor prophecy.11 Langland touches on Joachimist themes of ecclesiastical and social renewal through his imitation of these political prophecies. In doing so, he confronts the skewed utopias proposed in prophecies of the Last Emperor. Langland only came to the Joachimist ideas that Bloomfield and Kerby-Fulton identify indirectly through political prophecies. Not only do the prognostications in Piers Plowman not espouse Joachimist theology, but they also expose and critique prophecies that have coopted Joachimism to endorse cheap solutions to communal salvation – namely faith in one monarch or fraternal order to restore justice.

Langland’s creative work with political prophecies has been overlooked and misunderstood for two intersecting reasons. Piers Plowman’s original audience would have been familiar with the prophecies that he was parodying, but because early modern interpretations appropriated them for Protestantism, that initial context was difficult for later critics to recover. Furthermore, Langland’s work with parody is unconventional and all the more confusing when its major referent, political prophecy, has been forgotten. Gérard Genette has remarked that Aristotle’s examples of parodia within Poetics “share a certain mockery … the mockery being obtained by separating the letter of the work – the text, the style – from its spirit.”12 Langland’s use of parody goes beyond this kind of mockery. He uses political prophecies satirically and earnestly at the same time by mimicking their content yet changing their meaning. While deconstructing their false promises of a future utopia, motivated by greed, the predictions instruct readers on ways to prepare for Judgment Day while also striving towards communal renewal. This chapter first explains Langland’s unusual method of parody and subsequently considers how retrospective Protestant misinterpretations of Clergy’s prognostications have had lasting effects on Langland’s prophetic reputation.

Conscience’s Prophecy: Critiquing Prophets for Profits13

The first imitation of political prophecy that appears in Piers Plowman is that of Conscience. Conscience’s prognostication comes in the context of his political debate with Mede about advising the character of the King during war. It is the perfect context within which to introduce a parodied political prophecy. Lady Mede begins an argument with Conscience after he has refused the King’s offer to wed the two of them. Taking offense, Mede defends her own worth by strategically turning the discussion to how well she can help kings. Conscience counters by pointing out that Lady Mede was a poor advisor to King Saul, whose fall is described in the book of Samuel. Conscience then prophesies:

I, Consience, knowe þis, for Kynde Wit me tauȝte –

þat Resoun shal regne and reumes gouerne,

And riȝt as Agag hadde, happe shal somme::

Samuel shal sleen hym and Saul shal be blamed,

And Dauid shal be diademed and daunten hem alle,

And oone Cristene kyng kepen [vs] echone.

Shal na moore Mede be maister on erþe,

Ac loue and loȝnesse and leaute togideris. (A.III.260–7)

This version of the prophecy is in the A-text, the first version, produced in the 1360s. In the B-text, revised in the late 1370s, Conscience goes on to describe how this Davidic King will bloodlessly convert the Jews and the Saracens. This version of the prophecy also remains in the C-text, written in the late 1380s. Conscience’s predictions of the fall of Saul and rise of David, a unifying Christian emperor, as well as his predictions of the peaceful conversion of the Jews and Muslims, are all paralleled in English political propaganda used to promote battles in the late fourteenth century.

While no evidence shows that Edward III or Richard II patronized or encouraged the prophecies written about them, powerful people who stood to gain from war campaigns often used the king as a rallying symbol to promote battle. When Langland was writing the A-text of Piers Plowman, English nobility, who stood to gain money from the war with France through plunder, patronized a variety of poems referring to France’s ruler, Phillip VI, as Saul, the king who lost God’s favour through disobedience, and England’s ruler, Edward III, as David, the king who gained God’s favour instead. For instance, the anonymous Latin poem, “An Invective Against France,” warns France in apostrophe:

Spiritus aspirans bonus a te, Saule, recessit,

Ad David accessit, felicia prælia spirans.

Est David Edwardus, sancto cum crismate clerens,

Philip corde carens Saul est ad prælia tardus.

[The good spirit blowing from you, Saul, withdrew,

It came to David, ushering favorable battles.

Edward is David, shining with holy consecrated oil,

Phillip, lacking in heart, is Saul, slow to battle.]14

The poem, written in support of the English war effort just after Edward III’s victory at Crécy in 1349, describes the reason for Phillip VI’s lack of holy favour as his reluctance to wage war.15 The poem urges Edward and England to war not only with the message that Edward is the chosen ruler of France but also with the message that being chosen depends upon one’s willingness to fight. By implication, Edward III must fight or risk losing his holy favour by giving up his claim to the French throne. The Vaticinium Roberti Bridlington, glossed by John Ergome between 1362–4 for the notable war profiteer Humphrey de Bohun, also compares Phillip to Saul and Edward III to David, recalling that “Rex Saul erravit quærens occidere David, / Quem Deus elegit.” [King Saul erred trying to kill David, whom God chose.]16 Ergome glosses this portion of the prophecy as referring to Edward’s victory in Crécy.17 Each of these prophecies praises Edward III by comparing him to David, the victor, but also implies that he could become defeated like Saul by failing to wage the appropriate battles.

These comparisons play upon longstanding associations of the French kingship with an anointed leader in the tradition of David. In the book of Samuel, God’s election of David, manifested through Samuel’s anointing him, symbolized a theocracy, legitimized by God. This symbolism was especially useful during regime changes, wherein the new ruler could claim God as the source of his authority. The legitimacy of a king who ousted another king might easily be questioned by his new subjects, but the example of David, the king whose victory over the ousted king Saul signaled his favour from God, aided in sanctioning even the most violent regime changes. For instance, when Pepin deposed Childeric in 751, Pope Zachary anointed him to symbolize his Davidic status. Zachary and subsequent popes referred to the Carolingian rulers as “new Moses and David,” implying that the former Merovingian kings, like Saul, had fallen out of favour with God.18 As Lesley Coote has noted, the French kings “either called themselves, or claimed to be, David, with a right to be the secular leader of the Christian world.”19

The English coopted this French symbolism of the anointed leader during their own attempts to supplant the French kings. Beginning in the reign of Edward II and continuing all the way through Henry IV’s reign, a prophecy attributed to St. Thomas Becket circulated, relating how the Virgin Mary had appeared to Becket. She purportedly presented him with a flask of oil and said:

Est eternim rex futurus qui per ista[m] unccionem ungetur qui terras a parentibus amissas videclicet Normanniam & Aquitaniam recuperabit sine vi. Rex iste maximus erit inter reges & est ille qui recuperabit multas ecclesias in terra sancta & effugabit omnes paganos de Babilonia & ibidem plures ecclesias sanctas edificari faciet.

[Truly, it is a future king who will be anointed with this oil, who will recover the lands lost by his ancestors, that is, Normandy and Aquitaine, without force. This king will be the greatest among kings and it is he who will win back many churches in the Holy Land and will drive all the pagans out of Babylon and he will cause many holy churches to be built there.]20

Asserting that the English had the true God-given oil, passed down through Thomas Becket, this story and prophecy imply that an English king will fulfil the role of the Last Emperor, foretold in the prophecies of the Tiburtine Sibyl. The prediction of the English king as the Last Emperor found its way into several prophetic predictions. For instance, “Adam Davy’s Dreams” describes how “þe kyng Edward com corouned myd gret blis; / þat bitokeneþ he shal be / Emperour in cristianete” (3.80–2).21 In the fourteenth century, a prophecy about England’s war with France appears in several manuscripts, including the chronicle, the Eulogium Historiarum.22 The prophecy describes Edward III as a Leopard (taken from the English royal arms) who will tear apart the lilies of Gaul (taken from the French royal arms).23 The Leopard will then go on to conquer the world before handing it over to Christ:

Ecclesiæ subquo libertas prima redibit.

Huic Babylon veniet, crucis aras hic teret omnes

Acon Jerusalem leoparde posse redemptæ,

Ad cultum fidei gaudebunt se redituros

Imperium mundi sub quo dabit hic eremita.

[The first liberty of the Church will return under him. Babylon will return to him. He will grind the altars of the cross so that Acre and Jerusalem can be redeemed by the Leopard. They will rejoice, those who will have returned to the cult of the faithful. He will give the empire of the world under him to a hermit.]24

This prophecy is similar to that of the Boar in the Six Kings prophecy from the prose Brut but by focusing solely on Edward III, it grants him the Last Emperor position denied to him in the Brut. These prophecies not only promoted the cause of English rule over France but also English translatio imperii and divine right. In a time when the papal office was asserting its supremacy over monarchies and tending to favour the French during the Hundred Years War, these prophecies affirmed the English kingship as divinely appointed and approved.25 In several cases, the prophecies are explicitly antipapal. The English prophecy “Lilium regnans,” for example, predicts that the French king (represented by the lily) will lose his crown before the English king (called the “filius hominis” or “son of man”) will rule the whole world, but it also predicts the fall of the pope.26 The common thread of all of these prophecies was that they urged Edward III into war with France and were typically patronized by people who stood to benefit from such a war.

Studies of the possible identity of William Langland have suggested that he may have been a member of the well-connected Rokele family.27 If he was indeed a member of this family, Langland would have had exposure to prophecies about the English monarchy. Evidence within Piers Plowman indicates that Langland was a cleric who moved frequently and does not seem to have been especially wealthy. Nevertheless, the current likeliest candidate for Langland’s identity, William Rokele, had continuous close ties with more powerful members of his family, like John Rokele, the king’s sergeant under Edward III.28 William Rokele’s father’s side of the family had maintained a relationship with the loyalist Despenser family for several generations.29 His grandfather, Peter Rokele, worked in conjunction with the Despensers to attempt to free the imprisoned Edward II before his deposition.30 The note on the last page of Trinity College MS 212, which first helped Piers Plowman scholars identify the author as William Langland, names his father as “Stacey de Roykale” and describes him as a tenant of Lord Despenser. Therefore, Langland’s family ties to the Despensers were strong enough to warrant mention. Henry Despenser, the bishop of Norwich, preached a Crusade against the French in Flanders in 1383. During the Papal Schism, each pope was sanctioning “Crusades” against the other Christian nations that were loyal to his rival.31 Despenser’s Crusade was economically motivated, meant to prop up England’s ability to trade wool.32 To promote it, Despenser collected a number of political prophecies, all centred on Richard II as a Last Emperor figure who would conquer the Holy Land and even reform the monasteries in the process.33 British Library MS Cotton Claudius E.VIII, which was owned by Henry Despenser, begins with three prophecies, “Catulus lincieus,” “The Holy Oil of St. Thomas,” and “Lilum regnans,” all predicting the English king’s victory against France and conquest of the Holy Land. Because it was written to support the Crusade in Flanders in 1383, it was produced only shortly after Langland added the Last Emperor predictions to Conscience’s prophecy in the B-text. Langland’s probable family was associated with the kind of people advancing political prophecies for war campaigns, and it is from this familiar milieu that he would have drawn the language of his apocalyptic prognostications in Piers Plowman. Especially if Langland was William Rokele and was first showing Piers Plowman within his own social circle, he could have expected his early audiences to recognize Conscience’s prophecy as a political one. Langland makes the political nature of Conscience’s prophecy all the more apparent by placing it after Lady Mede’s strong arguments on behalf of war profiteering.

Lady Mede As Warmonger

Since political prophecies were championed by war profiteers, it is only fitting that Conscience’s imitation of political prophecy appear in an argument with Lady Mede, who is a personification of reward and, in her most negative contexts, political greed. Just before Conscience’s prophecy, Lady Mede had been blaming Conscience for the King’s bad decision “in Normandie” (B.III.187) – an overt reference to Edward III’s controversial decision to sign the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, withdrawing his claim to the throne in exchange for a ransom payment of 3,000,000 écus for King John II of France. Lady Mede herself personifies reward, so her primary complaint against the treaty is, appropriately, its economic repercussions. Edward III gave up his claim to the French crown in exchange for a hefty ransom for King John II. While having Lady Mede speak in opposition to a monetary ransom may seem counterintuitive, the rationale of her critique is that the king and his subjects could have made much more money had they stayed in the war. She refers to the ransom as “a litel siluer” (B.III.207), a paltry sum in contrast to ruling France, “þe richest Reaume þat reyn ouerhoueþ” (B.III.208). Lady Mede’s rebuke of Conscience represents the increasingly common negative public opinion of Edward’s decision to sign the treaty, especially among powerful magnates who had profited a great deal from the war. At the time of the treaty, the French had not defeated the English in battle for fifteen years, and the influx of French ransoms and spoils of plunder during the 1340s and 1350s had given the English a taste of economic prosperity.34 Langland composed the A-text of Piers Plowman in the 1360s, during which time this negative opinion of the truce formed in Normandy in 1360 began to grow. After the peace treaty failed, and the war began again in 1369, the English began to suffer more casualties and economic losses. An increasing number of English citizens developed a negative view of the treaty, believing that the negotiation had prevented them from victory when they had held the upper hand.35 Lady Mede’s complaint, “He sholde haue be lord of þat lond in lengþe and in brede, / And also kyng of þat kiþ his kyn for to helpe, / The leeste brol of his blood a barones piere,” (B.III.203–5), echoes that of the Anonimalle chronicler, who claims that the treaty was entered into

a graunt perde et damage al roy Dengleterre et a ses heirs pur toutz iours, qare bien pres toute la communalte de Frauns fuist en subieccion et raunsoun a eux et si purroient les ditz captains od lour gentz deinz brief avoir conquis la roialme de Frauns al oeps le roy Dengleterre et ses heirs sil les voldroit avoir soeffre.

[to the great loss and harm of the king of England and his heirs forever, for nearly the whole of the community of France was in subjection and ransom to them; and within a brief period the said captains and their men could easily have conquered the kingdom of France to the advantage of the king of England and his heirs, if he had allowed them.]36

Langland uses Lady Mede to voice the popular opinion that the treaty was a poor financial decision, not only for the king himself, but also for the entire realm of England, which had suffered without the king’s largesse. Mede’s counsel, “It bicomeþ a kyng þat kepeþ a reaume / To yeue [men mede] þat mekely hym serueþ / To aliens, to alle men, to honouren hem with ȝiftes” (B.III.209–11), draws attention to the king’s economic responsibility to his citizens and his personal failure to take that responsibility into consideration when deciding to sign a peace treaty.

Yet Lady Mede’s critique of the treaty also highlights the greed of Edward and others who supported entering the war in 1337 and reentering it in 1369. When Langland wrote the A-text of Piers Plowman, Edward III was in the process of once again declaring war on France. As Denise N. Baker argues, Mede’s “opposition to peace serves to interrogate the values of the warrior class and Edward III himself.”37 Mede’s championing of the cause of Edward’s war is even more damning to him than her criticism of his handling of the Treaty of Brétigny. Mede’s lamentations over what Edward had lost through the treaty, such as “The leeste brol of his blood a Barones piere” (B.III.205) highlight England’s less noble motives for entering and reentering the war. Never does Lady Mede invoke the rhetoric that Edward is the rightful ruler of France. Her focus is entirely on the financial boons of war.

Edward III As Saul

While Mede’s complaint emphasizes the greed of the warmongers, Conscience’s subsequent retort about how bad Mede was at advising Saul highlights how the peace treaty itself was also motivated by money. In response to Lady Mede’s claim that she is helpful to kings in wartime, Conscience reminds Mede of the story of Saul and David. Through his explication of the kings’ story, Conscience illustrates that Mede herself was to blame for Saul’s loss of life and crown. He explains that God spoke to Saul through Samuel, instructing him to exact divine vengeance upon the people of Amalec:

“Forþi,” seide Samuel to Saul, “god himself hoteþ

To be buxom at my biddynge, his wil to fulfille.

Weend to Amalec with þyn oost and what þow fynst þere – sle it.

Burnes and beestes – bren hem to deþe!

Widwes and wyues, women and children,

Moebles and vnmoebles, and al þow myȝt fynde –

Bren it, bere it noȝt awey it neuer so riche;

For mede ne for monee, loke þow destruye it!

Spille it and spare it noȝt – þow shalt spede þe better.” (B.III.264–72)

Amplifying his biblical source, Conscience points to greed (the improper love of Lady Mede) as the source of Saul’s transgression against God’s orders to burn everything and take no prisoners: “And for he coueited hir catel and þe kyng [Amalec] spared, / Forbar hym and his beestes boþe” (B.III.273–4). Because Langland places this example immediately after Lady Mede’s complaint against the Treaty of Brétigny, it is easy to note the parallels between Saul’s decision to hold King Amalec for ransom (instead of following God’s orders) and Edward’s decision to take John II’s hefty ransom (instead of pursuing his supposedly divinely mandated claim to the throne).

Conscience’s allusion to Saul’s ransom implies that the peace treaty was motivated by Edward’s avarice – desire for the “siluer” that Mede had disparaged as a lesser form of remuneration. While Edward III had paid for the war with taxes on the English people, all of John’s ransom went into Edward’s own pocket.38 Chronicles of the late fourteenth century depict Edward’s decision as one of self-interest above all else. Froissart reports that Edward would have continued the war had it not been for the remonstrance of his greedy cousin, the Duke of Lancaster, who argued that “This war … is not too favorable to you. Your people are the only real gainers by it.”39 Many people saw Edward’s decision not only as an unwise economic one for the country, as Lady Mede conveyed, but also as an act of greed – a critique of the king that Conscience can only intimate, not explain. After describing Saul’s unwise decisions, Conscience announces:

The culorum of þis cas kepe I noȝ to shewe;

On auenture it noyed m[e], noon ende wol I make,

For so is þis world went wiþ hem þat han power

That whoso seiþ hem soþes is sonnest yblamed! (B.III.280–3)

Conscience’s declaration that he does not care to interpret it only drops more hints that the story of Saul’s greedy transgression is an indictment of the king’s actions. He is not at liberty to analyse it because the story relates to one of those who “han power” and is standing just before him. However, it is obvious, through the juxtaposition of Lady Mede’s and Conscience’s arguments, that Edward (on some level embodied by the character of the King) is quite similar to Saul.

Identities of the Davidic King

Conscience’s example of Saul’s greed, which precedes his prophecy of the Davidic king, implies that Edward is not God’s appointed emperor, since he, like Saul, has been seduced by Lady Mede. This has led many recent critics, especially Robert Adams, to consider that the “cristene kyng” whom Conscience describes is Christ himself.40 The prophecy of Ezekiel 37:22–4, to which this part of Conscience’s prophecy alludes, similarly describes a future national unification of Israel: “And I will make them one nation in the land on the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king over them all … And my servant David shall be king over them.” The Glossa Ordinaria identifies this king as Christ.41 Furthermore, “Christ” means “anointed one.” David is the king who prefigures Christ in the Bible, so prophesying the coming of David could be a prophecy of the Second Coming. Because political prophecies are inherently ambiguous in their phrasing, they are easily adapted to multiple circumstances. This accounts for the continued repurposing and appropriation of political prophecies throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Langland exploits the inherent ambiguity of this format, allowing for multiple interpretations. The apocalypse is the fixed meaning of the prophecy – the outcome that, at least according to Christian believers, will certainly come true. Yet, other readings of Conscience’s prophecy are possible, and Langland encourages them with this political prophetic format.

Although it seems unlikely that Edward could fulfil the role of the Davidic king, David was a famously reformed ruler whose realm suffered because of his own relationship with Bathsheba, just as Edward’s kingdom suffers for his relationship with Lady Mede, the allegorical personification of monetary greed (and a double for his mistress, Alice Perrers). By invoking David as a model of kingship throughout Piers Plowman, Conscience implies that Edward too could reform and prove successful in his reign. Much of Conscience’s advice to the king comes from David’s Psalms. He poses the central question of kingship with David’s question, “Domine, quis habitabit in tabernaculo tuo? / Lord, who sahl wonye in þi wones wiþ þyne holy seintes, / Or resten in þyne holy hills: þis askeþ Dauid” (B.III.234–6). Then Conscience describes how “Dauid assoileþ it hymself” (B.III.237) by answering:

Qui ingreditur sine macula et operatur Iusticiam.

Tho þat entren of o colour and of one wille

And han ywroght werkes wiþ right and wiþ reson,

And he þat vseþ noȝt þe lyf of vsurie,

And enformeþ pouere [peple] and pursueþ truþe

Qui pecuniam suam non dedit ad usuram et munera super innocentem.


Because he is denouncing Mede, Conscience ends the answer with a direct quotation from Psalm 15 that specifically deals with usury and bribes. Conscience sets up David as a model for the king in the story, and therefore to Edward III as well. However, instead of urging war in order to bring about a Davidic reign, Langland singles out the banishment of Mede – the vice that caused Saul to fall in the first place. In the subsequent passus, the allegorical king fulfils Conscience’s prophecy that “Reson shal regne and Reaumes gouerne” (B.III.285) by sending for Reason to be his advisor and ultimately banishing Mede from his court. In this way, Langland demonstrates a path to reform for the current king.

Conscience’s prophecy and its advice to Edward imitates a major rhetorical strategy of English political prophecies, like the Vaticinium Roberti Bridlington and “An Invective Against France” . These prophecies compare Edward favourably with David but also gesture to the negative example of Saul as a warning. Political prophecies often predict the end of one king’s reign and the hope of another. The Prophecy of the Six Kings of England does this with Edward II and Edward III, respectively. Conscience’s prophecy imitates this aspect of political prophecy but changes the warning. It is not a failure to enter battle that will prevent Edward III from being the anointed David; it is a failure to reform himself and rid himself of Mede. In fact, battle that is entered for monetary gain will impede the king from becoming the Davidic king of the prognostication. In this way, Langland appropriates the discourse of political prophecy to send a message that is utterly antithetical to its typical purpose to promote war.

The message of this prophecy extends beyond Edward III as well because the king of Conscience’s prophecy is not a war hero. Langland makes this especially clear in his revisions to the B-text of Piers Plowman. England had already reentered the Hundred Years War by the time that Langland revised the text in around 1378–9, and opportunity of the Papal Schism was leading more people like Langland’s family associate, Hugh Despenser, to preach battles with the French in places like Flanders as part of a larger Crusade.42 It is therefore in the B-text that Conscience goes on to make a prophecy related to the Crusades. He describes a ruler who will conquer the Holy Land in the manner of a Last Emperor figure:

And er þis fortune falle, fynde men shul þe worste,

By sixe sonnes and a ship and half a shef of arwes;

And þe myddel of a moone shal make þe Iewes torne,

And Sarȝynes for þat siȝde shul synge Gloria in excelsis

For Makometh and Mede myshappe shul þat tyme;

For Melius est bonum nomen quam diuicie multe. (B.325–30)

Yet, Conscience is describing a peaceful conversion. Noting another reference to “the myddel of the mone” made by Patience in a riddle in Passus XIII, Andrew Galloway has cited analogous riddles from the Secretum philosophorum to identify the “myddel of a Moone” as the beginning of a popular riddle whose answer is cor (heart, and by implication, love).43 This analysis is in keeping with Conscience’s previous prediction:

And swich pees among þe peple and a parfit truþe,

That Iewes shul wene in hire wit, and wexen wonder glade,

That Moyses or Messie be come into þis erþe,

And haue wonder in hire hertes þat men beþ so trewe. (B.III.301–4)

Here, Langland is likely playing on anti-Semitic stereotypes of greed among Jewish people, claiming that if Christians, within their own confessional community, can reform to such an extent that they banish Mede, Jewish people will be inspired by their example and convert. The riddle within the prophecy reinforces the idea that a change of heart, not a war, will convert the Muslims to Christianity as well. Curtis A. Gruenler offers a convincing reading of “sixe sonnes and a ship and half a shef of arwes” by using the Secretum philosophorum as well: “In this case, the number vi, the first letter of ‘ship,’ and the number xii could combine to spell vis xii, the power of Christ.”44 Riddles appeared in English prophecy, particularly in Ergome’s glosses of the Vaticinium Roberti Bridlington.45 By incorporating new riddles into Conscience’s prognostication, Langland could imitate the style of wartime prophecies while introducing differing content. Even if one does not solve the riddles, the message of a bloodless conversion inspired by the banishment of Mede is apparent in the rest of the prediction. These two riddles do not appear in any of the otherwise analogous political prophecies because communal reform is a new concept that Langland is introducing into predictions of “conquering” the Holy Land. This change is not necessarily led by the king.

Although Conscience begins by advising the king, his prophecy speaks to all readers and gives them active strategies to bring about a better future, regardless of the monarch’s actions. Political prophecies focus hope on war, which is led by the king, but Conscience’s prognostication focuses hope on peace, which is led by the people. He predicts that each man will “dyngen vpon Dauid” (B.III.312), meaning to read the Psalms for spiritual guidance. This is the final way in which Conscience’s prophecy of David’s reign can be true. If everyone studies the Psalms, David’s wisdom will rule the world. Although Conscience predicts an ideal future in which everyone does what they ought to do, its meaning is still open-ended, just as the future is. The reign of David could be brought about by a real monarch, a less covetous public, or Christ himself. In any case, the ideal action for readers remains to “dyngen vpon Dauid,” to attempt to bring about a better world and to prepare one’s self for judgment at the Second Coming. In this way, all meanings of the prophecy converge. Kerby-Fulton has characterized Conscience’s prediction as one of “a millennial society” – a one thousand year reign of reason in the tradition of Joachim of Fiore’s teachings.46 While it is possible that Langland had encountered millenarian beliefs, the ideal society that he gestures towards is most likely a byproduct of the kind of political prophecies that he has imitated and adapted. Most predictions of a Last Emperor figure predict his ushering in a new age of perfection because they had exploited and incorporated Joachimist ideas into their political messages.47 All of the English political prophecies that Langland draws from are a byproduct of that tradition. Rather than adopting Joachim’s prophetic view of the world as heading towards an age of perfection, Langland is casting doubt on the promise of the future offered by political prophecies and presenting a different way forward. Langland made alterations to Piers Plowman again in the 1380s, when Richard II had been king for several years, but the prophecies that he parodied remained relevant because the predictions originally written about Edward III were still being used to encourage Richard II into battle.48 Most of all, the broader, timeless, redemptive message of Conscience’s prognostication remained relevant to Langland’s audience.

Clergy’s Prophecy: Clerical Reform from within

Clergy’s prophecy in Passus X of the B-text of Piers Plowman harks back to Conscience’s prophecy of Passus III by predicting the coming of a savior king who can ambiguously symbolize either the King of England or Christ himself. This prophecy is not in the A-text, so it appears that Langland added it at the same time that he expanded Conscience’s prediction to incorporate more imagery associated with a Last Emperor figure. In this case, Clergy predicts the coming of a king who will return England’s religious orders to their original, uncorrupted states. This prognostication, like Conscience’s previous one, illustrates reformist actions that the king should ideally take while also posing doubts that he can or will take them. Likewise, the prophecy points to far more practical solutions that the king and the broader community can take to bring about the changes shallowly promised by political prophecy.

Clergy foretells:

Ac þer shal come a kyng and confesse yow religiouses,

And bete yow, as þe Bible telleþ, for brekynge of youre rule,

And amende monyals, monkes and chanons,

And puten hem to hir penaunce – Ad pristinum statum ire,

And barons wiþ erles b[iy]eten, þoruȝ Beatus vires techyng,

That hir barnes claymen, and blame yow foule:

Hij in curribus et hij in equis: ipsi obligati sunt …

And þanne freres in here fraytour shul fynden a keye

Of Costantyns cofres [which þe catel is inne]

That Gregories godchildren han yuele despended.

And þanne shal þe Abbot of Abyngdoun and al his issue for euere

Haue a knok of a kyng, and incurable þe wounde. (B.X.316–26)

As with Conscience’s prophecy, these predictions could be a foretelling of Christ’s Second Coming, in which he returns to judge and punish everyone, including monks and canons. As Michael P. Kuczynski has noted, “Beatus vir” are the first words of the Psalms and were often used to refer to David, their author, and the Psalms as a whole.49 The Psalms contain some of the most violent imagery in the Bible, especially with respect to God’s judgment. The first Psalm warns that God will protect the faithful “like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season” (Psalm 1:3) but will remove the wicked “like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth” (Psalm 1:4). The king of Clergy’s prophecy could be God, coming with his angels, to judge humanity, just as the Psalms warned that he would. Just after his prediction, Clergy says, “Ac er þat kyng come Caym shal awake, / Ac Dowel shal dyngen hym adoun and destruye his myȝet” (B.X.328–30). This reference to Cain appears to be a reference to the Antichrist, whom the archangel, Michael, will conquer before the Second Coming.50 While the prophecy gestures to the impending apocalypse, it is also tied to some of the same traditions of political prophecy that informed Conscience’s predictions.

The Eulogium Historiarum chronicle, contemporary with Langland’s composition of the B-text, describes a king named Sextus, the Leopard, who symbolizes the king of England. The prophecy is primarily war propaganda, predicting the Leopard’s conquering of France. However, it goes on to describe how he will reign over the world, free the Holy Places and “reducet clerum in statum pristinum et privilegia ecclesiastica renovabit.” [restore the clergy to its original state and ecclesiastical privileges.]51 The concept of returning the monastic orders ad pristinum statum goes back to the Gregorian Reform of the twelfth century, which, as Bernard McGinn has explained, sought “to repair the diseased state of the church in light of the imminence of the end.”52 Kerby-Fulton has therefore linked Clergy’s prophecy to those by Hildegard of Bingen and Bridget of Sweden, who predicted ecclesiastical upheaval based on ideas of the Gregorian Reform.53 However, Clergy’s prediction’s focus on the king, especially following Conscience’s prophecy of a wartime king, make it more similar to the prophecies of war propaganda like those found in the Eulogium Historiarum chronicle.

The idea of leading the monastic orders ad pristinum statum found its way into war propaganda because the Franciscan Joachimists, who had built on the ideas of Gregorian Reform, appropriated prophecies of the Last Emperor to apply to their concept of the angelic pope.54 Some prophecies present an angelic pope alongside a Last Emperor, but some would eventually absorb the predictions associated with the angelic pope into one Last Emperor figure.55 That is precisely what this prophecy of Sextus the Leopard does. Because Clergy’s prophecy focuses on a king as the agent of change, it seems to come to the idea of leading monastic orders ad pristinum statum from this royalist line of political prophecies. Because some vestigial traits of the angelic pope persist in these political prophecies, the scenario presented in Eulogium Historiarum is somewhat confusing. One might imagine how an angelic pope could accomplish ecclesiastical reform, but the expectations that a victorious king might are more difficult to understand. Clergy’s prognostication of the king who will lead the clergy in “prisitinum statum ire” (B.X.325) confronts this confusion and presents a more logical pathway for a king to enact such reforms.

In the condensed account of this prophecy in the C-text of Piers Plowman, reassigned to the character Reason, Langland makes it apparent that he is immitating the political prophetic tradition. At the end of the prophecy, delivered in the context of his sermon to the fair field of folk, Reason promises, “Ac ar that kyng come, as cronicles me tolde, / Clerkes and holy kyrke shal be clothed newe” (C.V.179). The “cronicles” to which Reason refers are those like the Eulogium Historiarum that contain prophecies of a king who will bring about general clerical reform. This prophecy of the coming king, like that of the Leopard, speaks of a ruler who will lead the clergy to reform themselves. Yet, the reference to Psalm 19:8 casts doubt on the ability of a war leader to bring about such a change. Psalm 19: 8 reads: “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God.” In the context of a political prophecy, one can consider chariots and horses to refer to the king’s armies and the trust misplaced in them by prophecies found in such chronicles. Although Clergy imitates these prophecies, the king that he describes is a moral reformer – the very same described by Conscience in Passus III. Because Conscience has refuted Mede with the Psalms, encouraging the King to banish her from his court, such a reformed king could rebuke monasteries for their greed and encourage them to amend themselves. The phrase, “And barons wiþ erles b[iy]eten, þoruȝ Beatus vires techyng,” at once summons violent imagery of barons and earls joining with the king to violently suppress the monasteries and the peaceful vision of compelling them to change by directing them to the teachings of the Psalms. Exploiting the ambiguity of prophetic pronouncements, this tension promises neither the certainty of violence nor peace in such a judgment. In this way, it inspires fear without advocating brutal actions.

The rest of the prediction points to a specific legislative action that the King could take – a reformed endowment redistributed to monks and friars alike. As Wendy Scase and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton have noted, the second half of this prediction resembles legislation that had been put before the English Parliament in 1371, requesting that it appropriate funds from clerical orders and distribute those funds to the friars.56 Referring to endowments, Clergy foretells, “And þanne Freres in hir fraytour shul fynden a keye / Of Costantyns cofres [which þe catel is inne] / That Gregories godchildren han yuele despended” (B.X.322–4). Here, “Gregories godchildren” are the English monks, first established by Pope Gregory. These monks, Clergy claims, have “yuele despended” the riches that they have been given. “Constantyns cofres” refers to the “Donation of Constantine,” which the emperor purportedly bequeathed to Pope Sylvester and his successors. Those in favour of clerical disendowment often invoked this tradition of Constantine because it portrayed the government as the source of the clergy’s wealth.57 If an emperor originally donated the money, presumably, the English king (as his successor via translatio imperii) would have every right to govern how that money could be distributed and spent. Langland’s Clergy does not endorse disendowment but instead describes a plan for redistribution that involves giving the friars some of the endowment from the monasteries. Clergy points to the funding as a way to prevent the friars from begging – something which Dame Study has just complained about their doing in her previous speech (B.X.71–95).

Piers Plowman launches much criticism of corrupt friars who beg and steal work from other clerics. Yet, support for guaranteed, albeit modest, funding for all clergy is a recurring theme in the text. Piers himself claims that poor hermits “shul haue payn and potage and [putte] hemself at ese – / For it is an vnresonable Religion þat haþ riȝt noȝt of certain#x201D; (B.VI.150–1). Furthermore, in the C-text’s condensed retelling of this prophecy, Reason says: “Freres in here fraytour shal fynde þat tyme / Bred withouten beggyng to lyue by euere aftur And Constantyn shal be here cook and couerour of here churches” (C.V.173–6). In this version, Langland makes the aspects of redistribution in the prophecy even clearer: “Constantyn,” symbolizing the king, will provide for the friars so that they can live “withouten beggyng” (C.V.174). Clergy’s prediction starkly contrasts with Franciscan Joachimist predictions, which had identified the Franciscan and Dominican orders as the viri spirituales that Joachim had predicted would bring about the end of the second status of humanity and usher in the third. The Franciscans Spirituals emphasized that they would bring about the third age by returning to a state of “absolute poverty of life.”58 Yet, Clergy’s prediction insinuates that corruption among the orders can only be sorted out by giving the friars money rather than following their example of poverty. Furthermore, the prognostication points to the king rather than a new mendicant order as the savior who will lead this reform. This is because Langland is both responding to and amending royalist prophecies of a Last Emperor.

Despite the solution that the prophecy proposes, the dialogue surrounding it in the B-text casts doubt upon the practicality of having an earthly king institute it. Presumably because his prophecy has just painted the monarchy in such a positive, reformist light, Will asks Clergy, “Thanne is Dowel and Dobet … dominus and knyȝthod?” (B.X.330). Scripture immediately interjects:

I nel noȝt scorne… but scryueynes lye,

Kynghod ne knyȝthod, by noȝt kan awayte,

Helpeþ noȝtto heueneward oone heeris ende,

Ne richesse riȝt ne reaute of lordes. (B.X.330–4)

Since Will’s question is prompted by the prophecy, Scripture’s retort, although technically about Do-well and Do-better, is also a commentary on the prophecy. If kings and their knights are solely motivated by money, how can they be the proper agents to reform the greed of the monastic orders and friars? This comment reminds readers of Clergy’s speech before the prophecy, which just addressed the importance of self-correction before the correction of others. Clergy quotes Matthew 7:3, “Quid consideras festucam in oculo fratris tui, trabem in oculo tuo non vides?” [Why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye?] (B.X.261). Clergy thus emphasizes the particular importance of self-reform when it comes to those who preach, advising, “Forþi, ye Correctours, claweþ heron and correcteþ first yowselue” (B.X.283). Clergy’s lesson sets up his subsequent prophecy because it establishes the particular need of those in religious offices to reform themselves before preaching to others. Scripture’s comment illustrates, however, that the same standards apply to the king. If those who correct others must correct themselves first, a king, who “Helpeþ noȝt to heueneward oone heeris ende” (B.X.333), can hardly be expected to reform the clergy.

This lesson pinpoints the weakness in the promises of political prophecies. A top-down solution to corruption is only feasible if the person at the top is not corrupt. The apocalyptic reading of Clergy’s prophecy in which God is the reformer is the one more likely to happen, but the practicality of the solutions presented in it imply that an earthly execution of this prediction is still desirable and that everyone should at least attempt to strive towards it. The prophecy advises everyone from the kings to the monks to the peasantry to return to the teachings of the Psalms and do penance for one’s sins like David in preparation for the coming judgment. As Kuczynski argues, Piers Plowman “invokes David’s poetry both to comment on public affairs of the realm, and to testify to the soul’s private, penitential anguish and reform.”59 The prophecy foretells that a king will put the monks “to hir penaunce,” but individuals are eminently capable of penance without being forced. The prediction’s urgent warning reminds the clergy that, whether at the hands of a righteous king and nobility or God himself, the corrupt will face consequences for their actions, so they should attempt to amend themselves first.

Because this prophecy was famously interpreted as a prediction of the Reformation, vestigial features of this reading continue to influence its interpretation and suppress its parodic function. For instance, the Everyman edition of the B-text of Piers Plowman, edited by A.V.C. Schmidt, explains Clergy’s speech with this note: “This famous ‘prophecy’ of the Reformation is really an ‘apocalypic’ threat that the pride and negligence of religious will be chastised by king and nobles, who will resume the lands given to the orders in former times.”60 Here, Schmidt aptly summarizes more recent interpretations of the prophecies’ apocalypticism (both Joachimist and orthodox). This reading of the prophecy essentially retains the Reformation interpretation but moves it forward to the end of the time. However, Langland’s work with fourteenth-century political prophecies is complex and focuses on more than kings and nobles. He looks at the shallow solutions that political prophecies offer to the ills of his own time, challenges their narrative of salvation, and proposes a new one, all while holding the inevitable apocalypse in the background of the conversation. Exploiting the ambiguous formulation of prophecy, the prognostication invites multiple layered interpretations, but all of them lead to the same course of action and the same critique. The steps one takes to prepare one’s self for Judgment Day are the same steps that one takes to improve the world, and neither of those involve advocating for profitable war campaigns.

Physical or Spiritual Labour in Will’s Prophecy of the Return of Hunger

The apocalyptic prophecies in Piers Plowman shed light on political prophecies’ selfish tendency to promote wars instead of advocating for real religious reform in the face of an impending apocalypse. Will’s prophecy at the end of Passus VI of the B-text further critiques political prophecies’ agenda of tying all catastrophes and poverty to an antichrist or political scapegoat. Like Conscience’s and Clergy’s prognostications, Will’s prediction is far more practical than those that it parodies, presenting an actual path forward instead of merely inspiring fear. Passus VI gives an extended description of Hunger’s reign of terror over workers, which forces them to do their jobs to avoid suffering. Will observes that when Hunger retreats, and grain prices tumble, the poor begin to spend their money irresponsibly on expensive food and demand higher wages. They complain about wage freezes, and “corseþ he þe kyng and al his Counseil after / Swiche lawes to loke, labourers to greue” (B.VI.315–16). As a narrator with some apparent upper-class sympathies, Will laments that workers will only work their hardest during lean years and will attempt to organize for better pay during times of plenty. Will does not necessarily express approval of the “lawes” that England regularly enacts to freeze wages, but he does seem to lament out of a belief that the workers’ responses to agricultural profit fluctuations play a large part in their suffering. He then offers a prophecy as a warning:

Ac I warne yow workmen, wynneþ whil ye mowe,

For hunger hiderward hasteþ hym faste.

He shal awake [þoruȝ] water, wastours to chaste;

Er fyue yer be fulfilled swich famyn shal aryse.

Thoruȝ flo[od] and foule wedres fruytes shul faille –

And so sei[þ] Saturne and sente yow to warne. (B.VI.319–24)

In the A-text, the prophecy ends with the mention of Saturn – evocative of Merlin’s prophecy in the Historia, which near the end declares, “Saturni sideris liuido corruet et falce recurua mortals perimet.” [The malice of the planet Saturn will pour down like rain, killing mortal men as though with a curved sickle.]61 Such predictions of catastrophic weather were commonly invoked in political predictions adapted from Merlin’s. For instance, the Prophecy of the Six Kings of England, which was incorporated into the prose Brut, critically represents Edward II as the evil Goat that brings “graunt damage famine et mortalite des gentz et perte de terre” [great harm, famine, and death of people and division of land].62 Langland borrows language from Merlin to send a general apocalyptic warning, but in the B-text, at the same time that he was adding apocalyptic warnings to Conscience’s prophecy and writing Clergy’s anew, Langland expanded Will’s prophecy to include this admonition:

Whan ye [marke] þe sonne amys and two monkes heddes,

And a mayde haue þe maistrie, and multiplie by eiȝtee,

Thanne shal deeþ wiþdrawe and derþe be iustice,

And Dawe þe Dykere deye for hunger –

But if god of his goodnesse graunte vs a trewe. (B.VI.325–9)

This expansion adds more riddling to the prediction, just as the revisions to Conscience’s prophecy added riddles. In doing so, Langland makes the prophecy a more obvious parody of political prophecies. In this case, the prediction’s syntax most mirrors Thomas of Erceldoune. Before the prophecy, the Countess of Dunbar asks Thomas of Erceldoune when the conflict between England and Scotland will end. Thomas responds with an extended list of strange signs that will appear before the coming of a particular event. As Rupert Taylor has noted, Erceldoune’s prophecies make dramatic use of “paradox and narrating as fact things which seem impossible.”63 Erceldoune describes a world that will grow chaotic before it is brought to peace:

When hares kendles oþe herston …

When mon makes stables of kyrkes, and steles castles wyþ styes …

When men ledes men in ropes to buyen and to sellen;

When a quarter of whaty whete is chaunged for a colt of ten markes.

(4, 6, 10–11)64

The prophecy shows a world upside down, with animals invading the home, the common breakdown of grand monuments like churches and castles, the enslavement of other people, and complete chaos within the trading markets. The riddling additions to Will’s prophecy mimic this prophetic language, but they do not appear to change the meaning of the prediction itself in any way. Nevertheless, they establish an even more emphatically apocalyptic tone, particularly with the prediction of a maid having the mastery, which could be read as a reference to the Whore of Babylon. Furthermore, the prediction that Dawe the Diker will die of hunger unless God “graunt us a trewe” is evocative of the final intercession of God on earth.

Here, Langland parodies prophecies of famine associated with kingship in the Merlinic tradition but removes the king entirely. Instead, Piers Plowman presents yet another prophecy that gives practical advice at once for life and the apocalypse. This is essentially a pragmatic warning that famine will undoubtedly return and that saving and continuing to remain employed is a wise course of action, given this threat. This would have been sound advice to Langland’s audience. A series of large-scale famines hit Europe in the early fourteenth century. The Great Famine affected many regions of Europe for seven straight years, from 1315 to 1322.65 The famine began in England with abnormally persistent rains followed by an unusually cold winter.66 In the thirteenth passus of Piers Plowman, the character representing the Vita Activa refers to a famine that had affected London in 1370 as well (B.XIII.263–70). In its most basic sense, Will’s prophecy is based on the sensible idea that plentiful harvests will eventually cease and that savings and sustained labour relationships are important to maintain. The foreboding language of prophecy highlights just how predictable the return of Hunger is. Merlin is hardly necessary to predict it. Famine will certainly come again, with or without strange occurrences to precede it. “Flo[od] and foule wedres” are enough to anticipate that.

However, the prophecy, like the others, carries an apocalyptic warning that goes beyond labour preparations. Throughout Piers Plowman, prayer is metaphorically tied to labour. In Passus V, Piers explains that he is acquainted with Truth because he works for him. Conscience and Kind Wit persuaded him to “suren hym [siþþen] to seruen hym for euere” (B.V.540). He performs “what truþe kan deuyse” (B.V.547), explaining, “Idyke[d] and Id[o]lue, Ido þat [he] hoteþ” (B.V.544). Piers also attests that Truth is “þe presteste paiere þat [wye] dwelleþ.” Piers’s labour is exactly like that of the hypothetical Dawe the Diker, and because he has a good lord who pays him steadily, Piers is a loyal worker. Allegorically, Piers is serving God’s purpose and does so because it will never cease to be a fruitful endeavor. Through Will’s prophecy of Hunger, Langland extrapolates on this link between field labour and prayer as he observes features of the agrarian economy. Just as field hands seem only to be committed to labour during times of scarcity, many people only turn to prayer during hardship. Therefore, Will’s warning is also to spiritual labourers, encouraging them never to withhold their prayers, even in times of prosperity, lest they die eternally in the final judgment. In this sense, “Dawe the Dykere” is meant to represent all people.

Both the immediate, practical reading of Will’s prophecy and the more spiritual apocalyptic reading emphasize that people can prepare to live through catastrophe, but Will emphasizes labour and faith-based preparedness rather than the kind of curse brought about by a bad king. Hunger will return, irrespective of who is on the throne, and the damage he ultimately causes will depend upon the physical and spiritual labours of those compelled to prepare for his reappearance. Piers Plowman borrows the language of political prophecies to give predictions that ultimately do not require special access to divine truth. Each prophecy points back to more universally accepted Christian concepts like the apocalypse and the importance of penitential behaviour, all while mimicking prophecies that dubiously claim to know more.

Parody Becomes Prophecy

What Langland surely could not have anticipated was that the riddles that he added to Will’s prophecy would suit a number of readers reflecting on sixteenth-century politics or that his work’s enduring popularity would add a layer of authority to the appropriated predictions. Although Will’s prophecy differs from the Prophecy of the Six Kings in not linking the predicted famine with the reign of a particular king, his declaration that it will happen when “a mayde have þe maistrie” (B.VI.326) made it useful in collections of prophecies critiquing the reign of Mary Tudor. Sharron L. Jansen Jaeck has determined that the British Library MS Sloane 2578 was most likely compiled in the years between Wyatt’s rebellion (1554) and Dudley’s conspiracy (1556) and that, “Through its pages, the collector of the prophecies reveals himself as violently opposed to Mary’s government, as a Protestant sympathizer, and as incredibly dedicated to one rather startling belief: the imminent return of Edward VI to the English throne.”67 A combination of Will’s and Clergy’s prophecies, extracted from Piers Plowman, appears in this manuscript.68 The combination of these two prophecies transforms both of them into the very sort of royalist propaganda that they deconstruct within the context of Piers Plowman.

In Passus VI of Piers Plowman, “a mayde have þe maistrie” simply appears as one of many impossibilia within an Erceldoune-like prediction. However, when that prediction is extracted from Piers Plowman, combined with Clergy’s prophecy that “þer shal come a kyng” (B.X.322), and included in a manuscript of prophecies foretelling the calamities of Mary’s reign, the “mayde” becomes Mary. While Will’s prediction removed a famine prophecy from its typical royalist milieu, the prophecy found its way back to the royalist setting after all, due to these revisions. The combined prophecy in MS Sloane 2578 reads:

Then I warne you, workmen, wurke while

ye maye, For hunger hitherward hastethe

to chaste vs. Eare V. be fulfilled suche

famen shall arise; thurgh floodes & fowle

wether frutes shall fall, & so Saturne send

you to warre. When you see the same amys

& too monkes heddes, and a maide haue þe

maistery & mvlteply by right, then shall

deathe withdrawe, & derthe be iustice, then Da-

vy þe dygger shall dye for hunger, but if

God of his goodness graunte vs a truce. For þer shall

come a kinge & correcte you religious, and beate you

as þe bible tells, For breaking of your rvle and

nvnnes, mvnkes & chanons, & putt þem to þer pena-

nce ad pristinum statum.69

In this context, both prophecies lose most of their more devotional meanings. No longer warning workers to continue to labour or all individuals to continue to serve God, the famine predicted here in these lines is merely a sign of Mary’s divinely condemned rule. God’s “truce” will only come when the crown has returned to a Protestant ruler who will divest the monasteries once again. While Langland adapted popular prophecies to emphasize individual spiritual agency over royalist determinacy, this revised prophecy underscores the central role of the English monarch in salvation. The uncertainty surrounding the identity of the king of Clergy’s prophecy is completely removed. The king is Edward VI, and God’s grace depends solely upon allegiance to him.

Prophecies formed of Will and/or Clergy’s predictions appear in at least six manuscripts of the early sixteenth century, and as Lawrence Warner has pointed out, not all of them are explicitly anti-Catholic.70 In the case of British Library Additional MS 60577, this early manuscript belonged to several notable loyal Catholics yet still contains a version of Will’s prophecy scribbled into an empty space.71 However, this version of the prophecy does not append Clergy’s warning, and it removes all mention of workers as well. It merely predicts:

Whene you se the sonne a mysse & ii monkes heads

And a mayed bere rule & reigne & multiply by eyght

Then shall fruyt of þe erth fayll by fludes & foule wether

Except god of his marcy gyve & graunt a Treue

Quod Piers Plowman.

This small portion of the prophecy could have had a number of meanings for the unknown person who wrote it into the manuscript, but it seems most likely to be a lamentation of the current divided state of England, a fear of impending apocalypse, and a plea for divine intervention. In its shortened form, the prediction refers directly to the Reformation and the reign of Queen Mary. The monks’ heads in the first line are evocative of Henry’s execution of Carthusian monks who refused Protestant rule. Within the second line, the copyist has altered the word “mastery” to “rule,” which emphasizes its applicability to Mary. Whether the person who wrote this approved or disapproved of Mary as a ruler is unclear. The declaration that she will “reigne & multiply by eyght” appears merely to be a reference to her father, Henry VIII. Although Warner convincingly justifies why a Catholic owner of the manuscript, who may have transcribed the prophecy, might be willing to uphold the king’s ecclesiastical authority, this prophetic quotation does not necessitate such a justification.72 In the absence of Clergy’s appended prophecy of the king who will reform the monasteries, Will’s prophecy’s reference to two decapitated monks merely seems violent and tragic. Rather than advancing a particular agenda, the prognostication appears to lament the current state of affairs, turning only to God to give his mercy and “graunt a Treue.” In removing the warning to workers to prepare for the coming famine (literally or spiritually), the prophecy removes Piers Plowman’s message of penance and instead portrays the fate of the people as firmly ensconced within the control of the English monarchy.

When it was attributed to anyone, the extracted and revised prophecy was credited to the title character, Piers Plowman. In British Library Additional MS 60577, the prophecy is followed by, “Quod Piers Plowman.” Similarly, in the margins of British Library Additional MS 34779, an annotator has identified it as “pearcys Profacye.” In a copy of the second edition of Crowley’s edition of Piers Plowman, British Library MS C.122.d.9, a sixteenth-century annotator wrote “pearcys P[ro]facye” into the margins next to Will’s prediction of Hunger’s return in Passus VI.73 This indicates that the prediction was known and repeated as “Piers’s Prophecy.” The fact that Will clearly speaks the passage and not Piers Plowman, yet the reader still wrote “Piers’s Prophecy” next to it, seems to indicate that this attribution was based upon a popular title of the prophecy rather than anything the reader found in the context of the passage.

This attribution of the prophecy to Piers Plowman is part of a larger mystery as to why the poem itself was often attributed to its title character. The character was named in broadsides produced by rebels during the Rising of 1381 and as one of the leaders in the Dieulacre chronicler’s accounts of the events.74 Anne Middleton argues that this tendency to misattribute the poem is a byproduct of Langland’s “authorial evanescence,” and Robert Adams and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton also suggest various reasons that William Langland might have been compelled to keep his name within the text fairly obscure.75 George Kane speculates that Langland included anagrams of his name that would be recognizable only to those who already knew him.76 Walter William Skeat observes, in his several late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century editions of the poem, that people were continually misinterpreting the title, The Vision of Piers Plowman: “The mistake of taking ‘of’ in the sense of ‘written by’ is so common and usual, that most writers (even good critics) have imagined ‘Piers Plowman’ to be the name of the author rather than of the subject.”77 Skeat’s observation is most likely applicable to the poem’s earliest audiences as well, since several manuscripts title the text as “Petro Plowman,” “Pers plowman,” and “visione Petri Plowman.”78 Some (but certainly not all) readers could have mistaken these introductory labels for the name of the author, particularly if they never actually read most of the poem. To many, “Piers Plowman” seems to have been a name upon which to hang predictions and opinions more than an authorial figure.

The Emergence of Proto-Protestant Langland

When Robert Crowley first published Piers Plowman in 1550, he became one of the first people to invent an authorial persona for Langland and to try to reconcile the prognostications within Piers Plowman with that persona. Crowley’s preface to the work presents Langland as a proto-Protestant and cautiously embraces Clergy’s supposed prediction of the Monastic Dissolution. Crowley associates Langland with John Wycliffe as a religious thinker who was critical of ecclesiastical corruption: “It pleased God to open the eyes of many to se hys truth, geuing them boldnes of herte, to open their mouthes and crye oute agaynste the worckes of darkenes, as did John wicklefe, who also in those dayes translated the holye Bible into the Englisshe tonge.”79 Several of Wycliffe’s theological convictions – his translation of the Bible, his disbelief in transubstantiation, and his criticism of the papacy – made him similar to the reformers of the sixteenth century. With some caveats, Wycliffe might justifiably be deemed a proto-Protestant. Locating Protestant ideas in the fourteenth-century Oxfordian theologian allowed historians to represent the Reformation as essentially English rather than imported from the continent. Crowley does not go so far as to say that Langland ascribed to Wycliffe’s teachings, but he considers them united in their willingness to criticize the Church. His discussion of God’s inspiration of Langland and Wycliffe implies that the English Reformation was not only approved of but ushered forward by God himself. Highlighting Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, Crowley also casts Langland and Wycliffe as holy prophets, ministering to the English public with the written word.

Although Crowley was willing to portray Langland as a prophet of God’s words and intentions, he was less comfortable associating him with the political prognostications in Piers Plowman. This is because their parodic nature made it difficult to embrace Clergy’s supposed prognostication of the Dissolution as true. In his Introduction, Crowley claims that Langland did not write Will’s prediction of Hunger’s return. He argues:

As for that written in the .xxxvi. leafe of thys boke concernynge a dearth then to come; is spoken by the knowledge of astronomie as may wel be gathered bi that he saith, Saturne sente him to tell And that whiche foloweth and geueth it the face of a prophecye is lyke to be a thing added of some other man that the first autour for diuerse copies haue it diuerslye. (sig. *2v)80

Crowley was the first editor to propose the existence of three different versions of Piers Plowman, revised by the same poet, so his reasoning that the prophecy was not written by Langland because it exists in multiple formats is contrived. Lawrence Warner and Eric Weiskott have suggested that Crowley wanted to distance Piers Plowman from the less intellectual, more superstitious, discourse of political prophecy, especially in light of the appropriated prophecies that had been circulating in political contexts.81 Michael Rodman Jones posits that Crowley may have wanted to avoid associating Piers Plowman with prophecy in the wake of Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 – a series of protests by agrarian workers seeking changes in land policies and economic conditions.82 Accounts by John Hayward and Raphael Holinshed had blamed false prophecies for instigating the violence of the rebellion.83 These factors surely contributed to Crowley’s dismissal of Will’s prophecy, but Crowley also seems to have felt the need to disavow other moments of prognostication precisely because he had taken one of them, Clergy’s prophecy, somewhat seriously.

Crowley had good reason to approach Clergy’s supposed prophecy of the Dissolution with caution. In his Philargyrie of greate Britayne, a satire published just one year after his edition of Piers Plowman, Crowley expresses his disapproval at the manner in which Henry VIII and others greedily profited from the divested properties of the monastic orders.84 Of all of the events related to the Reformation that Langland could have been credited with predicting, this would have been one of the most complex ones for Crowley. He believed that the monasteries needed to be reformed but disapproved of Henry’s methods and greed. Therefore, Crowley discusses Clergy’s prophecy as a true prediction but completely removes mention of the king when he discusses it. Crowley explains,

Nowe for that whiche is written in the l. leafe, concerning the suppression of Abbaies; the scripture there alledged, declareth it to be gathered of the juste judgment of god who wyll not suffer abomination to raigne unpunished. Loke not upon this boke therefore, to talke of wonders paste or to come, but to amende thyne owne miss. (sig. *2v)85

Despite the fact that the king factors so prominently into Clergy’s prediction, which begins, “Ac þer shal come a kyng,” Crowley focuses all of the attention on God’s own judgment on the abbeys. By seeing Clergy’s prophecy as a reworking of the biblical quotation that follows it, Isaiah 14:4–6, Crowley also shifts the focus away from Henry VIII:

Thou shalt take up this parable against the king of Babylon, and shalt say: How is the oppressor come to nothing, the tribute hath ceased? The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked, the rod of the rulers, that struck the people in wrath with an incurable wound, that brought nations under in fury, that persecuted in a cruel manner.86

By reading it as a reworking of Isaiah 14:4–6, Crowley removes the problematic figure of the savior monarch, especially because Isaiah warns that God can break the staff of the rulers as well. In this passage, God is the source of judgment and not a righteous king. By tying the interpretation of the prophecy to Scripture, Crowley invokes the Protestant concept of sola Scriptura. To Crowley, Scripture itself foretold the Reformation, and Langland’s inspired reading of Scripture is a testament to that.

The discourse of political prophecy traditionally props up the king as the central figure of importance, which is precisely why Langland had parodied it. Yet, this is also why Crowley found the king figure disconcerting when attempting to read Langland’s parody as an earnest prediction of the Reformation. Crowley wanted to dissuade readers from using this and other prophecies within Piers Plowman to excuse and endorse questionable political actions, which is why he warns, “Loke not upon this boke therefore, to talke of wonders paste or to come.” In particular, he may have wanted to dissuade readers from seeing Piers Plowman as a justification for the injustices that had occurred in the name of the Reformation. As Sarah A. Kelen has observed, Crowley only had so much control over the way that people read the prophecies in Piers Plowman, and multiple readers of Crowley’s edition of the work still noted where the prognostications appeared in the margins, seeming to emphasize their importance in the work.87 Furthermore, Crowley’s own cautious reading of Clergy’s prognostication as one that anticipated the downfall of the abbeys was all the more pronounced when combined with the prophetic identity that he established for Langland when he associated him with Wycliffe.

Unlike Crowley, who took a nuanced approach to Langland’s status as a peer of Wycliffe, historian John Bale was perfectly willing to fabricate the notion that Langland was Wycliffe’s ardent follower. In doing so, Bale dramatically enhanced Langland’s proto-Protestant authorial identity. Bale’s Scriptorum Illustrium was published nine years after Crowley’s preface to the poem, and it says of Langland:

Illud ueruntamen liquido constat, eum fuisse ex primis Ioannis Wiclevi discipulis unum atque in spiritus feruore, contra apertas Papistarum blasphemias aduersus Deum et eius Christum sub amoenibus coloribus et typis edidisse in sermone Anglico pium opus, ac bonorum uirorum lectione dignum, quod uocabat Visionem Petri Aratoris.

[It is quite clear that he was one of the first disciples of John Wycliffe, and in spirited fervor against the open blasphemies of papists against God and his Christ, in pleasant appearances and figures, he produced in the English language a noble work, worthy to be read by all good men, which he called the Vision of Piers Plowman.]88

Owen Rogers’s printing of Piers Plowman in 1561 followed Bale’s lead in presenting Langland as a follower of contemporary heterodoxies, coupling the text with a Lollard work, The Plowman’s Crede. After Crowley’s three editions of Piers Plowman and Owen Rogers’s 1561 edition, Piers Plowman was not published in full until the nineteenth century. Therefore, for nearly a century and a half, Langland’s reputation was discussed more than his work was actually read.89

It is in this context, of not reading Piers Plowman, that the literary persona of Langland began to resemble that of the Sibyl or Merlin – a mysterious historical individual who had had a special insight into future political events. In The Art of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham declares:

He that wrote the Satyr of Piers Ploughman, seemed to haue bene a malcontent of that time, and therefore bent himselfe wholly to taxe the disorders of that age, and specially the pride of the Romane Clergy, of whose fall he seemeth to be a very true Prophet, his verse is but loose meetre, and his termes hard and obscure, so as in them is litle pleasure to be taken.90

Puttenham focuses the importance of his work solely on its prognostications. His reference to Langland’s foretelling of the fall of the Roman Clergy is a direct reference to Clergy’s prophecy. This “true” prediction allows him to embrace the work as an important one while completely dismissing its literary value, one of the unfortunate side effects of retrospective prophecy. Prophecies can be so attractive that they encourage us to ignore and fail to appreciate their contexts. Based on Langland’s reputation not as a skilled poet but as a prophet, George Hickes’s Linguarum Vett[arum] septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico criticus et archaeologicus (1709) refers to him as “divino numine afflatus” [divinely inspired].91 In this sense, Langland’s early modern audience elevated him as a religious thinker but demoted him as a creative talent.

The Continued Influence of Clergy’s “True” Prophecy

Piers Plowman’s first nineteenth-century editors, Thomas Dunham Whitaker (1813) and Thomas Wright (1842), were less apt to present Langland as divinely inspired but offered secular interpretations affirming that in Clergy’s prophecy Langland had anticipated the Dissolution. In his preface, Whitaker clarifies, “To the author of these Visions has been ascribed by some Protestant writers an higher inspiration than that of the muse, and his famous prediction of the fall of the religious houses has invested him with the more sacred character of a prophet … Let us however be inquired whether, after all, there is any thing in this prediction to exalt it above one of those lucky conjectures, which are certainly not out of the reach of natural sagacity, or casual accomplishment.”92 Whitaker insists that Langland “understood the natural tendency of enormous evils to redress themselves.”93 In this way, he characterizes Langland as a clever social observer and moral individual but not a conduit for any sort of divine plan or spiritual wisdom. This is in part because Whitaker’s hindsight allows him to see the Reformation as the inevitable product of Humanist logic and ethics. Langland’s prediction no longer seems bold and daring but simply a matter of noticing which way the wind was blowing. In the preface to his 1842 edition of Piers Plowman, Wright is more eager than Whitaker to embrace the prophecy as more than an educated guess. He observes:

Clergy receives the pilgrim, and entertains him with a long declamation on the character of Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best, and on the corruptions of the church and the monkish orders, in the course of which is uttered the remarkable prophecy of the king who was to “confess and beat” the monks, and give them an “incurable knock,” which was after less than two centuries so exactly fulfilled in the dissolution of the monasteries.94

Wright marvels at Langland’s prescience in foreseeing the political event but avoids defining a precise reason for it in the more secular environment of nineteenth-century literary studies. The mystique of the unnamed author’s genius appears to be enough for Wright. In this way, notions of a proto-Protestant and prophetic Langland remained, even as editors ceased to present him as divinely inspired.

Although noticing this prediction of monastic Dissolution that Langland “got right” seems harmless enough, the assumptions that it promotes deserve careful discussion. The reference to the “Abbot of Abingdon” within Clergy’s prophecy in Piers Plowman may seem to perspicaciously anticipate that the wealthy abbey would eventually incur judgment for its excessive spending. Yet, focusing on this aspect of the prediction shifts the focus from the “Abbot,” who is the subject to of the prophecy, to the abbey itself. Thomas Pentecost, also known as Thomas Rowland, who was the Abbot of Abingdon at the time of the dissolution of the abbey, cooperated with Thomas Cromwell, thereby earning a lavish pension of £200 as well as a lifelong residence in the manor-house of Cumnor.95 This is hardly the “knok of a kyng, and incurable þe wounde” (B.X.316–26) anticipated in the prophecy. Reading Clergy’s prediction as Langland’s shrewd expectation that the greediest members of the monastic orders would earn a rightful retribution sends the message that this is precisely what happened during the Reformation. Yet, some of the most opportunistic abbots were financially rewarded. Interpreting the prophecy of the Abbot of Abingdon as “true” requires one to assume that the Reformation was the straightforwardly just judgment of the monastic orders that polemicists like John Bale claim it was. Accepting older interpretations of prophecies promotes the historical narratives that they were intended to advance. Furthermore, focusing on only a couple of sentences of Clergy’s prophecy removes its parodic meanings, distinguishing it from the predictions of Conscience and Will. This perpetuates the idea that the prognostications are an unsolvable enigma rather than a clever form of satire.

The distraction of Clergy’s “true” prophecy prevented the insightful Walter William Skeat from fully recognizing the nature of the parodies of political prophecies in Piers Plowman. In his 1869 edition, Skeat aptly notices that Conscience’s prognostication in Passus III of the B-text resembles political prophecies used to promote royalty. However, he identifies it as straightforward royal propaganda. Referring to Conscience’s prophecy, he says, “To this is appended a passage that may have been suggested by Edward’s year of jubilee.”96 Skeat does not say that Langland did not write the passage, as Crowley had said of Will’s prophecy, but he refers to it as “appended,” implying that it has a different status within the poem. He seems to believe that whoever added the prophecy (perhaps the author) was participating in political prophecy to promote Edward’s reign.

While Skeat has no trouble identifying Conscience’s prediction as an emulation of political prophecies, he sees no such context for Clergy’s similar prediction. He refers to it as “the curious prophecy, that a king would one day come and beat the religious orders for breaking their rules, and then would the abbot of Abingdon receive a knock from the king, and incurable would be the wound; a passage which excited great interest in the days of Henry VIII.”97 Skeat does not claim Langland as a Protestant prophet, but he does summarize the prophecy in such a way that only highlights the aspects that would have interested people who had read it as a prophecy of Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries, perhaps unintentionally continuing to replicate this interpretation. Skeat’s reference to the prophecy as “curious” indicates the kind of noncommittal approach that many academics began to take to its longstanding Reformation interpretations.

This open-ended approach to Reformist interpretations of Clergy’s prophecy is especially salient in Rupert Taylor’s conclusions on Piers Plowman within his foundational study of English political prophecies in 1911. Taylor aptly identifies Conscience’s and Will’s predictions as examples of parodies, observing, “These passages sound very much as if they were deliberate parodies of actual prophecies that were then popular.”98 However, Taylor does not elaborate on why Langland would parody these prophecies or how the parodies advance the overall messages of Piers Plowman. Rather, he cites them as evidence of “opposition to belief in prophecies.”99 Because Taylor studied political prophecies extensively, he could recognize that the passages from Piers Plowman imitated their imagery and syntax, but he surely also observed that their substance differed significantly from the content of the predictions that they mimicked. This is why Taylor could regard them as parody rather than earnest repetition or imitation.

Taylor hastily concludes that the substance of the prophecies was merely nonsensical and that their entire purpose is to mock the superstition of prognostication. This was probably the interpretation most in keeping with Langland’s lingering reputation as a proto-Protestant, or at least a Humanist, critical of the superstitions of his own time. Tellingly, Taylor neglects to mention Clergy’s prediction, which imitates political prophecies as well. This was likely because Taylor could not dismiss that prophecy as nonsensical mockery – because it had inspired a certain amount of reverence for those who thought that it had come true. To consider Clergy’s prophecy alongside Conscience’s prophecy would have required Taylor to interpret the former as parody or take the latter more seriously. This is something that Taylor, who was admittedly not writing a book on Piers Plowman anyway, was unwilling or unable to do.

Richard K. Emmerson has cast doubt upon Rupert Taylor’s observation that the prophecies of Piers Plowman are parodic, observing, “If so, the parody clearly escaped later readers of the poem, who annotated such passages as ‘prophecie’ and who included them in collections of prophetiae.”100 Yet, the early readers who appropriated Piers Plowman’s prophecies clearly did recognize their resemblance to the genre that they were mimicking. It was the subsequently prevailing Reformation interpretation of Clergy’s prophecy that made it nearly impossible for early critics to analyse all of the prognostications within Piers Plowman together or to identify them as parodic. More recent critics have aptly identified the prophecies as apocalyptic but have overlooked their parodic nature, largely because the prophecies have been separated from their cultural referents for several centuries.

Langland’s Enduring Prophetic Reputation

The Dissolution interpretation of Clergy’s prophecy and Langland’s proto-Protestant reputation go hand in hand. Although both have waned somewhat over the years, they have never truly disappeared or ceased to influence contemporary readings of Piers Plowman. The association between Langland and Wycliffe, first established by Crowley and Bale, only truly dissolved in the 1980s, as more scholars began studying the poem in its historical context and discovering that it upheld many orthodox views.101 Communication between literary critics and the rest of the world can be slow, and Langland’s Wycliffite reputation endures in circles of educated nonspecialists. For instance, Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Marilynne Robinson refers to Langland as “presumably a Lollard or Wycliffite” in a 2015 article for Christian Century.102 A recent legal blog by a professor of law at St. John’s University reviews Arvind Thomas’s Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, remarking, “I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of “Piers Plowman” as an early Protestant work. The publisher’s introduction suggests the poem was firmly situated in medieval Catholicism.”103

One of the best ways to fully dismantle the perception of an early Protestant Langland is to acknowledge the parodic nature of the political prognostications in Piers Plowman. This requires abandoning (or at least clarifying with several caveats) the notion that Clergy’s prediction of monastic dissolution was a historical event that Langland accurately anticipated. Ironically, by asserting the aptness of Langland’s predictions of the future, we tie him too firmly to the past. The prognostications within Piers Plowman illuminate the evils of greed and war for profit, the primacy of self-reform in societal change, the utility of meditations upon the Psalms, and the necessity of preparing for hard times ahead. These are timeless spiritual messages, poetically conveyed by Langland through clever political parodies. Beyond making the decision to parody political prophecies, Langland had no part in crafting the proto-Protestant prophetic image that would define him for centuries. In contrast, as the next chapter will demonstrate, Gower took an active role in transforming himself into a political prophet.

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