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William Langland's Piers Plowman provides a highly charged picture of England near the end of the fourteenth century, a time of political, religious, and moral crises. The period in which Langland wrote was volatile and full of colorful and contentious people: Edward III, Richard II, Chaucer, Wyclif---and Langland. In "Songes of Rechelesnesse," Lawrence M. Clopper presents the voice of this powerful disputant who lived in a period marked by dissent and discontent.
In the late Middle Ages, Franciscan friars had a significant impact on all levels of society.
But because of the apparent discrepancy between the poverty the Franciscans claimed and the life they lived, a large body of antifraternal literature arose, including, supposedly, Piers Plowman. Since the sixteenth century, when it was first put into print, Piers Plowman has been understood to be a proto-Protestant work that revealed the failures of the medieval clergy, but especially of the mendicant orders. In "Songes of Rechelesnesse," Clopper establishes the presence of a Franciscan reformist position in Piers Plowman.
Clopper maintains that the poem articulates a reformist agenda, presenting the internal Franciscan debate, in a bid to return the order to its initial foundation. Clopper believes that Langland is deeply imbued with a Franciscan mentality that reaches deep into the structure of the poem. It manifests itself at the level of the alliterative long line in his exemplarist poetics and is the source of his imagery and politics. In short Clopper identifies Franciscanism as holding the poem together.
"Songes of Rechelesnesse" is a historical, political, and religious history of late fourteenth-century England. It will be of interest to literary scholars, historians of the late Middle Ages, and scholars in religious studies.
Lawrence M. Clopper is Director, Medieval Studies Institute, and Professor of English, Indiana University.
"Clopper's arguments for both the importance of mendicant characters in Piers Plowman and for the value the poet finds in Franciscan thought and ideals are convincing and valuable. . . . Clopper has earned the gratitude of all readers of Piers Plowman for establishing how much the example and practice of Francis and his followers are at the center of this great poem."
—C. David Benson, University of Connecticut, Arthuriana, Volume 10, No. 1 (Spring 2000)
". . . a provocative, challenging, and fascinating book . . . one of the most important studies of William Langland's Piers Plowman published in the past twenty years. . . . Clopper has written a model of nuanced argument and an exemplary work of scholarship that should influence scholars studying the complexities of late medieval religious history and perhaps even revolutionize the interpretation of Piers Plowman, the most challenging of medieval poems."
—Richard K. Emmerson, Western Washington University, Catholic Historical Review
". . . [Clopper] provides an innovative and convincing interpretation that all upper-division undergraduates and above should have access to."
"In arguing that the poem's combination of intensity and ambivalence arises fundamentally from mendicant self-criticism, Clopper has reoriented the study of Piers Plowman."
—John Scahill, Keio University, Tokyo, Ecclesiastical History
"Songs of Rechelesnesse is bound to stir up a healthy debate in a field in which controversy is the rule. But whatever else it does, Clopper's book reasserts the primacy of the poem as messenger. That it also seeks to preserve the life of the poem's author, however shadowy that life may be, as indispensable to the message reinforces the defense of Langland against the deadly sentence of death that it doesn't matter who is speaking."
—George D. Economou, University of Oklahoma, Envoi, Spring 1999
". . . will make every critic of Piers Plowman pause at various places and reconsider the text. . . ."
—Anne Hudson, Medium Aevum, Volume LXVIII, 1999