Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

English and American Literature


English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

David Lawton


This project examines the legal discourses surrounding Langland's Piers Plowman to show that the language of the law courts, and the dilemmas faced there on a daily basis about the authority of the law, are mirrored in the way in which Langland presents Christ's harrowing of hell at one of the narrative climaxes of the poem. The state of English law inflects the literature, even when the issue presented appears to be covenantal theology, because the questions over the basis of legal authority being asked in the courtroom were so enmeshed in the language of the courtroom being used in the poem. Although it is impossible to say which of the law or literature influenced the other more, this project demonstrates how Langland, when speaking of the nature of legal authority, carves out a place for his poem as an authoritative alternative discourse that might bridge the gaps between theology and the common law. To show how Langland achieves this, chapter one of the project focuses on his engagement with the four main institutional sources of contemporary authority: the church, the law, the political community, and the schools. I argue that Langland creates authority for his poem by reframing their main ideas through his poem's creative manipulation of their discourses. Specifically, chapter two illustrates how he enters the debate over the basis of the authority of the law through his framing of Christ's harrowing of hell in an unequivocably legal understanding of the terms 'riht' and 'reson' in order to emphasize the importance of Christian ideas of Mercy in the administration of justice. Chapter three focuses on Langland's understanding of reason as the conduit to legal authority to show his belief that justice demands `riht' and `reson' must act together. The second part of the project examines the legal, historical and literary circumstances surrounding Edward III's passing of the 1351 statute, De natis ultra mare, and its later interpretation to illustrate how Langland's views on the nature of kingship examined in chapter four promoted ideas that played an integral part in the legal development of the idea of citizenship and the role of the king. Chapter fives details the shift from the legal definitions of personal status in terms of slave and master to those of citizen and king - a process which led eventually to the divisions by nation and nationality that still define the contemporary world - to demonstrate how it was the acceptance of the ideas of kingship reflected in Piers Plowman that led the statute to be interpreted by judges as it was, so enshrining Langland's ideas on kingship into law.


Permanent URL: