The Communal Conscience of William Langland's Piers Plowman




Renz, Megan

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William Langland’s Piers Plowman personifies theological, moral, and psychological faculties, one of which is conscience, within a series of poetic dream visions. The semantic field of conscience evolved considerably between the classical and modern ages, moving from the concept of a morally neutral record keeper within the individual or a community, to a concept of internal or external lawgiver. I contend that Langland’s conscience is located between the classical and modern word usage, and that it is communal in nature, i.e. a moral faculty that intrinsically and inextricably links the individual to his surrounding community. The role of Conscience in the interior community of the soul shows conscience’s formation, its fallibility, and its authority by virtue of its relationship to the community of the Trinity. The role of Conscience depicted alternately as a place through which persons must travel in their journey toward Truth, the place at which “Christ will prove truly / that [a man] love[s] the Lord our God above all else,” speaks of Conscience’s participation in a scheme of salvation that is fundamentally co-operative, and thus of Conscience’s own co-operative nature. Conscience’s denunciation of Lady Mede reveals his authority to engage socio-economic matters in defense of justice: he defends traditional moral frameworks in the face of the intensifying profit economy. Finally, his kingship over a Christendom under attack exhibits his authority to call the community to holiness in an apocalyptic vision, as well as his innate fallibility and reliance upon the Trinitarian community. In all of these aspects, Conscience may be demonstrated to be communal.