A parliament full of rats? Piers Plowman and the Good Parliament of 1376
By Gwilym Dodd
Historical Research, Volume 79, Issue 203 (2006)
Abstract: This article reconsiders the relationship between the Middle English poem Piers Plowman and the political events of the later fourteenth century. Its contention is that Piers Plowman articulates a profound sense of disappointment in the inability of the late medieval English parliament to rectify the woes of the kingdom. This disillusionment was generated not only by the reversal of the measures taken against the court in the Good Parliament of 1376, but also by a much broader context of failure by the crown to address the petitions presented in parliament by the political community. Ultimately, it was parliament’s failure to deliver institutional remedies to these longstanding problems that set the conditions for the ‘direct action’ of the rebels in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Introduction: The huge significance of the middle English poem Piers Plowman and the Good Parliament of 1376 is widely recognized and well established within the literary and historical disciplines where each in turn is studied. Both the poem and the parliament were not only highly innovative, in the sense that nothing before came close to matching their achievements, but both also went far in shaping future developments within their respective literary and political fields. In the case of Piers Plowman, literary scholars have pointed to Langland’s use of a new and more accessible alliterative writing style and to his audacious and expansive criticism of the moral decay of state and society as the principal features that set the poem apart from previous work of the same genre. Langland’s literary influence can be measured by the fact that over fifty manuscripts of the poem survive, making it one of the most widely circulated and popular poems of the late middle ages. It also directly influenced poetry written in succeeding decades which adopted Langlandian images and literary techniques and which has been classified by literary scholars as belonging to a ‘Piers Plowman tradition’.
The Good Parliament was similarly a trendsetter of immense importance. The assembly witnessed an unprecedented and truly remarkable attack by the Commons on unpopular courtiers and ministers. In the course of proceedings the process of impeachment and the office of Commons’ Speaker emerged as key components of the Commons’ assault on the government. In future years (in the short term, and especially in the reign of Richard II, as well as in the long term) both the Speakership and impeachment were to have a profound impact on the course and nature of parliamentary activity.