Langland and the Rules of the Game, on Wolf-Hunting in C.9

My paper for the 2021 Online Piers Expo.

BnF Français 12399 27r, Livre du roy Modus et de la royne Ratio, fox hunt

The opening act of A Woman of No Importance has Lord Illingsworth famously dismiss fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Oscar Wilde’s rich scoundrel wants us to admit that nothing comes of foxhunting but an aristocracy sated with its own ruddy majesty.

Today I’ll suggest that Piers Plowman stumbles into much the same dismissal in its efforts to justify hunting. In reclassifying this noble prerogative and pleasure as a duty, Piers evacuates both hunting and by extension the aristocracy of any convincing justification. Piers set itself a problem with hunting in A, and its C addition, or fix, just gets it in worse trouble.[1] For my purposes, whether the poem does this deliberately is beside the point. Part of its appeal is its efforts to keep all its conceptual plates spinning at once without upsetting the social order too much, and part of its appeal, likewise, is how often it’s stranded temporarily in positions that I think it would rather not be caught out in. The problem with hunting I describe here is, therefore, one I can well imagine our poet gamely tinkering with in some as yet undiscovered D text.

Some 170 lines into C.9, Piers returns to the problem of labor, poverty, and charity. The section’s theme is “it is not allowed for you to confirm the law to your will, but rather you should confirm your will to the law.” The Religious should follow a rule; the laity should labor; and the lords should do what they would anyhow, which is to say, they should hunt, an activity, ironically enough, both paradigmatic and exclusive to the aristocracy only because they conformed the law – the Forest Law – to their will.

Piers commands them to hunt “in game preserves and in the forest for fox and other beasts / which are in the wild woods or uncultivated places / like wolves that kill men, women, and children.”[2] As urgent a labor as that seems, nobles still must eschew it for Sunday services. Furthermore, like the laity in general, they must keep the fasts. The general sentiment is not new to C.9. An earlier passage common to all versions has Perkyn thank a knight for offering to try his hand at plowing. No need: the knight can simply carry on knighting – he should protect Perkyn and Holy Church alike from wasters and wicked men and be merciful to his tenants, and, sandwiched among those duties, he’s told to hunt hares and foxes as well as larger game, the boars and bucks that break down Perkyn’s hedges, and the birds that eat his grain.[3]

I’ll briefly mention allegorical possibilities here, just to get them out of the way. Though Piers‘s toolkit isn’t loaded with animal personifications, standard programs of lupine symbolism do match its general interests. For example, about 70 lines after the wolf-hunting injunction, we’re warned that wolves – as false prophets and bad preachers – will slip past silent dogs to gorge themselves so amply on good Christian congregations that they will shit wool.[4] But I think the hunted wolves should be read literally, as actual animals caught up in Piers’ off-kilter attempt to justify medieval English aristocratic hunting culture.

Taken as a whole, the hunting injunctions strike me as skirting the primary issues and tending towards increasing inutility from the earlier versions to the C text addition. The first question isn’t who has to hunt, but who gets to. Laborers require lords to defend their property and lives from animals only because the lords monopolize hunting for themselves. I am confident that Langland would have sensed the aristocratic outrage that produced the 1390 game law, which forbade “divers artificers, labourers, and servants, and grooms” from hunting “wild beasts, hares, rabbits, and other game of the gentle.”[5] He was certainly aware of the 1381 uprising. Documents concerning hunting preserves were among the rebels’ targets; Jack Straw is said to have wanted hunting opened to all; at St Albans, rebels captured a rabbit alive and somehow fixed it on a pillory “in signum libertatis”; and, as we learn from one of Sebastian Sobecki’s discoveries, the rebels who trespassed on the hunting warren of the Norfolk Knight Richard Holdych included a certain “William Longwille,” perhaps, as Sobecki proposes, a nom de guerre inspired by Piers Plowman B.XV.152, “I have lived in this world, my name is Long Wille.”[6] The hunting requirement from Piers is therefore less about what must be done than it is about reassuring the knights that no one will tread on their pleasure. But having framed everything in terms of labor and duty, Piers finds the pleasure of aristocratic entertainments – as well as the satisfactions of social dominance – unspeakable.

His reluctance leads him into further difficulties. He had tried to make hunting useful by reclassifying it as the savior of hedges and crops. I imagine him dissatisfied, wanting to add more to this, as if only an exaggerated danger could justify the waste of aristocratic cynegetic pleasures. So he added wolves, which meant ending with the only large mammal basically thought unworthy of the chase. Wolves rarely turn up in England’s hunting manuals. William Twiti’s Art of Hunting barely mentions them; the Craft of Venery lists wolves among the hart, hare, and boar as beasts that can “enchaced,” but that’s it.[7] The Master of Game, a Middle English translation from a continental French manual, does offer considerable material on wolves.[8] An old wolf might seek out children, because of their tenderness. A wolf that eats people will henceforth prefer the shepherd’s flesh to the sheep’s; these are “werewolves,” so called because we should be wary of them. Not even anthropophagy, though, registers among this work’s justifications for hunting: rather, it’s enough that hunting keeps knights from idleness and in good health. No further justification is needed beyond what benefits the hunter personally.

Morgan Library MS M.820. Fol. 050r, Livres du Roy Modus et de la Royne Ratio, Wolf grasping animal leg in mouth

Wolf-hunting would ill serve those goals. The Master of Game offers nets, poisons, and snares like the haucepié for killing them: this is not the thrill of the hunt, but rather just grimly unceremonious extirpation. And that’s if they could be captured at all. Wolves were nearly all gone from England by the late fourteenth century. The Master of Game translation dates to 1406, and it adds to the original that anyone who wants to hunt wolves can do so “overseas.” Some English knights did hold land from the king on the condition that they see to the hunting of wolves, like Robert Plumpton, in Nottinghamshire, from Henry V for the “service of blowing the horn and hunting wolves within the forest of Sherwood.”[9] By this point, though, as Alexs Pluskowski observes, such posts were “probably preserved as a sinecure.”[10]

Langland of course did not necessarily know that, though I imagine he knew enough chivalric narrative to know that knights delight in hunting not wolves but boar and cervids and the occasional fox. He could have thought that wolves still roamed England. Even if he did, he still overshot his mark in seeking to rebrand aristocratic entertainments as a duty. The boars and bucks and the threat to hedges must have struck him, as it does us, as insufficient. His efforts to get it right are suggested by his addition of wolves in C to his earlier list of obnoxious beasts, but adding them, along with a new, more attention-grabbing rationale – their supposed threat to men, women, and children – means tethering the utility of hunting to an animal too hard to find, too ignoble, and too inedible to be worth the chase. And tethering the utility of the aristocracy to the utility of hunting fails if the hunt is pointless.

The “unspeakable” here is where Piers’s clumsy justification leaves the aristocracy.[11] Had he been able or willing to see hunting on their terms – as a cure for idleness, as training for war, as a mystifying foundation of authority – he would have had no difficulty justifying it.[12] I have to be thankful that, by staging itself as an outsider to this culture, Piers just didn’t know the rules of the game. When they’re left to chase reluctantly after unfindable prey, we have to ask, as Langland must have, what is the aristocracy good for?

  1. Happily, because my paper concerns an addition to a passage present in A, B, and C, my argument works equally well if the B text as we typically know it is actually a conflation of an early, virtually uncirculated B with early versions of C: see Lawrence Warner, The Lost History of “Piers Plowman” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 14.
  2. William Langland, Piers Plowman: An Edition of the C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), 9.224-226, “In frithes and in forestes for fox and other bestes / That in wilde wodes been or in waste places, / As wolues þat woryeth men, wymmen, and childrene.”
  3. C.VIII.28-31, “And go hunte hardelyche to hares and to foxes, / To bores and to bokkes þat breketh adoun myn hegges, / And afayde thy faucones to culle þe wylde foules / For þey cometh to my croft my corn to diffoule.” In B, it is Vi.29-32, which differs from C significantly only in the final line (“For swiche cometh to my croft and croppeth my whete,” The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London: J.M. Dent, 1978) – see also the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive): the C text improves the poetry by moving the last noun into an alliterative position. There are comparable small differences in A.VII.30-33, “And go hunte hardily the hare and fox, / And to bores and buckes, that breke myn hegges, / And fech the home faukonys the foules to kyle” (William Langland, Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. Míċeál Vaughan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). I had wondered whether the hedges could be the walls around hunting preserves, so that boar and bucks pose a threat not to peasant agriculture but the very barriers that separated agriculture from preserves. Cui bono? More work is needed. See I. D. Rotherham, “The Ecology and Economics of Medieval Deer Parks,” Landscape Archaeology and Ecology 6 (2007): 86–102 and David Hall, The Open Fields of England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). See also the remarks on haga and hedges in Della Hooke, “Royal Forests: Hunting and Other Forest Use in Medieval England,” ed. Eva Ritter and Dainis Dauksta (New York: Springer, 2011), 47.
  4. C.iv.264. In a longer version of this paper, I’d have explored the symbolic relationship between wolves and tyranny in the fable tradition (eg Marie de France and Robert Henryson) as well as the commonplace of equating anthropophagy to rapacious rents, eg, Jean Gobi, La Scala Coeli, ed. Marie-Anne Polo de Beaulieu (Paris: Edition du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1991), 172, which has a poor woman complain “Domine, tu non comedis carnes mortuas et coctas, sed vivas, quia injuste depredaris nos. Devora ergo nunc duos filios meos et comede eos,” or a similar point in Gérard Blangez, ed., Ci Nous Dit: Recueil d’exemples Moraux, vol. 1 (Paris: Société des anciens textes français, 1979), 153, “Quant il mengue le chatel des pouvres qu’il ont gaingnié a la sueur de leur corps, c’est la chair crue dont il a la bouche puans.”
  5. Translated in William Perry Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006), 168–70. In a longer version of this paper, I might treat the gradual conversion of forests from hunting preserves to resources for timber (see Hooke, “Royal Forests,” 54–56) and the emphasis, as Marvin remarks, of the 1390 hunting law on distinguishing boundaries between humans rather than boundaries between hunting preserves and other spaces. See similar points in Scott Kleinman, “Frið and Fredom: Royal Forests and the English Jurisprudence of Laȝmon’s Brut and Its Readers,” Modern Philology 109, no. 1 (2011): 43 and Randy P. Schiff, “The Loneness of the Stalker: Poaching and Subjectivity in The Parlement of the Thre Ages,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 51, no. 3 (2009): 265.
  6. Sebastian Sobecki, “Hares, Rabbits, Pheasants: Piers Plowman and William Longewille, a Norfolk Rebel in 1381,” The Review of English Studies 69, no. 289 (2017): 216–36. References to poaching as political resistance in 1381 are frequent in the literature; Sobecki collects several references at 223. For the rebels’ claims to freedom – calls for the abolition of servitude and the imposition of legal equality, perhaps attributed to them by the reactionary chroniclers – see Justine Firnhaber-Baker, “Two Kinds of Freedom : Language and Practice in Late Medieval Rural Revolts,” Edad Media: Revista de Historia 21 (2020): 117–22.
  7. William Twiti, The Middle English text of The Art of Hunting, ed. David Scott-Macnab (Heidelberg: Winter, 2009), 20.
  8. The most commonly read edition is one in modernized spelling from the early twentieth century with an introduction by American President Theodore Roosevelt, an enthusiastic hunter; the best available scholarly edition remains James I. McNelis, “The Uncollated Manuscripts of The Master of Game: Towards a New Edition” (PhD diss, University of Washington, 1996). The material on wolves is at 176-83.
  9. M. L. Holford et al., eds., Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem and Other Analogous Documents Preserved in the Public Record Office XXIV: 11-15 Henry VI (1432-1437) (Rochester, N.Y: Boydell Press, 2010), 4. He had the same grant from Henry VI as well. See Thomas Blount and William Carew Hazlitt, Tenures of Land & Customs of Manors (London: Reeves and Turner, 1874), 213 (this is the third revision of a book originally produced by Blount in 1679 as Fragmenta Antiquitatis, Antient Tenures of Land, and Jocular Customs of some Manors). Blount/Hazlitt also offers four references to wolf-hunting grants from Edward III: Sir John d’Engayne (and, notably, Elena d’Engayne) and Thomas Engaine, 245 (Richard Engaine had such a grant from King John, 137) as well as “Alan, son and heir of Walter de Wulfhunte,” 213. There are also some from earlier kings.
  10. Aleksander Pluskowski, “The Wolf,” in Extinctions and Invasions: A Social History of British Fauna, ed. T. P O’Connor and Naomi Sykes (Oxford: Windgather Press, 2010), 72. As he observes, 73, Whitby Abbey in the 1390s – quite a ways North from Langland’s London – provides the last certain evidence of medieval English wolf trapping, with a record of monks tanning several wolf hides.
  11. See a similar conclusion in Robert Worth Frank, jr, who calls the knight in B.6: “a marvel of ineptitude, a Bertie Wooster aristocrat….There is no direct criticism, and Langland may not quite know what he has done. But a social myth comes out looking poorly”: “The ‘Hungry Gap,’ Crop Failure, and Famine: The Fourteenth-Century Agricultural Crisis and Piers Plowman,” The Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990): 110; revised and updated for Agriculture in the Middle Ages, ed. Del Sweeney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 238.
  12. In arguing for Piers as an outsider to aristocratic culture, I am avoiding the possibility of its shared authorship with the aristocratic werewolf romance William of Palerne: see the admittedly speculative suggestions in the first chapter of Lawrence Warner, The Myth of Piers Plowman: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Warner’s aim is not positive attribution but rather to challenge our received notions of the actual content of Piers and its (possibly) associated texts. Further study of Piers as an outsider text would require more work of the texts it traveled with, some of which celebrate martial values (The Wars of Alexander, The Sege or Batayle of Troy, Kyng Alisaunder, and arguably Troilus and Criseyde).