The Mutualities of Conscience: Satire, Community, and Individual Agency in Late Medieval and Early Modern England

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Revere, William F.


Aers, David

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This study examines the representation of "conscience" in English literature, theology, and political theory from the late fourteenth century to the late seventeenth. In doing so it links up some prominent conceptual history of the term, from Aquinas to Hobbes, with its imaginative life in English narrative. In particular, beginning with William Langland's Piers Plowman and moving through texts in the "Piers Plowman tradition" and on to John Bunyan's allegories and polemics, I explore what I call the "satiric" dimensions of conscience in an allegorical tradition that spans a long and varied period of reform in England, medieval and early modern. As I argue, conscience in this tradition is linked up with the jolts of irony as with the solidarities of mutual recognition. Indeed, the ironies of conscience depend precisely on settled dispositions, shared practices, common moral sources and intellectual traditions, and relationships across time. As such, far from simply being a form of individualist self-assurance, conscience presupposes and advocates a social body, a vision of communal life. Accordingly, this study tracks continuities and transformations in the imagined communities in which the judgment that is conscience is articulated, and so too in the capacities of prominent medieval literary forms to go on speaking for others in the face of dramatic cultural upheaval.

After an introductory essay that examines the relationship between conscience, irony, and literary form, I set out in chapter one with a study of Langland's Piers Plowman (ca. 1388 in its final version), an ambitious, highly dialectical poem that gives a figure called Conscience a central role in its account of church and society in late medieval England. While Langland draws deeply on scholastic accounts of conscientia--an act of practical reason, as Aquinas says, that is binding as your best judgment and yet vexing in its capacity for error and need for formation in the virtues--he dramatizes error in terms of imagined practice, pressing the limits of theory. A long, recursive meditation on how one's socially embodied life constitutes distinctive forms of both blindness and vision, Langland's poem searches out the forms of recognition and mutuality that he takes a truth-seeking irony of conscience to require in his contemporary moment. My reading sets the figure of Conscience in Piers Plowman alongside the figure of Holy Church to explore some of these themes, and so also to address why the beginning of Langland's poem matters for its ending. In chapter two I turn to an anonymous early fifteenth-century poem of political complaint called Mum and the Sothsegger (ca. 1409) that was written in response to new legislation introducing capital punishment for heresy in England. In Mum I show how an early "Piers Plowman tradition" gets taken up into a rhetoric of royal counsel and so subtly, but decisively, revises aspects of Langland's political and ecclesial vision. In a final chapter moving across several of John Bunyan's works from the 1670s and 1680s, I show how Bunyan conceptualizes coercion in terms of the state and the market, and so defends a "liberty" of conscience that resists both Hobbesian assimilations of moral judgment to the legal structures of territorial sovereignty and an emergent market nominalism, in which exchange value trumps all moral reflection. In part two of Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan draws surprisingly on medieval sources to display the forms of mutuality that he thinks are required to resist "consent" to such unjust forms of coercion.






Revere, William F. (2014). The Mutualities of Conscience: Satire, Community, and Individual Agency in Late Medieval and Early Modern England. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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