Medieval Literary Voices: Embodiment, Materiality and Performance
Manchester University Press
The ancient Greek word parrhēsia designates speech that is bold, frank, and free, holding nothing back; a parrhēsiastēs is a person who gives voice to such speech. Although the word was little used in Latin literature and had no precise Latin equivalent, the concept was transmitted to medieval western Europe in rhetorical theory and the New Testament. In this essay I propose that the concept of parrhēsia may help to register the irruptive force, pointedness, risks, and complexity of certain acts of saying in Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century English vision poem. For most of this essay, I focus on a single discursive feature of Piers Plowman: moral admonishment addressed in the second person to audiences outside the represented world of the poem. I argue that monitory address is an important and well-defined feature of Piers Plowman, that the poet’s confidence in his monitory voice grows during his composition of the poem, and that this feature of the poem culminates in Conscience’s parrhesiastic addresses to bishops and the King in the C Version Prologue. As a coda to this argument, I propose a reading of the dreamer as a figure of wisdom-seeking parrhēsia.
Ian Cornelius, “Langland Parrhesiastes,” in Medieval Literary Voices: Embodiment, Materiality and Performance, ed. Louise D’Arcens and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022), 111–30.
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