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The Multiple Implications of Being “Pounded”

The footnote of the word “impounded” in the Norton Anthology from William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” gives a definition of “Detained in legal custody” but the original Middle English form of the word “pounded” suggests that other forms and translations of the root word “pound” would offer more intriguing and satirical implications than the “legal” translation provided. One definition of the word “pound” from the Middle English Dictionary is “An enclosure in which distrained or stray livestock are kept.” Langland lists many laborers in this passage. The way the laborers are described invokes a sense of livestock enclosed in a pen. “Bakers and brewers and butchers aplenty,” (line 1) It is easy to imagine Langland talking about pigs or horses instead of bakers, brewers, and butchers. Just as people used to pay for the release of impounded livestock, the impounded people in Langland’s dream must pay the lawyers money to free them. Langland intertwines people and animals in other parts of “Piers Plowman” in addition to lines 11-16. In line he writes, “I clad myself in clothes as I’d become a sheep.”

There is also a correlation between the monetary system in Britain which is the “pound” and Langland’s use of the word “pounded.” Line 14 states “And noght for love of oure Lord unlose hire lippes ones,” meaning that the lawyers are not doing their job out of the kindness of their heart or because they feel they are compelled to by the Lord, but are doing it for money (pounds). By using the word “pounded,” Langland gets the reader to subconsciously think of money before he states the lawyers true intentions a few lines later.

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The verb “pounded” is another form of the word “pound” that translates into “arguing the law systematically. It is a lawyer’s job to present a case in such a way that would prove his clients innocence or at least provide reasonable doubt. Logically, there would probably be a systematic procedure one would follow while presenting the case. Again, Langland’s use of a word with multiple meanings that are not so obvious during the first or second reading gives multiple meanings and implications to what he is trying to really say in this passage.

The last line of the passage we have been examining reads, “All this I saw sleeping, and seven times more” (1). The whole story of “Piers Plowman” is a vision a man has while in his sleep, but the second part of the line retracts Piers Plowman having this vision in a dream to an extent. Piers Plowman had this vision “seven times more” suggesting that this was not a vision at all, but something he encountered in his daily affairs. His day-to-day life may have included seeing the excesses of the common laborers, some of which “do their jobs badly,” (4) but still find time to go to a tavern and drink and eat excessively and act like animals. Piers Plowman, being a Christ-like figure, would have obvious religious and social disagreements with the lifestyles of these laborers. “The Confession of Gluttony” in Passus 5 is characteristically similar to the short passage we have been studying in the sense that “Gluttony,” probably like the laborers, would rather drink ale than go to Church.

The way Langland uses an allegory to describe his views of the people around him puts a distance between his personal views and Piers Plowman’s personal views. The use of a word like “pounded” that has a few translations is a testament to Langland in that he found a way to convey multiple points with one little word.

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