Episode 124: Piers Plowman and the Peasant Revolt

The 14th century poem called Piers Plowman has intrigued and perplexed readers for over six centuries. In the 14th century, it was embraced by peasants who used it as inspiration in their struggle against the upper classes of England. That struggle culminated in a major peasant uprising in the early 1380s. In this episode, we explore the connections between Piers Plowman and the Peasant Revolt.

9 thoughts on “Episode 124: Piers Plowman and the Peasant Revolt

  1. How significant were the differences between the pronunciation of “bread” and “cheese” between Middle English and the Dutch language at the time? I ask because shibboleths, the language based identification technique you described are an ancient and unreliable method of identifying the “enemy”; Gideon from the Book of Judges is described as using this technique. Often it results in tragedy such as the 1937 Parsley Massacre in the Dominican Republic. In that event Dominican soldiers held sprigs of parsley in front of alleged Haitians living in the border region of the island. If the victims identified the plant as “perejil,” the Spanish word, they would be spared. But if they used the term “Persil” which is French/Creole, they would be killed.

    • I think there was a significant difference in the pronunciation of “cheese,” but there was some difference in the pronunciation of “bread” as well. As noted in the episode, that particular discussion was derived from the Chronicles of London. I am not sure how literal to take that quote, however. It is possible that the chronicle author just used that linguistic example to emphasize that Flemings were targeted due to their different manner of speech.

        • First, “adverb” is a word that serves as a “catch-all” category rather than one specific part of speech; I assume, however, that you are talking about the “-ly” ending typically added to adjectives when they modify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs. (You also say that “Americans use nouns instead adverbs,” but I think that you mean “adjectives instead of adverbs.” That said, English does tend to use nouns in a modifying capacity, though that discussion is separate from the one at hand.)

          But take the beginning of the above segment: should I have said “firstly” instead of “first,” or is the adjectival construction acceptable? For me, formal rules for language are generally only useful for formal settings; otherwise, if you understand the speaker, who cares?

          The use of adjectives as adverbs is not uncommon in many languages, English included. In fact, traditionally, most Germanic languages do not distinguish between adjectival and adverbial forms of words, and there’s extensive examples of this in English dating back to Old English; Dutch and German largely still have the same forms for adjectives and their corresponding adverbs.

          Turning back to the use of nouns as modifiers, though, Germanic languages do make use of nouns as modifiers (“noun adjuncts”); while that’s not quite “nouns instead of adverbs,” take a look at this article for some explanation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_adjunct

          • ” … otherwise, if you understand the speaker, who cares? …”.

            What a scary thought! If the human species had not learned to write (and read), we would not have this vast ocean of change (that beats upon our shores as the Great Unwashed Public chooses to speak/hear as they please) between the mouth/ear communication channel and the hand/eye channel, and so we would not have the written word to anchor meanings and uses of communication, and so we would not have this ever-present conflict between the written and spoken word, and so we would not have Kevin Stroud’s top-class “History of English Podcast”. Indeed, we would have no need of The Podcast.

            Well, of course, we might have The Podcast, but no-one would have a need to listen to it, and so no-one would enjoy it.

            Shaky ground indeed!
            Cheers, Chris

        • There was no particular reason for using “literal” in the comment above. “Literally” would be correct using the traditional rules of grammar, but in the context of the sentence, “literal” is commonly used in American English.

        • In addition to the other comments, the word “literally” of late has been corrupted by overuse. It is a favourite of the younger generation, who use it for emphasis, without regard to its actual meaning. Thus there is a natural tendency to avoid using it.

    • I’m not an expert, but I think this is what happened: all Germanic languages originally had the “K” sound in the word for cheese, as in Dutch “kaas”, and in old english it was written “cese” (as Kevin explained, “c” was always used for the K sound). In Old English – but not in other Germanic languages, the K sound underwent a palatilisation process – it changed to a CH sound. This is how “circe” (pronounce kirke) started to be pronounce “chirche”. When the French scribes came and started to spell words as they actually heard them pronounced, they started to spell middle English with “CHese” for cheese, “CHirCHe” for church. The point is that the English actually pronounced “Cheese” with the modern “ch” consonant, while the Dutch still pronounced it with a “k” consonant, so the difference would have been obvious to the listener.

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