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Winner of Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize

2017 Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize

The Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize recognizes a first article in the field of medieval studies judged to be of outstanding quality. It is awarded this year to Rosemary O’Neill’s elegant and penetrating essay, "Counting Sheep in the C Text of Piers Plowman,” The Yearbook of Langland Studies 29 (2015), 89-116. At its best, an important strand of Piers Plowman criticism attempts to locate a foothold within this notoriously difficult poem, to follow the often tortuous path through the work’s itinerant and recursive attempts to make sense of a world that it experiences as profoundly broken, and ultimately achieve a specific insight into the poem’s paradoxes that at the same time provides a bracing grasp of a much broader swath of late medieval culture. O’Neill’s first published essay accomplishes this in a masterly way. Noticing that Langland’s reference to "falsely washed sheepskins” has puzzled even the poem’s most astute commentators, forcing them into explanations vitiated by mixed metaphors, O’Neill more firmly establishes the tenor of this metaphorical image as a specific fraudulent practice of manor stewards. She then gives broad scrutiny to the nature of stewardship, drawing on a variety of estates-management manuals to provide a thick description of the complex array of real-world practices and competing values that Langland was invoking. With this in place, O’Neill broadens the application of the metaphor (taking stewardship itself as a vehicle for another meaning), drawing on late medieval English sermons to show how Langland’s reference indexes "a larger system of ethics in later medieval England…an ethos of stewardship” that in principle determines "an individual’s relationships to other people and to God through the individual’s use of material goods.” What O’Neill discovers, however, is that this ethos itself is founded on the vexingly ambiguous, if not simply contradictory, metaphors underlying the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16: 1-13), which provides the context for Langland’s reference to the sheepskins. Surveying the variously anxious, conflicting, and at times self-serving medieval exegetical responses to this parable, O’Neill shows how it is precisely the uncertain interpretation of the parable that makes the ethos of stewardship that it underwrites seemingly impossible to follow or simply wrong; as she remarks, some Middle English sermons suggest "that the same ethos of stewardship does not apply on both heaven and earth: an opposite fiscal logic guides the one and the other.” O’Neill then returns to Piers Plowman and demonstrates how acutely Langland’s revisions to the C version of the poem grapple with precisely the contradictions and uncertainties within this ethos of stewardship, an ethos that Langland presents as simultaneously the only route to salvation, impossible to achieve in ordinary (fallen) life, and perhaps even itself nonsensical. The "stewardship model of salvation, in Langland’s far-reaching imagination,” O’Neill concludes, "forces him to face the terrifying idea that salvation must be stolen rather than earned.” And with this point, O’Neill provides her readers with not just a glimpse into the turmoil at the heart of this poem, and not just a vivid sense of a more general ideological paradox closely knit into the fabric of late medieval culture, but also a demonstration of how Langland’s problem, notwithstanding its historical specificity, remains our own—when we wonder, like him, whether the economic system that benefits us leaves someone somewhere "unjustly deprived.” For its incisive argumentation, cogent organization, breadth of scholarship, simultaneously specific and wide applicability, and lucid and at times witty prose, O’Neill’s essay is an exemplary first article in medieval studies.


David F. Hult (chair)

Amy G. Remensnyder

Robert J. Meyer-Lee

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