Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University

title.none: Rudd, Managing Language

identifier.other: baj9928.9612.007 96.12.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Rudd, Gillian. Managing Language in Piers Plowman. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994. Pp. xiv, 246. $63.0011219435001. ISBN: ISBN 0-85991-392-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.12.07

Rudd, Gillian. Managing Language in Piers Plowman. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994. Pp. xiv, 246. $63.0011219435001. ISBN: ISBN 0-85991-392-9.

Reviewed by:

Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University

Last summer, when I reviewed Blanch and Wasserman's From Pearl to Gawain for BMMR, I commented on how contemporary theoretical and cultural concerns had made Langland studies the hot Middle English topic of our time. I noted how the Pearl-poet seemed to be in eclipse and Piers Plowman seemed to be on the rise, largely because poststructural, political, and historical criticism find the shaggy, strange text (texts? In this, too, advantage Langland) of Piers more amenable to their methods than the conservative, formalist texts from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript.

So I suppose it was inevitable that the editors of BMMR would send me a Piers book to review next, and yep, here it came: Gillian Rudd's study of language, learning, and the forms of knowledge and authority in Piers and how they are all intimately related, are intricately questioning one another, and are never quite resolved. The review was set to write itself. Rudd sets up the text in precisely the terms I had alluded to this summer, and shows why Piers is so facinating to us today. But something happened as I read it, and I am hard put to explain what. At this point, all I can say is that I read the book with a vague sense of dissatisfaction that all of Rudd's command of the text and its issues never quite was able to overcome. I am loathe to criticize the book, but I am wary of praising or suggesting it to colleagues, either.

Rudd's central contrast in the book is the distinction between scholastic modes and affective modes of knowledge, and his contention that the difference is at the heart of Langland's poem. Thus he begins with an introduction which cites Alexander of Hales on this distinction, and then invokes George Steiner and Michel Foucault to suggest postmodern ways of getting at the same distinction. This leads him in Part One of the book into a consideration of the contrast between Logos and Verbum, the divine construct vs. the human construct of language. But the world of verbum gets him into a discussion of interpretation as an inevitable component of understanding. Then sapientia and scientia get lined up along this same set of pairings (the former related to affect and logos; the latter to scholastic deduction and verbum). The undercurrent here is that medieval thinkers were on to the same questions that postmodern thinkers are onto these days (or vice versa), and that Piers Plowman is a poem that foregrounds these questions most clearly: "Langland presents repeated instances of how such confusion [over the different modes and purposes of knowledge] is possible in the many moments of confusion which arise from Wil expecting to be taught in one way and actually being offered knowledge in another" (p. 24).

Thus, Rudd shows how Wil in the early stages of the poem is looking for a kind of "guru figure" (p. 27), an authoritative guide, an auctor who can clearly define for him the kind of life he should lead. Reson, of course, is the first of these sorts of guides, and Rudd gives a short excursion into the literary history of this character, focusing especially on Reason in the Roman de la Rose. But by the end of the section, as Rudd notes, Reson's limitations are brought out by that strange figure, Ymaginatif. And as Rudd notes, "If Ymaginatif's function is recognized as one of discomforting the dreamer in order to bring about an affective reaction which may prompt greater change or self-knowledge, it is a function he fulfills to the utmost" (p. 67).

In consideration of the Vita, Rudd moves deliberately, taking up each of Wil's interlocutors in turn: through Study and Clergie, two representations of the deductive method, Will comes to Scripture, for whom he needs a combination of the deductive and affective approach. And in a nicely conceived chapter, Rudd shows that the Doctor "is the culmination of the exploration of the academic quest" and also "epitomises all of the faults of that mode of thought and discourse, the result of over-interest in intellectual knowledge and delight in scholastic ability for its own sake" (p. 96).

The turn to Part III, "Knowledge Beyond Reason", in which Wil turns from scientia to sapientia, from the scholastic to the affective method, is therefore clearly forecast and expected, and Rudd works through these Passus and sections in the same way as before: largely one major figure per chapter. Rudd walks us through Conscience and Patience ("the real alternative to Reson", says Rudd (p. 121)). Rudd is clear about the constrast between and the overlaps among the Active, Contemplative, and Mixed lives, showing how Langland seems to prize the Mixed life the most through the figures of Haukyn and Trajan. He does a good job of showing that Haukyn and Trajan are figures of the mixed life -- the teaching here is through affective exempla -- and in general charting how "the emphasis shifts from what one knows to how one knows it" (p. 134) in this latter portion of the text. Yet Trajan and Haukyn both show the limitations of the affective method as well: Haukyn sins because he is unlearned, and so makes foolish errors, and Trajan's pride in his personal experience suggests his own limitations, and points the way to the idea that it is really Gregory's prayer that is the truly efficacious means of Trajan's salvation.

Part IV, "Managing Language", returns to more theoretical questions, but grounds them in the one part of the poem which, to this point, Rudd has skipped: the Pardon scene. Both scientia and sapientia as modes of knowledge have been shown to have limitations, he says, so the real issue becomes interpretation: the two discourses must constantly translate and interpret one another. In the Christian world of the fourteenth century, Rudd maintains, the real question wasn't Truth: that was accepted, granted, as being the Logos, Christ. But what was at issue was how to translate that truth in human language. Truth, he notes, shifts in its appearance in the poem: first it is a Tower, then a shrine that is an object of pilgrimage, and finally becomes a figure, the "shadowy originator of the Pardon" (p. 203). But the focus here is "on the text, not the ultimate truth" behind it (p. 203) -- so, "the issue being explored is interpretation, not truth" (p. 205). The contest becomes over who has authority to interpet: the Priest, with his deductive, insitutional, authoritative interpretation, or Piers, whose knowledge is based in "right living" and who has enough education to be able to interpret.

There's nothing much to argue with here; I rarely find myself disagreeing fundamentally with the readings Rudd pursues. Why, then, do I find the book dissatisfying? At this juncture, I can think of three reasons.

Part of it, I think, is a confusion the book has about its audience. Managing Language in Piers Plowman hardly seems directed to an audience of fourteenth-century experts and Piers scholars, for it seems in many ways to belabor the obvious. The questions of language, authority, and knowledge that Rudd works over in Part I, and keeps coming back to throughout the book, have been clear and well- known to medievalists for some time, and thus we don't need the belaboring. And the readings of the individual figures and passus of the poem don't really provide us with any startling new insights. It's pretty well-trodden ground Rudd is working over here, and so I don't think scholars in the field will find a great deal of use for the book. Well, then, how about undergraduates, then, as an introduction to a complex and strange text? Then the clear, obvious, and well-worked (some might say overworked) distinctions between deductive and affective, scientia and sapientia, might make sense, as a way for beginning readers to have something to hang their hats on. But undergraduates hardly seem the audience here, either: the book's dense citation of and allusion to the likes of Alexander of Hales, Tzvetvan Todorov, Henry of Ghent, and the Catholicon would likely baffle, confuse, and put off undergraduates, as would its expectation that the reader already knows well the text of Piers (including the C- Text). For whom was the book written, then? I can only think of one group: the beginning graduate student confronting Piers for the first time in a seminar, who might need a guide to help her make sense of the text, but who can be expected to know (or at least know she ought to know -- the curse of insecurity that lives in every gradute student) about all of the theorists, medieval and postmodern, mentioned or alluded to in the text. And my sense is that the text does come out of a teaching environment -- thus its clear, single-minded focus on one way to get a grip on the text, using a simple and clear distinction that students can grasp and run throughout their reading. But beginning grad students should be able to handle more complexity than this, so I am again thinking about undergraduates, which doesn't quite work.

I do think what an undergraduate or early grad student might need is some sense of the shaggy weirdness of Piers, and on this level Rudd's book does not really succeed, either. The binary contrasts that Rudd sets up are too schematic, too reductionistic, it seems to me, to really capture how very odd this poem is. We don't get any sense here of Langland's outrage at social or economic conditions, for instance; all of that, when it is mentioned at all, is subsumed under the arid epistemological debate about interpretation. And that's a shame, because it seems to me that postmodern criticism -- with its privileging of "discourse", "aporias", different modes of knowledge, and odd structures, its demolishing of the "well-wrought urn" as the apex of art, its ability to see the confluence between aesthetic, epistemological, social, and economic questions -- has best been able to convey and deal with the texts, like Piers, which were inaccessible to the more staid and comparmentalized formalist criticism of past medieval studies. No matter how you slice it, no matter how long you study it, no matter what framework you use, Langland's poem is a weird, baffling, contradictory experience, and if you lose that sense, I think you've lost the essential nature of the poem -- and lose it Rudd does. Rudd makes gestures towards the shaggy strangeness here and there in a sentence or two, but to read this book is to think one has, in reading Piers, missed something, that this really is a very rationally composed, intellectually structured poem which lays out neatly the contrasts between scientia and sapientia. Unless I'm the one missing something, Piers just ain't like that. Perhaps the problem is that Rudd's method seems to owe more to an exegetical medieval studies method (citing Alexander of Hales, the Catholicon, etc.) than to the postmodernists cited much less frequently; Rudd seems much more comfortable in the former world than in the latter.

And so it seems that Rudd has, despite protestations to the contrary, fallen in with the Doctor, pursuing a very rational, deductive way of presenting a text whose main work on the reader proceeds in a very affective, supra-rational way. A much better reading, I think, one that seamlessly integrates postmodern theory with solid medieval learning, is the seventh volume in this series, Mary Clemente Davlin's A Game of Heuene. There Sr. Davlin successfully uses contemporary theory to capture the weird disorienting feel of the poem while suggesting why that is in fact the perfect means to Langland's ends.

And finally, I think this book's own language and style suffer from the Doctor's and Friars' scholastic bent as well. It's simply too often turgid, creating even in its more straightforward and sensible readings a sense of real plodding that only we scholars are likely to put up with. At one point early on, Rudd suggests that using postmodern theory makes sense with Piers, but the sentence is almost comically precious and wordy: "Since this reading of Piers Plowman concentrates on the language and discourses in the text rather than on the possible biographical, social or political aspects of the poem, it has not seemed out of place to make use of such theorists as Foucault, Barthes and de Man, when their writings have provided useful insights into the text" (p. xii). We all, I realize, write like this from time to time; it's the disease of our profession. But the book is shot through with such academic syntactical blather, and either Rudd or an editor could and should have caught and reduced it, making it sound much less like the Doctor and more like Piers.

But again, it's a question of audience: the language of the book is this way because, from what I can tell, Rudd and D.S. Brewer have published a book which is solid and learned, but which doesn't really have a clear sense of who will read it or what they will get out of it. So the reader, like Wil, moves on, still hoping he can find the right step to take on his journey.