Maidie Hilmo

title.none: Davlin, Place of God in Piers Plowman and Medieval Art (Maidie Hilmo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.011 02.12.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Maidie Hilmo,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Davlin, Mary Clemente. The Place of God in Piers Plowman and Medieval Art. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001. Pp. x, 208. $69.95. ISBN: 0-7546-0270-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.11

Davlin, Mary Clemente. The Place of God in Piers Plowman and Medieval Art. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001. Pp. x, 208. $69.95. ISBN: 0-7546-0270-2.

Reviewed by:

Maidie Hilmo

That the audience for Piers Plowman is as wide in range as it was in the middle ages -- when the A-Text was included among the vernacular texts in the conservative Vernon manuscript [Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Poet. a. 1] and, at the other extreme, when references to the B-Text were found in the rebel letters associated with the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 -- is evident in this book by Mary Clemente Davlin, whose reading of her topic, indeed the topic itself, is conservative. It is perhaps of consequence that, concerning the poet and the versions of the poem, she notes that she uses "'Langland' as a convenient name for the author(s) of the Piers Plowman texts" (2n5). She points out in her Introduction that there are few poets who write extensively about God and give him a voice. She sees Piers Plowman as "a poem entirely about God, not in the abstract, and not in the next life, but as known by faith and wisdom in this world" (1). A driving force behind the narrative of the poem, as Davlin sees it, is "where" God is. In attempting to follow the "place of God" in the poem she explores not only the physical places described (she appends a very useful list of the "Proper Names of Places" in the poem), but also the symbolic, generalized, or abstract places that engaged the spatial imagination of the poet.

As part of the historicist dimensions of her study, she looks to depictions of God in art from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries that were part of the visual culture within which the poetry was created. She observes that even the poorest would have been surrounded by images of God, including crucifixes and images in churches, wayside shrines, and in Corpus Christi plays (5). In discussing the analogies and interactions of art and poetry she draws on the precedents of Elizabeth Salter, Morton Bloomfield, Charles Muscatine, R. E. Kaske, Avril Henry, C. David Benson, and V. A. Kolve. She distinguishes herself from the latter by "concentrating not principally on narrative imagery but on the overarching notion of inner and outer places where God is perceived, believed, or imagined to be, and the poetic means used to express this placement in relation to pictorial techniques" (5). It is in her discussions of interiority and inner spaces that her study is particularly valuable.

A study of the visual arts with respect to this poem does, however, touch on some potentially controversial issues concerning Langland. The poet himself appears to have been somewhat ambivalent about the arts, which she does not consider. Like contemporary reformers, including the Lollards, he was uneasy about the avarice and pride associated with wealthy display, the expense of images when the money could better have been spent on the poor, the falseness of images, and their potential for idolatrous use, especially with respect to exploiting the gullible [for examples of these related concepts see the edition which Davlin uses: A.V.C. Schmidt, William Langland: 'The Vision of Piers Plowman' A Complete Edition of the B-Text (London, 1987) 3.45-48, 64-66; 5.227, 240, 264-68; and14.199]. Near the beginning of Passus 15 in the B-Text passage about illicit knowledge and earthly goods, Langland quotes Psalm 96.7 that says that those who worship graven images should be confounded. This quotation is omitted in the C-Text, perhaps because, in the more charged political atmosphere of repression after the rebellion, Langland wished to distance himself from an issue that, in particular, defined Lollard attitudes (not to mention his excision of the lines asking that he be burnt if he lies, a consequence less likely to be quite so far fetched). Elsewhere he contrasts the early Christians who had only the cross in which to rejoice with those who, it is implied, worship the cross engraved on gold coins rather than Christ's cross that overcame death and sin (B 15.531-43; C 17.194-207)

Added to C (in Derek Pearsall's edition: 5. 105-08), again more effectively aligning the poem with orthodoxy [see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Denise Despres, Iconography and the Professional Reader: The Politics of Book Production in the Douce 'Piers Plowman' (Minneapolis, 1999) 30] the dreamer, in a repentant state, goes to church and kneels before the cross, weeping and wailing. The cross is not described as embellished in any way, but at the end of the Harrowing of Hell episode in both B and C (18.428-34; 20.471-78 respectively), when the bells ring for the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, the dreamer awakes and calls Kytte his wife and Calotte his daughter to creep to the cross and kiss it as a jewel and the richest relic on earth. This makes the nice distinction between jeweled crosses and the redemptive value of Christ's triumph. The last lines of this passage allude to the special power of the cross against fiends, a tradition going back to the writings of that defender of icons during the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, Theodore the Studite, who argued that by "relative participation" even of the "shadow" of the cross could "burn up demons" [from On the Holy Icons quoted in Moshe Barasche, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York, 1992) 270]. Both the Byzantine iconoclasts and the Lollards shared with the orthodox defenders of images a regard for the symbolism of the cross itself and allowed for plain crosses, but not with the same emphasis on affective responses. Davlin points out that how Fra Angelico's portrayal of the Dominican observers of the Biblical actors in his frescoes are "moved to adoration, penance, or study by what they see" (13-14).

Yet elsewhere, Langland is more positive about the arts, presumably when social issues are not the main consideration. In the passage about the Trinity, he compares his fist to the hand of God whose fingers can portray and paint (B 17.168-72; C 19. 131-35). Nor, despite the usual disparaging of gold in connection with greed, is there any negative connotation to the "gloss" written with a gilt pen about loving God and one's neighbor as oneself (B 17.12-15; C 19,13-15a). Davlin refers to Meiss who points out that in the late fourteenth century Italian painters used light as a way of stressing Christ's divinity, in particular by such techniques as threading lines of gold threading through Christ's clothing (80). Just so she observes, Langland uses light as a symbol of divinity in the poem. What she does not point out is that, as Denise Despres discovered, the illustrator of the Douce 104 manuscript of the poem subtly uses gold dust to "illuminate figures who exemplify spiritual poverty" such as the lunatic lollar, the poor blind man, and Patience, in contrast to the use of gold leaf on Pride's folly bells [Iconography 123].

Davlin also notes that Bloomfield compared the empty spaces in the poem to the gold backgrounds in paintings, whereas Salter thought that such gold conveys light rather than emptiness, conveyed by the empty space of the manuscript page itself (5n13). In her only reference to the study by Kerby-Fulton and Despres, Davlin mentions in a footnote that in the Douce 104 manuscript the unframed illustrations are placed against the bare vellum of the margins (21n60). It would have greatly supported Davlin's position had she referred to the discussion by Despres, who picks up on Salter's observations about the empty or unlocalized settings in the poem to show that the 74 unframed illustrations of Douce, which were not known to Salter and earlier critics, invite interpretation and participation in the visionary or spiritual spaces of the poem. The ways in which the single figure illustrations interact dynamically with the adjoining text, engaging it, often voicing or pointing to specific passages, are discussed throughout the study by Kerby-Fulton and Despres. Douce 104 is the only manuscript of the poem to be illustrated, which itself says something about the way Langland's poem and his attitude to the visual arts came across to his contemporaries and immediate successors. It would have been more directly relevant had Davlin included mention of its humble illustrations, many likely made by the scribe, rather than looking to models so far afield, especially to lavish manuscripts such as Salter herself came to reject in her pursuit of visual analogies. The reason seems to be that in her conservative study, Davlin evidently felt uncomfortable with an interpretation of the poet as reformist and with an illustrator who was perhaps even more so. Had she got beyond that, she would have discovered a number of areas of overlapping concern.

It is in her study of the "place" of God in the poem itself that this study is excellent in its scope, depth of analysis, and sensitivity. She begins with the obvious horizontal and vertical views, then goes on to explore the implications of "God's Body," followed by a discussion of God "Within," and finally examines God's presence in the community. In her second chapter on "Heaven and Earth: Horizontal and Vertical Views," Davlin observes that in the Prologue and Passus 1 the poet establishes the cosmology of the poem in two steps. The first is the predictable and relatively static view of the universe in three registers, with a transcendent God in heaven, people on earth, and devils in hell. She refers to art in which this scheme is evident.

Later in the first Passus the next step becomes apparent when she discusses some of the implications of the incarnation when love dynamically transgresses the boundaries and moves down and outwards, not only on earth but also during the Harrowing of Hell. A key passage for Davlin in this poem is the description of the incarnation as love's leap into this earth (12.140-41), which she goes on to discuss in the third chapter on "God's Body." She observes that both his "divine and human natures are spoken of as if they are places or garments within which Christ/God subsists" (65). Love is manifest within and without, in the natural body and in the eucharistic body. She connects love flowing from the heart, the blood flowing from Christ, and the metaphorical milk flowing from his breast, all of which bring about the salvation of all people, including Saracens, schismatics, and Jews (11.115-124a). An interesting observation Davlin makes is that the crucifixion scene in Passus 18 is more like earlier images than contemporary crucifixes "in terms of its peace and its emphasis upon the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ" (88).

In her fourth chapter she explores God's presence not only in "the body of Christ but also within oneself and other people through immanence and indwelling" (90). Davlin says that the concept of God's presence within oneself appears to derive from "the very nature of the Trinitarian God" (94). The language comes from John's gospel: "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14.11). The concept, she observes, is seen in artistic renderings of the Trinity, especially in the "Throne of Grace" or Mercy Seat renderings. In Langland's poem Abraham describes three persons in one body (16.181-83). The Samaritan uses the simile of the fist with the fingers and the palm operating as one hand (17.150-52) and also that of the wax and wick united with fire (17.205-06). In one of only two references to the Douce 104 illustrations (fol. 88, by lines C 19.111-12a), Davlin refers to the depiction of the hand of God holding the world, which according to Kathleen Scott, represents the Trinity in manuscript art ["The Illustrations of MS Douce 104," Piers Plowman: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Douce 104, ed. Derek Pearsall (Cambridge, 1992) lxxiii]. Davlin rather nicely develops the idea that all people and communities are enclosed in the hand of God (120). She contrasts the being "in" God to those in death (11.175-76; quoting 1 John 3.14).

She notes that the poem's language of interiority goes back to writers such as Augustine and expresses both the mystery of the Trinity and God's presence within the human heart. In the second of her two references to an illustration in the Douce 104 manuscript (it happens also to be the only drawing of a place since all the others are figural illustrations), she mentions the manor, which the illustrator shows as a castle and which in the poem is proven to be the tower of truth in the individual soul or "the indwelling of God as Truth in the human heart" (101-02). Davlin considers that Truth is a name for God in the passage (5.609-15) following the description of the manor. She says that there are few other illustrations in art that attempt to visualize indwelling. An example she does not consider is the miniature of the Pearl Maiden shown within the New Jerusalem as she holds one hand to her heart and reaches out with the other to the dreamer in the nearly contemporary London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x, Article 3, fol. 42v [See my discussion of this miniature in "The Image Controversies in Late Medieval England and the Visual Prefaces and Epilogues in the Pearl Manuscript: Creating a Meta-Narrative of the Spiritual Journey to the New Jerusalem," Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, third series, vol. 1 (2001): 19-20, 39n60. See also Kevin Douglas Marti, "The Figurative Use of the Body in Pearl," PhD diss., Cornell, 1988, 206-48.]

In her fifth chapter Davlin moves on from her examination of God in Christ, in the Trinity, and in the individual to God in the community, which the poem's language of interiority includes. Even the "community" is diverse. She plays with the social implications of the psalmist's "tabernacle" (Psalm 14.1), quoted in the poem four times and translated, for instance, by "wones" (3.235). Included in the concept are churches as figures of heavenly dwellings (127), homes, cities (compare Augustine's City of God), kingdom, and the consistory. She argues against the position of David Aers that Conscience, in Passus 15, is driven outside the Catholic church in the quest for Piers Plowman. Rather, she contends, Unity is only one of its representations, pointing out that there are a number of aspects of the church, including not only the building, but also a means of travel, as the "cart" of Christendom, and a person, Piers named for Peter. "And where is God?" she continues, "God is present, as Grace, with Piers; perhaps in Piers, as Christ; and in the invisible Kynde, as well, the Creator ('natura naturans') whose help Conscience seeks. Conscience is seeking the head of the body of the church ('Petrus, id est, Christus' [Peter, that is, Christ]) (15.212), in order to purify the church with the help of God" (137-38). Reform here is clearly within the church.

She mentions that communities can also exclude nonmembers, the "others" such as Jews, Saracens, and pagans. She stresses that Christ, speaking in Passus 18 397-98, "promises that no one but devils will remain in hell at the end of the world," implying that sins are excluded, not sinners (135). But all will be saved, including those beyond the boundaries even of the church because God is everywhere, for instance, in the kindness of the Jewish community. In particular, God is present in the community of the poor. This is true literally but also in incarnational terms because God took on "the poor human apparel of flesh" (140). Because of the blood kinship, the likeness between Christ and the human race, and among all the human community, "mercy will rule 'al mankynde before me in hevene. / For I were an unkynde kyng but I my kyn holpe'" (146; 18.398-99). Although Davlin argues that the poet endorsed a vision of universal salvation, she does not refine this to show that, through Ymaginatif, he also presents a hierarchy of the saved in heaven, as in the case of the good thief who was saved but "he hadde noon heigh blisse" because he was, after all, "ones a thief," and like Trajan, is in the "loweste of hevene" (12.196, 206, 212).

Rather than keeping the contending voices in the poem as just that, Davlin tends to look for the unifying truths behind the poem. But who can resist her charged conclusion in the final sixth chapter where she states: "God's position in heaven, above earth and hell, is affirmed and then corrected by the teaching of the incarnation, love's leap into earth. At the climax of the poem, God's voice is heard in hell; penetrating its darkness with his light, he lays claim to all three registers of the universe" (172). For her, "Piers Plowman is a poetry of presence, affirming that human life is indivisible from 'god...that al wroghte' (18.237), 'that bygan al' (18.211), 'hym that in thyn herte sitteth' (5.610)" (172).