14.01.12, Steiner, Reading Piers Plowman

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Stephanie L. Batkie

The Medieval Review 14.01.12

Steiner, Emily. Reading Piers Plowman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 266. ISBN: 9780521868203.
ISBN: 9780521687836.

Reviewed by:
Stephanie L. Batkie
The University of Montevallo

In the acknowledgements to Reading Piers Plowman, Emily Steiner describes her book as "a labor of love for my students past and present" (x). For readers to view this work as a mere teaching guide would be a grave error, but the book does provide an extremely thoughtful, accessible, and engaging entry to the poem for students approaching Langland's text. It offers students and scholars alike an adept series of readings that orient the poem within the cultural textures of the late Middle Ages, managing to give sufficient historical background for students perhaps unfamiliar with the period while not overwhelming them with minutiae or straying too far from the textual analysis of the poem itself. Steiner approaches the poem as a work that can be marked by its "narrative incoherence" (3) and its interest in political divisions, but which nonetheless maintains a vision "that is all-inclusive and therefore supremely ethical, committed to the salvation of everyone" (12). In doing so, she deftly balances the text between diversity and plurality on the one hand, and equality and unity on the other. Her ability to maintain this balance, both in her readings and for her readers, makes one of the great strengths of this book its commitment to showcasing Langland's poem as a constant and unending negotiation between these two seemingly irreconcilable poles. The other lies in the clarity and ease with which she guides her readers through the complexities of the poem without resorting to the temptation to simplify, to flatten, or otherwise to reduce the polyvalence of the text. The result is a wide- ranging interpretation that tackles head-on the poem's refusal to give readers an easy and portable answer to the questions of salvation and community it so pointedly raises.

Reading Piers Plowman, like other books of its kind, divides the poem into sections that correspond to the major divisions in the narrative. But more than this, it attaches one key term to each section to organize an argument about how the passus group responds to the historical and cultural developments surrounding each idea. This approach allows each group to be read as a unit that exists beyond the basic narrative elements of Will's dream-life and argues for a more sophisticated engagement with the larger concerns of the poem than students might otherwise seek out on their own. To take the third chapter of the book as an example (B.5-7), we find the argument about the famously fraught questions of penance, labor, and legality in the poem framed not by the idea of confession and restitution, but rather by the idea of "community." While this choice speaks quite freely to the problems of the Half-Acre, it seems at first blush to be less applicable to the confession of the sins in Passus 5. Steiner begins with Piers and the labor of the Half-Acre, using it to demonstrate how the arrangement between the estates focuses less on the practicability of communal labor but rather on how appropriate use of labor creates an ethical social model. This allows her to shift the focus of the episode from the divisions between the estates to the idea of "the shared social interests and collaborative acts of people in time" (64). A brief explanation of the Pardon follows--a reading students might wish were a bit more extensive--that looks at the "ethics of exceptionalism" and persons falling outside the neat divisions of Passus 6 (merchants, lawyers, etc.) But the value of reading this group through community becomes evident in the discussion of Passus 5. Steiner argues for seeing the promise and limitations offered by confession as a practice that "[creates] a model of community that includes and benefits all persons, even Sins" (73). She discusses the personification of the Sins as a method for inserting them into communal ethics and as a way to see their participation in the performance of confession as dependent upon the how their emotions are read by others. This lays the groundwork for seeing the communal connection between members of the various estates as based on labor that, while contained within the characteristics of their social positions, is nonetheless the quality that connects them through the charity of Christ. Questions of Hunger in the Half-Acre, the validity of Gluttony's confession, the unnerving problem of the deserving beggar, and the communal quality of the Incarnation are not simply raised, but raised for readers through their relationships to each other. The progression from the identification of community as a central concern for the group, through close readings of the primary focus of each passus, to the expansive questions threading their way through the poem feels, natural, elegant, and exciting.

The effect of this form is to present readers with touchstones as they move through the book and through the poem. The introduction begins with the Prologue, then discusses Value (B.1-4), Community (B.5-7), Learning (B.8-12), Practice (B.13-15), Belief (B.16-18), and Institutions (B.19-20). Frequently, terms are selected based on their effect on one poetic episode, but their inventiveness and striking applicability to the other episodes in each grouping are what stay with the reader. In classroom discussions, this encourages students to consolidate their readings of the poem around the terms Steiner selects, and the arguments she presents provide enough support for students to work through the poem and begin to raise questions of their own. Moreover, students have the freedom to expand her analysis in their own directions, either by connecting the terms to more remote moments in the poem, in interrogating the limits of where the terms begin to break down, or in using them to deepen their own questions in critical ways. There is a wealth of analytic moments that seem designed to spur conversation, such as the argument that "poverty, for Langland, is also a moral experiment in personification," (154) or that "belief in the thee Persons [of God] is the beginning of human ethics" (197). These claims, beautifully raised by the surrounding arguments, are striking openings into the poem that students as well as scholars will find refreshing and productive.

On account of this organizational method, readers approaching this book looking for a single, unified reading that comfortably gives a neat interpretation of the poem will, unsurprisingly, be a bit disappointed. Steiner's analysis is far from discordant or scattered, but her method embraces the spirit of the poem as one of movement and experimentation. She gives us a Langland who is coherent but not always cohesive. Unlike other guides, James Simpson's being the most notable, this book doesn't so much seek to provide one interpretation as to represent the possibilities of interpretation in and of the poem; there is no "this poem is about…" feeling here, but rather a framework for finding the important questions of the text. Reading Piers Plowman, much like Langland's poem, wanders through the landscape of medieval England and uses the poem as an opening for exploration. For students who harbor anxiety over the basics of reading Langland's text or who have less experience with the basic cultural and historical developments of the period, this might prove frustrating. For students looking to embrace the complexity of the poem, on the other hand, reading this text will most likely feel like an opportunity.

With this in mind, I used this book as the primary secondary source in a recent Langland seminar, and asked students to be candid in their assessment of Reading Piers Plowman as an aid to their reading and interpretation. The students had varying levels of experience with Langland and with medieval literature, but they were universal in their appreciation of and praise of Steiner's work. Their comments focused on the clarity of the writing, how the arguments for each chapter brought the disparate pieces of the poem into focus, and how much the questions raised made them value the unique challenges of Langland's work. More than one cited this text as a scholarly model for their own work. That this kind of enthusiasm came from a group of mostly first-time Langland students was exceptional, and it came entirely from Steiner's ability to focus readers' attentions productively on her chosen sections of the poem, without making it seem as if those were the only sections of the poem worth attending to. Students were able to work through her arguments without feeling as if they were the only arguments to make, and the flexibility of the ideas raised in the book encouraged readers to see the terms as tools for moving their own analysis forward. Achieving this effect is an extremely rare accomplishment, and one that this particular book seems to accomplish with ease.

In a world of texts that look to take readers through the whole of Piers Plowman, Steiner's contribution stands out as an ideal example. Historically grounded, accessible, engaging, and often exciting, it will no doubt prove a classroom staple. Students, instructors, and scholars will want to include this in their collections and will surely rely on it as a welcome resource with frequency and gratitude.

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Stephanie L. Batkie

The University of Montevallo