16.08.14, Maillet, Les échos bibliques dans Piers the Plowman

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Jessica Barr

The Medieval Review 16.08.14

Maillet, Helga. Les échos bibliques dans Piers the Plowman. Aachen: Shaker-Verlag, 2014. pp. 233. ISBN: 978-3-8440-2954-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jessica Barr
University of Massachusetts Amherst

An opening note to Les Échos bibliques informs us that it is based on a doctoral thesis from 1979 lost in the 1999 fire that destroyed more than 60% of the collection of the central library of the University of Lyon. As such, it is grounded in pre-1979 scholarship; despite the book's recent publication, nothing later than that date appears in the bibliography. This is, of course, an obstacle to the book's absolute relevance for modern scholars; however, the hermeneutic approach to Piers that Maillet argues for is still potentially of interest.

The readings of Piers that Maillet challenges are naturally somewhat out of date--for example, her main target in the "Considérations Préliminaires" is Robertson and Huppé's 1951 Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition. Disagreeing with their claim that Piers is to be understood tropologically, she demonstrates that Langland is generally not in favor of "glosing" texts--unless the gloss is clearly marked and transparently explicated. For this reason, she argues, we can assume that Langland's exegetical moments will be directly and unambiguously marked for the reader. When Piers stymies us, she concludes, we should turn back to his ultimate source text: the Bible.

Maillet's core methodology is to use the Bible as a hermeneutic key for the poem. Instead of looking for allegorical explications or tropological exegesis, she seeks out what she calls "Biblical echoes"; as she defines them, these echoes include "des allusions, motifs, idées, croyances, réflexions et theories, tout ce qui reflète dans un sens ou un autre une pensée biblique" (26). Her aim is threefold: to trace these echoes back to their original sources in Scripture, attending to the literary relations between Biblical passages; to compile and classify the details of these echoes; and to trace them in relation to the principal currents of the poem.

The bulk of the book is organized into four large themes, each focusing on a dichotomous pairing: truth and falsehood ("Vérité - Mensonge"); earthly and celestial goods ("Biens terrestres - Biens célestestes"); joys and sorrows of the heavenly and worldly spheres ("Joies et tristesses célestes et terrestres"); and flesh and spirit ("Chair - Esprit"). The first chapter ("Vérité - Mensonge") argues that the pairing of truth and falsehood is an overarching schema onto which many of Langland's other antithetical pairs--such as light/dark and life/death--map. Truth is identified with love, love both for other humans and for God; as Maillet concludes, "Vérité est donc égale à l'amour" (32). She arrives at this interpretation of the broader implications of Truth through an exploration of the Johannine "echoes" present in Langland's poetry, even when he does not refer to or explicitly quote the Gospel. Chapter 2 extends this argument, seeing in the relationship between earthly and celestial goods a return to the primacy of Truth, in all of its forms, as the paradigm of Langland's ethics and theology.

In chapter 3, Maillet argues that Truth and Falsehood, as well as the other antitheses that she has explored (Light-Dark, Life-Death), are absolutes, whereas joy and sorrow are relative: that is, they depend upon whether their origins are divine or human. Joy and sorrow are not as coherently treated in Piers as these other categories, she claims, but they provide an opening for active interpretation by the reader, a theme that she elaborates in the conclusion. Chapter 4, the final chapter structured by an oppositional pair, sees the antithesis between Flesh and Spirit as pervasive throughout the poem and as a reflection of Pauline influences on Langland's thought. Linking Langland's words both to Paul's and to their broader context within Scripture allows us to see clearly the poet's view that salvation is the product of grace, not works. It is in this chapter, too, that we get a concise statement of Maillet's method: "Il faut pourtant considerer ces énoncés non pas isolément, mais enchâssés dans l'ensemble des considerations bibliques de l'auteur ayant trait à ce suget" (180-181).

Chapter 5 chiefly undertakes to explain the concept of "Unite Holy Church," which, Maillet observes, long baffled critics. Seeking to correct the incomprehension of Unite evinced by, for example, Donaldson (in his 1949 Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet), Maillet argues that Langland demonstrates a consistent understanding of the importance of Christian community that is encapsulated in Unite.

Maillet concludes by enumerating what we can gain by reading Piers for its Biblical echoes: 1) an appreciation of the diversity of ways in which Langland engages with the Bible; 2) an understanding of how the reader is tacitly invited to participate in the interpretation of the poem (providing that she stay within the interpretive parameters that Langland supplies through his commentaries); 3) an understanding of Langland's exegetical mode, which does not follow the fourfold interpretive model that Robertson and Huppé argue for; and 4) a broader regard for the unity and coherence of the poem ("l'ordre, sous l'apparent chaos," as she puts it [217]).

Methodologically, Maillet's approach is interesting, though not without its dangers. She gathers together verses from Piers that express related ideas, juxtaposes them with the Biblical passages that they seem to echo, and then compares the context in which Langland's statements appear with their Biblical contexts. This practice enables her to examine the specific ways in which the poet makes use of the Bible--where he may have drawn connections between passages, how he sometimes borrows a meaning from one passage and inserts it into a different one, and the ways in which joining distinct but related Biblical passages contribute to a richer theological meaning. Les Échos bibliques is replete with examples of this practice; to give just one, Maillet points out how the lines "He is a god by the gospel... / And like oure Lorde also by seynt Lykys words" (II.86-87) echo Jn. 10:34, Ps. 81:6, Deut. 1:17 and 19:17, Ex. 21:6, linking as well to the verses on charity in 1 Jn. 4:7 and 1 Jn. 4:16, and refer, finally, to Luke 6:35. Reading these passages as collectively informing Langland's verse, Maillet argues, suggests that he does not intend a complete identification between humans and God, but rather "une resemblance de l'homme avec le Christ en tant que fils de Dieu, resemblance qui s'extériorise dans la pratique de la charité" (34).

On the one hand, this method allows us to discern coherence within Langland's œuvre. It demonstrates--or at least posits--a consistency of thought in his writing that is not superficially obvious and that enables us to consider Piers Plowman as advancing coherent theological claims. On the other hand, this coherence may be misleading; extracting two or three lines from this vast work and using them to make a claim about Langland's thought may not take into account contradictory statements appearing elsewhere. As ways of generalizing about Langland's thought go, however, this approach has the advantage of grounding readings of the poem in Scripture. And Maillet generally buttresses her argument with a number of textual references and substantial explication, approaching each of the poem's themes from a variety of angles; given the enormity of Piers, she does an admirable job of mining the poem for common threads.

The biggest problem with this book is, of course, its scholarly basis, which is forty years out of date. Given the relative paucity of recent research into Biblical influences upon Langland, Maillet's approach also seems to be of diminishing interest to Langland scholars. However, scholars who are interested in Langland's use of the Bible should find much of relevance here, and the perspective on his theology that Maillet offers are also insightful.

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