The Medieval Review 16.09.36


Cole, Andrew and Andrew Galloway, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. xvii, 265. $80.00 (hardback) $29.99 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-107-00918-9 (hardback) 978-1-107-40158-7 (paperback).



Reviewed by:


James Knowles
North Carolina State University
jrknowle@ncsu.edu

Editors Cole and Galloway divide this volume into three parts: "The Poem and its Traditions," "Historical and Intellectual Contexts," and "Readers and Responses." Their introduction situates the collection in relation to earlier ones that have shaped Langland studies for the past half-century (Vasta 1968, Blanch 1969, Hussey 1969, and Alford 1988). Contending that "we have reached a time of necessary and productive pluralism" and that "now is the time for a new 'companion' to the poem" (2), Cole and Galloway outline their organizational logic for the present volume with the goal of offering a Companion "evenly suited to beginning and more experienced readers--a text that does not require sequential reading and instead invites the reader to start anywhere and choose his or her own adventure" (9). In this sense the book differs from recent single-author introductions to Piers by Emily Steiner (Reading Piers Plowman, 2013) and Michael Calabrese (An Introduction to Piers Plowman, forthcoming 2016), both of which follow a more linear path through the poem. Both approaches are necessary and all three of these expert guides attest to the present need for a reassessment of the state of Langland scholarship in forms accessible to novice readers. Cole and Galloway's collection succeeds admirably in this respect. (It should be noted that this volume is available electronically to many potential readers via institutional subscription. It therefore seems inevitable that electronic copies of single chapters will be the form in which the majority of this book's readers, especially student readers, will gain access to its contents. The convenience of this arrangement is counterbalanced by the loss of the organizational coherence that the editors' three successive sections give to the book as a whole.)

Helen Barr opens Part I with a lively overview of the poem's major episodes and interpretive cruxes, singling out for special attention the Lady Meed episode, the tearing of the pardon, the Palm Sunday/Harrowing of Hell sequence, and the dissolution of the church. A particular strength of Barr's presentation is its elucidation of Langland's obsessive interest in the relation between merit and reward, a theme the poem returns to repeatedly. Her readings are more than summaries. In each episode she discusses, Barr concisely explains important connections between the text and its historical, social, and theological contexts. She also points to crucial differences between the B and C versions (as in C's omission of the tearing of the pardon). Alone among the chapters in the volume, though, Barr's essay contains no notes or citations to existing scholarship--presumably because of its introductory role as a narrative overview. (The editors include a "Guide to Further Reading" at the back of the volume, organized by chapter, so many of Barr's sources will be found there.)

Ralph Hanna's chapter on the "versions and revisions of Piers Plowman" is a challenging mixture of book history, editorial theory, and detailed description of Langland's revisionist--indeed "re-visionary"--poetics. For experienced Langlandians, the fact that these three strands of Piers Plowman studies are deeply interconnected goes without saying--but it is the difficulty in saying exactly why and how that makes this chapter at once forceful and frustrating. As Hanna acknowledges, the poem's "exceptionally various and variable history" makes for "quite substantial difficulties in explaining to beginners either the author's or his writers' and readers' contributions" to this complexity (34). Hanna first patiently demonstrates how a single passage in the earliest version of the text, the A version, is revised and expanded in the successive B and C texts through a process of "interposition" (37) wherein verse and (the poet's own) commentary become indistinguishable. Placing Langland's earliest composition alongside its generic precursor, Wynnere and Wastour, Hanna's final section makes a compelling case for re-reading the often neglected A version of Piers as more than just a foundation for the imposing edifices of the B and C versions. Instead of reading the versions vertically, as the building metaphor implies, Hanna advises instead that we attend to the poem's "projective horizontality, a movement towards an end, a process to which each individual intervention presently contributes" (49).

Part I closes with a pair of essays on "Literary history and Piers Plowman" and "Allegory and Piers Plowman" by Steven Justice and Jill Mann, respectively. Both essays are concerned to show aspects of the poem's struggle "to resolve the relation of the fictive and the imaginative to the real" (Justice 56) and are thus appropriately placed as precursors to the discussions of the "real" historical and intellectual contexts in Part II. But as Justice's chapter tries to show--as much through its unwillingness to do literary history in a strict sense at all, which he claims would be "trivial" or even "unbearable" (50-51)--Piers Plowman is different. Not that it doesn't have direct literary ancestors and descendants of the kind that could be cataloged in a traditional literary history. It does, and Justice offers insightful vignettes of the poem's long history of encounters with other texts, ranging from Deguileville to Auden. But Justice is clearly unhappy with such comparisons. The dominant tone of his essay is one of impatience: impatience with the category of literary history itself, and an impatient desire to express the poem's own impatient desire to transcend the merely literary. Langland's narrator and avatar, Will, "wants to know in a way that is more than knowing," says Justice. And "the poem itself works to cue a similar yearning in its audience, the yearning to touch history, to feel it in the making, to experience the poem as if what one had experienced was more than a poem" (56).

Jill Mann's chapter on allegory is likewise concerned with the conjunction of figural representation and "features of the real world" (65), and argues that what links together Piers Plowman's remarkable variety of allegorical modes is their mutual ability to "activate the latent potentialities in the ordinary structures of language." Mann takes a systematic approach to describing the poem's main allegorical techniques (biblical typology; personification; and Langland's synthesis of these) and their historical precedents (Prudentius and Dante). She then applies these traditional models to readings of key allegorical sequences in Langland's poem. Beginners will find both the overviews and the episode analyses to be helpful guides. More advanced Langlandians may find Mann's most provocative contribution to be her suggestion--not fully developed here--that there is a linguistic corollary of Platonic Realism underlying Langland's allegorical practice: the idea of "tree-ness" or "king-ness," for instance, that connects "the concrete physical world" and "the world of supra-sensible reality" (79). The consequences of this claim are far-ranging both for Piers scholarship, where the issue of the poet's Nominalism and/or Realism has long been a vexed question, and for contemporary debates in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and even neuroscience.

Part II, "Historical and Intellectual Contexts," opens with Robert Adams's chapter on Langland's family history, providing a highly condensed version of his recent book on the topic (Langland and the Rokele Family, 2013). Here Adams establishes that the poet known as William Langland was part of a "very prominent and widespread late medieval clan," the Rokeles (a.k.a. Rokayle, Rochelle, and other variants). Thus while not an aristocrat, he was a member of the upper English gentry who "would have been thoroughly exposed to an upper-class worldview and had access to assets quite different from those usually assumed for him" (86). The second half of Adams's chapter consists of an "Index to the Rokeles" which lists in chronological order, beginning with the eleventh century, the members of Langland's extended family for whom known traces remain in the historical record. The great promise of Adams's index, however, is in providing multiple entry-points into a network of potential "life records" for the poet Langland and his "frendes" that may still lurk undiscovered in the archives.

The next two chapters form another conceptual pair, with James Simpson contributing "Religious forms and institutions in Piers Plowman" while Matthew Giancarlo takes on "Political forms and institutions." The chapters work well together, and students have much to gain by reading them side by side--not least because together they demonstrate just how difficult it is to maintain distinctions between the "religious" and the "political" when making sense of how Langland represents late medieval English institutions. Readers who recall Simpson's "reform vs. revolution" argument from his 2001 Oxford Literary History volume will find themselves on familiar ground here, beginning with his account of the birth of liberal ideology in the heroic act (Luther!) of the "lonely, fully formed conscience standing up against the might of institutions" (97). In post-Reformation liberal ideology, Simpson insists, "institutions are secondary to selves, and especially to the initiating act of conscience" (97). On the other hand, "pre-Reformation culture places the institution before the self" (98). Consequently, the core of Simpson's essay is an expert close reading of two scenes in which Conscience, rather than Will, is the key figure. Looking at the Feast of Patience and the attack on Holy Church side by side, Simpson reveals the contradictions in Langland's account of the institutional church as an agent of reform, concluding that "Langland does foresee the Reformation, but he recoils from what he foresees" (110).

Matthew Giancarlo's chapter begins with a helpful primer on the poem's use of the vocabulary of secular governance--words like "cheker," "chauncelrie," "consistorie," and "communes"--as the basis for its extended and "necessarily coded" (119) critique of the institutions through which political authority is exercised. Giancarlo proceeds to read the poem as a series of "foundation moments" in which the relations between lordship (dominium) and its vested institutions are formed and re-formed, culminating in the founding of the Barn of Unity in B.19, wherein "one building embodies institutional church, agrarian economy, and feudal state" (133).

The chapter co-written by editors Cole and Galloway, "Christian philosophy in Piers Plowman" is the longest and in some ways the most challenging piece in the volume. Why "philosophy" instead of "theology"? As they say in the introduction, recent work on the "spiritual, visionary, [and] theological contexts in which Langland wrote suggests that the religious and theological elements of the poem cannot be conveyed in a single chapter" (9). Instead, Cole and Galloway present a detailed account of Langland's undeniably learned but frustratingly coy engagement with the materials of scholasticism as these were mediated in the "entrepot of learning that later fourteenth-century London and its environs constituted" (141). Reading the poem as a series of intellectual and ethical experimenta which resists conforming to any specific intellectual school or "-ism," the authors argue that Langland "persistently and openly queries what is always taken for granted in the most straightforward, authorized kinds of creedal Christianity" (147).

Suzanne Conklin Akbari concludes Part II of the collection with her chapter on "The non-Christians of Piers Plowman." For Akbari, the Jews, Muslims, and "generic non-Christians" that appear in the poem are not mere types designed to reinforce Christian theological certainties, but rather offer "a range of possible perspectives" (161) through which the reader forms and re-forms her spiritual identity in relation to religious Others. Langland's "inconsistent" representation of the non-Christian Other thus mirrors his allegory of spiritual formation writ large. For example, in eschewing the conventional association of Muhammad with Antichrist found in precursor texts, Langland is able to use Islam as a "spiritual foil" (167) through which Christian clerics can reflect on their roles as "menes" or mediators between the human and the divine. Likewise, in her reading of the Trajan episode, Akbari convincingly shows how Langland's treatment of the virtuous pagan trope is inconsistent with the "sober dogmatism" of contemporaries like Walter Hilton, instead engaging the reader "in a dialectical process that produces reform from within" (175).

Part III begins with Simon Horobin's chapter on "Manuscripts and readers" which gathers evidence from the poem's idiosyncratic manuscript tradition to construct a composite image of its medieval and early modern audiences. Looking at owners' marks, scribal signatures, manuscript layout, dialect localization, and evidence for later ownership, Horobin succeeds not only in succinctly describing the huge variety of cases found in the Piers corpus, but also in explaining to the non-specialist just why these details matter in constructing a history of the poem's production, dissemination, and consumption.

Lawrence Warner's chapter on "Plowman traditions" begins with a challenge to the claim that Langland "invented" the Piers the Plowman figure, arguing (contra Steven Justice) that John Ball's famous reference to Piers during the 1381 Rising was likely drawing on an existing folk tradition. Warner suggests instead that "the origins of the plowman traditions are murkier than we might have suspected" (200) and that this confusion over origins continued to affect the reception of the plowman figure throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By 1550, when the Protestant activist Robert Crowley issued the first print editions of Langland's poem, the plowman figure had already been assimilated to a Protestant agenda through the amplification of its anti-clerical associations in satirical texts like Pierce the Ploughman's Crede and the pseudo-Chaucerian Plowman's Tale. For Warner, though, the early modern ascendancy of "Protestant Piers" tells only half of the story. He points to evidence outside the printed record that shows anti-reformist and Catholic uses of the Piers figure that seem independent of both Langland's text and its reformist offshoots.

In the book's final chapter, "Piers Plowman in theory," Nicolette Zeeman explains why, compared to Chaucer, "there has been rather little overtly theorized reading" of Langland's poem. First, the "immediate local difficulties of comprehending Langland's text" have forced critics to continue to attend to "surface" features of the poem about which consensus in the field has not yet been reached. Second and more importantly, the poem is itself "profoundly self-reflexive and self-theorized" (214), offering the critic-reader no stable hermeneutic ground from which to operate. Of course, for Langland "surface" features, formal mechanics, and the "deep" structures of thought that are the usual diagnostic objects of theoretical inquiry are never separable. Focusing first on two Langlandians--Anne Middleton and David Aers--whose theoretical commitments seem at first to originate at opposite ends of the surface/depth spectrum (Middleton's formalism vs. Aers's historical materialism), Zeeman fills the remainder of the chapter with a magnificently diverse catalogue of critics (too many to list here) whose historically and politically inflected work on Piers has filled the space between these two pole-stars.

Finally, in a fitting ending to a collection produced within and for the academy by the modern equivalent of the academic "maisters" whom Langland lampoons at the Feast of Patience, Zeeman reminds us to turn a skeptical, self-reflexive eye on the "tendency of those in intellectual or 'theorized' life to lose sight of the projects in whose service they operate" (229). If the project of this Companion is to create twenty-first-century students of Piers Plowman who are better prepared to engage with the text on its own maddeningly difficult and self-reflexive terms, then Cole and Galloway and their contributors deserve thanks and congratulations.



Copyright (c) 2016 James Knowles



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login