The Medieval Review 17.04.05

Calabrese, Michael. An Introduction to Piers Plowman. New Perspectives of Medieval Literature: Authors and Traditions. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2016. pp. xxx, 355. $79.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8130-6270-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Lawrence Warner
King's College London

This lively book has no peers. It presents itself as an attempt "to make the poem fundamentally accessible and comprehensible for new readers...of this compelling but often murky poem" (xi), which will call many readers' minds to other recent introductions by Anna Baldwin, James Simpson, and Emily Steiner, among others. (Calabrese provides a helpful three-page annotated bibliography of handbooks, guidebooks, and companions.) But while most introductions aim for brevity, An Introduction to "Piers Plowman" offers a full-scale overview of Langland's poem in its received A, B, and C versions (not Z, though he otherwise follows A.V.C. Schmidt on textual matters), as well as its author's putative life (accepting without much question Robert Adams's recent identification of him as William de Rokele), and his contemporaries, from Jean de Meun through Margery Kempe. The volume concludes with appendices on "Persons, Personifications, and Allegorizings in Piers Plowman" and on reading the poem aloud, that is, pronouncing Middle English and the basics of the alliterative long line, followed by a bibliography, including a handy list of electronic resources as well as the annotated list of other introductions and guidebooks just mentioned, and an index of very high quality.

Readers seeking a one-stop shop for tools with which to engage with all things Piers could hardly do better than Calabrese's Introduction. The only things that might put readers off are its price (though the author and press have generously reached out to teachers of the poem to offer discounts) and its cover illustration, in which "death brandishing an arrow and carrying an empty coffin rides a black bull over the bodies of men, including a pope, a bishop and a king," as the Huntington Library's website describes this image from a sixteenth-century French Book of Hours.

Come to think of it, though, the latter feature might well appeal to some readers, and this book has many other more obvious delights as well. Calabrese adopts a cheerfully chatty voice, with frequent invocations of pop culture of the last century. Pop music fans of my generation will enjoy allusions to the Temptations (chapter 15: "Just Will's Imagination") and the Beatles (the rich poet playing poor as akin to Lennon as "Working Class Hero"; the poem's ending on the street anticipating "Sir Paul McCartney, who six hundred years later at Penny Lane in Liverpool observes the sights and sounds of common life, images renewed and celebrated by bards of every generation" [32]). The Wizard of Oz, Charlie Chaplin, and Alice in Wonderland are other touchstones. And earnest English majors who see their field as set apart from pop culture will also appreciate the comparisons of Langland's work with The Wanderer, Hamlet, and the Romantic poets.

Such features enliven what might otherwise come across as extensive plot summary, which much of this book inevitably provides. That sense is also broken up by the author's frequent voicing of the poem's interpretive dilemmas: "if readers wonder whether love or condemnation is dominant in Holy Church's discourses, they have asked a central question" (43); that figure's claim that whoever follows Truth becomes "a God by the gospel" "seems strange doctrinally and even frightening, but the poet says it, and readers must determine whether the half line succeeds as poetry only or whether it works as theology as well" (39); and so forth. And if movies and pop records provide some context with a smile, Calabrese is also very sensitive to what it means for modern readers to encounter such thoroughly medieval ideas. He notes that students from Hispanic cultures, including those he teaches at California State University, Los Angeles, "with roots in the religious cultures of Mexico and Central America, potentially have insight into, and direct experience with, the living history of religious institutions and doctrines," via for instance the twenty-one missions that friars founded in southern California: "social relevance draws the reader into an alien medieval world and reveals it, finally, as not alien at all" (xix). But Calabrese does not shy away from the flip side: Langland's "mono-faith monologue" in which prelates will convert Muslims and Jews "provokes contemplation in a post-Holocaust, post-9/11 world" (219). Such interventions remind his book's audience why they are working through all this material, while also providing teachers with built-in topics for classroom discussion and debate.

One of Calabrese's favorite conceits is that of Will as a failed graduate student (21, 82-83), and he frequently compares the poet's revisions with the act of reworking an essay (26, 31). Yet despite these nods to the student market, I think this volume might in fact serve even better as a guide for teachers. In part this is a function of the fact that a teacher wrote it. The Temptations and Beatles, not Beyoncé and Panic! at the Disco, after all, make up the world it occupies. More than that, I wonder how many students will in fact ever engage in anything close to the amount of comparison among the versions that is Calabrese's foundational procedure. Even a whole semester devoted to Piers alone would have a hard time working through either of the longer versions in its entirety, not to mention comparing each passage to those of the other versions. His best readers, ironically, might be those readers who already "delight in the rigors of reading and writing about Piers" (169), who need not so much an introduction as an authoritative guide: a Holy Church, a Virgil. An Introduction to "Piers Plowman" is best taken as the first stand-alone running commentary on the three versions of the poem ever to be published. That is a major accomplishment, and one that should not be obscured by the marketing of the volume to beginners. It can serve that function, for sure; my point is that any guide that takes the poem in all its versions and their literary context as its topics will inevitably provide much more than just an introduction.

From that perspective, 400-odd pages is hardly sufficient to the task: this is thus the second major "marvel of compression" in the canon of Langland scholarship (the first being Schmidt's Everyman B-text edition, as described by Pearsall). Calabrese necessarily leaves much out and sometimes telescopes his discussion. While most of his guidance is illuminating and helpful, in a few places a few more sentences would have cleared up serious confusions. Readers would benefit, for instance, from knowing that Anima's discourse in B.15 is aimed directly at bishops (not "the clergy" as Calabrese has it), and relies heavily on imagery and rhetoric taken from the liturgy and sermons associated with St. Thomas Becket, named in both B and C but not here.

A paperback reprint, much to be desired, might fix up a few errors and oversights. The chronology of important dates and events in the history of Piers Plowman has it that in 1950 "R.K. Chambers initiates the editing project that later becomes the Athlone editions" (xxx), but he is thinking of R.W., not K., Chambers, whose work of Piers began as early as 1906 and who died in 1942, while 1950 is when Athlone accepted the proposal of Chambers's successors, including George Kane. It goes too far to say that the capitalization of proper names in modern editions does not "reflect the medieval transmission of the poem" (283), given that the Athlone editions in fact strictly follow their base manuscripts in that regard. And the remark that A.V.C. Schmidt, "like many editors, preserves the manuscript orthography" regarding u and v (312), while accurate with regard to the Parallel-Text edition followed by Calabrese, does not apply to the 1995 Everyman B-text edition in which his readers are in fact far more likely to have first encountered Piers.

But, again, it would be impossible to produce a work so ambitious--not just a reading of the poem, but a contextualization, an introduction, a commentary, and much else--without a few such glitches. That chronology cheekily offers as its last entry: "20??:Piers Plowman joins Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as the most read and most beloved works of Middle English literature" (xxx). If that worthy goal finally comes within sight, it will surely be in no small part thanks to the labors of Michael Calabrese in this magnificent book.

Copyright (c) 2017 Lawrence Warner

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