18.03.01, Davis, Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature

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Gillian Rudd

The Medieval Review 18.03.01

Davis, Rebecca. Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. xiv, 272. ISBN: 978-0-19-877840-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Gillian Rudd
University of Liverpool, UK

One of the most useful things about this book is its Preface. Here, Rebecca Davis explains, succinctly, the concept and study of the liber naturalis, while also quietly staking the claim for this particular study of Piers Plowman that Langland "relies on the trope of the book of nature to imagine a recuperated intimacy between creator and creation" (vii-viii). This asserts Langland's position in the tradition of medieval humanism, and while one may pause over that term, there is no doubt that this book proves that Langland still has much to offer the modern reader who will give his poem not just the time and attention, but also the imagination, it demands.

At the same time, Davis also offers a remarkably buoyant reading of the poem, challenging the discourses of disability and failure she remarks upon as having characterised much salient Langland criticism. For her, "Piers Plowman evinces a studied optimism with respect to the moral and ethical guidance that nature provides, as well as a confidence in the human capacity to glean these truths from nature and act on them" (viii). I applaud her positivity, but am less certain of either that human capacity or the willingness to act upon it. In that, however, we may differ less in our opinion of Langland and more in our critical bias, for while Davis's book is certainly about the book of Nature it is in no way a particularly ecocritical book. That may reflect its long genesis, but also reflects its focus on kynde, a notoriously complex and rich term, which is given due exploration across the Introduction, five main chapters and Conclusion that constitute this study. It is a study worth perusing, but on occasion I felt the bids being made for newness of approach were a little over-egged. It is surely not that "remarkable" (2) to find God and Kynde merged, as they are in Langland, especially when, as Davis is at pains to point out, the aspect of Kynde foremost in this merger is that of "nature, or creation, broadly construed" (2). One senses that just as Alan of Lille amongst many others got to this before Langland, so scholars such as A. V. C. Schmidt and Hugh White as well as Sister Mary Clement Davlin (the only of these three cited here) got to this particular moment of merging before Davis. Moreover, even if such a conflation of terms strikes a twenty-first reader as remarkable, surely it is more or less taken as read by the poem itself, and, one may even venture, by its earlier audiences. It is through such conflations and mergers that a phenomenal world works when that world has been created by a divine power, especially one which is held to be immanent in that Creation.

However, it is uncharitable and so not at all in a spirit the poem would approve, to dwell on such things, especially when a mere three pages later one encounters the kind of footnote that makes one wish to read more. Note 12 of this Introduction not only homes in on the troublesome connection between need and poverty ("concepts of nature are inextricably bound with provision, production and consumption, the social order, and the embodied experience of privation," [5 n12] a matter that current social commentators and politicians find themselves again negotiating in these late twenty-teen years) but also expands into a digest of reference that demonstrates the depth of knowledge underpinning this study as a whole. Early on in the book such breadth of reading threatens to overwhelm the argument, occasionally making the Introduction something of a literary review, but such things are not without merit and certainly often useful not only for new scholars, but for those, like me, revisiting areas once well-known but less frequented in recent years. I found myself pausing to recall arguments and views once held and while I retain some (most particularly perhaps that Langland leaves God to be apprehended behind Kynde, rather than fully merged with him/her: Kynde is not just God, nor God only Kynde) it was good to test and adjust my sense of these aspects of the poem against a study steeped in the scholarship of the last ten years. By and large, dues are paid to scholarship and critiques of the poem from more than a decade ago as well, but there are some surprising omissions, not least Schmidt's The Clerkly Maker: Langland's Poetic Art (Woodbridge, 1987) which to my mind has much to say in response to the readings offered here, especially the very engaging reading of the Samaritan as a poet (22-30) and in particular a maker of similes which, Davis reveals, is an imitatio christi (29). Tavormina (Kindly Similitude) is the main interlocutor for Davis here, but a three-way conversation with Schmidt is an inviting prospect.

Chapter 1, "From Cosmos to Microcosm: nature, allegory, humanism," begins by contrasting Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls with passus 20 of Piers B text and moves on to offer a comprehensive review of how Nature as a goddess has been imagined across the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The sections of the chapter focus in turn on Bernard Silvestris, Alan of Lille, Jean de Meun, Deguileville, Chaucer (and through him Boethius) in a sequence that also depicts a decline in Nature from philosophical concept to satire, which may or may not be conscious or intentional. Davis's trademark thoughtful and informed engagement is evident throughout and makes for an absorbing chapter, at the end of which Chaucer inevitably leaves Nature herself in a primarily sexual realm, a place from which Langland must redeem her in chapter two. "Fader and formour: Langland's Creator Kynde" duly effects this rescue, while also demonstrating why it is that readers of Piers Plowman so easily assume Kynde may be translated simply as nature, if not indeed Nature. This assumption is shown by Davis to be rooted in the series of associations and steps that take Natura's traditional attributes "now recuperated as properties of the triune God" to allow for a regenerated nature as Kynde (85). Although not explicitly stated at this point, the relation with Reason which Davis remarks upon as being lost in the later Natura figures is perhaps also recouped in Langland's Kynde Wit, a figure who gets remarkably little consideration in this book, being more often relegated to asides in notes than discussed as a figure in its (or him) self, the exception being a short section of chapter three where Kynde Wit is dispatched rather briefly as "roughly equivalent to natural capacities" (165). Not that Kynde and Kynde Wit are identical of course, but in a study so interested in the concept and effects of mergers, it is a little surprising to find no speculation on this matter, especially after having our attention drawn to the complexities of Langland's personifications and similes through the reading of the Samaritan in the Introduction.

The first section of this second chapter is likely to prove a favourite. Neatly entitled "Handling Creation" it treats us to a guided tour of some great illustrations found in the Holkham Bible Picture Book, the Queen Mary's Psalter, the Latin Oscott Psalter and various others. Attention is drawn to how very hands-on God is in these manuscripts, using fingers to open up Adam, bodily lifting out Eve, or at least taking her by the wrist to help her up and out of Adam's ribs. While reminding us that such depictions are not inevitable, Davis does a good job in showing how relevant they are and thus endorsing her argument for the composite figure of God/Nature/Creator-craftsman she finds in Langland.

Chapter 3 moves us on to the encyclopaedia tradition in which exemplarism is shown to be a theological tradition which variously posits, assumes, demonstrates or asserts a fundamental relationship between created things and spiritual truths, and Langland's Vision of Kynde presented as a "staged failure" of that device. In this chapter in particular I missed reference to Schmidt's Clerkly Maker or even to Rudd's Managing Language both of which make use of what Davis neatly refers to as Langland's "encyclopedic" approach (137), but there is more than ample reference to other works in the area, so readers in search of other relevant studies are not short-changed. As Davis mentions, the topic of scientia and sapientia has been thoroughly rehearsed (136) which may be why this chapter more than others seems to cover familiar ground, but it remains ground worth covering and certainly the gently persistent hold on the notion of deliberate failure is convincing. As its title suggests, this chapter contains many diverse sights, but the cost of that diversity is that some sights, such as the peacock (170), are necessarily left rather under-explored. The positive is that Davis makes her readers very aware of what more could be said, were it not for the confines of producing a manageable volume rather than the bulky and uncontrolled encyclopaedias upon which this chapter directly and indirectly draws.

It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the next chapter tackles the concept of being "Beyond Measure." Measure here is the measure of the law, thus linking Davis's study to another large area of reference for Langland and reminding us that nature is a law as well as a creative force or a book. Indeed in this chapter the emphasis is rather on the nature of law than the law of nature, as Davis reminds us of the internal qualities of Kynde and Kynde Knowing, and so of the intrinsic link between exterior law and divine interiority. Our habit of keeping interior and exterior distinct is thus disrupted in a way that fits with the disruptive spirit that Davis presents as a presiding principle of Piers Plowman without ever quite calling it that. Rather, the focus here is on Langland's use of legal discourse and concepts which must also be exceeded, surplus rather than exact due measure being, she argues, part of the lawe of kynde itself. This leads to a discussion of ethical behaviour and a return to some of the material on the "darker" aspects of the laws of nature or kind that have been touched on earlier in the book. Natural or divine law is brought into conflict with human law, as one might expect, and ethical tangles result. There is no requirement for a study of Piers Plowman to reflect upon current ethical debates and indeed, as mentioned above, Davis in no way asserts she is an eco-critic of any kind, but those with such interests will find much to engage with here, especially as instinctive responses and desires such as hunger, thirst and sexual desire are here presented as prompts to ethical action and routes to the divine. Lack, plenty and the besetting problem of the capacity for deliberation and choice rather than the "unthinking instinct alone" (184) which is here assumed to be the part of animals (cue sharp intake of eco-critical breath) are fully explored and lead us, as one would expect, to a (re)consideration of Hunger and its purposes and effects that takes in Trajan, the question of right law, and of Righteousness. Interestingly, reciprocity is given due consideration, and here Davis makes most clear her interest in those who speak from the margins of authority in the poem. The law is seen to be a vehicle, not just an instrument, which can urge the decision to act in unexpected ways. Davis here incorporates consideration of the different attribution of the "problematic speech" interrupting Scripture in B.11.153-318 by the poem's major editors to, variously, Trajan, Rechelesnesse or the narrator, in a way that makes this section particularly rich and engaging.

Such attention to editorial and literary detail is evident again in the fifth chapter and the epilogue. Chapter five returns to more direct discussion of Kynde, now in the context of Christian knowledge and the requirement that Christians act in accordance with that knowledge. Kin, kinship, natural understanding, ethics, law are all brought together in this exploration of what fullynge Kynde might mean. What emerges above all is the necessity for charity as well as nature, for conscious human choice and action as well as attention to innate bonds and empathy. Interestingly, much of that process is presented as a form of translation, a function which in turn is shown to be the duty of clergy, as translation is shown to be closely allied both to interpreting Latin and theology for the laity, and active conversion--a point Davis sees as being demonstrated by the lines of the poem which are half English, half Latin. The Latin, she points out, remains untranslated, inaccessible to laity and non-Christians alike, both of whom, she asserts, "must be translated, or 'fourmed'" (238) in order to comprehend the meaning of the Latin, and so be eligible to partake of the salvation it describes. But here Langland's famed complexity emerges, making any firm conclusion that natural bonds or affinities alone are sufficient: faith, too, is necessary, and so human nature (kynde in that sense) is required to complete the functions of nature (kynde). The complexity is neatly traced by Davis as she moves to the end of the volume and articulates from chapters to Epilogue.

The Epilogue itself takes the form of an extended consideration of cortesie. Although somewhat surprising at first, in fact this serves as a fitting end to this study as we are reminded that Langland's Samaritan refers to Christ's curteisie as the force opposed to unkyndenesse and that Langland often refers to courts of various kinds, not least that of Truth, the promised end of the pilgrimage Piers describes. While I find the attempt to link court as an enclosed space to the human heart as the location of the spiritual court rather a stretch, the willingness to explore every aspect of the word and to find nuances at every turn is typical of the book as a whole. The Epilogue is thus a microcosm of the whole in its attentive and informed criticism of text: infused with wider knowledge, it offers thorough discussion and attentive analysis without feeling the need to make overt connections to latter-day debates. For some that may be a weakness, resulting in many opportunities being missed, but for others, weary of constant cries for "relevance" or ecological battering, it is likely to be a strength.

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