Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Piers Plowman' and the Medieval Discourse of Desire

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Piers Plowman' and the Medieval Discourse of Desire

Article excerpt

Nicolette Zeeman, 'Piers Plowman' and the Medieval Discourse of Desire, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 59 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). x + 314 pp. ISBN 0-521-85610-8. £50.00.

In this excellent book Nicolette Zeeman identifies and analyses Piers Plowman's proposal that 'there are forces at work that override local moral intentions, forces that turn human desire to good effect' even if that desire is sinful (p. 11). While most readers have seen the poem as narrating a positive education of the will in which '[t]he seeker's failures are thus regrettable and to some degree expendable digressions prior to reform' (pp. 20f.), she argues instead that these failures have much to teach, and that 'Piers Plowman is shaped by a distinctive dynamic of failure, rebuke and renewal' (p. 22). 'Piers Plowman' and the Medieval Discourse of Desire offers a detailed survey of the patristic and medieval discussions of the psychological faculties that feature in B, VIII.I-XIII.214 (wit, studie, clergie, et al.), followed by lively discussions of Wil's encounters with these allegorical personifications; the Visions of Fortune and Kynde; the appearance of Trajan; Imaginatyf; and the Feast of Patience.

Zeeman's analysis of medieval psychology results in a number of new interpretations of the individual episodes that make up this very difficult portion of Piers Plowman. Her great achievement is to bring this research to bear not only upon the meanings of Wil's encounters with studie or kynde, but also upon both the movement of the poem as a whole and what distinguishes it from scholastic treatises. If, for instance, 'Langland regards Wil, Trajan and Rechelesnesse as all manifestations of a kynde lack that includes, among other things, sin' (p. 230), then many of the particular problems central to Langland scholarship - for instance Trajan and the salvation of the heathen, or the Feast of Patience and the problem of the poor - appear in an entirely new light as exemplary instances of a sustained programme. …

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