Consolation in Medieval Narrative: Augustinian Authority and Open Form
In the Confessions and City of God, stories of the self and sacred history respectively, Augustine aligns and overlays self- and sacred history to produce a distinctive narrative form. Cruces of conversion and incarnation permit Augustine’s and Israel’s early wanderings to seem linear, leading up to moments of perfect revelatory clarity. But the narratives’ formal quality carries beyond these ideal closures into a posthistory in which revelatory sense recedes with the passage of time. As a Christian in the Confessions, Augustine still sins; his church in the City of God had allied with a Rome that has just fallen to the Goths. He writes from this posthistory, seeking consolation for the loss of direct contact with what time has carried away. The consolation inherent in his narrative form depends upon past authoritative revelation but is available in his present only through interpretive improvisation. He and his church must, and can, find ways to read and re-present divine meaning once made immanent in history. This book is the first scholarship on Augustine to document in detail the form his two great narratives share and to trace how medieval writers widely applied and employed it for their own purposes of consolation. Because its meaning resides in retrospective and open interpretation of a climactic center, it emerges as a consolatory narrative alternative to the closures of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy in key medieval texts manifesting personal, political, and ecclesiastical crisis: Peter Abelard’s History of My Calamities, L’s PPl, the anonymous Stanzaic Morte, Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ and Thomas More’s ‘Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation’.
Chapter 3, ‘Three Figures of the Church: Piers Plowman and the Quest for Consolation’ treats PPl as the paradigmatic Augustinian narrative of the Middle Ages, noting the poem’s combination of recursive figural echo and linear biblical narrative, its dependence upon and troubling of textual ways of knowing, its compromised religious institutions that reliably guarantee morality and ethics, and its famously unresolved ending. In order to close his personal quest for truth, the dreamer, Will, travels back in time to witness Christ’s resurrection and harrowing of Hell. Christ’s triumph in Passus 18 is the same as Will’s triumphant end to his quest, yet in the final two passus the church and Will lose contact with that triumph.PPl begins and ends in Will’s disastrous present, from which he must launch his desperate quest for truth in Passus 1 and Conscience must in Passus 20 launch a renewed quest for the saviour figure Piers the Plowman. L’s formal innovation is a circular narrative structure (present to past to present) with Augustinian sacred history the final movement to close the circle. His poem systematically loses touch with the resolutions it offers but nevertheless returns to the sites of its perplexity equipped with the more adequate interpretive resources of sacred history, effecting a model of consolation. PPl is a story in the shape of Augustinian interpretation, revising its understanding of truth continuously, moving past revelatory resolution into posthistory. This temporal context to revolution provides a space of ambiguity and horror, play and freedom, in which that revelation can be intellectually interpreted and morally performed. Passing through the linear clarities of sacred history is necessary in order to reveal Will’s present chaos as a posthistory requiring the consolations of performative interpretation.