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Gestures and Looks in <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Gestures and Looks in Piers Plowman

Taking as its point of departure Augustine’s distinctions between audible signs (words) and verba visibilia, gestures (De Doctrina Christiana, 2.5), this essay canvasses the significance of gestures – kneeling, winking, and “louring” in PPl – particularly in B.4.152-155; 10.140-47, 315-16; 11.84-85,186-88;13.112-13; 16.154-55; 18.417; 19.17-18. Although medieval poets did not dilate upon verba visibilia as did, say, Proust, and rather preferred to communicate gestures and the like through “single verbs, nouns, adjectives, or adverbs,” their signification is no less complex and deserves attention. The dinner in Conscience’s Hall with Patience and Will (B.13) is a good example: “Then Conscience curteisly a contenaunce made, / And preynte vpon pacience to preie me be still” (112-13). The word, “preynte,” is commonly defined as “wink,” but because winks, as the OED has it, are typically thought to be amorous if not “flippant and frivolous,” “preynte” itself, and the sort of medieval winking it describes, is defined rather temperately, to “give a significant glance”: “The lexicographers evidently could not believe that messages of command, direction, or invitation could have been conveyed by anything as ‘flippant or frivolous’ as the momentary closing of one eye.”

Rev. Lawrence Clopper, Journal of English & Germanic Philology 103 (2004): 538-40; Helen Cooper, YLS 18 (2004): 157-61; Edwin Craun, Speculum 79 (2004): 144-46.