How to Read Like a Fool: Riddle Contests and the Banquet of Conscience in Piers Plowman
This essay gathers evidence for medieval traditions of riddle contests, from catechetical dialogues to riddle challenges in romances, in order to argue that the climax of Conscience’s banquet in B.13/C.15 can be read as such a contest (part of PPl‘s larger participation in a medieval poetics of enigma rooted in riddling traditions and oriented to the theological horizon of 1 Cor. 13:12, ‘We see now through a mirror in a riddle, then face to face’). The two most widely known examples of riddle contests in the late Middle Ages prove particularly illuminating for L’s use of this narrative form: Solomon and Marcolf and the episode that usually concludes the legend of St. Andrew. It is as if the five main players in L’s scene bring together adaptations of Solomon, Marcolf, and the three main characters of the St. Andrew story. In one of these prior cases the riddlemaster is a saint, while in the other he is a wise fool, and L’s blend constructs a distinctive posture of holy folly carried forward in the poem by Patience and, more enigmatically, by the dreamer. Their patient pursuit of mysterious truth that is both inside and outside of academic discourse offers a model of reading the poem itself. (CG)
Speculum, 85 (2010), 592-630.