Interpretation in Piers Plowman.
This book argues that PPl (using B) is the work of a fourteenth-century intellectual, obsessed with written texts, who interprets human experience on the model of textual hermeneutics. But instead of providing a theory of interpretation, L shows what happens when incommensurable interpretive systems collide. For the medieval intellectual, the quest for salvation is inseparably bound up with the quest for a viable hermeneutic. In general, the book spends little time debating with other critics of PPl. Seven short Bibliographical Essays attempt to carry out three purposes: (1) to acknowledge major intellectual debts; (2) to map the critical territory in which the book works; and (3) to pursue ideas that are relevant but somewhat peripheral. The Introduction argues that certain critical methods are best suited to appreciating L’s distinctive qualities and specifically that the poem may be approached as non-paraphrasable, dramatic, and spatially patterned. Chapter 1 reads the beginning and the end of PPl in light of the exegetical tradition surrounding the story of the Tower of Babel. L alludes to this tradition to suggest that the normal state of life on earth is Babylonian cacophony of conflicting texts and that the intelligibility of both the social organism (the “estates”) and the individual self depends upon construing both as texts. Chapter 2 analyzes the dreamer’s dialogues with Holy Church (passus 1), Anima (passus 15), and Need (passus 20) to show how PPl construes the interpretive activity of these authoritative figures on the model of textual hermeneutics. L does not provide a completed doctrine of interpretation, revealing rather how each figure poses his or her own characteristic hermeneutic problems. Finally, chapter 3 argues that there is a narrative of the dreamer, albeit inconclusive—a spiritual development in which the dreamer learns that the intellectual’s lust for self-justification on the model of textual argument is futile and self-destructive, and yet that the intellectual must approach God, if at all, through texts. [WR]
Rev. Andrew Galloway. Choice 40.3 (2002): 471; Josephine Mayer, Medium Aevum 73.1 (2004): 120-21; James J. Paxson, YLS 18 (2004), 172-75; A. V. C. Schmidt, Review of English Studies 55 (2004): 446-47; Emily Steiner, Speculum 79 (2004): 1131-33.