Title Background

Managing Language in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Managing Language in Piers Plowman.

PPl contains both deductive and affective discourses which are constantly undermined, not only by each other, but by the emphasis in the poem on ordinary people without direct access to learning who are nonetheless able to find reliable guidance on how to merit salvation. Neither the deductive nor the affective alone is sufficient for all people at all times; hence there cannot be any single, unchanging definition of Dowel. The meeting of Will and Holy Church illustrates the distance between the language of logos (redeemed language) and verbum (the human construct), yet the poem comes to question the assumption that a church representative will necessarily be a reliable guide, and shows the uneducated figure more receptive to logos than the learned cleric. WL likewise blurs the boundaries between scientia (knowledge or learning) and sapientia (wisdom), and does not automatically align logos with affectus and sapientia, and verbum with intellectus and scientia. Will’s problem is that he seeks through debate and deduction affective understanding usually communicated through emotive language. Similarly, readers, like the seeker after knowledge, must have recourse to their own ability to discriminate among alternative discourses, attitudes toward knowledge, and the question of authority. Reason is essential, but as in the Roman de la Rose, is authoritative only on those matters that fall within its jurisdiction. Imaginatif functions to discomfort the dreamer in order to bring about an affective reaction that leads to change or greater self-knowledge, and both supports and modifies our attitude toward Reason. The figures Will encounters in B.8-14 are concerned with knowledge as scientia. B.15.60-61 suggests a “mixed life” of the contemplative and the socially responsive, hinted at earlier while Will explored the possibilities of the deductive route. By B.19, the precise definitions of Dowel, Dobet and Dobest are no longer of paramount concern, having fulfilled their function in “increasing our understanding of how to live and our awareness of language in displaying the power and ambiguity of definition and the creative power of the word.” By presenting Haukyn as the mirror-image of the Doctor, WL shows the insufficiency of either intellectual knowledge or faith, taken by itself. The “lond of longyng” illustrates the consequences of rejecting learning completely. Though Trajan shows the limitations of trusting any one authority, he succeeeds in offering a demonstration of the methods of emotive discourse. PPl demonstrates the impossibility of pure language in any post-lapsarian circumstances; we must abandon the desire for a definitive reading and embrace the possibilities of plurality.

Rev. N. F. Blake, YLS 9 (1995): 193-97; Malcom Andrew, English Studies 77 (1996): 281-82; Helen Barr, MAE 65 (1996): 129-30; Wendy Scase, N&Q 43 (1996): 75-76; Hugh White, RES 47 (1996): 559-60; Joseph S. Wittig, SAC 18 (1996): 280-83; Patricia A. Baer, MLR 92 (1997): 430-31; C. David Benson, Speculum 72 (1997): 882-84.


Piers Plowman Studies 9. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994


Rudd, Gillian.