Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature
Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature explores the relationship of divine creativity, poetry, and ethics in PPl. These concerns converge in the poem’s rich vocabulary of kynde, the familiar Middle English word for nature, broadly construed. But in a remarkable coinage, L also uses kynde to name nature’s creator, who appears as a character in PPl. An introductory chapter on ‘The Craft of ynde‘ unfolds the book’s larger argument: by depicting God as Kynde, that is, under the guise of creation itself, L explores the capacity of nature and of language to bear the plenitude of the divine. In doing so, he advances a daring claim for the spiritual value of literary art, including his own searching form of theological poetry. Davis challenges recent critical attention to the poem’s discourses of disability and failure and reveals the poem’s place in a long and diverse tradition of medieval humanism that originates in the twelfth century and, indeed, points forward to celebrations of nature and natural capacity in later periods.
Chapter 1, ‘From Cosmos to Microcosm: Nature, Allegory, Humanism’, lays the foundations of a new literary history for PPl by tracing Natura’s appearances in Bernard Silvestris’s Cosmographia, Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae and Anticlaudianus, Jean de Meun’s Roman de la rose, Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de la vie humaine, and Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. In these narratives, Natura’s once cosmic influence is steadily circumscribed as she becomes increasingly confined to an earthly realm, her powers often implicated in human carnality and moral failure. In Chapter 2, ‘”Fader and formour”: Langland’s Creator Kynde’, Davis argues that L’s poetics of kynde attempts to revalue the terrestrial and the contingent by closing the gap between God and creation that the Natura tradition had opened. Returning to the introduction’s reading of the Samaritan’s Trinitarian analogy of the hand, this chapter reads Kynde as the consequence of L’s conception of the Christian deity as a ‘ful God’ (B.17.168). Complicating the poem’s frequent association of kynde and need, Davis draws attention instead to Kynde’s representation of God’s plenitude, a fullness from which the created world issues, and to which human beings have access in creation. L’s analysis of the Trinitarian basis of divine creativity recuperates the traditional mediatory and generative functions of the goddess Natura and her sister theophanies.
Chapter 3, ‘”Diuerse siȝtes”: Encyclopedism and Interpretation in Piers Plowman‘, examines a question that arises from L’s conflation of creator and creation as described in the previous chapter: if God and nature share the name kynde, can natural knowledge lead human beings to spiritual truth? Davis reads the narrator’s quest for ‘kynde knowynge’ in the context of contemporary discourses on the value of the natural world as a site for knowledge. In his efforts to discover truth through accumulated experiences and observations, the poem’s narrator represents an encyclopedic impulse, the desire to collect, compile, and anatomize observations of the phenomenal world. While L’s characterization of God as Kynde seems to suggest confidence in the created world as a place where human beings might successfully discover divine truths, the Vision of Kynde in B.11 and both Imaginatif’s and Anima’s ensuing commentaries cast doubt upon the value of the narrator’s encyclopedic ambitions and, more generally, the exemplarist or symbolic view of nature as a site for spiritually useful knowledge. L not only borrows and sometimes reshapes encyclopedic lore, but also actively, and sceptically, engages the mode of thought that produced encyclopedic texts.
The book’s final two chapters shift from theological and epistemological questions to more directly ethical concerns. In Chapter 4, ‘Beyond Measure: Langland’s Law of Kynde‘, Davis shows that L associates kynde with the tradition of natural law described by Alan of Lille as the innate desire to love God and neighbour and codified by Gratian’s Decretum in terms equivalent to the ‘golden rule’ of Matthew 7. 12, which solicits a personal response from judges and law-givers, stipulating that they do unto others as they would have others do unto them. In the speeches of Hunger and Trajan, L envisions the ‘lawe of kynde’, and its related formulation as the ‘lawe of loue’, as an improvizational jurisprudence that resembles the emerging concept of equity. Developing the previous chapter’s concerns with judgement and burden-bearing, the book’s final chapter, ‘”Fullynge” Kynde: Nature, Salvation, and Human Action in Piers Plowman‘, examines the poem’s associations of evangelism and the obligations of kynde. In B.15 Anima contends that Christians must distribute not only physical necessities to the materially poor, but also spiritual goods to those who lack knowledge of Christ. Anima portrays non-Christians as figures of undeveloped nature, comparing them to rough cloth and barren fields. Accordingly, he enjoins the Christian clergy to teach or ‘cultivate’ non-Christians so that the bareness of their natures might be clothed with grace and brought to salvation. This chapter concludes by examining an important episode in which L uses the versatile notion of kynde to negotiate nature’s gaps and deficiencies: because nature alone does not suffice to salvation L presents his most forceful argument for the necessity of human action — and here especially clerical action — to fulfil the created order established by God.
Piers Plowman and the Books of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).