Piers Plowman and the Case of the Missing Book
Shuffelton highlights the fact that with the exception of Will’s one encounter with Book, throughout PPl, which abounds in documentary imagery and biblical quotations, books are never represented in the poem. As a general pattern, books in the poem are available for study, “just off-stage,” but never actualized, as, for instance, when Conscience refutes Meed’s misuse of a quotation from Proverbs (C.3.492-94) (56). Shuffelton argues that frequently for Will, knowledge is conceptualized in terms of “those writers who imagine books as clerics’ private property, the ownership of which is legitimated by institutional privilege” (59). Using Piers’s simile of knowing Truth as “kyndely as Clerk doth his bokes” (C.7.183) as a starting point, Shuffelton investigates the intimate, institutional, and sometimes fetishistic bond between university trained clerks and their books in the Middle Ages in the writings of, among others, Richard FitzRalph, Richard of Bury, and even some Wycliffite tracts on book-hoarding. Will’s own admitted identification with his books – the primer and psalter – distinguishes him from the serious owner of prestigious book-property; thus, Shuffelton argues, he “remains a not-quite-clerkly figure, on the margins of book ownership” in his quest to know Dowel throughout the “tumultuous struggle of the middle pass?s,” where this knowledge “most closely resembles the intimacy of clerical book ownership” (65). From this problem of “Will’s lack of intellectual property,” the poem moves forward to different stage a different kind of textual knowledge (66). As opposed to the disputationes of the middle pass?s, the later ones “resemble a mystery play, performed by and for the entire community,” within which context Will can assume the more appropriate, and “less frustrating,” role of spectator (67). Shuffelton argues that some of this opening up of knowledge to shared experience in PPl might be read as anticipating the greater liberalizing of book ownership of the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as exemplified by the establishment of common-profit libraries, increasing lay ownership and bequests of books, and moves to grant lesser clergy access to books. Shuffelton concludes, however, by suggesting that despite Will’s encounter in C.20 with Book, “a unifying figure who introduces a kind of transcendent harmony,” L by immediately restoring the “literal sense [of book] as an object” in C.21, ultimately frustrates Will’s search by reformulating the problem of ownership as “clerkly kind knowing” (70, 72).
YLS 18 (2004): 55-72.