Title Background

<i>‘Piers Plowman’ and the Medieval Discourse of Desire</i>.

‘Piers Plowman’ and the Medieval Discourse of Desire.

This book explores the relation of PPl to medieval psychology and theories of intellectual and spiritual desire, and their iconography. The primary focus is on the ‘psychological inward journey’ of B.8.1-B.13.214, for which Zeeman provides detailed contexts and close analysis. However, the book claims that the categories at work in this section underlie the whole poem, and not only does Zeeman allude to a range of other passages, but, in the last chapter, she suggests how her findings might illuminate the poem’s last passus. Because this is a study of iconography as much as of ideas, this also has implications for the poem’s allegorical workings.
The book’s large argument engages with earlier scholarship (Clemente Davlin, Joseph Wittig, Anne Middleton, James Simpson) on understanding and desire in the poem. It claims that scholars have under-estimated the positive role that L attributes to understanding in the spiritual life, and it explores and defends the teachings of the pedagogic personifications of the poem’s central section. However, the book also challenges a current consensus on volition and affectivity, according to which PPl narrates an essentially positive education of the will. Zeeman notes that, despite the excellent teachings he receives, the narrator figure (here called Wil) seems to go wrong in this part of the poem more than in any other. At a local level, she argues that this reveals the risks inevitably inherent in even the best teaching; at a larger level, she argues that this is part of a pattern of spiritual advance that occurs through failure, rebuke, suffering and loss. Repeatedly, personifications chastise Wil, refuse him any more of the teaching he so keenly wants, and vanish – leaving him (and the reader) in a state of intense desirousness.
Zeeman proposes that for L failure and denial provide a fundamental structure for spiritual advance. This is what she describes as using ‘one desire to inculcate another’ (10) and sees as part of an assumed underlying providential pattern. Drawing on Middleton’s theories about the repeating ‘episodic’ structures of the poem, Zeeman argues that this narrative mechanism, along with its satire and psychology, shape the whole poem. She also points out, however, that psychoanalysis provides tools for analyzing the way the poem both produces sublimatory desire out of repression and also intimates more open-ended forms of desire in its unfinished narratives and enigmatic rhetoric. The desire that emerges out of these patterns of failure and rebuke is not just intellectual (Zeeman says nothing is purely intellectual for L); it is the desire for something more than will ever be fully satisfied while in the state of ‘lack’ that is L’s ‘nature’: being a ‘wayfarer’ on earth.
Much of the book explores psychology and theories of intellectual and spiritual desire developed prior to and contemporary with L. This is not with a view to pre-empting the interpretation of PPl, for ‘such comparison nearly always reveals the entirely distinctive manner in which L deals with even “traditional” materials’ (p. 29). Zeeman argues that the materials with which L engages are Augustinian and sapiential, dominated by ‘labile and oscillating desire’ (30), preoccupied with sin and temptation understood as part of a divine plan of suffering and renewal. Augustine and Gregory are part of this tradition, but it is also developed and enriched in the context of later medieval theology, pastoral care and devotion.
Chapter 1 discusses medieval theories of sin, temptation and tribulation; chapter 2 explores the psychology of cognition, volition and emotion, arguing for the instability of L’s term wil, which sits unstably between fully rational volition and merely sensory impulse. Chapter 3 looks at studie, the ‘desirous pursuit’ and ‘hard work’ of spiritual endeavour; chapter 3 reads clergie and scripture as references to ‘revealed teaching’; and chapter 4 looks at medieval kynde, ‘nature’, concluding with a discussion of the order of nature as a site of radical loss. Zeeman claims that these categories have distinctive iconographies – understanding, for instance, is often figured as a mental ‘word’, therefore also as an animate word or personification; volition is figured in much more mobile ways, sometimes as without form (it is ‘not word’, according to Augustine), and sometimes as the fully embodied, experiencing person. If revealed teaching is often described as the Pauline ‘word heard’ or as something ‘given’, natural understanding is described as ‘seen’ and naturally available, engendering a whole series of iconographic contrasts in terms of hearing and seeing, teaching and example, the ‘given’ and the experienced – but also having and ‘not having’.
In part of chapters 2 and 3, and chapters 6, 7, and 8, Zeeman reads PPl in light of these contexts. She shows how L uses his iconographical matrix to explore the complex and mutually interpenetrating categories of revealed and natural understanding and their impact on the self. She argues that by the end of the poem he assumes that the reader will recognise them without labels; here, she claims, ‘kynde forms of seeing, suffering and loss…shape L’s thinking about patient poverty, the politics of ownership and mendicancy’ (263). Throughout, she describes Wil as the inevitable psychological counterpart to L’s theories of failure and renewal as he ‘oscillates erratically…between extremes of virtuous and culpable desire, willed and unwilled action…more like psychoanalytic desire in pursuit of an endlessly substituted object than a rational will in search of its proper ends’ (76).

Reviewed by:

  • R. N. Swanson, The Heythrop Journal, 48 (2007), 797-98;
  • Lawrence Warner, Medium Aevum, 76 (2007), 128-29;
  • Andrew Galloway, Choice, 44 (2007), 836;
  • Michelle Karnes, Modern Philology, 106 (2008), 218–21;
  • Sebastian Sobecki, Anglia, 125 (2007), 134–35;
  • D. Vance Smith, YLS, 23 (2009), 302-07;
  • Sarah Wood, Notes and Queries, 56 (2009), 449-50;
  • Jessica Rosenfeld, Exemplaria, 23.1 (2011), 92-102.


Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Zeeman, Nicolette