Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Theology
This book makes a broad case, based on the three fields of meaning of the Latin word aenigma in the Middle Ages, for a poetics of enigma that was recognized across the medieval period and practiced in many of its most ambitious literary works. As the main Latin word for riddles, aenigma names a form in which the dialogic playfulness of literature comes to the fore. Defined in rhetoric as an obscure allegory, aenigma occasions reflection on the power of the kind of interpretive work required by enigmatic texts—as opposed to didactic or esoteric ones. In theology, the much-quoted verse ‘We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face’ (1 Cor. 13:12) guided exploration of the Bible’s own poetics and the capacity of enigmatic signs to solicit contemplation, love, and participation in the divine life.
L’s dreamer quotes 1 Cor. 13:12 at a moment of intense self-consciousness about the poem’s poetic quest (in both B and C texts). Seeing PPl as a gathering and synthesis of medieval traditions of the enigmatic sheds light on some of its difficulties of form and meaning and, more important, offers an account in medieval terms of what purposes these difficulties might have been thought to serve. At the same time, placing PPl in relation to other crucially enigmatic medieval texts locates it as pivotal to the development of a mode that remains central to our sense of what literature can do.
Chapter 1 focuses on major texts in the Latin medieval tradition that articulate the value of enigmatic language for the sake of understanding the theology of participation and entering into a deeper experience of it: Augustine’s De Trinitate, William of St. Thierry’s Enigma of Faith, Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon and writings on meditation, the mystical texts of Pseudo-Dionysius (and their reception as indicated by The Cloud of Unknowing), the works of Aquinas, and Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Journey to God. Changes in the climate of late Scholasticism toward the fourteenth century, however, would shift the enigmatic from Latin to the vernacular.
Chapters 2 and 3 turn to riddling, both Latin and vernacular. Chapter 2, on riddling as a custom and riddle collections, gathers for the first time the scattered and heterogeneous evidence of Middle English riddles that survive outside of stories and sorts it in relation to classical and Christian, Anglo-Saxon legacies of riddling. Two examples from the first vision of PPl, the Plant of Peace passage and Conscience’s prophecy, as well as the so-called John Ball letters from the Rising of 1381, suggest what the form could do in the conditions of late fourteenth-century England. In chapter 3, on riddle contests, shows how the most complex and fully developed riddle contest in medieval literature, L’s banquet of Conscience, reveals the theological and anti-institutional potential of play found in the two most well-known riddle contests in the late Middle Ages: the story of St. Andrew and the Three Questions and the dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf.
Chapters 4 and 5 reconstruct the medieval rhetoric of enigma, both as taught in the arts of language and as expressed in literary works. Chapter 4 follows the understanding of enigma that a student might have gained through texts read in school, from the grammar of Donatus to the theology curriculum. It frames this account through the narrative of education in the third vision of PPl, which interprets and is in turn interpreted by this rhetorical teaching. At the center of this chapter is Augustine’s story in the Confessions of learning to read the Bible, the world, and himself, still unsurpassed as a reflection on the rhetoric of enigma. Chapter 5 explores the rhetoric implied by L’s most important instance of enigmatic reading, the tearing of the pardon, and his reformulation of that enigma in the C text.
Chapter 6 resumes the story of the theology of participation and the poetics of enigma with developments in England in the fourteenth century in order to argue that L, especially in the fifth vision of PPl, and Julian of Norwich, in her parable of the lord and the servant, practice a self-consciously enigmatic mode in the vernacular in order to sustain and intensify a vision of conscious participation in the life of the Trinity. A final chapter braids together the concepts of play, persuasion, and participation through the convention of riddles as an ending move. The endings of PPl inherit a tradition of enigmatic endings that links the enigmatic mode to both pastoral and apocalyptic poetry, a conjunction also seen in The Romance of the Rose and Dante’s Commedia. Chaucer’s House of Fame, meanwhile, reorients this tradition to a secular but no less enigmatic fulfillment. A brief epilogue looks ahead to the afterlife of the medieval poetics of enigma in modernity.