Title Background

<i>Piers Plowman</i>: In Defense of the Aesthetic

Piers Plowman: In Defense of the Aesthetic

This paper argues that ‘kynde knowyng’ exemplifies PPl‘s articulation of a privileged category of complex knowledge, especially suited to the human condition in all its diverse ‘kyndes,’ which is best produced by the mode of the aesthetic. PPl demonstrates how this mode, via the medium of vernacular poetry, creates the conditions – sensory, heuristic, and intellective – necessary for developing ‘kynde knowyng’. This paper examines three episodes wherein the poem’s vernacular poetic reveals the purposefully complicated ways by which the aesthetic creates the conditions for ‘kynde knowyng’. These episodes exemplify two stylistic features key to developing these conditions: a narrative pattern of instructional failure which, stylized and replicated, gathers together a proliferation of cultural forms loosely organized and represented by the interplay of Latin and Middle English. The first episode, the instructional failures of Holy Church, determines how the aesthetic in fact succeeds in facilitating ‘kynde knowyng’ by means of epistemological interchange. Secondly, through allusion to and contrast with Holy Church’s instruction, the Vision of Kynde and Reason’s mediation amplify the literary-object status of the episode’s instruction to illuminate the essential mediating function of the aesthetic in the human pursuit to know truth. This paper concludes by examining the apparent instructional success of the Harrowing of Hell episode, where the doctrinal lessons of Holy Church and the Vision of Kynde and the poem’s defense of the aesthetic are made manifest in the figure(ing) of Christ. Ultimately, by evoking an assortment of authoritative and non-authoritative epistemologies, the poem establishes an aesthetic theory that subtly challenges institutional precedence and promotes lay and vernacular forms of knowledge.


Viator, 48.2 (2017), forthcoming.


Nelson, Sharity