Piers Plowman in Theory
The immediate project of this essay is to look at readings of PPlthat are informed by the systematic, structural or self-reflexive concerns of ‘theory’. Zeeman notes that (in contrast to the work of Chaucer) PPl has received relatively little overtly theorized reading, which she connects to the immediate local difficulties still presented by L’s text. Claiming that L’s best readers treat him as a serious thinker in his own right, Zeeman gives special prominence to the evolving critical work of two of PPl‘s most influential readers: that of Anne Middleton, with its grounded political urgency and powerful sense of the theoretical implications of poetic form – in particular the Langlandian ‘episode’ and what Middleton sees as a version of authorial ‘life’ inserted into the poem; and that of David Aers, with its innovative and pugnacious use of political theory and theology, reading the poem as a series of dialectical explorations of poverty, labor, Franciscanism, ethics, love and community within the church. Zeeman divides the rest of the essay into sections: ‘Theory, History and Politics’, focusing on seminal work by James Simpson, Ralph Hanna and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton (amongst others); ‘Theory, Language and Being’, highlighting the work of Mary Carruthers, David Lawton, Vance Smith and Sarah Tolmie; ‘The Psychoanalytic Turn’, discussing the work of Aranye (Louise) Fradenburg and Zeeman herself; and ‘Gender and the Body’, where Zeeman notes a smaller body of work, but notable interventions by Elizabeth Fowler, Elizabeth Robertson, Masha Raskolnikov, James Paxson, and, again, Middleton and Hanna. In conclusion, Zeeman points out how different the Feast of Patience looks when seen through the lens of a variety of theoretical positions.
However, the essay is also driven by a second argument, that ‘the conversation between PPl and the more self-reflexive forms of modern critical practice…is a two-way one, because the poem is itself profoundly self-reflexive and self-theorized’. This self theorization is not by and large explicit, Zeeman claims, but present in the imaginative structures of the poem’s textuality, in effects of repetition, pattern, contrast, opposition, and negation. Moreover, the poem’s searching investigation of received epistemologies, institutionalized formulations and conceptual reifications means that not only is it often one step ahead of the would-be theorist, but it also places the modern academic reader, like the medieval one, under the spotlight.
The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 214-29