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Reading Step by Step: Pictorial Allegory and Pastoral Care in <i>Piers Plowman</i>

Reading Step by Step: Pictorial Allegory and Pastoral Care in Piers Plowman

This essay explores the taxonomy of the journey in PPl, and considers the poem’s division into passūs as its fundamental unit of organization. Breen focuses on the poem’s most intense moment of moralized geography, Piers’s allegorical itinerary to Truth in A.6/B.5/C.7, and argues that passūs are themselves reimagined here, transformed from errant footsteps into steps toward a goal. At the same time, she argues that Piers’s itinerary situates both this particular passus and the poem as a whole within the high and late medieval tradition of pictorial allegory. As an allegory of the Ten Commandments, Piers’s itinerary is evidently influenced by this tradition, which abounds in trees, maps, and other diagrammatic representations of the fundamental elements of the Christian faith. Breen argues that, rather than departing from the organizational allegory of this itinerary, the rest of the poem progresses within it. From references to standard Trees of Vices to Wrath’s corrupted Tree of Virtues, Anima’s Tree of Holy Church, Piers’s Tree of Charity, and the rood-tree of the Easter passus, PPl is built upon picture maps that orient Christian pilgrims ever more securely in their journeys towards Truth. That is to say, the itinerary defines the poem as a whole as the discursive elaboration of widely known pastoral figurae. It both models and serves as the basis for a series of adaptations and revisions that are themselves consonant with the sermonizing tradition of later medieval pictorial allegory.


Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts, ed. by Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), pp. 90-135


Breen, Katharine