Save man allone: Human Exceptionality in Piers Plowman and the Exemplarist Tradition
This essay argues that the interlude with Kynde in B.11 explores the spiritual value of the natural world by invoking the Latin tradition of exemplarist contemplation and the related trope of the liber naturae. L implicitly endorses the idea that one can ‘read’ spiritual truths in nature when Kynde places Will on ‘a mountaigne that myddelerthe hight’ in order that he might come to love of God by observing ‘ech a creature’ (B.11.324, 326). But that goal is hindered by Will’s angry outburst as the passus concludes, raising the question whether knowledge of God through nature is really possible after all. The essay compares the Vision of Kynde with Hugh of St. Victor’s De tribus diebus. Hugh’s praise of creation remains reverentially subordinated to its creator whereas Will is unable to discover the ‘maister’ of the wonderful creatures he observes, his thoughts fixed on the disjunction between human failings and the harmonies otherwise exhibited in nature. In passus 11 the human anomaly vitiates the unity of nature assumed by the exemplarist view, but in passus 12, as Davis concludes, Imaginatif’s interpretation of the peacock restores the human place in creation and ‘begins to delineate a way back to a confident appraisal of nature’s symbolic potential’ (p. 63). The episode registers L’s continued investment in the lessons nature can teach even as Imaginatif’s moralization highlights the effort required to extract truths from nature, leaving its innate value in question. (RD)
in Medieval Latin and Middle English Literature, ed. by Cannon and Nolan, pp. 41-64.