She Came Down from Heaven: The Storied Propositions of Piers Plowman‘s Holy Church
This article argues that Holy Church’s ahistorical figure and propositional discourse at the beginning of the poem actually declares itself penultimate and promises with all its authority the epistemological and ethical quest narrative that follows. Holy Church makes promises she keeps by establishing the relationship between the poem’s unresolved quests for truth and a hermeneutics, within and without the poem, that can salvage and sanction the partial results of those quests. Allegorically she represents the love of the incarnate Christ, but for her, this ‘love’ means experiencing truth through an incarnate moral self, a desiring life in time. Schrock argues that a temporal structure is implicit in Holy Church’s embodied definition: a desire for how to ‘do best’ honed through a history of privation, whetted through cycles of partial and inadequate resolution, ever incomplete on earth but operating in hope of heavenly clarity. The love she authorises is a principle not only of moral praxis but also of open narrative form. Shrock argues that the poem offers three such examples of open form: Christ’s descent into need and love from the perfection of Heaven, the church’s fragmentation from one figure (Holy Church) into two (Unity and Piers), and Will’s gradual discovery of a history that can adequately contextualise the ecclesiastical and social problems of the poem’s opening scene. In the end, the article argues that Holy Church challenges not the authority but the sufficiency of propositional allegorical language by inaugurating a restless narrativity that extends its ethical implications well beyond the poem’s famously irresolute close.