The Four Elements as a Structural Idea in Piers Plowman
The medievals saw the physical world as made up of four primary elements: earth, air, water, and fire. In PPl B.9.1-9 Wit describes how these combine in the ‘microcosm’ (man) under the governance of Anima. The word ‘element’ is not found in the Z and A versions and elsewhere only at B.18.236-48 (the ‘Witnessing Elements’) and C.1.17-22. This essay concentrates on the religious and symbolic significance of the Elements as a structural idea. The poet’s starting-point is Genesis chap. 1, recalled in B.18.236-48, which tells how each element ‘changed its character’ in response to the divine command. The passage’s apocalyptic overtones echo 1 Peter and are recalled in the Harrowing of Hell sequence, with its symbolism of light. The C 1 passage on the elements in their macrocosmic and microcosmic role does not propound an ascetic attitude to natural goods but relates their proper functioning of these goods to man’s observance of mesure or moderation. The cost of failing to do so is shown by the exemplum of Lot’s drunkenness and incest. Far from being negative towards material goods, L connects God’s command to the Elements with His provision of ‘earthly honest things’: natural creation is a ‘sacramental’ reflection of the Creator. The passage on the Magi in B.19.75-95 reveals sacramental significance ‘hidden’ under the material form of their gifts. More generally, the sacramental is related to the Incarnation of Christ, who takes into himself the physical elements God used to create Man and whose sharing of one nature with Adam underpins his promise of salvation to all. Christ’s passion and death are made efficacious for man by means of the Church’s sacraments; but even the apparently ‘realistic’ Good Samaritan parable reveals hidden sacramental meaning, as does the ‘Witnessing Elements’ passage if read in the light of Christ’s Miracle at Cana. As water was made into wine, strict Justice is transformed into Love of one’s enemies. Miracles like Christ’s were also performed by the Saints, and the stories retold from the Golden Legend bring out their sacramental significance. L teaches through his use of the Elements Motif that mesure observed by all would create a just world for all. For ordinary people, Piers Plowman may stand as a fitting model. But the select few, the Saints who seek God through ascetic dedication (and for whom even mesure is ‘too much’), function as a ‘Fifth Element’; for these are ‘transformed’ even during their terrestrial existence into what all Christians hope to become in heaven. (AVCS)
in From Beowulf to Caxton, ed. by Matsushita, Schmidt, and Wallace, pp. 55-78
Schmidt, A. V. C.