The Gnostic Paradigm: Forms of Knowing in English Literature of the Late Middle Ages
Recent scholarship has argued for the persistence of ancient Gnostic thought and belief in the religious literature and practice of later periods. Yet to this point, no study has been carried out examining the gnostic undercurrent with specific regard to medieval England, at least not in the comprehensive sense in which The Gnostic Paradigm approaches the topic. In this book, Elias analyzes three poems from the Pearl manuscript (Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience), selected books from Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and PPl, and argues that these texts take up the residue of gnostic thought in their use of dream vision, in their strategies of subversion, and in their larger commitment to ‘making the invisible visible’ and ‘giving presence to what can only be imagined’ (in the words of Paul de Man). These texts create what Elias calls ‘the late-medieval gnostic moment’. Elias analyses attitudes toward knowledge and the possibility of (re)gaining knowledge (i.e., gnosis) in these texts by looking specifically at scenes of ‘gnostic passing,’ which reveal a dimension that was always present, but not fully recognized or appreciated.
Chapter 3, ‘The Truth About Piers Plowman,’ reads the poem as a search for spiritual enlightenment in the context of a late medieval crisis of faith. Elias argues that the true emphasis and focus in the poem is not just faith but the search for a certain knowledge that is independent of and surpasses faith. L seems to follow in the steps of the Pearl-poet by imagining Piers in a role similar to the Pearl Maiden, Dame Patience, and Dame Cleanness. But Piers is also but a messenger of a higher entity, the emissary of the feminine Truth and her salvific message. The rest of the characters are similarly part of the poem’s grand scheme under the guidance of Truth, Holy Church and, vicariously, Piers. While PPl does present a more specifically formulated attempt at Passing into knowledge, Elias argues that its inconclusive obscurity and disarray place the poem in a stage of in-between, as a precursor for the closing of the circle and an ultimately successful Passing.