Title Background

The Language of the Text: Authorship and Textuality in Pearl The Divine Comedy, The Divine Comedy, and <i>Piers Plowman</i>

The Language of the Text: Authorship and Textuality in Pearl The Divine Comedy, The Divine Comedy, and Piers Plowman

Fourteenth-century allegory, with its reliance on symmetry, conforms most suitably to a fundamental agenda of later medieval poets called “the poetics of authorship”; this poetics is a means through which poets can assert their individuality while, simultaneously, adhering to and modulating an older mandate to subsume oneself within the tradition of writerly authority. The article is premised on the idea that poets are drawn to theology and philosophy of their time, and that these are appropriated in order to assert individual authorship. The tension between literary anonymity and literary fame is grounded in Western generally and Christian specifically conceptualizations of textuality and especially in the idea of the book. Thus Pearl’s discourse is metatextual to the degree that its jewel (poem) / jeweler (poet) motif is a metaphor signifying authorship. The Divine Comedy, which actually resembles PPl more than does Pearl, asserts a protagonist who is a poet named after its author and who travels with another poet, Virgil, as he learns about the Christian dispensation and how poetry involves it, which culminates in depicting the ultimate reality of Paradiso as a single book (“volume”). PPl, likewise, carries on this central allegory by positing the eponymous character Piers as a metaphor for writing and the poem’s protagonist Will as, named after the poem’s author, a poet whose literary production is contingent on the exercise of the will (voluntas), a key issue in L’s time, and on the witnessing of divine truth, as typified in the C-text’s Harrowing of Hell episode (C.20) in which the events of Christ’s life are related by the allegorical figure Book. Discussions of pertinent medieval language theories form the context for close readings of the poems.


Albrecht Classen, ed. The Medieval Book and the Magic of Reading. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1999. Pp. 123-48.


Kimmelman, Burt