Tropologies: Ethics and Invention in England c. 1350–1600, c. 1350–1600
Tropologies makes four related arguments. First, for many medieval and early modern exegetes, poets, and dramatists, the tropological sense of Scripture was the key to any successful literal, allegorical, or anagogical reading because it circulates the hermeneutical endeavour out into the reader’s life, where the reader’s actions can render him or her a fit interpreter. Writers capitalized on this circulatory dynamic to turn words, especially the words of sacred Scripture, into works — books as well as deeds. Second, this kind of tropological making entails a literary ethics distinct from rhetoric and moral philosophy and theology, though also overlapping in important ways. Tropology situates ethics within biblical history, both as a linear progression of events and as a narrative in which readers can participate sacramentally: the story of salvation, oriented toward the union of the soul with God and of Christ with his bride, the Church. The tropological inventions that occupy this book place literary ethics within a sacramental economy that links literature to liturgy, performativity to penance, and poetic making to habituation in virtue. Third, this habit of tropological invention inspired a shadow tradition of English poetry and drama that has been obscured by Chaucerian, laureate narratives of the invention of English literature. For all its ethical commitments and rootedness in biblical traditions, this literature is no less inventive and productive of new literary formations than its laureate counterpart. Finally, tropological invention was hardly a proprietary practice of medieval Catholics, spurned by literal-minded Reformers. In fact, it survived as the most important principle of continuity between ‘medieval’ and Reformation biblical cultures, inspiring exegesis, poetry, and drama even in the court of the radical reformist King Edward VI.
Chapter 3, ‘”Beatus qui verba vertit in opera”: Langland’s Ethical Invention’, investigates the phenomenology of literary and ethical invention in PPl in order to inquire how writers and ethical agents can participate in the world of Scripture without being absorbed into it — how they can even, while becoming copies of an all-encompassing model, create entirely unique, unforeseeable phenomena. In the Pentecost episode in PPl, Will and Conscience find themselves on the scene in first-century Jerusalem, inventing with the gathered crowd one of the most famous hymns of the liturgy, the sequence Veni, Creator Spiritus. Like the apostles who are speaking in tongues, the crowd invents a completely new song — indeed, invents the Christian liturgy — but it is already a copy of the Holy Spirit’s gift. Such a ‘copy’ defies classical rhetorical models, according to which an invention must vie with and displace its model. Unlike Rita Copeland’s Chaucer, who translates classical antiquity in order to supersede it, PPl eschews competition, seeking to conserve its biblical and liturgical models, yet nevertheless inventing previously unforeseeable phenomena. Some of the most original and powerful literature of the period displays a similarly harmonious, irenic relationship with its sources, seeking to embody them rather than to overturn them in an agonistic struggle for literary supremacy. Such works strive to incarnate their source texts as literature, while also moving readers to enact their ethical directives.
Chapter 4, ‘Practices of Satisfaction and Piers Plowman‘s Dynamic Middle’, addresses the crucial passage from a literary mode of participation in the history of salvation to the sacramental mode that has often been considered more central to the Catholic Church’s understanding of salvation. This chapter probes the overlap between word and sacrament in the climactic passūs of PPl that are structured by the Holy Week liturgy, where Will’s participation in the Mass frames his writing of the poem. These scenes of writing as sacramental participation shed light on Reformation-era debates about penance and the role of good works in the Christian life. PPl ends with the corruption of the Church and the undoing of the penitential self as the pitiful Contrition abandons his own allegorical essence and ‘clene forȝete to crye and to wepe’ (C.22.369). No wonder some of the poem’s best readers have identified failure as its chief engine of invention and closure. Nevertheless, L designs the work to subordinate the poem’s failures to the productive work of satisfaction, the third ‘part’ of the sacrament of penance. L conceives of sacramental and literary satisfaction not as the termination of a discrete penitential sequence (contrition, confession, satisfaction), but as an ongoing, open-ended habit of beginning again and making good ends. If we can understand L’s tropological invention as satisfactory, we can better appreciate the failures and successes of penance in the late Middle Ages, and better recognize practices of satisfaction across the Reformation that narratives of decline and loss tend to overlook.