“Thanne artow inparfit”: Learning to Read in Piers Plowman
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“Thanne artow inparfit”:
Learning to Read in Piers Plowman

When we talk about learning in Piers Plowman, we face an almost inescapable temptation to ground analysis of the poem through Will’s experience and movement. 1 It is, after all, a story about searching and even if, as Anne Middleton points out, the question of “What happens?” in the poem does not always seem to be the same as “What is the poem about?,” there is nevertheless the feeling that Will’s journey is progressing in a meaningful direction. 2 This direction may not always be a forward one, but it is progress just the same.

The struggle for understanding and development, however, is never the province of Will alone. Langland’s medieval readers are faced with the same problems the poem presents to its characters, and the question of how to learn through texts and language is as real for them as it is for Will or anyone else he meets. In Passus 15, when Will eagerly reports to Anima his desire to know “Alle þe sciences vnder sonne and alle þe sotile craftes” (B.15.48) of human knowledge, he is rebuked for the sin of vain and prideful curiosity, a damning offence, in immediate and no uncertain terms. 3 Anima’s reaction to Will’s sudden enthusiasm comes as something of a surprise (he is, after all, [End Page 169] supposed to be learning about the road to salvation), not just for Will, but also for the readers struggling with him through the difficult and labyrinthine poem. That Will is not the most capable of readers is clear from the outset, yet this does not mean that his struggle to make sense of his surroundings and the instruction he receives (or his problematic ambition to learn all there is to know) is simply a character flaw. Rather, the meeting with Anima asks the fundamental question of how virtuous learning can take place when it is ultimately bound by human language and, therefore, by human sin and error. In this essay I will argue that Langland takes an Augustinian position toward the problem by incorporating error and ambiguity of text and interpretation into his method of instruction. In order for Langland’s readers to find success, on some level Will must fail.

Diagetic misreadings or mistakes, such as Will’s inappropriate desire for knowledge, distance readers from the text by questioning the hermeneutic processes characters use throughout the poem. The poem is structured around interpretive difficulty so as to reward readerly labor. 4 Will’s struggle to understand and react appropriately to the various allegorical characters and encounters during his pilgrimage initiates, in turn, a similar struggle in Langland’s historical readers: they must develop strategies for resolving Will’s errors even as they undertake their own journey through the poem. 5 This is the case, in part, because Will’s faults are so understandable. His frustrations and confusions are believable and, as a result, productive. When corrections come, they are addressed not only to the dreaming Will but also to readers who might well make similar missteps, encouraging them to examine the error and to learn from it in the same way the character must. In doing so, they turn their reading eyes from the page and into the text of their [End Page 170] own experience in a way that becomes more and more common in the later Middle Ages. 6 Jennifer Bryan identifies this devotional labor primarily with Augustine’s influence on the period:

This Augustinian model of interiority, as it made its way into Middle English devotional texts, imagines the inner life as a scene of much greater unpleasantness and uncertainty. . . . Here the heart is not an enclosed bower but a field, or an orchard, where readers learn to toil mightily and busily at cultivating virtues out of stony soil, and where they are required to be endlessly conscious of their likeness and unlikeness to the divine image. 7

In Augustine’s writings, the search for grace demands an intimate examination of the self. Langland’s poem makes room for readers to analyze their own reactions to the text through Will...


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