- "Piers Plowman" and the Books of Nature by Rebecca Davis
"Piers Plowman" and the Books of Nature offers a rare thing: an "optimistic" reading of Piers Plowman. Rebecca Davis presents her monograph, which argues that Langland finds divine presence in the created world, as an answer to the more common "pessimistic" sense of Langland as a poet of failure and privation. That optimism is hedged and complicated over the course of the book, and the advocates of more pessimistic readings—notably, Nicolette Zeeman—prove productive interlocutors throughout. But Davis's argument is a convincing challenge to read Piers Plowman anew, alongside discourses that call forward the poem's reparative and generative qualities rather than its negations and discontinuities.
Specifically, the first three chapters of "Piers Plowman" and the Books of Nature trace the connections between Langland's kynde and multiple traditions of medieval thought on nature. Kynde is a multivalent word in Piers Plowman, not only a name for nature but also a component of knotty Langlandian terms such as kynde knowynge, and Davis's introduction ably covers those multiple meanings in their contexts and the critical debates they have spawned. But two points in the B-text of the poem, the book's primary focus, prove particularly crucial for what follows. The first is the explication of the Trinity offered by Langland's Samaritan: comparing the Trinity first to a hand and then to a candle, the Samaritan offers the crucial depiction of God as the "formour and shappere" whose power rests "in makynge of 3ynges" (B XVII.170–71).4 Kynde is nowhere in the Samaritan's speech, but his images of creating God and incarnate Christ suggest that created nature provides access to God, according to the bravura close reading with which Davis concludes her introduction. The second point is the personification Wit's definition of Kynde. Kynde "is creatour of alle kynnes 3ynges," he says—not just nature, but "3e grete god þat gynnyng had neuere" (BIX.26–28). As Davis notes, Wit's speech is the only place in Middle English where kynde names God. Together, these two moments suggest a ligature in Langland's thought between natura naturans, creating nature (or nature's creator), and natura naturata, created nature. God is [End Page 326] manifest in the world twice, as creator and created, and the whole of creation reveals his presence. Davis returns repeatedly to this intermingling of creator and created in her discussion of the place of nature in Piers Plowman and the discourses from which it draws.
The book's first chapter traces the career of the allegorical figure Nature from late antiquity through Bernard Silvestris to Alan of Lille and, from him, to Jean de Meun and Guillaume de Deguileville. Though the Natura tradition will be familiar to many medievalists, Davis's treatment of it is thorough and careful, and her approach is distinguished by its narrative of decline, what she calls "the secularization of Natura" (77). In Davis's telling, twelfth-century Neoplatonic humanism valorized the study of the created world as a way to understand its creator, while later Aristotelianism divided creator from creation, assigning Nature a diminished earthly role. In the book's only extended discussion of a Middle English poem other than Piers Plowman, The Parliament of Fowls is treated as a terminus of this decline: Chaucer's Nature echoes her Neoplatonic antecedents, but is ultimately circumscribed in the earthly realm.
Kynde in Piers Plowman, on the other hand, restores "the moral and spiritual value attached to nature" in earlier thought (84). Chapter 2 returns to the concerns and textual field of the introduction to argue this point, suggesting that Langland aligns kynde with both God the creator and the incarnate Christ, whom Langland repeatedly describes as a mediator between humanity and God. This chapter is particularly valuable in connecting Piers Plowman to relatively neglected predecessors and analogues, the plural "books of nature" that complement the Natura tradition described in the first chapter. Davis traces Langland's incarnational theology, for instance, back...