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The Hungry Student: The Soul’s Search for Sustenance in Piers Plowman

Updated on February 20, 2017
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V Ron Dorn is a Canadian writer with a Bachelor's in English and World Language Studies and a Master's in English and Creative Writing.

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There is a cliché that claims that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and in the case of the poem Piers Plowman, this rings true. Piers Plowman tells a story that takes place almost completely on the unseen planes of abstract existence. Its journey is one of dreams and visions, and yet it is at the same time significantly, intensely corporeal. The spiritual and the physical aspects of the poem are inextricably linked through consumption, the acts of eating, drinking, and tasting which become means of experience and understanding. To best explore the subject, this paper will take a largely close reading-centred approach, focussing on the nutritive language and imagery of Passus XIII when the narrator sits down to dine with Clergie. Close reading allows for an in-depth analysis of the text and its various layers, for the discovery and interpretation of patterns, and contributes a more concrete and nuanced understanding of themes in the poem at large that shape the thesis of this paper: in Piers Plowman’s dream world, the search for spiritual understanding is not a solely philosophical pursuit, but involves the basest of physical human senses and processes. The soul and the mind are neither higher than nor separate from the body, but rather require bodily acts of consumption in order to understand the holiest of Christian principles.

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Passus XIII begins almost immediately with the narrator’s invitation to a dinner, after he falls asleep:

I lay down longe in this thoght and at the laste I slepte;

And as Crist wolde ther com Conscience to conforte me that tyme,

And bad me come to his court – with Clergie I sholde dyne.

(XIII. 21-23)

The narrator has been awake for “many yer” (XIII. 3) before this episode, trying to make sense of his experiences thus far, and it is only after he has remained “longe in this thoght” that he is able to sleep and re-enter the educational dreamscape where the authority figures of Christ, Conscience, and Clergie, lead him to the dinner. The narrator is to “dyne” with Clergie; Clergie, in modern texts is sometimes translated as “Learning”[1] and this immediately conflates ideas of education and nutritive consumption. This conflation is almost instantly compounded when the first course of dinner is served:

Conscience called after mete, and thanne cam Scripture,

And served hem thus soone of sondry metes manye –

Of Austyn, of Ambrose, of alle the foure Evaungelistes:

Edentes et bibentes que apud eos sunt.[2]

(XIII. 37-39)

When Conscience and Scripture serve up the first morsels of the meal, though they are clearly called “metes” or morsels of food,[3] they are also described as being “[o]f Austyn, of Ambrose, of alle the foure Evaungelistes”.


[1] See Peter Sutton’s Piers Plowman: A Modern Verse Translation.

[2] “Eating and drinking such things that they have,” (Schmidt, 206).

[3] Middle English Dictionary online.

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There is something cannibalistic about this image, almost as if the bodies of the Evaungelistes themselves were being served up as the evening’s fare. And yet, as the meal progresses, it becomes clear that the bodies of such holy men are not to be consumed, but rather their words and ideas:

And he brought us of Beati quorum[4] of Beatus vivres[5] makyng,

And thanne he broughte us forth a mees of oother mete, of

Misere mei, Deus,[6]

Et quorum tecta sunt peccata[7]

In a dish of derne shrift, Dixi[8] and Confitebor tibi[9].

‘Bryng Pacience som pitaunce,’ pryveliche quod Conscience;

And thane hadde Pacience a pitaunce, Pro hac orabit

Omnis sanctus in tempore oportuno.[10]

(XIII. 52-56a)

Each part of the meal is endowed with part of a psalm or other holy speech. These words are not spoken aloud but rather are the names of the meals themselves, and it is through their reception that the narrator can begin to understand their principles. In a way, the narrator is eating words, much like the moth of the Old English Moth Riddle:

Moδδe word fræt – me ρæt ρuhte

Wraetlicu wyrd ρa ic ρæt wundor gefraegn,

Ρæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,

ρeof in ρystro, ρrymfaestne cwide

and ρæs strangan stapol. Stælgiest ne waes

wihte ρy gleawra ρe he ρam wordum swealg.[11]

But, unlike the moth, who is “not a wit the wiser for having eaten the words,” the narrator, with his inquiring mind and human body, can make better use of them.

[4] “Blessed are they whose [inequities are forgiven: and whose sins are covered]” (Schmidt 207).

[5] “Blessed is the man [to whom the Lord hath not imputed sins]” (Schmidt 207).

[6] “Have mercy on me, O God” (Schmidt 207).

[7] And they “whose-sins-are-covered” (Sutton 165).

[8] “I said” (Schmidt 207).

[9] “I will confess [against myself my injustice to the Lord]” (Schmidt 207).

[10] “For this [sc. forgiveness] shall every one that is holy pray to thee in a seasonable time” (Schmidt 208).

[11] The moth ate words – that seemed to me a curious event when I heard of that wonder, that the worm swallowed down men’s speech, a thief in the dark, great discourse and its strong foundation. The thieving stranger was not a wit the wiser for having swallowed the words [translation mine].

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This scene in Passus XIII, like much of the poem at large, is concerned with “sapiential understanding,” something Nicolette Zeeman explains in the introduction to her work Piers Plowman and the Medieval Discourse of Desire. She writes that “the devotional literature of the middle ages uses the figure of ‘taste’ to describe understanding which it considers to be not only cognitive but also affective and experiential; as a result of a pun on the Latin nouns SAPOR (taste) and SAPIENTIA (wisdom), this is sapiential undersanding” (Zeeman 2). It is by eating with Clergie that the narrator can consume and therefore interpret and understand important principles. Another instance of this is in Passus XVI, when the narrator once again encounters Piers Plowman, this time in is capacity as protector of the Tree of Charity. Like usual, the narrator is asking questions, trying to understand the world around him, and he says that he is “in a weer what charite is to mene” (XVI. 3). Even after Anima explains it to him, and he gets to see the tree with his own eyes, he still eventually must “preide Piers to pulle adoun an appul, and he wolde,/ [a]nd suffre [him] to assaien what savour it had” (XVI. 73-74). The narrator has been given a verbal explanation of Charity’s components, further illustrated by Piers’ highly visual demonstration of the tree’s parts, and yet he still needs to consume the fruit of the tree in order to completely understand its existence. His lessons are incomplete without this physical, sapiential consumption.

While consumption in the text is clearly an avenue for learning, it is not always presented as a wholly good or beneficial practise. The text shows us how such processes can go awry in Passus XIII:

Ac this maister ne his man no maner flessh eten,

Ac thei eten mete of moore cost, mortrews and potages:

Of that men myswonne thei made hem wel at ese.

Ac hir sauce was over sour and unsavourly grounde

In a morter, Post mortem, of many bitter peyne –

But if thei synge fo tho soules and wepe salte teris:

Vos qui peccata hominum comeditis, nisi pro eis lacrimas et

oraciones effuderitis, ea que in deliciis comeditis, in tormentis evometis.[12]


[12] “You who feast upon men’s sins – unless you pour out tears and prayers for them, you will vomit forth in torment what you eat with pleasure” (Schmidt 207).

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The master gorges himself and makes himself a glutton as he both consumes too much, and the wrong type of, food. There is a clear distinction here between acceptable spiritual, sapiential consumption and that which solely nourishes humanity’s bodily desires. While the human body is a necessary conduit through which sapiential understanding can be attained, it is also a tainted vessel whose fleshly desires can lead man astray.

Close reading pertinent parts of Passus XIII and linking them to other instances in the poem (like Passus XVI) has allowed for a more detailed understanding of ideas of eating, consumption, and understanding in specific parts of the poem and its attitudes at large. The human body is a necessary, yet flimsy, spiritual tool. As evidenced by the master in Passus XIII, it is possible for important consumptive processes to be corrupted by gluttony, and yet these processes are integral to more intimate understandings of spiritual principles. Close reading Passus XIII has provided an important instance of eating as understanding, of food as knowledge, and helps to demonstrates key principles of sapiential forms of learning. The narrator, on his philosophical dream-quest, still requires his human body’s mortal senses in order to access higher, holy understanding. The physical and spiritual are therefore inextricably linked; the body’s basest hunger and desired satiation is actually a significant part of the soul’s search for exquisite sustenance and holy knowledge.

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