Sinning Bodies

When a writer personifies a certain abstract idea they rarely give it a literal body, Piers Plowman does. However they are not physical in predictable ways: one might think that gluttony wold be depicted as an over gorged lord (as is often the depiction), but the the writer choses to challenge the audience by making these sins physical. Envy comes forth and describes himself as thin, he says “I haven’t been able to eat, for many years, as a man ought to do, Because envy and bad feeling are hard to digest.”(120-1) Personally I’ve never thought of envy in this way but the implication is crystal clear. Envy makes one endlessly hungry because an envious individual cannot sustain himself of his own accomplishment.The author does not offer a literal translation of the sin as we might (he was pea green with envy). Rather the sin becomes a physical ailment, a disease, symptom.

Likewise, “Wrath wakes up with two white eyes,” as if he is blind. Strangely Wrath is so physical that he can walk among friars and priests; he even has an aunt who was once a nun, he works in the kitchen. Wrath is not separate from humanity as so many others, even Envy seems to stand aside and covet. Wrath walks among man he says “I, Wrath, never rest/ But follow these wicked folk, for such is my lot.” (150-1) Wrath is a servant with white eyes. He has no leadership no agency. Yet we often think of anger as a powerful and self assured sin. We do not think of anger as a servant.

Essentially, my point is that these poems use personification to humanize and complicate sins. Repentance is in real conversation with sin. The poem feels remarkably human.

1 thought on “Sinning Bodies

  1. After reading this post on the fantastical use of personification in Piers Plowman, I started to think about my education in creative writing, particularly the creation and critique of the technique personification. In my experience, when one writes a story and submits it to a workshop of their peers, the immediate move in the critical conversation is to orient the story in a perspective that makes sense to the people critiquing it. The first question asked by the professor is “So, what is this story about?” and each student offers their opinion of what within the story is action and metaphor. Who are the characters in the story? Where are they? Based on the genre that you believe the story belongs, how well does this story’s “world” maintain a realistic atmosphere? If the story is classified as “fantasy”, the author is somehow granted the freedom to suspend the impossibilities of her everyday and interact in a world where animals talk, magical forces create out of nothing and abstract sights are normal. Even in incredibly abstract creative fiction, it is difficult to find a world that is quite like Piers Plowman. The use of personification as an active force on its own shows a suspension of more than just the physical details of the authors world, it shows an interesting suspension of physicality itself.

    I think that the intense spirituality and theological interest of Piers Plowman’s literary audience and authorial peers allows for a lift on the physical world as a concept in not only the thought process of the author’s penned “world”, but the everyday perspectives of the readers. For the creators of these manuscripts, the lift on the physical world is not all “fantasy”. For modern readers, whose world is dictated by physicality and science, the technique of Middle English manuscripts creators appears as a fine-tuned use of personification. Concepts are lifted out of the non-physical, abstract realm of thought and process and interaction and are personified to act with and through the physical world and their actions and reactions in the physical world are given non-physical, abstract significance.

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