Which Sins Hold Importance For The Author

In Passus 5 we’re reading about the seven deadly sins making confession. The sins are handled differently and with varying degrees of importance placed on them.

Pride punishes herself for her sinful ways by wearing a hair shirt. A fairly typical punishment of the time that doesn’t sound too bad at first but then I start to imagine it and my imagination makes me itch like crazy.

Next is Lust, represented by the Lecher. Being lustful apparently isn’t meaningful to the author since his punishment is simply to eat one meal and drink only water every Saturday for 7 years. This punishment also seems to have nothing at all to do with lust.

Envy is next with a longer description, implying that this sin holds more meaning to the author. The important thing I took away from Envy’s tale is that being sorry isn’t enough for repentance. Envy states, “I am always ‘sorry … I am seldom anything else” (pg 3 line 126). Envy doesn’t seem to have a punishment other than he will try to do better.

Wrath is next, he tells a story about once being a holy man himself, a friar, and taking pleasure in causing discord among other holy people. This section is rather sexist as Wrath implies that the holy women are easy to trick into wrathfulness while the holy men almost never fall for his tricks. His punishment is to not repeat secrets, which seems like a punishment directly related to wrath, and to not indulge so not to be tempted.

Gluttony comes last and is the longest part of the passus implying that this is the most important sin to the author. Sloth is combined with gluttony. In this part of the story Gluttony is on his way to confess but becomes distracted by his own gluttony on his way. So instead of confessing, he over indulges at a tavern then slothfully sleeps for days. Repentance comes to Gluttony since Gluttony couldn’t make it to him. Gluttony’s punishment is his confession of gluttony and sloth and he will eat only fish on Fridays, which seems like a weird punishment but I guess it is related to the sin.
Greed is left out and isn’t specifically mentioned as a sin. I assume by its lack it is the least important sin to the author or that it is implied in combination with other sins. Perhaps, like Sloth, Greed is part of Gluttony.

The Cold War: Biblical Edition

Passus 18 of Piers Plowman presents a fascinating dynamic between the politics of Heaven and Hell. In conventional tales of the Fall, you have the bad guys who want God’s power, and the good guys who concede to God’s authority. The bad guys are just plain bad and the good guys appropriately win out.

We have something far more complex here with Passus 18, as Heaven and Hell seem to be ruled by separate, yet largely parallel, political orders. While heaven is home to the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Righteousness, Peace, Truth), Hell is governed by Lucifer, Satan, Goblin, and the Devil. The Daughters operate under a checks and balances system, as seen through the discourse between Mercy and Truth, where the two engage in rhetoric regarding redemption for souls in Hell before Truth calls upon Righteousness for her input, saying “Let’s rest here awhile, For she knows more than we do” (line 164-165). Following input from Righteousness and Peace, Book carries us to the subsequent “invasion” of hell. Although the committee of Daughters does not seem to have a direct influence on Christ’s invasion, it seems their discourse provides a necessary narrative representation of God’s decision making process. Considering Peace gets the last word among the Four, we are left with the impression that her explanation is the culmination of their discourse; God understands the complication of human folly and sends Christ to enact forgiveness.

Hell’s council, on the other hand, seem to be more at fault for their legislative ineptitude, despite the attention they give to the terms of agreement outlined subsequent to the Fall. Lucifer posits to the group that he has a right to the souls in Hell due to a contract with God that would commit sinners to Hell “if Adam ate the apple” (line 279). Satan and Goblin warn Lucifer, however, that his intervention as the deceitful snake could possibly be in violation of the contract. The Devil, who seems to be the informational authority on Heaven’s council, suggests that the agreement’s disbandment could lead to Hell losing its dead souls. Of course, this becomes the case.

This idea of Heaven and Hell as bodies governed by respective councils is by far my favorite representation of each realm’s authoritative structure, and most likely informs later interpretations such as that seen in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Twain’s Letters From the Earth.


Manuscript Mise-en-scene

In the Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts textbook chapter “The Power of Images,” there is much discussion revolving around the religious ethics behind images, but not a great deal of attention is paid to how these images change the readership experience. Take Piers Plowman, I was exposed to these images before we were assigned the reading, so my visualization is largely informed by the images now that I am reading. Would my Piers Plowman experience be different if I never saw them?

In observing the Prick of Conscience manuscript, the texts analyzes the apparent emotion with which the scribe also illustrates the story. The author demonstrates a desire for the manuscript to carry a significant aesthetic value, as the script form, color, and placement work in tandem to develop the story’s narrative. The OUMEM’s authors make note of the manuscript’s aesthetic as a priority for the script’s creator, claiming that they express “triumphant enthusiasm as having ‘delivered’ the poem” (OUMEM 200) a feat celebrated by the proud stork image at the story’s end. I think this idea is a part of an interesting conversation that continues to this day- is our experience with literature maximized or diminished by invoking our senses beyond text? For the time Prick of Conscience, Piers Plowman and others were produced, the use of illustrations was revolutionary for the reader experience. With every page, the narration was teamed with images which worked in tandem with text to tell a story, so the authors fully committed to this dynamic. In a way, this literary “experience” fits on a sensory spectrum that continues to stretch with time, as images, sounds and texts are continually merged in experimental ways through movies, shows and other mediums of entertainment. Thus, to this day we find ourselves space with literature not unlike that experienced in 14th century England.

The Dream Vision & Exploring Corruption in the Church

I understand that Piers Plowman is a complex, multifaceted work and so I do not want this blog post to come off as a sweeping general assumption about the author’s purpose in creating the work; rather, I want this to serve as a potential modern interpretation based on subtle moments I noticed that feed into some themes I have noticed in our historical/contextual readings. My interpretation is likely informed, too, by my own personal experiences with newer texts and movements. With that being said, Passus 5 seemed to be an extended personification of some of the Seven Deadly Sins. More abstract ideas like Reason and Repentance are endowed with human-like traits, too, and are combatant toward the monstrous, unappealing entities of sin. I thought it was telling, first of all, that the Dream Vision genre was used here to visualize abstract ideas that would have been – I’m guessing – unacceptable or awkward to explore without the permissive genre that allows for just about anything. Though Dream Visions like most literary forms have a rough sort of formula they follow, this particular genre allows for endless possibilities. Dreams can be crazy and nonsensical on the surface, but sometimes they reveal to us some of the most important life truths (or, in this case, Truths). I argue, then, that the Langland poet chose the Dream Vision so that he could subtly hint at the Church’s fallibility when it comes to corruption and sin.

At the very opening of the poem, readers are given something resembling an introduction to the scene. We are told that “Reason preaches a sermon to the king and all the realm, urging the whole community to reform” (1). This indicates that human reason is the one directing this entire production and that everyone involved needs some degree of reform, Reform, of course, is a buzzword pertaining to the Church; especially in these times, it was the subject of several accusations and acts of reform. Repentance, one of the true solutions in the reform, “[makes] Will weep water with his eyes” (l. 60). If Will, the narrator, is also our author, this would indicate a direct involvement with the Dream Vision and its purpose. The narrator also refers to the Priests finding out about the corruption of the Friars (figures often viewed with disdain in medieval works – at least in the case of Chaucer). The whole situation just seems to open up the possibility of softly urging the Church to reform – or at least listen to those who want change.

Originality and Authenticity in Medieval Manuscripts

In doing some basic online research on Piers Plowman, I was surprised to learn that there are more than 50 copies of the poem, yet none of them are considered to be the original work, produced by the hand of William Langland himself. Additionally, I learned that the majority of Piers Plowman manuscripts are in fragmented and incomplete. Because of the wide array of discrepancies in the different copies, scholars have found it difficult to determine which copies of the poem can be considered authoritative. In fact, according to what I’ve read, the scholarly community only accepts three copies of the text to be direct products of the original (and absent) production. Even these “authoritative” productions do not exist in complete form, and their authenticity is still a matter of academic debate.

For me, the most fascinating thing I’ve had to consider in reading and learning about Medieval Manuscripts is something Professor Seaman has alluded to a number of times in class: because of the sheer lack of information and physical productions, Medieval scholars must make a series of educated guesses and inferences based on the information they do have. Because the interpretation and analysis of Medieval texts is often theory-based, there is a high potential for debate and divergence among Medieval scholars. In this sense, Medieval studies is vastly different from other spheres of literary scholarship. In the average English class, the texts are presented in a complete and consistent form. Authorship and intent are rarely debatable on the same level as works such as Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The study of Medieval literature takes on a distinctly scientific property. Scientific means must be used to analyze the physical manuscripts themselves, but the observation-hypothesis method of study that is necessary because of the absence of concrete knowledge in the field gives ENGL361 a feel that is closer to my Environmental Geology course than my Senior Seminar in Gothic Lit!

Piers Plowman – Passus 5 – Experimental Modes

In class, we talked about how the mode in which Piers Plowman is written is experimental. It is written in three seperate revisions which gives the story a complex material life, the tale is not instanced once but revised and instanced in three different ways at the same time. Piers Plowman is also experimental because it is written as the retelling of a dream. Rather than the story existing in a dream world with no explanation behind its absurdities, the story exists within the wild and unconscious mind of the idle dreamer, living in the present as a Worcestershire plowman. Readers may have found that this perspective allowed the allegorical tales to resonate more deeply within the human psyche because this is where they are taking place in the story.

It would have been engaging to an audience exposed to all three parts in one sitting because the three revisions could be seen as three different dreams.  The dream world of a man would, in reality,  change, clarify or even become more cynical as they aged and wizened. This process of revelation could have been helpful to ease an audience deeper into the clarified spirituality that the author experienced over time.

Passus 5, The Confession of Sin certainly reminded me a lot of Everyman. The characters in this passus are Reason and the seven deadly sins, specifically Envy, Wrath and Gluttony. The author emphasizes some confessions by allowing the characters to be body-less (although they are described as moving physically and wearing clothing while they speak…physically) and confess how they have influenced people to act in a certain way (for example, the stew and gossip scene that Wrath describes). Of course, the tone of the passus would allow the reader to re-interpret this scene in many different ways, it could easily be placed in a “realm” suspended from the reality of the reader. A setting which exists in a suspended reality that contains constant connections to an incredibly familiar reality allows the reader very free interpretation.

What is Wrath?

The personification of the different sins in Passus 5 of Piers Plowman had me thinking about how word connotation evolves. I was probably influenced by reading Kat’s post about Gluttony, but I was most interested in the description of Wrath. Wrath’s actions seemed to mostly consist of insulting people and inciting anger in petty squabbles until line 159, where he says:

“I, Wrath, made her vegetables out of wicked words,

Until ‘You lie!’ and ‘You lie!’ leapt out at once,

And each slapped the other across the cheek;

If they had knives, by Christ, each of them would have killed the other. ”

This may have just been the writer’s personal approach to the word, but I tend to think of “wrath” as something far more violent and savage. While this passage itself seems pretty heated, the rest of the description sounded tame to me. I wonder what sermons tended to focus on- the conflicts between neighbors and things like that, or actual violence between people such as physical abuse or purposeful sabotage. Envy seemed to be the one always plotting the demise of other people, and Wrath seemed a little robbed of a vengeful attitude. I don’t care about judging the writer’s quality, but it did make me think about what “Wrath” meant to the original readers vs. what it means to me. A somewhat current interpretation of these same sins can be seen in the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, one of my favorite series of all time (and, I would argue, one of the most relevant to literary studies). Wrath takes a human form in this series as well, a cold and calculating man who reaps brutal vengeance on his enemies. He does not seem to be bothered by mere conversation, however, and never resorts to insults. His actions are usually decided far in advance and carried out as planned- no one messes with Wrath and lives.

My personal understanding of “wrath” is different than both of these characterizations. I understand it to mean a quick temper, something where offenses are dealt with too harshly. For example, if someone made called me stupid and I punched them in the face I would consider that “wrath” because I returned an offense with far more force than I received. Like “unnecessary roughness” in sports. My point here is not to argue about the meaning of words, it’s just that when we experience these texts we may not be experiencing them in the way that the original readers did. In fact, we definitely aren’t. But I always wonder just how different our experiences are. Without similar life pressures and experiences, how can we possibly connect with the author’s intent? We probably can’t. But does that mean it isn’t worth trying? Nah. Does it mean we can’t gain valuable understanding from these texts? Nope. It just means that our understanding doesn’t dominate.

Words are Not Enough

In theatre, there are said to be two essential tools that any actor has: the voice and the body. The actor utilizes their voice to give life to the text, while blocking and movement creates dynamism and characterization on stage. Because scripts are generally published without images (though, sometimes first production photos are included), the actor has no context to create the visual, mobile version of their character. They must draw contextual clues from the text and become intelligent close readers in order to understand their character. In this way, the actor is akin to a manuscript’s illustrator: they must paint a picture of who this person is to the audience. Movement is sometimes even moreso important than the meaning of the words themselves, because people do not always mean what they say/ do what they mean. Body language and non-verbal communication is just as important to telling the story.

The difficulty, and perhaps what makes it most interesting, is that no actor will move or say the words exactly the same. The audience who sees Hamlet with the understudy in the lead will get a different experience than the audience who saw the original casting. However, its still important to carry the most essential plot points through the end and tell the story of the show; despite different actors’ perspective on the character, the basic storyline should still be clear to the audience.

Contextualizing this through reviewing Middle English Manuscripts, I find it relatable to the image vs. text debate. I think it would’ve been ineffective to only have a textually based manuscript; any person able to read it during the time may have drawn different conclusions about the meaning of the words. Because of this, the message of the poet may have been skewed (and by default, skewing the moral meaning). The images, like the actor’s movement based characterizations, provide a grounded and concrete message that speaks to the meaning of the words. Universally recognized symbols help guide the meaning of the poet’s words to create a more copacetic storyline that becomes (for the most part) the same to everyone in the audience. Words are so easily taken out of context; I think by using image based communication also, creators of these manuscripts expressed their meaning in a clearer and more widely understood way.

Humor through Glutton

Piers Plowman from Passus 5, The Confession of the Sins reminded me a lot of Everyman, both in form and message. In Passus 5, the narrator introduces multiple characters that represent the seven deadly sins, such as Glutton and Wrath. Similarly, the morality play Everyman, written about 200 years after Piers Plowman, introduces characters such as Good Deeds and Fellowship that represent themes/ideas in order to get across a message. Everyman seems to be heavily influenced by Piers Plowman, Passus 5, and both tales aim to enforce Christian values in their readers.

I really enjoyed the description of Glutton in Passus 5 because its rare to read something comical in a text as old as this one. Additionally, his description gets pretty crude and would fall into today’s category of crude humor. For example, Langland wrote, “He pissed a half-gallon in the time it takes to say “Our Father,” And blew his round trumpet at his backbone’s end, And all who heard that horn held their nose afterwards.” I understand this description was meant to show how belligerent Glutton got and the negative side effects of drinking too much, but I found this hysterical. You don’t really associate humor with medieval manuscripts, so this was a nice surprise. I also thought it was interesting that Glutton was the only deadly sin to cry while confessing/repenting, showing that under his gluttonous behavior he really was a person who was ashamed of his actions. Then Langland wrote, “And [Glutton] vowed firmly, “Neither for hunger nor for thirst Will ever fish on Friday dissolve in my stomach.” Personally, I thought Glutton’s confession was the most sincere. The contrast that the author provides between Glutton’s drunk actions and his sorrowful remorse remind me of a quote that circulated the internet after Robin William’s death:  “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” Glutton was surrounded by many people who are described as laughing and having a good time with him, but in the end he is regretful of his actions and how he is living his life. The author probably wasn’t trying to create this contrast with Glutton, but it really struck me that he cried while confessing, and I couldn’t shake this idea that Glutton had some depth/ inner turmoil to him — or maybe I was just trying to make the story more dramatic/entertaining in my own head.


Mistakes in Art

In high school, my art teacher always told me, “There are no mistakes in art.” Usually she said this as I crumpled up whatever atrocious art piece I was working on. The reading in Chapter 3: The Power of Images made me think that maybe my art teacher wasn’t as crazy as I thought, maybe she was right. Maidi Hilmo showed many instances where the miniatures in the Pearl may at first seem like artistic errors, but may really be intentional additions.

It was really interesting how Hilmo explored all of the seeming “mistakes” in the images of the Pearl manuscript and suggested the possible meaning behind the inconsistencies and cover-ups. I especially found her explanation of the change in style of the dreamer’s sleeves very interesting. When I first looked at these images, I just assumed that they were done my an amateur artist. However, after reading Hilmo’s explanation that the change in dress reflects the altering state of the dreamer, I gained an appreciation for the miniatures.