It wasn’t until near the end of Passus 7 that I got a clear picture of the way Piers Plowman reprimanded certain practices of the Church. My first hint came from lines 110-112:
“And it was written as follows, in witness of Truth: “Those who have done well shall go into eternal life; Those (who have done) evil (shall go) into eternal fire.”
While on this surface this might seem a simple statement- good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell- I believe it carried connotations that were actually revolutionary to this period. If people could reach heaven by simply being good people, what need was there for an authoritative clergy? And what of the whole business of buying pardons for sins? You could be a terrible person, but if you were a terrible rich person you could potentially just buy your way out of any pile of bad behavior. And what constituted bad behavior? Was it only violating the laws and guidelines set out by the Bible itself, or were there additional restrictions that the Church decided to be “bad behavior”? Piers Plowman does not seem to want to do away with pardons and the Church entirely, it just seems to be pushing against the idea that money can overtake action as the primary means of getting to heaven. Lines 180-195 present the moral of Passus 7 pretty clearly (notice “Dowel” is a substitute for the words do well):
“But to trust these triennials, truly, it seems to me, Is clearly not as reliable for the soul as Dowel. Therefore I advise you men who are rich on earth, You who rely upon your treasure to buy triennials, Don’t be so quick to break the Ten Commandments; 185 And namely, you rulers, mayors and judges, Who possess the wealth of this world, and are considered wise men, To purchase for yourself pardon and papal bulls. At the dreadful judgment, when the dead shall rise And all come to Christ to give their accounts, 190 How you led your life here and kept His laws, And how you aquit yourself each day—the judgment will reveal. Neither a bagful of pardons nor provincial’s letters [will help you]— Even if you belong to the fraternities of all five orders, And have twice as many indulgences—unless Dowel helps you, 195 I assess your patents and your pardons at the value of one pie’s crust!”
Aside from criticizing the monetary culture of the Church, this passage also seems to push against legalism. Its focus on “how you aquit yourself each day” does not seem to be on the breaking of abstract rules, but on the treatment of other people. I think this is part of why Piers Plowman has stuck around for so long, because its claims can still resonate with many cultures and beliefs today.
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.
The discussion of the Sir Gawain images on page 186 of OUMEM really brought the illustrator’s influence to life for me. It says, “In the bottom register Gawain on his horse replicates the Green Knight on his horse in the prefatorial miniature, as if their identities had been exchanged or as if the one is a doppelganger or dark side of the other.” This type of image, especially if viewed before reading the story, could have a profound impact on how it was read. Imagine a few different depictions the illustrator could have used. What if he would have made the Green Knight a humongous hulking figure with a cruel-looking axe posed over Gawain. Wouldn’t that incite a different understanding than, say, a picture of Gawain holding the enchanted belt toward the sky and crying? In the first case, people would probably tend to be impressed with the terror that Gawain would be facing- the physical danger he would encounter and how he would stand up to it. In the second option, however, the viewer might be tempted more toward an understanding of Gawain’s chivalric struggle- the mental turmoil he felt at betraying his own code of honor (or, at least, at being caught).
In our reading of OUMEM today I was fascinated with the concept of image literacy- the “reading” we do when we interpret images. Early in our reading the author stated “The visual adds to, complements, and sometimes changes the verbal text; it rarely literally reproduces it. Images placed before a text create certain kinds of expectation and anticipation, while those placed at the end can be particularly important in determining what the reader is to take away from the reading experience.” (p. 158) Sometimes I feel like we live in an inverse of this whole visual debate. While people went back and forth about the morality of including images with text, text was still seen as the primary means of communication. I don’t know that we still operate like that. Maybe in the classroom, but in most of my experience with life I’ve seen imagery start to displace text as the primary means of communication. Here’s one example. A few years ago I worked as a waiter at Cracker Barrel (a sit-down country cooking-style restaurant). Our menus were almost entirely text, big, folding pieces of brown paper with tiny writing and about a million combinations of the same few ingredients. People coming to the restaurant for the first time were usually overwhelmed with the menu because they couldn’t just point to a picture and say “I want that.” They usually had a ton of questions as they tried to visualize what the meals would be like. This makes sense to me because as I drive down the interstate, do my grocery shopping, watch TV, check my various social media sites, etc. I feel like I absorb more imagery than text. I have to consciously choose to read books, write letters, and read my food labels if I want to experience text as a primary way to take in information. I feel like the question of whether to include images has become a question of whether to include text instead.
As I’ve been reading through OUMEM I’ve found myself focusing on the changes made to text over time- more specifically, how those changes would affect the understanding taken by readers. A great example of this can be found on page 26, “Will then cries out to Kynd for advice in avenging Elde, and Kynd counsels him to retreat to Unity (Holy Church), and ‘lerne to loue’ (line 208), promising that he will never lack life’s necessities: “and thou loue <treuly> : lake schal thou neuer.” This line is one of many places in Douce where the corrector has visibly supplanted a word he thought his MHE audience would not understand.”
Take a look at how I typed out that quote one more time. Did you catch the alterations I made in order to fit it into this post? There are two places where I replaced the “thorn” letter with a th because I didn’t know how to type them into this. I also replaced the taller pointed brackets found around the word “truly” with these things for a similar reason: <>. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, these tiny changes alter the way anyone reading this post experiences the text. My hope was that it would make it easier to understand (maybe you don’t automatically read the th sound when you come across a “thorn”), but it’s also possible that I have stripped away some of its authenticity. The text says that words were supplanted in Douce in order to make it more legible to a MHE audience, but I can’t help but think that corrections like this carry a bit of the corrector’s bias within them.