Patterns and Points

One of the questions posed in our reading for today dealt with the possibility f intertextuality. In some cases the Piers manuscript uses idioms which seem to echo another Manuscript the Chorister’s. In certain passages of the Chorister the author uses idioms which occur in Piers some year later. The reading suggests that there are two possibilities hear: either Langland is referencing the work in Chorister or he is referencing and idiom that this other author also referenced because they were both clerks running in circles in which the idioms were common. Personally I find it hard to decide which of these possibilities were more likely. Langland is proven to favor intertextuality, the reading suggests that Piers is a distillation of works Langland read as a child and an adult (as all writer do he used what he knew). But would it have been ore likely that he heard these idiom’s by word of mouth. What is interesting to me is that for the first time I am realizing that Langland (and writers like him) exist in a world of multimedia: oral and written. Langland derived his speech from his people and his books: that way it is impossible to tell which propagated certain features of his text. Today we live like this, being bombarded with idioms and phrases which are outside our dialect, which we use just as readily as we might some words more natural to our dialect. I think it is fascinating that or book traces the way Langland might or might not have been influenced by his surroundings.

Litany in Passus 7

Truth sent them a letter under his secret seal

Telling them to buy freely, just as it pleased them,

And then resell what they buy and keep the profits,

And use them to fund hospitals and help the sick,

And promptly to repair hazardous roads

And to fix bridges that are broken down,

And find dowries to marry maidens or make them nuns,

Provide food for poor folk and prisoners too,

Send students to school or to train as apprentices,

And support religious orders and endow them better.

The priests call to their men telling them to sell their goods and not to buy (in essence they were meant to keep their money and not spend it on the land, not let it trickle down into the population) But Truth sends these priests a litany (which I have copied above). The litany calls for wide spending: Truth says buy this and that–aid the infrastructure of the land, fix things, feed people and so forth. Truth is democratic, like Whitman, it spins a list of goods, things to be done. The litany has always been a democratic (and somewhat socialist) rhetorical device. Think of Hillary Clinton naming off the people she will help. Truth is concerned with many people and does not confine itself to help the few as does the Pope. This idea is an interesting way to think about the poem as democratic or socialist. Truth (a hero in this poem) aids the lowly plowman and tells him be free and buy his cow. Truth does not favor the wealthy, it favors the everyman, the average joe, the plowman (whatever you want to call him).


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.

Mistake or Message?

A few classes ago Dr. Seaman noted that most people will look at these miniatures and say: “God wasn’t it great when artists learned perspective?” Not to lie I thought it. But our reading seems offer other explanations for the strange situation of some images: especially images of the environment and the background (the trees/rivers/hills). In the miniatures from the Pearl MS. the hillside actually shifts, at first it slopes from the lower left corner of the page to the upper right; then the hill shifts and it runs from the upper left to the lower right. It’s inconsistent, but not a mistake. The anthologists postulate that the artists was changing perspective because “the perceptions of the dreamer […] changed” (177). Still the rivers look strange the way they simply chop across the page. But I do notice that the river functions as impassible band, like a break in the image (I’m imagining the way comics and movies depict phone calls: where one caller is separated from another by a jagged band across the screen). Indeed, the anthologists suggest that there is further weight to the rivers: that they are meant to suggest the roundness of the Earth (178). When I read that I had to pause for a moment. They go on to explain that it replicates the shape of the Mandorla which often encircles christ. These rivers look flat and childlike to me, they seem careless almost, but then you read this book and you learn that’s not so. Shockingly there was great attention to detail, despite the painting of fingers.

Gesture, Color, and Scale

I was thinking about the ways this class might relate to graphic comics/novels. The reading suggested that these images should be read according to “gesture, scale, and color.” I wonder if I could meditate on this idea for a moment. The reading was careful to point out that illuminations “rarely reproduce” the text in a literal way. If I think about comics I realize that panels rarely reproduce the action described–that would be a redundant move on the artist’s part. The artist uses image (gesture, scale, and color) to add tone. In the way a movie is scored, a text is enhanced through certain visual cues–cues about genre help the reader understand the situation of the text.  In a way many of these texts were adhering to a genre–a christian/devotional genre in many cases.

I’m not entirely sure what the word gesture refers to in this case. I could take it to understand the movement of the image–or the movement of a character within an image. If someone is making some symbol, if the objects present seem to communicate some symbolism. In a comic, gesture is conveyed via juxtaposition. From panel to panel, ideas flow and change because they are in conversation; just as, text and symbol are in conversation in a manuscript. The church is a place of intense symbolism. Think of the way people signify in church mapping the trinity on their very bodies–gesturing. Imagery and gesture can be used to reference the genre conventions of the church.

What about scale? Scale in a manuscript is directly related to money. If a page is devoted to imagery it is not devoted to script and thus the manuscript will be longer. If an image is large it is also expensive. It grabs the readers attention, it requires more layers of artistry, more detail. In comics, large panels are typically important, they are emotional, or broad. They are detailed because they are meant to replace smaller images that might have communicated more meaning. Scale is directly related to importance and significance.

And of course color, color is always expensive. Even in comics from this century color isn’t ubiquitous because it is expensive. But in the medieval period color was even more important, especially the color red. Red dye was made from the cochineal bugs which were traded through France. Red was in demand, therefore it was expensive. If a text was rubricated it would be an expense. A rubricator would be a skilled scribe who would detail a manuscript with red ink. Red ink is doubly significant because it was often used to write in the calendar of saint’s. Even color is a convention or the christian genre.