"Figural" Mode of Expression

in Piers Plowman

Minwoo Yoon

    Critics of Piers Plowman have noted that the dominant expressive modes of the poem are personification allegory and figural allegory. These two modes of figurative expression, however, contrast with each other and require different ways of reading. The mode of the personification allegory does not intend to carry more than two levels of meaning--literal and allegorical, in such a way that the expressive vehicle (integumentum or involucrum) conveys allegorical meaning. Notably, the medieval exegetical tradition uses the literal sense of a narrative merely as point of departure for allegorical interpretation.1) This basically Platonic idea of language and its meaning does not allow any room for consideration of the interaction between socio-historical situations and fictional contexts that the personifi- cations make up. On the other hand, in figural narrative, a fiction is based on historical facts, and, simultaneously, the historical elements have an essential relationship with other historical contexts by circumstantial similarities which involve spiritual analogies between them. An event itself is, in a figural perspective, thoroughly real and historical, but the reality is also an umbra or figura of past or future events. That is, in figural allegory, no character or event is treated on the verbal level alone, but each of them is fully historical and bears a further connection with other historical events by means of a spiritual nexus.2)

    Piers in Piers Plowman is a literal plowman from the fourteenth century and also figures forth the living "persons" of Christ (Petrus, id est, cristus; Passus 18)3) and of St. Peter (Passus 19).4) While personification allegories can hardly go beyond its semantic range of verbal signification, figural discourse presupposes persons or events in the larger context of Christian history. For example, Abraham-Moses-the Good Samaritan in Passus 17 seem like allegorical personifications of Faith-Hope-Charity. But in Langland's rewriting of the Biblical story, they are vivid "characters" acting out of the fourteenth-century reality which comprises Piers and the Dreamer. Since the three persons lived in different Biblical and historical times and now they all joined the pursuit of Christ in one and the same time and place, they are persons other than the historical Abraham, Moses, and Samaritan, and more than mere types of faith, hope and charity. They are, in fact, anyone in history who has ever lived, and is living, and will live a life of faith in Christ, and who is hopeful of His Coming, and who tries to practice charitable deeds (Clopper 230-234).5) They are "figures" or "types" pointing to Christ, those persons having lived in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity in different historical contexts and, at the same time, those Christians living in the period contemporaneous with the Dreamer. 

    It is true that both the allegorical and figural modes of expression are governed by a priori assumptions: one is embedded in language itself, the other in the realities of history (Quilligan 115-116). Personification allegories rely on the reification of nouns and a close scrutiny of things embedded within words by means of ready-made conceptions of contemporary learning. Morton W. Bloomfield points out that personifications are not apt for "naturalistic" but, rather, rational modes of writing, and that the capacity of an able allegorist to utilize personification allegories is revealed by his ability to use predicate forms of language (verbs and adjectives) more effectively than nominative ones (Bloomfield 165-170). This means that even with personifications one may create a vivid fictional world. Even so, in the personification allegories, the meaning or sententia is always to be under the constraint of their customary significations. The accepted concepts of personifications imply a completed act of intellectual abstraction before the fictional action by the allegories even begins. This is why personification allegory frequently acts out a narrative whose real force is argumentative. A personified abstraction is expected to be a stereotyped figure and lacks complexities of a living character (Delany, "Undoing" 22). Therefore, when a personification goes out from the confines of its signification, it is made to look awkward.

    Priscilla Jenkins points out this kind of inconsistency in some of Langland's use of personification allegories. The poet often violates the conceptual limits of the accepted signification of personifications and this can indicate the poet's awareness of formal and moral problems inherent in allegorical writing. Much of this confusion comes about by the historical actuality of the late medieval period which often collides with the fictive and ideal context of allegory. For example, the character "Peace," in the ideal level, ought to bring about peace among people by just administration of things. But, in actual level, in order to bring about peace, Peace often accepts bribery and thereby allows the criminals easy forgiveness (Jenkins 128). Also, although he does not deny the validity of the pardon and pilgrimage, in the poem Langland replaces the literal events of the pilgrimage and pardon with allegorical ones, because he sees the actual practice of the pardon and pilgrimage was losing their spiritual meanings in his own time. Note that Langland substitutes the Pardon "purchased" and sent to the half acre directly by God for the actual pardon of the fourteenth century (Passus 7), and that he substitutes for the formalized pilgrimage of the fourteenth century an ordinary living of postlapsarian people itself as a pilgrimage to Truth (Passus 6). The result is a confusion between allegorical and literal levels of expression, and a compromise between the desire of conceptualization of a fiction and the historical actuality of the contemporary world (Jenkins 127-130; Spearing 224, 262; see also Burrow). Here, it must be pointed out that Langland does not sacrifice one level of expression for the other; he always thinks of the interaction between the actual and the spiritual. On the one hand, it seems certain that Langland is uneasy with the purely allegorical expression alone and often gets out of the constraint of allegorical meaning; on the other, he restores, at times, authentic allegorical meanings to the formalized actual practice of things. Therefore, "if Langland is suspicious of the idealizing imagination as manifested in allegory, he is also deeply sympathetic towards it" (Jenkins 129). There must be a demand for the mixture of both literal and spiritual senses in the expressive mode of Piers.

    Robert W. Frank distinguishes between "personification allegories" and "symbol allegories." He argues that figurative expressions of Piers Plowman are essentially made up of the personification allegories, while the symbol allegory (in which an object or action has a further, non-literal meaning) is most relevant to Dante's poems (Frank 237-250). It seems, however, that, in Piers Plowman, the "figural" images (such as the transforming images of Piers) and episodes (such as the half acre and Unitas in Passus 6-7 and 19-20) are quite close to what Frank calls symbol allegories, in antithesis to the personified abstractions in the poem (such as Reason, Conscience, Holy Church, Wit, Scripture, etc). In accord with this, some critics see both kinds of figurative methods being used in Piers. David Aers contrasts modes of figurative expression in Piers Plowman by applying two models of approach (Aers 13, passim): the "picture model" (in which the one-to-one correlation between tenor and vehicle is possible) and the "disclosure model" (in which images or objects make their gradual revelation through recurrent appearances in time). Aers strongly argues for the importance of the temporal and literal dimension in the interpretation of major figures and events in the poem (the "disclosure" model), against the method of the shell-kernel interpretation (the "picture" model). Mary J. Carruthers, to a similar effect, argues that the "allegorical discourse" in the poem reflects an arbitrary, confusing, and abusive nature of human language that fails to introduce deeper insight and larger perspective to the narrative (Carruthers, Search for St. Truth 40). The two critics agree that the allegorical narrative involving personifications stands, in Piers, basically static and often fruitlessly abusive of language, and therefore, gives way for the poem's progression, transition, and meaning, to the privileged level of the "figural discourse." Behind the critics' preference of figural discourse, there probably lies the idea that the solution of the actual social problems (which are represented in the poem) by the institutionalized clerical discourse of transcendence stands at odds with the changed situations of the contemporary society, which is often resistant to the allegorical spiritualization.6) 

    The main purpose of Carruthers's study is to describe the mode of verbal and figurative aspects of Piers which is, to her, reflective of the Dreamer's cognitive growth. It is the "figural discourse" that opens ways for Will's cognitive search and development, because it allows him to see an event in different temporal and spatial perspectives.7) This figural discourse comes close to Aers's "disclose model," because the disclosing image of Piers functions as a "lens" through which the Dreamer can see the Christian realty in its widening scope in the poem. That is, the gradual revelation of Piers's spiritual essence is accordant to the growth of Dreamer's cognitive and affective ability to understand Christian reality: Piers as an ordinary peasant who does well at an ordinary ground of living; Piers the only person who knows Dowel's whereabouts; Piers as the tiller of human heart (in the episode of the Tree of Charity); Piers as a humana natura of Christ; and Piers as Peter the apostle and the defender of the church.

    It is true that David Aers's favored "disclosure model" presupposes consideration of historical and realistic details of each image in its disclosing process. This model of Aers tends to have, in fact, a close affinity with a kind of literalism, which refuses to consider the nexus made by the spiritual elements latent within related images. Aers explicitly reveals his discontentment with the nature of typological fulfillment which, in his view, tends to ignore the nuanced and minor differences in their actuality between the figure and its fulfillment. This kind of social realism is, however, not responsible for explaining the dynamics of the interaction between the latent "spiritual" elements in images or events and their full revelation later in time. In fact, every "type" is insufficient and inferior to its fulfillment, because the type's daily living, having all its contingencies, cannot be equal to the spiritual essence of the fulfilled. Nonetheless, Aers's method is extremely useful to do justice to the historical dimension of Langland's narrative. In particular, in the episode such as the half acre, the agricultural and feudal reality of the late fourteenth century, involving Piers's activity as a land-owning peasant, cannot be lost to the allegorical interpretation of it.

    While a personification allegory confines itself within the ready-made notion of its signification, the figural method involves a process of "disclosure": that is, a character or event foreshadows its fulfillment, and the fulfilled is recalled by the anticipated. Both are fully grounded on earthly, historical reality, but their connection is "from above," the nexus of a spiritual relevance. Certainly, as Erich Auerbach's view of "figura" makes it clear, the most appropriate approach to the disclosing mode of Piers's image is to view the connections which are given "from above," that is, the nexus of spiritual elements between the related images working within time (Auerbach, "Figura" 8, 53, 59). The apt method of figural realism in reading Piers, therefore, lies midway between social realism (or literalism) and the purely exegetical method of interpretation. The concrete, historical images and events of the poem, while keeping their literalness, must be viewed in wide and universal patterns in which one historical event refers back and forth to other events within the sacred history.

    Among medieval thinkers, Augustine sees that word or event is always preceded by its spiritual sense (ante re); therefore, with Augustine, allegorical interpretation always predominates. For Aquinas, the universal and hidden spiritual sense comes simultaneously with individual and actual word or event (in re). Unlike Augustine, Aquinas sees the literal sense is important as part of the hidden spiritual meaning; Aquinas's understanding of the essence of things is therefore more naturalistic than transcendental. Words or events themselves, expressed either literally or figuratively, are not to be reduced to allegorical interpretation (Bishop 53-54). Nonetheless, the two strands of thought are not entirely different from each other in that they generally put trust in the analogical relation between the literal and the spiritual. On the other hand, for nominalists, like William of Ockham, the universal sense comes after the word or event (post re); the universal meaning is separated from a particular word or event. The universal and transcendental signified looks entirely arbitrary to human understanding, and human mind is not accessible to divine meaning (Delasanta 123-126).

    In this regard, it can be pointed out that the figural discourse represents a certain kind of theological position. I argue that the figuralism or typology as combination of universal and individual, verba and res, generally comes nearest to Thomas Aquinas. For example, Dante's figural images in the Hell represent the spiritual sense of each soul in the realm of eternity; they are visual and dramatic representation of each living soul's spiritual essence which is revealed most fully after God's judgment. Spiritual essence as they are, the images of souls are more real, individual, and concrete than their earthly being. Likewise, Piers the peasant is represented as a historical being, and yet the image of the peasant foreshadows his spiritual essence. It may be right that the nominalist idea of the contingency of human will and of the discrepancy between divine will and human reason, can, in part, account for the stagnant and unresolved state of the debates in the Piers among personification allegories and thus the Dreamer's perplexity. However, the nominalist anti-analogical thinking was not the dominant theological position in the fourteenth century, and is not responsible for the figural images of Piers. Not conforming to Sheila Delany's argument, the figural discourse of Piers is said to preserve the Augustinian and Thomist idea that human reason does not lose touch with divine will, and thus that the literal event has analogical relation with its spiritual meaning. The figuralism goes along with the interconnectedness between words and meanings, the signifier and the signified, the historical and the spiritual, the human and the divine, and the historical and the eschatological, past and present (future).

    In Piers, just as in Dante and the Bible, the literal sense is given as an historical sense that stands in its own right. And the literal level of expression is not devised only for the purpose of conveying a hidden truth, but rather of comprising the literal and the spiritual into the focus of a single vision. It can be argued, therefore, that "figural" allegories of Piers are not an allegory of "this for that," but an allegory of "this and that." As we shall see later, the character like Piers the plowman and the events like Piers's project of the half acre and the Unitas are in themselves historical, and in their turn they reflect, in facto, other historical characters (Adam, Christ, St. Peter) and other events in the context of sacred history (like the archetypal locus in which man lives between doing good and doing evil, depicted in the Prologue to Piers as well as in Moses' wilderness life). The usefulness of figural realism is, therefore, that it goes beyond the purely verbal level and puts the narrative in a dynamic, historical situation, thus enabling us to re-illuminate an event in the context of God's sacred history, the meaning and message of which is still relevant to the reader of today.


    Nowhere is the "figural" approach more relevant in Piers Plowman than to the appearances of Piers. The transforming image of Piers maintains the historical actuality of his earthly being, but there exists in it simultaneously a foreshadowing of greater things. In his initial appearance in the Visio, Piers is a literal plowman and the situation of the half acre represents the contemporary socio-economic problems concerning the peasant class. Piers appears here as a yeomanry peasant, the owner of the half acre, and the faithful laborer attempts to retain within his farming land the peasants who tend to be idle and negligent and even rebellious towards landowners. A conservative ideology as this can be, Langland's view of the ideal human nature conforms to Piers as a faithful peasant. He considers Piers's daily living and activity in the Visio as symbolic of the humanity which is purest and, in so being, is closest to imago dei, pointing ultimately to Charity.

    Yet the spiritual aspect of Piers's human nature is not rendered clear and full in the picture of the simple plowman at the half acre, but will only much later be fulfilled in himself--by the discovery of the image of God within him. This best representative of all God's men (Salter 91) unfolds his spiritual attributes in a gradually advancing fashion, which culminates in the grand vision in Passus 18 when he is the one rendered coincident with human nature of Christ. The quality of charity in Piers is, therefore, never personified in the same way that, say, Patience or Reason is, but is "recognized" or "figured" in living figures such as the Good Samaritan or St. Peter (who also figures, or more accurately, postfigures, Christ). The identification of Piers the plowman with the figure of Christ or Peter can be understood as a translation of Piers's habitus or his leading propensity into objective, more "real," terms. This habitus was, in the Visio, hidden as if in aenigmate; in Passus 18, it achieves its full revelation. Here, despite David Aers's discontent with the lack of literalism in the figural fulfillment, the minor discrepancy between the figure and its fulfillment is effaced; the earthly contingency of the figure is not to be involved in the fulfilled. Through the manifestation of his spiritual significance, Piers is revealed as forma perfectior8) of his selfhood in the temporal and changing realm. When he is one who is fulfilled, he is no longer involved in those actions or entanglements as he must have been as a mundane being. Rather, the fulfilled is posited in the situation of transcendence which is the sum and the result of all his life and actions thereof.9)

    This is most clearly seen in Dante's Divine Comedy: Beatrice, an incarnate soul, is a fulfillment of the Beatrice alive in the Vita Nuova, and each of the souls in Hell refers back to exactly what kind of life his earthly life was (Charity 198). Likewise, Piers as the figure of Christ or St. Peter in Passus 18 and 19 is in a higher level the epitome or manifestation of his earthly being as the inchoate potential appearing in the Visio. The selfhood of Piers is, in its fulfillment, freed from the contingencies of earthly affairs that have so far impeded his total self-revelation. This particular way in which Piers's earthly attributes achieve their full revelation in the form of Charity is to be explained by the figural point of view.

    Piers is, therefore, the manifestation of imago dei that may be reflected in a "true" human, which points, after all, to the figure of Christ. This view capitalizes on the Augustinian-Thomist concept of "truth." According to Augustine, truth is the identity of idea and reality. Only God fully verifies the idea. He is truth; men are "true" insofar as they are imperfect imitations of the first Truth, of the Subsistent Idea, which is God. Also, to Aquinas, every being presupposes its idea in the mind of God. God is identically subsisting Intellection and Being, or subsistent Truth. Knowing His essence as imitable, He forms the idea of every creature He can produce. Creating, God conforms to His intellect the reality produced, making it identically intelligible and existing.10) Therefore, when we say that Piers is a "true" human, it means that Piers's life and act are identical to the idea of human nature as God conceived and, thus, inspired to a man. The outward forms of the "true" human nature can come out differently, but its essence is always the same. A "truth" to a man is to imitate God, to love God and to do well on the basis of the function of his free choice in accordance with the command of reason.

    The idea of a living figure, in antithesis to the disembodied personifications, is important for its role in the Dreamer's affective awakening. As far as Dowel, the goal of the Dreamer's quest, remains a personification allegory, it does not function as more than an object of intellectual pursuit, which is incapable of moving a man to do well. Likewise, Holy Church, albeit a sapiential figure, is a word without flesh; only the word made flesh (like Christ, the Word incarnate) grounded in history, can bear the weight of lifting man up from the reality of ordinary life to God. Like Beatrice in the Divine Comedy and the Pearl maiden in Pearl, the souls incarnate appearing as figurae of Christ can perform the role of the spiritual guide who still retains the image of their earthly life and, borne within it, the reflection of the true way to God in this life. On a similar basis, Langland on his own constructs the narrative in which the historical figure of Piers the plowman replaces Lady Philosophy-like figures (Holy Church, Dowel, and Truth-Charity), to whom the Dreamer is quite unresponsive in his incipient yearning to do well. Piers who appears as a figura of Christ is still a human being, and thus clearly a living model which the Dreamer strives to imitate. Langland gradually reveals to us the transformation of Piers's figural image as "salvation coming into being," and, at least under this aspect, Piers is the reader's ground for hope. Piers is certainly not to be generalized on this basis into an allegorical personification of Dowel, Charity, Grace, St. Peter, or Christ, because even when he stands for these figures, Piers always retains his human nature in each of his figurations of them.  


    Figural perspective is pertinent not only to the representation of Piers the plowman, but also to the construction of Piers Plowman as a whole. A view which has been potently argued by critics is that the three major appearances of Piers in the poem figure forth Moses (prefiguration of Christ), Christ, and St. Peter (postfiguration of Christ), respectively.11) Margaret E. Goldsmith thinks that the developing aspect of the image of Piers (involving the aforementioned triad) shapes the tripartite structure of the poem. She puts the idea as follows: "the patriarchal Piers who is an analogue of God the Father, and the battling Piers who is an analogue of the Son in contest with Sin, Death and the Devil . . . the Piers of the Holy Spirit, who lives on in the era of the saints as the steward of Grace" (Goldsmith 79). Although she does not deny that the existence of the triune God is apparent from the beginning of the poem, Ruth Ames says that Christ as an initiator of the New Testament period is a hidden, only latent aspect within the Visio; thus, the whole Visio section is comparable to the Old Testament era. In turn, Barbara Raw, seeing restoration of the divine image in history and in the individual soul as the unifying theme of Piers Plowman, relates the process of that restoration to the Trinitarian division of the poem: the Visio and Dowel (Old Testament period under God the Father), Dobet (New Testament period under God the Son), and Dobest (the era after Christ under God the Holy Spirit). 

    Concerning the theory of Piers's triadic images, there is no denying that Piers does appear in a "likeness" to Christ and to St. Peter. As the culmination of revelation of his own essential spirituality, Piers in Passus 18 appears as a figure resembling both the Samaritan and Christ. In Passus 19, after the Ascension, Piers remains upon earth and plays the role of the apostolic leader, St. Peter, who is the reeve of Grace and defender of the castle of Unity. However, the image of Piers in the Visio does not have to be equated exclusively with Moses. Although Piers at the half acre appears to function as a guide, he is not necessarily matched with Moses-like guide. David Aers's emphasis on literalism is useful here to repudiate the allegorization of Piers as an Old Testament leader of Moses. The image of Piers the peasant and his half-acre project offer the most relevant reflection of the fourteenth-century socio-economic reality.

    A more specific division of the images of Piers in the poem shows that the logic of the historical triad in God's redemptive history does not do justice to the details of the transformation of the image. For example, even when he is off the stage and does not appear in the poem after he quits being a literal plowman (Passus 8-15), Piers is still present in the poem in the allusions to him. In particular, after Clergy's confession of incapacity to give a definition of the nature of Dowel, Conscience suggests that they would better leave the question till Piers comes to show Dowel in practice.

    'I kan noʒt heron', quod Conscience, `ac I knowe Piers.

    He wol noʒt ayein holy writ speken, I dar vndertake.'

    'Thanne passe we ouer til Piers come and preue is in dede.


Conscience quite nearly leaves the question aside and attributes the resolution of all problems to Piers's sapiential knowledge. This indicates that Piers is still accepted and thus believed as a guide, much as he was guide to Truth at the half acre. The allusions, like the passage above, to Piers's spiritual attributes are often deliberately set to recall each other in a figural relation (Salter 89). They serve as an intermediary stage, or a nexus, between Piers at the half acre and Piers as humana natura of Christ (Passus 18), which shows the process of revelation of Piers's mode of being. The understanding of Piers's being produced by the allusions is in aenigmate, or a prefiguration of his later appearance. In addition, it can be pointed out that in Passus 16-19, only after the episode of the Tree of Charity, the poem figures forth, in a strict sense, the linear flow of salvation history: a fairly consistent narrative of the Biblical history from the Annunciation to the vision of the End of the world, the part of the poem which includes Piers as Christ and St. Peter. The theory of the triadic image or the tripartite structure of the poem, therefore, fails to give adequate weight to the changing aspect of Piers's image.12) Piers must be an active and an almost ever-present force and principle in the poem, which is not confined to the three conspicuous appearances of his. 

    The structural principle of Piers, it seems, is better grasped by another recurrent motif of the poem, which may be called the "middle ground," or the wilderness-life motif. The motif represents the arena in which the contest between doing good and doing evil is constantly played out. This dilemma of living the Christian life finds its archetype in the Deuteronomic "wilderness" years. This great deliverance of the Israelites took place in the past, when they were rescued from Egypt and brought out of the land of bondage; but they were not yet in the promised land. The "middle ground" motif is, from the beginning of the poem, potently manifested as a major thematic and structural principle. The paradigmatic picture of "a fair feeld ful of folk" presents the sense of the "middle ground" as a vision of the world.

    [Ac] as I biheeld into e Eest, an heiʒ to e sonne,

    I seiʒ a tour on a toft trieliche ymaked,

    A deep dale bynee, a dongeon perInne

    Wi depe diches and derke and dredfulle of siʒte.

    A fair feeld ful of folk fond I er bitwene

    Of alle manere of men, e meene and pe riche,

    Werchynge and wandrynge as e world aske. (Prol. 13-19)

This twofold nature of one's moral acts (depending upon either upright or perverse will) can be seen as a universal pattern of the ordinary Christian's response to God's will. In the period after Christ's coming, the Dreamer's and the reader's resistance to, or acceptance of, divine will can be said to share in its own "type" which has been repeated throughout the history. Will's experiences in the poem, as a type of the unstable voluntas of ordinary Christian, contains guised images of the reader's own states of ill- and well-being.

    Also, the process of the communal will's fluctuation between doing good and doing evil in the "wilderness" is most significantly inscribed in the two main episodes of Piers. As is illustrated by the "wasters" of the half acre and of the Unitas, the relapse of the folk's initial zeal to do well into their spiritual sloth is the mirror image of an ordinary sinful Christian's moral behavior. The half acre represents Langland's contemporary socio-economic situation; the Unitas deals with the condition of his contemporary church. The folk at the half-acre project and Piers "felawes" at the Unitas fall away from Piers, having lost their desire to follow Piers as a guide to Truth. At the half acre, the pilgrims becomes negligent to plow and sow the land against their original effort to do well. At the Unitas, the problem is how the people, because of the assault of Antichrist and his cohorts (especially the hypocritical friars), come to desert their original zeal towards the church and its practice of penance. Both of the events represent the problem of the instability of human voluntas, which is a recurrent figural motif of the poem and a recurrent figural practice of the Israelites in the Old-Testament "wilderness" and of the ordinary Christians of the fourteenth-century and today located in the metaphorical "wilderness."13)

    The spiritually slothful soul expresses itself in its verbal act. Man's recalcitrant will to refuse to comply with the divine will re-enacts the words of the biblical "murmuring." It goes back to that of the Israelites in the Wilderness period,14) and is reiterated in the doubt of the disciple Thomas as well as the vituperativeness of the Jews of our Lord's time. In 1 Corinthians 10.10, for example, Christ exhorts the disciples to "neither do you murmur; as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed by the destroyer." It is significant that the recalcitrant mood of the Dreamer's voluntas expresses itself in his verbal act, too. The analytic and discursive mode of Will's and the personification allegories' narrative belongs to this kind of words. The Dreamer's vain questioning about Dowel's whereabouts and the personified abstractions' confusing words in reply to him (Passus 8-12) is analogous in the figural terms to the "wilderness talk," which is in antithesis to Logos. The "murmuring" is pertinent to a slothful voluntas in man's ordinary basis of living, that is, in the metaphorical "wilderness." The motif of "murmuring" is a figural pattern, because it is a historical repetition connected by the nexus of its spiritual meaning. 

    By the pattern of the "middle ground," the reader is drawn into the poem and so may read the events of the poem as being both likenesses and unlikenesses of his own personal life. The reader's worldly experience is probed by treating the Dreamer's and the folk's experiences as being that of the imperfect mortal who is either in cacophony against, or in harmony with, God's will. The moral acts of the ordinary living human are equivalent to the movement of the human voluntas in the "wilderness." This movement of the unstable will has been figurally reiterated in numerous times in history and finds its prototype in the Moses's Deuteronomic history. This motif of the poem serves, as Joseph S. Wittig proposed, as a consistent "address to the human will," by "handing the problem back to the reader, who . . . like Will, should realize where the answer lies" (Wittig 75-76). The reader's realization of his own unstable volitive life, through Will's and the folk's experiences, awakens him towards reformation of his affectus as the fundamental factor for his doing well and for the life in the state of grace and, ultimately, towards everlasting life. In brief, a figural interpretation embraces the tropological sense--the meaning of a figural event to be morally applied to ordinary people outside the given text or event.

    It can be said that Piers Plowman is, in a sense, composed of the variations of the coherent topic of everyone struggling in the "middle ground": those who do well are bound for the Tower of Truth, those who do evil, for the Dungeon of Sorrow; Piers's faithful fellow men vs. the wasters at the half acre (Passus 6-7); the Dreamer's life who is a baptized Christian, but a dweller in the "lond of longynge" for forty-five years of his life; the emblem of an ordinary Christian, Haukyn the Actyf (Passus 13), whose cloak is constantly soiled by the deadly sins; Piers's "felawes" vs. the Antichrist's cohorts in the conflict between the Unitas and Antichrist (Passus 20). These variations of the "figural" motif of the "middle ground" presuppose differences brought about by the inherent flux of historical process; however, they illustrate the same motif of the cyclical pattern of doing well and doing evil in one's moral life. The variants give the reader the opportunities for constant and recurrent re-awakening of his spiritual life. Therefore, the structural principle of Piers, due to the figural motif of the "middle ground," lends a recurrent pattern to the otherwise linear course of the Christian history. This pattern being woven as a major thematic motif in the fabric of the poem, the structural principle of Piers is truly "modular," rather than linear or progressive (Carruthers, "Time" 178).

(Yonsei University)

Works Cited

Aers, David. Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory. New York: St. Martin's, 1975.

Ames, Ruth M. The Fulfillment of the Scripture: Abraham, Moses, and Piers. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1970.

Auerbach, Erich. "Figura." Scenes from the Drama of European Literature. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Meridian Books, 1959. pp. 1-77.

               . Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953.

Bahti, Tomothy. "Auerbach's Mimesis: Figural Structure and Historical Narrative." After Strange Texts: the Role of Theory in the Study of Literature. Ed. Gregory S. Jay & David L. Miller. Alabama: U of Alabama P, 1985. pp. 124-45.

Bishop, Ian. Pearl in Its Setting. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968..

Bloomfield, Morton W. "A Grammatical Approach to Personification Allegory." Modern Philology 60 (1963): 161-171.

Burrow, John. "The Action of Langland's Second Vision." Style and Symbolism in Piers Plowman. Ed. Robert J. Blanch. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1969. pp. 209-27.

Carruthers, Mary J. The Search for St. Truth: A Study of Meaning in Piers Plowman. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

                  . "Time, Apocalypse, and the Plot of Piers Plowman." Acts of Interpretation: The Text in its Contexts 700-1600. Ed. Mary J. Carruthers & Elizabeth D. Kirk. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1982. pp. 175-88.

Charity. A.C. Events and Their Afterlife: the Dialectics of Christian Typology in the Bible and Dante. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Clopper, Lawrence M. "Shifting Typologies on Langland's Theology of History." Typology and English Medieval Literature. Ed. Hugh T. Keenan. pp. 227-40.

Delany, Sheila. "Undoing Substantial Connection: The Late Medieval Attack on Analogical Thought." Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990. pp. 19-41.

             . "The Politics of Allegory in the Fourteenth Century." Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology. pp. 42-60.

Delasanta, Rodney. "Nominalism and Typology in Chaucer." Typology and English Medieval Literature. Ed. Hugh T. Keenan. pp. 121-39.

Frank, Robert W. "The Art of Reading Medieval Personification-Allegory." ELH 20 (1953): 237-250.

Goldsmith, Margaret E. The Figure of Piers Plowman: the Image of the Coin. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981.

The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate. [Douay-Rheims]. Catholic Truth Society, 1956.

Jenkins, Priscilla. "Conscience: the Frustration of Allegory." Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches. Ed. S.S. Hussey. London: Methuen, 1969. pp. 125-42.

Kane, George & E. Talbot Donaldson, ed. Piers Plowman: The B Version. London: the Athlone P, 1975.

Keenan, Hugh T., ed. Typology and English Medieval Literature. New York: AMS P, 1992.

New Catholic Encyclopedia. Ed. The Editorial Staff at the Catholic Univ. of America. New York, 1967.

Quilligan, Maureen. The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979.

Raw, Barbara. "Piers and the Image of the God in Man." Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches. Ed. S.S. Hussey. London: Methuen, 1969. pp. 143-79.

Robertson, D.W. Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1962.

Salter, Elizabeth. "Medieval Poetry and the Figural View of Reality." PBA 54 (1968): 73-92.

                and Derek Pearsall, ed. Piers Plowman. York Medieval Texts. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1967.

Spearing, A.C. Readings in Medieval Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Wittig, Joseph S. "The Dramatic and Rhetorical Development of Long Will's Pilgrimage." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76 (1975): 52-76.

Woollcombe, K.J. "The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology." Essays on Typology. Ed. G.W.H. Lampe & K.J. Woollcombe. Naperville, IL: A.R. Allenson, 1956. pp. 39-75.


"Figural" Mode of Expression in Piers Plowman

Minwoo Yoon

        The major expressive modes of Piers Plowman are personification allegory and figural symbolism. In the poem, the personification allegories ("Dowel," "Conscience," "Reason," "Patience," "Scripture," "Study," "Imaginatyf," etc), appearing as characters, converse with the dreamer, Will. The personified abstractions, by their conceptual quality, usually compose the narrative for intellectual debate, and each abstraction does not go outside itssemantic range generally defined in the contemporary society. In comparison, the figural symbolism is a method of expression inwhich characters and events reveal their spiritual tenor in time, without losing their vivid historical actuality. In Piers, the debate among the personified abstractions often assumes a linguistic mode emptied of its proper temporal and spatial dimension. Thus it represents Will's intellectual and affective journey to be stagnant. The figural image or event, however, by positing itself in a new spiritual-historical nexus, gives dynamism to the stagnant narrative, which denotes Will's spiritual growth to be under progression.

        The figural perspective is most pertinent to the transforming image of Piers in the poem. Initially, Piers is a faithful peasant who, unlike the contemporary farmer of the Peasant Revolt in 1381, works hard within his farmland, the half acre. As the poem goes along, he then appears as the human nature of Christ, and then, after the Resurrection, as St. Peter who leads theprimitive Church, the Unitas. In this varying figural image, significantly, Piers never allows his human attributes to be entirely replaced in any moment by the Scriptural figures or their allegorical meanings. The best and true human being, Piers, is no other than an ordinary person but capable of Christ's human nature. Therefore, an ordinary Christian witnesses through Piers's transforming image the hope for redemption coming into existence. 

        The figural realism is not confined to exploration of certain characters; the important events or motifs in Piers are also objects for the figural approach. Some critics account for the tripartite structure of Piers, focusing on the three salient images of Piers--Piers the peasant at the "half acre" viewed as the Old Testament leaderMoses, Piers as humana natura of Christ, and Piers as St. Peter as a vicar of the primitive church, Christ's mystical body. But Piers, it should be noted, does not appear in the poem only as the three images, nor is the structure of the poem so simple and orderly. A more plausible structural principle of Piers is the motif of the "middle ground." From the onset of the poem, mankind are viewed to wander in the middle ground between the tower of Truth and the dungeon of Falsehood. And the two important episodes of the half acre and the Unitas in the poem, which stand respectively for the life of labor and of penance, are concrete variants of the "middle ground" motif. In both of the episodes, Piers's followers relapse gradually from their initial zeal to do well into the sin of sloth (acedia) and of resorting to easy method of penance. This must be viewed to happen in figural terms, because the Israelites' wilderness life in Moses'time as an archetypal motif of the "middle ground" underwent the same process of the spiritual fluctuation from their initial spiritual zeal to the subsequent state of sloth. Considering the Moses' wilderness life, the confusing and futile debate among the personified abstractions in the poem can also be labelled a "wilderness talk" which is irrelevant to one's spiritual growth. This figural pattern has been reiterated in Christian history since Moses' wilderness life and is now being re-enacted in every sinful man's life. Piers Plowman is not based on a linear and progressive structure, but rather the reiterating motif of the "middle ground." This is why the renewed pursuit of redemption is frequently asked for and is made an attempt at in the poem.

Key words: personified abstraction, allegory, "figura," typology, "wilderness," middle ground.

1) On the basis of the assumed fourfold meaning of the Bible and Augustine's discussion of the salutary difficulty that the literal reading entails, D.W. Robertson in particular has developed a principle of reading medieval texts that tends towards denial of the validity of the "literal" level altogether. See A Preface to Chaucer, especially chapter 2, pp. 52-137.

2) The usefulness of figural or typological method in explaining symbolism and structure of Piers Plowman has been noted by some recent studies. Elizabeth Salter, "Medieval Poetry and the Figural View of Reality," and Piers Plowman, "Introduction," ed. Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, especially pp. 20-28; David Aers, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory; Mary J. Carruthers, The Search for St. Truth: A Study of Meaning in Piers Plowman.

3) Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the poem are taken from George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, ed. Piers Plowman: The B Version (London: the Athlone Press, 1975).

4) The two most outstanding studies of figural narrative in medieval and Scriptural writings are: Erich Auerbach, "Figura," Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, pp. 1-77; A.C. Charity, Events and Their Afterlife: the Dialectics of Christian Typology in the Bible and Dante. See also K.J. Woollcombe, "The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology."

5) But Lawrence M. Clopper's idea of the "anagogical sense" being included in the episode of the end of the world in Passus 18-20 (Clopper 229) is unsatisfactory.

6) It can be said that the confusion between literal and allegorical levels of expression in Piers, at least in part, represents the socio-economic instability of the fourteenth-century England. For the argument that the purely allegorical expression fits the static social order of traditional feudalism and its privileged class, and that it does not work well in the complicated historical actualities of the late fourteenth century, which indicates the dissolution of the stable feudal outlook, see Sheila Delany's two articles, "Undoing Substantial Connection," "The Politics of Allegory in the Fourteenth Century."

7) Carruthers discusses conspicuous moments of the Dreamer's cognitive awakening: the inner dream in Passus 11 (p. 95), the Imaginatyf episode in Passus 12 (p. 105), Patience's speech in Passus 13 (pp. 112-13), the Dreamer's speech on the "charity" which is not found except in himself as a mirror in Passus 15 (p. 128), etc. These moments can also be understood as those of the Dreamer's "affective" awakening, which enhances his intellectual understanding and makes practicable what is known as good by his cognitive ability.

8) This expression is adopted from Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 197 and A.C. Charity, p. 202.

9) For an argument that, in Auerbach's figuralism, the figural fulfillment is a dialectical revelation of essence in time in the Hegelian manner, see Timothy Bahti, "Auerbach's Mimesis: Figural Structure and Historical Narrative," pp. 132-33, 137-38. Since the fulfilled form retains vividly its literal and historical mode of being (the fulfilled is "more real"), the fulfilled form can be said at once to preserve and cancel the earthly elements. The fulfilled points to the spiritual essence and simultaneously destructs the fulfilled spiritual truth in its realization. The figuralism obscures the revelation in revelation. This dialectical relation between the historical and the spiritual resembles the Hegelian sublation (Aufhebung). 

10) See F. P. O'Farrell, "Truth," NCE, vol. 14, p. 327.

11) Cf. Ruth M. Ames, The Fulfillment of the Scripture: Abraham, Moses, and Piers; Barbara Raw, "Piers and the Image of God in Man"; Margaret E. Goldsmith, The Figure of Piers Plowman: the Image of the Coin.

12) The mode of Piers's appearing in the poem is, in fact, not progressive in a linear and sequential way, in such a way that one image of Piers grows by organic development from another. Erich Auerbach compares the conception of time that is based on a strict sequence of causation (which he calls linear, or horizontal) with the time implied in a figural relationship between events (which he calls vertical). For example, Abraham, Isaac, and Moses in the Bible are primarily vertical in their connection, initiated by acts of God or by new kinds of covenant with Him. See Auerbach, Mimesis, pp. 73-74.

13) For a comprehensive illustration of the medieval topos of "man in the middle," see V.A. Kolve, "'Man in the Middle': Art and Religion in Chaucer's Friar's Tale," SAC 12 (1990): 5-46. Augustine expresses the topos: "Man is always in the middle between heaven and hell, between the good and the damned, between the stars and the beasts, between the superior and the inferior. This is his place." Augustine, De ordine rerum, bk. 2, quoted in Judson Boyce Allen, The Friar as Critic (Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 1971), p. 23.

14) Numbers 14.27 (The Lord speaking to Moses's wilderness people): "How long doth this wicked multitude murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel." Also, see A.C. Charity, p. 111.