One mark of great literature is how well it travels through time, and while the 14th-century poem “Piers Plowman” may not be as familiar as, say, “The Odyssey” or “Romeo and Juliet,” Dr. Curtis Gruenler of the Hope College English faculty sees tremendous relevance in it for the present day.
Gruenler is the author of “Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric and Theology,” published recently by University of Notre Dame Press. “Piers Plowman,” named for one of its characters, is a 7,000-line allegorical poem attributed to William Langland that explores biblical themes. Gruenler noted that instead of instructing readers how to think or being written for a specialized audience, “Piers Plowman” and similar works of the Middle Ages invited readers on a journey of discovery through a sort of playful obscurity regarding the ideas — hence the term “enigmatic.”
“Enigmatic texts invite interpretation in community and conversation about the text, so that readers can put their ideas together for a richer understanding,” he said. “These authors were trying to use language that would foster that kind of interpretive community.”
As an English professor, Gruenler appreciates the way that literature, centuries ago as now, examines truths that aren’t easily expressed or quantified. In the present day, when ideologies and understandings are often in conflict, especially in matters of faith, he particularly values the inviting approach modeled by the older texts.
“We’re still interested in literature as a way of contemplating human experience in ways that can’t be reduced to scientific terms but are still true,” he said. “The enigmatic also opens up a way of understanding the depth of human truth without imposing a particular theological or doctrinal way of thinking about it.”
“Someone like Langland is trying to invite everyone into that contemplative reading of the Bible,” he said. “That’s one of the ways that the enigmatic can still be valuable for us — a way of thinking about the truth of the Bible by opening conversation about it.”
In addition to Piers Plowman, the poem includes characters like Will, Reason and Need, and makes use of riddles and puns (Piers Plowman is, at least on the surface, a farmer: a plow-man). As one example of the poem’s content, a group of sinners helps plow a field as penance but stops working when no longer driven by Hunger.
The poem even mentions enigma with a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, which reads in part, “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face.” In the characteristic language of the time, the poem says, “Clerkes kenne me that Crist is in alle places; Ac I seigh hym nevere smoothly but as myself in a mirour: Hic in enigmate, tunc facie ad faciem.” [“The learned teach me that Christ is in all places; But I see him never truly except as myself in a mirror: Here in a riddle, then face to face.”]
Gruenler is a professor of English as well as director of general education and interdisciplinary studies at Hope. His major area of teaching and research is medieval literature and thought. His interest in the relationship between Christian theology and literature extends from the literary theory of the Middle Ages to more recent Christian literary thinkers, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, René Girard and Wendell Berry.
In addition to “Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric and Theology,” he has had several articles in scholarly publications, and he has presented many papers and invited addresses at professional conferences. He edits the newsletter of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which is the professional association of those interested in Girard’s mimetic theory, and is active in the International Piers Plowman Society.
Please visit the Department of English blog for an essay by Curtis Gruenler reflecting on the themes in “Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma.”