Dr. Curtis A. Gruenler of the Hope College English faculty has won the Anne Middleton Book Prize from the International Piers Plowman Society for his volume “Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric and Theology.”
The award, for books published during 2017-18, was announced during the society’s 2019 meeting, held in Miami, Florida on April 4-6. Gruenler’s book was published in 2017 by University of Notre Dame Press.
“Piers Plowman,” named for one of its characters, is a 14th-century, 7,000-line allegorical poem attributed to William Langford that explores biblical themes. Gruenler considers how the poem, like similar works of the Middle Ages, invites readers on a journey of discovery through a sort of playful obscurity regarding ideas — hence the term “enigmatic.”
In their evaluation, the judges wrote that his book “is an astonishingly broad-ranging and erudite survey of all forms of ‘riddle,’ and demonstrates with great originality the applications of this material to close reading of riddling and riddle contests in William Langland’s poetic masterpiece and other contemporary vernacular texts.”
The judges also praised the book’s accessibility, noting, “A great strength of the book is that, while celebrating riddles and the enigmatic, it eschews that mode of writing itself. In not assuming previous knowledge of the poem and in treating a wide range of riddles and theories of the enigmatic with great lucidity, this book has the potential to bring new scholars to ‘Piers Plowman.’”
Gruenler is a professor of English at Hope, where he has taught since 1997 and previously also served as director of general education and international studies. 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.
Active in the International Piers Plowman Society, during this year’s meeting he also participated in a panel discussion focused on Robert Crowley and Owen Rogers, both of whom published editions of “Piers Plowman” in the middle 1500s.
Anne Middleton (1940-2016) was a highly regarded American medievalist who was retired from the English faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. As noted by the society, the prize presented in her name is awarded to “the best book, published over a two-year period, substantively concerned with the literary, historical, religious, intellectual, textual-codicological and critical contexts of ‘Piers Plowman’ and related poetry and prose in the traditions of didactic and allegorical alliterative writing.”