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Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology

Curtis A. Gruenler

In this book, Curtis Gruenler proposes that the concept of the enigmatic, latent in a wide range of medieval thinking about literature, can help us better understand in medieval terms much of the era’s most enduring literature, from the riddles of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Aldhelm to the great vernacular works of Dante, Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, and, above all, Langland’s Piers Plowman. Riddles, rhetoric, and theology—the three fields of meaning of aenigma in medieval Latin—map a way of thinking about reading and writing obscure literature that was widely shared across the Middle Ages. The poetics of enigma links inquiry about language by theologians with theologically ambitious literature. Each sense of enigma brings out an aspect of this poetics. The playfulness of riddling, both oral and literate, was joined to a Christian vision of literature by Aldhelm and the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book. Defined in rhetoric as an obscure allegory, enigma was condemned by classical authorities but resurrected under the influence of Augustine as an aid to contemplation. Its theological significance follows from a favorite biblical verse among medieval theologians, “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Along with other examples of the poetics of enigma, Piers Plowman can be seen as a culmination of centuries of reflection on the importance of obscure language for knowing and participating in endless mysteries of divinity and humanity and a bridge to the importance of the enigmatic in modern literature. This book will be especially useful for scholars and undergraduate students interested in medieval European literature, literary theory, and contemplative theology.

“Immensely learned, ranging widely over classical and medieval literature and medieval theology and philosophy to bring superb new insight to Piers Plowman in particular, but also to a host of other texts. Above all, it brings out brilliantly, and not in any pietistic way, the deep Christianity of the poem, too often ignored nowadays by secularizing scholars.” — Traugott Lawler, Yale University

“The poetics of enigma, Curtis Gruenler writes, is a poetics ‘of gentle persuasion to greater participation in mysteries at once transcendent and immanent’—something this world needs more than ever. Gruenler illuminates everything from the Sphinx to the modernist mode of T. S. Eliot, but his major achievement is the revelation that Piers Plowman stands as a sort of summa aenigmatica, the exemplary text in a major tradition that remains unappreciated and understudied. One critic has written that ‘startling and pleasurable recognitions that repeatedly elude argumentative formulation’ are the characteristic effects of Langland’s poem; Gruenler points out that the best medieval name for this mode is enigma, and I would add that ‘Piers Plowman’ and the Poetics of Enigma, like its subject, is enigmatic in the best sense of the word.” — Lawrence Warner, King’s College London

“This lucid and sophisticated study of the idea of the enigma in medieval English literature is a welcome contribution to scholarship. Working deftly across medieval rhetoric, poetics, and theology, Gruenler accounts in strikingly new ways for the peculiar texture of Middle English poetry, and especially for the beautiful mystery that is William Langland’s _Piers Plowman.”_ — Emily Steiner, University of Pennsylvania

ISBN: 978-0-268-10162-6
598 pages
Publication Year: 2017

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Curtis Gruenler is professor of English at Hope College.

“Gruenler’s learned and wide-reaching study is poised to transform future readings not only of Piers Plowman, but of many other works of medieval literature. The framework he advances for identifying the poetics of enigma at work in Piers Plowman admirably addresses the way that the poem both defies and invites interpretation.” — Times Literary Supplement

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Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology

Curtis A. Gruenler

 Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology
Cloth Edition

In this book, Curtis Gruenler proposes that the concept of the enigmatic, latent in a wide range of medieval thinking about literature, can help us better understand in medieval terms much of the era’s most enduring literature, from the riddles of the Anglo-Saxon bishop Aldhelm to the great vernacular works of Dante, Chaucer, Julian of Norwich, and, above all, Langland’s Piers Plowman. Riddles, rhetoric, and theology—the three fields of meaning of aenigma in medieval Latin—map a way of thinking about reading and writing obscure literature that was widely shared across the Middle Ages. The poetics of enigma links inquiry about language by theologians with theologically ambitious literature. Each sense of enigma brings out an aspect of this poetics. The playfulness of riddling, both oral and literate, was joined to a Christian vision of literature by Aldhelm and the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book. Defined in rhetoric as an obscure allegory, enigma was condemned by classical authorities but resurrected under the influence of Augustine as an aid to contemplation. Its theological significance follows from a favorite biblical verse among medieval theologians, “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Along with other examples of the poetics of enigma, Piers Plowman can be seen as a culmination of centuries of reflection on the importance of obscure language for knowing and participating in endless mysteries of divinity and humanity and a bridge to the importance of the enigmatic in modern literature. This book will be especially useful for scholars and undergraduate students interested in medieval European literature, literary theory, and contemplative theology.

“Immensely learned, ranging widely over classical and medieval literature and medieval theology and philosophy to bring superb new insight to Piers Plowman in particular, but also to a host of other texts. Above all, it brings out brilliantly, and not in any pietistic way, the deep Christianity of the poem, too often ignored nowadays by secularizing scholars.” — Traugott Lawler, Yale University

“The poetics of enigma, Curtis Gruenler writes, is a poetics ‘of gentle persuasion to greater participation in mysteries at once transcendent and immanent’—something this world needs more than ever. Gruenler illuminates everything from the Sphinx to the modernist mode of T. S. Eliot, but his major achievement is the revelation that Piers Plowman stands as a sort of summa aenigmatica, the exemplary text in a major tradition that remains unappreciated and understudied. One critic has written that ‘startling and pleasurable recognitions that repeatedly elude argumentative formulation’ are the characteristic effects of Langland’s poem; Gruenler points out that the best medieval name for this mode is enigma, and I would add that ‘Piers Plowman’ and the Poetics of Enigma, like its subject, is enigmatic in the best sense of the word.” — Lawrence Warner, King’s College London

“This lucid and sophisticated study of the idea of the enigma in medieval English literature is a welcome contribution to scholarship. Working deftly across medieval rhetoric, poetics, and theology, Gruenler accounts in strikingly new ways for the peculiar texture of Middle English poetry, and especially for the beautiful mystery that is William Langland’s _Piers Plowman.”_ — Emily Steiner, University of Pennsylvania

ISBN: 978-0-268-10162-6

598 pages

“Gruenler’s learned and wide-reaching study is poised to transform future readings not only of Piers Plowman, but of many other works of medieval literature. The framework he advances for identifying the poetics of enigma at work in Piers Plowman admirably addresses the way that the poem both defies and invites interpretation.” — Times Literary Supplement