Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology

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Curtis A. Gruenler
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , April
     598 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Piers Plowman is a late 14th century narrative poem that depicts Christian character formation amidst the social concerns of medieval Catholicism. This beloved masterwork of allegorical satire is an exemplar of the morality play which figuratively represents Everyman’s spiritual quest from ignorance to divine knowledge. The pilgrim Will is called to the Tower of Truth by Holy Church in a dream, and he moves through dreams-within-dreams from a marriage to False prevented by Reason and Conscience to a punishment by Hunger during a visit to the Castle of Flesh then abandonment by Fortune; eventually Will meets Wit and finds Love at the Tree of Charity. In Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma, Curtis A. Gruenler uses the text as a primary example to describe a theological doctrine of riddle, rhetoric, and religious imagination. 

Gruenler argues that the enigmatic mode includes the short form of creative verbal fun and also a larger function of riddling and puzzles in literary structure and symbolism. He proposes three criteria to identify an authentic enigma: play, persuasion, and participation. The esoteric secret is revealed through a long game of difficult reading within a community of interpreters committed to playing for the sake of play and continuing the play. Aesthetic clues to meaning are often ambiguous and ironic, requiring contemplation and vigorous engagement to see what they expose and what they conceal. Signs are paradoxical in their simultaneous capacity and inadequacy to inquire into the timeless Order of Creation and transcendent Reality. In this labyrinth of faith seeking understanding which includes oral tradition and scriptures from the Vedas to the Qur’an (31), awareness enlarges to witness spiritual wisdom hidden in everyday appearances, mundane events integrated into a sacred history, and the human heart as the mirror of God. Obscurity excites curiosity, invites study, and honors the ineffable. 

In the first chapter, Gruenler surveys contemplative texts beginning with the Neoplatonism of Augustine’s De Trinitate then William of St. Thierry’s Enigma of Faith, which suggests a monastic program as key to the Christian Mystery: the first degree founded on the authority of a credible witness, the second degree of divine reason, and the third degree of illuminating grace (44). In Didascalicon, Hugh of St. Victor outlines a plan for education with a core discipline of the triviumand quadrivium, moral philosophy, and scriptural exegesis. The ideal schoolmaster is flexible, gathering information and through analysis and synthesis, arranging different kinds of data into coherent and cohesive knowledge. Gruenler introduces the cataphatic and apophatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite and suggests the Cloud of Unknowing is a lesson for second-degree Christians prepping for the third stage beyond controversy and dispute. Gruenler also includes Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God in a framework that defines enigma as a style that generates a metaphorical surplus to elevate the mind and intensify spiritual meaning. 

In the second and third chapters, Gruenler outlines a theory and practice of riddling. He writes, “the territory of riddles is vast and difficult to navigate” (86). Gruenler gives a structural definition and social purpose drawn from anthropology and traces the etymological descent of a scribal community’s friendly drinking game of intellectual athleticism. He cites Bishop Aldhelm, the Exeter Book, letters from the Peasants’ Revolt, and gargoyles, heraldic emblems, mottoes, and marginal illustrations as examples of riddling and refers to the Secretum philosophorum for the advanced techniques and tricks of a well-educated hierarchical elite. Riddle contests provided a light-hearted and sporty atmosphere for young monks to prove their mental prowess, and in examining the process and conventions of such an occasion, Gruenler cites from the Eclogue of Theodolus, St. Andrew and the three questions, and the dialogue between Solomon and Marcolf. He also refers to the Hobbit as he explicates the scenes featuring the Plant of Peace and feast of Patience in Piers Plowman.

In the fourth chapter, Gruenler proposes a curriculum for exegesis, and the sources of inspiration for development of craft include Aristotle, Donatus, Cicero, Horace, the Poetria nova by Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Augustine’s Confessions and De doctrina Christiana, and Ambrose the Bishop of Milan. The radical disciple is a holy fool who plays the game in search of Wisdom and spiritual growth, an improvement of the mind and character toward nobility and freedom. The fifth chapter gives a close reading of the topography of Truth’s Estate, an imaginatively compelling description of a farm community at work. Gruenler concludes with a survey of visionaries and texts influenced by Piers Plowman including Julian of Norwich, the Romance of the Rose, Dante’s Commedia, and Chaucer’s House of Fame and Canterbury Tales.

The intersection of literature and religion offers much opportunity for innovative scholarship, such as recent inquiries into genre and archetypal criticism. There is also a definite need to articulate the methods of allusion, a much employed technique in scripture and literature. Gruenler not only provides a map to the enigmatic mode, he also gives a cogent overview of medieval literary history that is appropriate for upper division and graduate students interested in the topic or enrolled in creative writing programs. While he uses Piers Plowman as a primary example, he cleverly situates the text in a tradition and focuses only on a few episodes that emphasize how riddle works and his views on play, persuasion, and participation. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Curtis Gruenler is professor of English at Hope College.


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