William Langland was, in an entirely different way, as great a poet as his contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer. Langland's Piers Plowman, his life's work, most often sounds like an odd mixture of dream-vision, satire, sermon, and allegory, as if its purpose were aggressively didactic. Some critics explicate the poem as a coherent system of doctrine. Others deny system, preferring to think of the poem as recording a number of inconclusive stories into some of the thorniest thickets of medieval philosophy and theology.
Interpretation in Piers Plowman treats the poem as the work of a fourteenth-century intellectual--that is, as the work of a litteratus, one obsessed with written texts, who interprets all human experience on the model of textual interpretation. But instead of providing a theory of interpretation, Langland shows what happens when incommensurable interpretive systems collide. The dreamer in the poem learns that the intellectual's lust for self-justification on the model of textual argument is futile and self-destructive, and yet that the intellectual must approach God, if at all, through texts. Literacy turns out for the intellectual to be itself instrumental like sin: an understanding of the wrongness of wanting to master texts in order to justify oneself provides the stimulus for a necessary refocusing of one's life.
As the most thoroughgoing study available of the interpretive theory implied in Langland's literary praxis, Interpretation in Piers Plowman provides a reading of the poem that addresses most of the central issues current in Langland criticism. The book will be of interest to scholars of Langland and of fourteenth-century literature, to medievalists, and to scholars of any discipline interested in the reflections of a medieval intellectual on the implications of widespread vernacular literacy.
"Rogers's fresh exploration of Piers looks at the narrator/dreamer's efforts to attain a mode of interpretation capable of furthering 'the intellectual's spiritual development.' Writing in lucid prose, Rogers speaks to readers of the B version who know little of medieval literature or cultural history. . . . Mostly his points are acute, well based, and, most important, committed to a continuous and lively questioning of the poem in a way likely to provoke vigorous and productive responses from skilled beginning readers and Piers scholars alike."--Choice
William Elford Rogers is Bennette E. Geer Professor of Literature at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of numerous publications, including Interpreting Interpretation: Textual Hermeneutics as an Aesthetic Discipline, and is the cofounder of Ninety-Six Press, a small poetry press.