In Search of "Kynde Knowynge": Piers Plowman and the Origin of Allegory

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Readers today no longer relish sustained allegorical narratives the way they did in the Middle Ages, when the art of 'other-speaking' was as dominant in poetic discourse as it was elsewhere. Yet we live in an age which, following the postmodernist dictum that any sign can only refer to other signs, has declared all language liable to the 'allegorical condition'.
This paradox has led the author to question the epistemological assumptions underlying allegories composed in an era which, conversely, favoured the oblique form of expression while professing its belief in the divine Logos as the ultimate ground of all meaning. If art and doctrine appear so divided on the subject of allegory in our own day, then might not the relationship between allegorical writing and interpretation in the Middle Ages have been more complex than is often assumed? How solid are the grounds on which Michel Foucault has based his distinction between early modernity and its past - a time when, he claims, the languages of the world were still perceived to make up "the image of the truth"?
The present study addresses these and related questions through a heuristic comparison between historically and culturally different approaches to narrative allegory. In her analysis of the late-fourteenth century dream poem Piers Plowman by William Langland, Kasten sets up a critical dialogue between this extraordinary work and Walter Benjamin's study of German baroque allegory, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Far from serving the narrow purposes of didacticism, she contends, Piers Plowman invites a reconsideration of the very grounds on which (post-) modernity has tried to distance itself from its cultural past.

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Contents

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Page 191 - In faith and hope the world will disagree, But all mankind's concern is charity : All must be false that thwart this one great end, And all of God that bless mankind or mend. Man, like the generous vine, supported lives ; The strength he gains is from th
Page 55 - But ye that holden this tale a folye, — As of a fox, or of a cok and hen, — Taketh the...
Page 76 - Die Symbolik verwandelt die Erscheinung in Idee, die Idee in ein Bild, und so, daß die Idee im Bild immer unendlich wirksam und unerreichbar bleibt und, selbst in allen Sprachen ausgesprochen, doch unaussprechlich bliebe.
Page 23 - As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hillside; and now 'tis buried deep In the next valley-glades : Was it a vision, or a waking dream ? Fled is that music : — Do I wake or sleep ? ODE ON A GRECIAN URN THOU still unravished bride of quietness!
Page 80 - Whereas in the symbol, destruction is idealized and the transfigured face of nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption, in allegory the observer is confronted with the fades hyppocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape.
Page 80 - In the field of allegorical intuition the image is a fragment, a rune. Its beauty as a symbol evaporates when the light of divine learning falls upon it. The false appearance of totality is extinguished. For the eidos disappears, the simile ceases to exist, and the cosmos it contained shrivels up.
Page 26 - How is it then, brethren ? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
Page 61 - For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made: his eternal power also, and divinity, so that they are inexcusable.
Page 182 - When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language ; 2 Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.
Page 25 - Hear my words: if there be among you a prophet of the Lord, I will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream.

About the author (2007)

Madeleine Kasten is a lecturer at the Literary Studies Department of Leiden University, The Netherlands. She has published on allegory, on Shakespeare, and on personification and performance.

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