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“To Litel Latyn thow lernedest”: The Narrator’s Spiritual Journey as Language Acquisition in Piers Plowman

Updated on February 20, 2017
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One could describe William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman as a Middle English poetic rendering of a journey. And yet it is more than that, more than a spiritual wandering or series of logistic “whens” and “wheres” that fold themselves into a plotline. It is a story of growth, of searching, of the ardent ache to know. It is, at its heart, about education. Christopher Cannon writes that “[t]he third vision of Piers Plowman proceeds, generally, according to schoolroom forms: a tutelary figure, speaking at length, guides an often puerile Will out of basic errors” (Cannon 1). The narrator is a student subjected to numerous teachers that attempt to help him understand the mightiest holy principles and spiritual truths. However, if one were to seek out these teachers’ counterparts in the Medieval English school system, one could not help but notice the close connections they share with the Latin teachers of Medieval English schools. Latin was a huge focus in the schoolrooms of this period, and was not only important for its scholarly merit but also its spiritual significance: Latin was the language of the Bible. Learning Latin brought one closer to God as it helped eliminate the intermediary translator role of a Catholic priest. The foreign nature of Latin to a young English student directly mirrors the narrator’s difficulty grasping important spiritual principles, and the key teaching techniques used by Medieval Latin teachers are used too in the poem. Piers Plowman’s narrator is therefore not just a student searching for meaning, but is an English student of Latin, looking for the best way to learn, communicate, and ultimately understand the world around him.

Nicholas Orme in the introduction to his work English School Exercises, writes that “a core activity of masters and pupils in medieval and early modern grammar schools was the composition and analysis of Latin sentences and longer pieces of prose” (Orme 15). It was a vital part of a young English boy’s school education. Orme goes on to lay out the methods used to teach Latin in late medieval and early modern schoolrooms, outlining the value of producing, reproducing, parsing, and translating simple sentences. He specifically mentions John Cornwall’s 1346 text Speculum grammaticale “with its special focus on syntax, the nature and usage of the eight parts of speech” (Orme 19). Cornwall’s text helps us to understand

"the work of grammar schools. It is easy to envisage from its method how a master, explaining grammatical rules in a similar manner, might give his pupils a Latin sentence or tell them to make one to illustrate a property of a word, a case of a noun, a tense of a verb, or a particular construction." Orme 20

Orme also brings up the work of a slightly later scholar, John Leland, who, like Cornwall, used practice sentences that “resemble what went on in classrooms, because they actually instruct the pupil in how to turn them into Latin, while introducing him [the student] to the rules of syntax” (21).

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One of these practice sentences was “I am beaten by the master,” a theme to which Lynn Enterline attests as she writes about classroom cultures of imitation and punishment:

"Corporal punishment and imitation (in the narrow linguistic sense) are equivalent: 'Punishment' is 'redeemed by exercises'; 'remission' for whipping is a 'scholastic taske' as in 'repeating whole orations…' The chance to perform rhetorically – by 'begging and prevailing' for exemption from flogging – is said to be an 'honor' for boys of 'extraordinarie merit.' And once set in motion, imitation… proliferated: magister, monitor, Monitor monitorum. All of this hierarchy of discipline was devoted to the hourly and weekly regulation of verbal competence: Latin speaking [and] translation exercises…" Enterline 36

Considering this, two major veins in Latin education technique emerge: teaching using simple sentences and familiar images and stories, and punishment for ignorance, both of which can be found in Piers Plowman. One of Piers’ teachers, for example, is the Samaritan in Passus XVII, who, like a Latin teacher using a familiar sentence or image to teach language, uses the familiar image of a human hand to teach the principle of the Holy Trinity:

For God is after an hand – yheer now and knowe it.

‘The Fader was first as a fust with o finger folden,

Til hym lovede and liste to unlosen his fynger,

And profrede it forth as with a pawme to what place it sholde.

The pawme is purely the hand, and profreth forth the fyngres,

To ministren and to make the might of hand knoweth;

And bitokneth trewely, telle whoso liketh,

The Holy Goost of hevene – he is as the pawme.

The fyngres that fre ben to folde and to serve

Bitokneth soothly the sone, that ent was til erthe,

That touched at tastede at techynge of the pawme..

And as the hand halt harde and alle thyng faste

Thorugh foure fyngres and a thombe forth with the pawme,

Right so the Fader and the Sone and Seint Spirit the thridde

Halt al the wide world withinne hem thre…

(XVII. 138-160)

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Here, the principles of the Holy Trinity become accessible through a very physical, human metaphor. The narrator can look at and move his own hand as the Samaritan teaches him and thus begin to understand more of what is being said. Middle English Latin teachers would use familiar ideas to help their students learn Latin. Orme gives examples from the Cornwall and Leland texts such as:

“The master who is sitting teaches me.”

“This gown that I wear every day, or all day, which I possess, is a seemly one.”

“I go to Oxford where I shall learn grammar.”

“A church is a place the which Christians be bound to love.”

Orme 20-21

These are ideas and images with which the students would be intimately familiar, perhaps one could even say knowing them as well as “the back of their hands”. The Samaritan in this passage is engaging with education in a very similar fashion. Rather than try to explain the lofty and abstract philosophies of the Holy Trinity to the ignorant narrator, he uses a familiar image as his tool. This simplifies his explanation and connects deeply with Latin teaching priniciples of the time. The metaphor of the hand becomes the vehicle through which understanding is approached, much like how using a simple and familiar sentence in Latin would aid a young student in his scholastic endeavours.

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Like Latin itself, entities like the Holy Trinity are still quite difficult to grasp, and the narrator encounters another similar situation in his attempt to understand the concept of charity. At first the Soul tries to explain Charity in fairly abstract terms:

‘Charite,’ quod [Soul], ne chaffareth noght, ne chalangeth, ne craveth;

As proud of a peny as of a pound of golde,

And is as glad of a gowne of a gray russet

As of a tunycle of Tarse or of trie scarlet.

He is gkad with alle glade and good til alle wikkede,

And leneth and loveth alle that Oure Lord made.

Corseth he no creature, ne he kan bere no wrathe,

Ne no liking hath to lye ne laughe men to scorne.

Al that men seyn, he leet it sooth, and in solace takethe,

And alle manere meschiefs in myldenesse he suffreth.

Coveiteth he noon erthely good but heneriche blisse.’

XV. 165-175

The Soul goes on in this manner for quite some time, elaborating upon all the finer points of Charity’s existence. And yet, at the beginning of the next Passus, the narrator says, “Ac yit am I in a weer what charite is to mene” (XVI. 3) After the Soul’s enormous and, at least to the narrator, lofty and inaccessible, speech on Charity, the narrator still does not understand, and so the Soul then takes a different approach:

[Charity] is a ful trie tree… trewely to telle.

Mercy is the more therof; the myddul stok is ruthe;

The leves ben lele words, the lawe of Holy Chirche;

The blosmes beth buxom speche and benigne lokynge;

Pacience hatte the pure tree, and pore simple of herte,

And so through God and good men growth the fruyt Charite…

It growth in a gardyn… that God made hymselve;

Amyddes mannes body the more is of that stoke.

Herte highte the herber that inne it groweth,

(XVI. 4-15)

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Much like the aforementioned Samaritan, the Soul takes on Latin grammarian techniques of late medieval schoolmasters by using a familiar image to bring the student closer to understanding a difficult concept. Charity is no longer a long list of characteristics, a puzzle with myriad pieces, but rather one simple and familiar whole: a tree, much like many others the narrator has undoubtedly seen before and can conjure up in his mind’s eye. And, in response to this technique, the narrator exclaims that he “wolde travaille… this tree to se, twenty hundred myle,/ [a]nd to have [his] fulle of that fruyt forsake al other saulee” which speaks to the appeal and strength of the image as a learning tool (XVI. 10-11). The familiar image of the tree sparks a connection in the narrator that previous explanations did not, much like how familiar scenes and sentences would have stimulated and simplified Latin learning in late Medieval grammar schools.

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Even once the narrator encounters the Tree of Charity, the tree image continues to serve a scholastic purpose, as it returns to and clarifies yet more aspects of the role of the Holy Trinity:

…Piers the Plowman al the place me shewed,

And bad me toten on the tree, on top and on roote.

With three piles it was underpight –

‘Piers,’ quod [the narrator], ‘I preie thee – whi stoned thise piles here?’

‘For wyndes, willow wite,’ quod he, ‘to witen it fro fallyng…

And wih the firste pil I palle hym doun – that is Potencia Dei Patris…

Thanne sette I to the secounde pil, Sapiencia Dei Patris

Thanne Liberum Arbitrium laccheth the thridde planke…

I shal telle thee as tid what this tree highte.

The ground there it growth, goodness it hatte;

And I have told three what highte the tree: the Trinite it meneth’

XVI. 21-63

The tree image is extraordinarily rich in terms of education. It is a physical, familiar object through which the narrator can begin to understand the concept of Charity, and it is also a reinforcement of ideas about the Holy Trinity that the narrator has already encountered. The previous hand image, and now the tree, are used the way a Latin teaher would have used familiar, everyday scenes and images to aid their own students in their studies, and so the narrator too learns by means of these processes.

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The other facet of Latin scholarship to examine is that of punishment. According to Enterline, corporal punishment and humiliation were common tactics used to reinforce Latin grammar lessons, and this is evident as well in Piers Plowman. One of the very first examples occurs in Passus I, during the narrator’s encounter with Holy Church:

Forthi I [Holy Church] seye, as I seyde er, by sighte of this textes –

Whan alle tresors arn tried, Truthe is the beste.

Lereth it th[u]s lewed men, for lettred it knoweth –

That Treuthe is tresor the Trieste on erthe.’

‘Yet have I no kynde knowynge,’ quod I [the narrator], yet mote ye kenne me better

by what craft in my cors it comseth, and where.’

‘Thow doted daffe!’ quod she, ‘dulle are thi wittes.

To Litel Latyn thow lernedest, leode, in thi youthe…

I. 134-141

Holy Church, like Latin teachers of the Late Medieval ages, punishes the narrator for his lack of Latin learning and chastises him in a humiliating fashion. This passage is important for another reason, too, as I can use to clarify a larger aim within my work. I am not solely attempting to draw parallels between Latin teachers in England and the “teachers” in Piers Plowman; I am rather attempting to prove that the narrator is a Latin student. The narrator’s ultimate goal is a deeper understanding of the spiritual nature of the world around him, and I argue that this is synonymous with learning Latin. Acquiring Latin is the end goal, as it is the key to unlocking so many important Christian principles. Holy Church is one of the first entities that the narrator encounters, and one of the first whom he asks to teach him, and her biggest gripe against him is his lack of Latin learning. This indicates that the narrator’s aim should be not just towards finding spiritual truths but doing so through the language of the Bible and the clergy. The acquisition of Latin that is actually the narrator’s ultimate goal. Latin is higher knowing, Latin, for the narrator, is spiritual truth.

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Latin in Medieval England was, for the most part, the language of the clergy. Timothy Rosendale explains this in his article “’Fiery toungues’: Language, Liturgy, and the Paradox of the English Reformation”:

"The intellectual and religious life of medieval Europe… existed almost exclusively in the medium of Latin, a “dead” language that lived powerfully on because of claims that were made on its behalf: Latin was a sacred language, a truth language, whose very deadness enhanced its mystical signification of the divine… This cultural commitment to the privileged opacity of Latin resulted in the concentration of religious and cultural power in the tiny segments of the population who could understand and use it." Rosendale 1142

Latin is in and of itself a mysterious, complicated, and powerful form of knowledge. It allows for a deeper understanding of scripture and Christian doctrine and a perhaps more personal religious experience as the Latin expertise of a priest is no longer necessary. This comes up quite specifically in Piers Plowman in the Prologue:

And sithen in the eyr on heigh an aungel of hevene

Lowed to speke in Latyn – for lewed men ne koude

Jangle ne jugge that justifie hem sholde,

But suffren and serven…

Prologue. 128-131

Here, the men without Latin are condemned to “suffren and serven” and have no way to speak for themselves. This is a particularly Catholic ideology. As Medieval English lay people could not understand liturgical writings and speeches, they relied on priests as their Latin translators, much like the “lewed men” who must rely on the angel. They could only access the word of God and higher truths through a priestly arbiter. And, as is made clear in this passage, Latin is not solely an avenue for understanding but also communicating. In fact, Latin is not solely an avenue for knowledge and communication but rather is that very knowledge and communication that the narrator seeks. The narrator’s journey is one of a layman encountering the opaque wall of a foreign language and relying on linguistic teachers and techniques to aid him.

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If, therefore, Latin is synonymous with holy understanding in the poem and is the narrator’s true end goal, then the theme of punishment is even more applicable. Passus XIII provides us with an example in the gluttonous doctor:

‘Ac this Goddes gloton,’ quod I [the narrator], with hise grete chekes,

Hath no pite on us povere; he parfourneth yvele

That he precheth, and preveth noght,’ to Pacienc [he] tolde,

And wished witterly, with wille ful egre,

That dishes and doublers [this ilke doctor bifore]

Were molten leed in his mawe, and Mahoun amyddes!

‘I [the narrator] shal jangle to this jurdan with his juste wombe

To [preve] me what penaunce is, of which he preched rather!’

Pacience parceyved what [he] thought, and [preynte] on me to be stille,

And seide, ‘Thow shalt see thus soone, whan he may na moore,

He shal have a penaunce in his paunche and puffe at ech worde,

And thane shullen his guttes gothele, and he shal galpen after…

XIII. 78-89

Here, the doctor’s own body punishes him for eschewing holy principles (specifically those pertaining to gluttony). The narrator emphasizes this point when he takes Patience’s advise to

[sit] stille as Pacience seide, and thus soone this doctor

As rody as a rose rubbed hise chekes,

Coughed and carped; and Conscience hym herde,

And told hym of a trinite, and toward us he loked.

‘What is Dowel, sire doctor?’ quod [the narrator]…

‘Do noon yvel to thyn evencristen – nouth by thi power.’

‘By this day, sire doctor,’ quod [the narrator], ‘thanne be ye noght in Dowel!

For ye han harmed us two in that ye eten the pudding,

Mortrews and oother mete – and we no morsel hadde.

XIII. 99-108

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If Latin is the elusive and all-encompassing goal, then it also includes Dowel. To be Latin literate is to do well. The doctor, by not adhering to principles laid out in Latin scripture, does not do well and is therefore punished by his body and even by the narrator; the narrator inverts his usual model and becomes his own version of a Latin teacher scolding a student – “ye be noght in Dowel!”.

There is also, in this scene, a sense of Lynn Enterline’s imitation, too. She writes:

"The phrase the Westminster student uses to describe the scheduled, weekly event of a master’s surveillance – 'By the feare or confidence in their looks' - does more than reveal the close link, in practice, between imitation and the threat of either public shame or corporal punishment. It suggests the young monitor’s identification with his master. 'Their lookes' rather than 'our' looks: The phrase divides the writer from his (now former) classmates by means of a hierarchy of imitation that moves him up the ranks from the supervised to the supervisor."

In the gluttony scene of Passus XVI, this phenomenon can be observed directly. The narrator listens to Patience’s advice to sit still and wait, and thus essentially imitates Patience, the authority. In doing so, he elevates his own status in a way. He is no longer the lowliest, most ignorant student, but after his imitation of Patience can confront the doctor’s ignorance and shortcomings and scorn him publicly, as a grammar school monitor would have done.

Pier’s Plowman’s narrator’s journey is an extraordinary and multi-faceted undertaking, as is the acquisition of any foreign language. His difficulties, confusions, and frustrations, are comparable to those of any young English student of Latin. Latin was a notoriously difficult and inaccessible language. It was the language of the Church, the divider that allotted church authorities so much privilege and power. In this sense, it was even a kind of oppression, as the lay people, the “lewed men” had to rely on religious authorities to access the most important spiritual truths and knowledge. Learning Latin was the key to a freer and deeper, and unmitigated understanding of the spiritual world. In fact Latin is that very understanding. Without one you cannot have the other.

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With Latin being such a fundamentally important acquisition, it is clear that the narrator in Piers Plowman is not just searching for spiritual enlightenment, but is specifically a student trying to learn Latin. The narrator engages with several educational methods that mirror Latin teaching culture of the time. For example, throughout his journey, he encounters many “teachers”. The Samaritan is one I have examined, as well as the Soul and Piers Plowman himself. These “teachers” use typical Latin-teaching techniques in order to educate the narrator, one of the most important being the use of familiar images, words, and objects in order to elucidate difficult abstract principles. In late Medieval England, Latin teachers would use sentences that depict scenes and ideas very familiar to he students; using this technique, the Soul, the Samaritan, and Piers use images like the human hand and a tree to explain philosophies of Charity and the Holy Trinity. The hand and the tree s they strengthen the narrator’s understanding become the familiar, repetitive practise sentences English students would use to strengthen their Latin.

Other important facets of Latin learning in early English schoolrooms include elements of imitation, humiliation, and punishment. Holy Church humiliates the narrator by scolding him for his lack of learning. Later, the narrator imitates one of his “teachers”, Patience, and thus elevates his own status and can in turn humiliate the gluttonous doctor. The narrator’s journey is significantly shaped around the principles of Latin scholarship. Latin itself thus is the spiritual end to the narrator’s search. The narrator is not a mere searcher, but is rather an English attempting to learn Latin. As Holy Church says in Passus I, “Treuthe is tresor the Trieste on erthe” (I. 135) and this truth is Latin itself.

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WORKS CITED

Cannon, Christopher. “Langland’s Ars Grammatica.” The Yearbook of Langland Studies. 22:1. (2008): 1-25. Web. May 9 2016.

Enterline, Lynn. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2012. Print.

Langland, William. The Vision of Piers Plowman. 2nd ed. Ed. A.V.C. Schmidt. London: Orion Publishing Group, 2003. Print.

Orme, Nicholas. English School Exercises. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013. Print.

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