Harrowing Hell’s Halfacre: Langland’s Mediation of the “Descensus” from the Gospel of Nicodemus
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 10 (1993)
Ever since Morton Bloomfield’s famous characterization of Piers Plowman as “a commentary on an unknown text,” the phrase has been echoed repeatedly (often facetiously, sometimes not) by scholars attempting to define the relationship between the poem and the textual milieu of which it is a part. On one level, the characterization seems disingenuous. After over a hundred years of serious critical attention being paid to the poem, we can point to many texts upon which the poem can be said to offer exposition and dramatization. For example, the sporadic Latin quotes that dot the landscape of the poem can be said to offer a “commentary” on the Scriptures, the Psalter, and the liturgy, insofar as they quote these sources in order to reinforce the authority of the allegorical action taking place in the narrative proper.
These examples, however, are hardly problematic: they are, for the most part, identifiable scriptural quotes. What may have caused Bloomfield such consternation, on the other hand, is the attempt to locate intermediate literary “sources” for the narrative action of the poem. Intertextual traces are everywhere observable in the poem. But their transfer into the allegorical pageant of Piers is never a straight “translation,” as simply being “carried over.” Most often, a literary topos will be translated into Piers as into a foreign tongue, so transforming the matter that we are forced to search for the sources of the poet’s approach to a given motif.