Studies in Medieval Languages and Literature, Texts and Manuscripts
Edited By Tomonori Matsushita, A.V.C. Schmidt and David J. Wallace
This volume explores the development of medieval English literature in light of contact with Germanic and Old Norse cultures, on the one hand, and Romance languages, on the other. The book includes a comparative study of Beowulf in the Germanic context, discusses aspects of Piers Plowman and its tradition, and offers philological approaches to Chaucer (especially his Troilus and Criseyde). The articles assembled here collectively suggest how the torches of classical learning were carried from continental Europe to illuminate the pages of medieval English literature.
A.V.C. Schmidt - 3. The Four Elements as a Structural Idea in Piers Plowman -55
A.V.C. Schmidt 3 The Four Elements as a Structural Idea in Piers Plowman 3.0. Introduction It will not seem surprising that a major medieval poem dealing with a wide range of human experience should make some reference to the ‘elements’, this term signifying the fundamental substances and qualities that underlie our contact with physical reality. But any claim that the Elements form a ‘structural idea’ in Piers Plowman will obviously need to go beyond the straightforward assertion that this major medieval poem is in some sense ‘about the world’. My argument in the present paper is based on seeing Langland as a religious poet who uses ‘elemental’ images in an essentially symbolic way, which I shall go on to define more specifically as ‘sacramental’, and which I shall argue is fundamental to the structure of his work. 3.1. The Four Elements By way of introduction, a brief (and very elementary) sketch of how the Elements were understood in Langland’s day may be helpful. Medieval physical theory saw the material world as made up of the four ‘simple sub- stances’ or basic principles, which were designated ‘elements’: in ascending order of fineness, these were earth, water, air and fire. They were sometimes identified with, and sometimes distinguished from, the common material substances bearing the same names, which we directly experience in various 56 A.V.C. Schmidt forms. Existing below the sphere of the moon, these terrestrial substances, as ideally conceived, each possessed an ‘elementary quality’: earth was dry, water moist, air cold...
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