Will's Imagination in Piers Plowman

Michelle Karnes
2009 Journal of English and Germanic Philology  
For medieval theologians, knowledge falls into two categories: natural knowledge, which derives from the senses and the intellect, and revelation, which is acquired knowledge, expressed primarily in the Bible. As Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) explains early in the Summa theologiae, one science "deals with those things that are known by the light of natural reason, and another science deals with those things that are known through the light of divine revelation." 1 To the former belongs natural
more » ... gy, which includes all that the intellect can know about God through its own powers of reasoning. To the latter belongs supernatural theology, which "exceeds human reason" and is necessary to the intellect in order that it think correctly about God. 2 Based only on its own powers, the intellect would err frequently on the subject (it would badly botch the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance), and so it requires an influx of divine light to guide it. To the reader of Piers Plowman, these categories of knowledge are instantly recognizable: the poem calls them "kynde knowynge" and "clergie," respectively. It has been the tendency of Langland scholarship to privilege the former over the latter, and this article argues against that tendency, demonstrating that natural knowledge depends on revelation if it is to contribute to an accurate conception of God, if it is to constitute natural theology. Within this rather small point, however, lie two larger ones. The first is that it is the job of imagination to mediate between the two fields of knowledge, thus justifying Ymaginatif's pride of place in the poem. 3 After receiving Ymaginatif's instruction, Will is much better able I'd like to thank
doi:10.1353/egp.0.0004 fatcat:vjxrrcgiavfq5mjjqtezeph6oi