“Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature

Rebecca Davis’s new book “Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature appeared last year from Oxford University Press. I have reviewed the book for The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, and reproduce the opening paragraph of my review here.

Classroom discussion of Middle English literature may often be enriched by exploration of the word “kynde,” a word whose primary senses were mostly taken over by the French loan “nature” in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, leaving the modern word with such attenuated meanings as “type” and “nice.” In coming to see these modern senses of “kind” as semantic outcroppings of a submerged mother-lode, students obtain insight into the processes of language change, and obtain a linguistic entrée into thinking about material existence and moral responsibility. Readers of William Langland’s Piers Plowman encounter kynde in its full range of “natural” senses, plus one provocative sense apparently unique to this poem: early in the third vision, the character Wit states, in definitional mode, that “Kynde” is “creatour · of alle kynnes þinges / Fader and fourmour · of al þat euere was maked / And þe gret god · þat gynnynge had neuere / Lorde of lyf and of lyȝte · of lysse and of peyne” (I quote from The B-Version Archetype, edited by John Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre). Thus, kynde = God, at least for Langland’s Wit. Wit’s peculiar usage is duly recorded in the Middle English Dictionary (s.v., sense 8c), and in George Kane’s and A.V.C. Schmidt’s glossaries to Langland’s poem, and it underwrites Rebecca Davis’s new book, “Piers Plowman” and the Books of Nature.

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