This paper will discuss the appearance of ‘Sphere of Life and Death’, a numerological divinatory prognostic mainly used for the prediction of life or death, in late medieval manuscripts of English provenance intended for students of the Liberal Arts at Oxford and Cambridge. Did the ‘Sphere’ appear in these manuscripts with the intention that it would be used as a serious prognostic? Or, as it also claimed to predict whether someone would win or lose a duel, was it merely a simple diversion for bored students? The evidence for both arguments will be examined, before drawing some preliminary conclusions.
Cynewulf’s Elene depicts the pleasure of a full, mature, comprehension of the Cross, and the suffering which an incomplete understanding brings. Elene is not simply an illustration of the superiority of one form of perception over another. Instead, it demonstrates that full comprehension of the Cross requires several complementary modes of knowledge, just as full exegesis of a text is founded on complementary layers of meaning. The confluence of these modes of knowledge brings joy and relief to all four characters who pursue the Cross: Judas, Constantine, Elene, and Cynewulf himself.
In Passus 11 of Piers Plowman, B-text, Will escapes from the shrill sermoning of Scripture on the rich and poor, on the learned and unlearned, into a dream within a dream. In this dream, he ignores the warnings of ‘Elde’ to instead follow Fortune’s advice and take ‘Coveitise of Eighes’ as his companion. This step should trigger a sense of anxiety on behalf of Will’s spiritual state, but the text itself greatly undercuts this tension by allowing Will to safely spend forty-five years of his life with these fellows. Granted, there are warnings throughout the text that preach on the difficulty of repenting in old age, but, in Will’s case, his experience leads only to a realization of the corruption of friars – a realization brought on by his life with Fortune and Coveitise of Eighes. His forty-five pleasurable years are educational and he spends no time repenting them. Rather this scene leads directly into his desire to write down his dreams, a moment of meta-textuality for the reader. This passus also includes Will’s interactions with Reason and his wonder that Reason does not preserve man’s fortune in the same way it does the animals. Will seems to have remained in the camp of Fortune, despite Coveitise of Eighes’s abandonment.
This paper seeks to address the uneasy peace that Langland and his narrator, Will, make with pleasure in Passus 11. The echoing of Elde’s threat of baldness from this passage in Passus 20 and the possible mirroring of Will’s own life – the coldness of his wife in his old age and the abandonment of Coveitise of Eighes in his visionary old age – make this step of the text a potential touchstone for the entire allegory. Are Life and Fortune true adversaries to Will and his search for Dobest as they appear in Passus 20 or is their relationship to Will and the reader more complicated?