The Point of the Plow: Conceptual Integration in the Allegory of Langland and Voltaire

Madeleine Kasten, Leiden University
Curtis Gruenler, Hope College


Allegory as a genre dominated the literary and cultural landscape through the Middle Ages, with William Langland's Piers Ploughman at the apogee, and declined with the rise of modernity, with the Romantics declaring it moribund by the early 19th C. What replaced it, they claimed, was Symbol, not a genre, but a new literary aesthetic. Allegory was inert and limited. Symbol was active and expansive. Scholars as diverse as Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, and Maureen Quilligan, have attributed this aesthetic shift to modernist secularization, to the loss of a spiritually infused picture of the material world. We contend that while the prototypical, historical genre has indeed faded, the cognitive affinities which the genre satisfied so directly continue to thrive; that the modernist aesthetic also appeals to these affinities; and that allegory is consonant with modernism. We build this argument through analyses of Piers and Voltaire's Candide, through the intersection of the Medieval figure, enigma, and Conceptual Blending Theory.