William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 18’ the end

Jesus speaks as he enters Hell and what he says makes me scratch my head. He speaks about the Last Judgment and that then he will “have out of hell all men’s souls”. He says that some people are his brothers “in blood and in baptism”, but some are his half-brothers, i.e. only in blood, meaning they are his brothers as human beings but they are not Christians. His whole brothers shall not be damned to death, and Langland suggests obliquely that God’s grace can extend also to non-Christians, because if an earthly king can pardon any felon he wishes, why not God? He quotes a line from St Paul where the apostle describes his mystic travel to heaven where he heard things “which is not lawful for a man to repeat”. So Langland suggests that God’s grace may hide things that would be a heresy for him to repeat in this world. And what he suggests, if I read this right, is universal salvation, not only for Christians, but for all the people.

Now, universal salvation for all Christians is not a generally accepted idea even nowadays (although it was suggested by many eminent 20th-c. theologians such as Karl Barth and Urs von Balthasar), and in the Middle Ages meant toying with heresy. We all know what happened to non-conformists back then – they were burned at stake, or declared saints, or sometimes both (viz. Joan of Arc). So it’s no wonder that Langland is careful here. And the idea that non-Christians can be saved too, could get him to the stake very quickly. Although I have to mention that apparently many sensitive people were worried already in the Middle Ages about what happened to otherwise decent people who had the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore could not be baptised. There is, for instance, a medieval legend about St Gregory whose prayers saved Emperor Trajan, traditionally considered to be the paradigm of the “good pagan”; there is also an alliterative poem St Erkenwald, perhaps by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the titular bishop finds a corpse during the construction works for a cathedral, miraculously brings him back to life and learns that he was a just judge who lived in pre-Christian times. Erkenwald baptises him with his tears, after which the judge can die a second time, but this time as a saved man. (The first book I linked contains what seems like a very thorough discussion of “the virtuous pagan” problem in medieval literature, if anybody wants to study this topic in more detail.)

Christ leads the select happy souls out of hell, having bound Lucifer with chains. Other fiends scutter to hide in the corners. Mercy, Truth, Peace and Righteousness embrace one another, as written in Psalm 85. The narrator wakes up, hearing the church bells calling for the Resurrection Mass, so it must be Easter morning. He calls to his wife Kit and his daughter Colette to join him in church in adoration of Christ’s cross.

Thus ends my encounter with Langland. I can’t say it was as much fun as Chaucer: there are too many references to the time-specific situation for which I could not muster much interest, and too much Langland being a Dutch uncle (“work hard, do not aspire to social advancement, be happy with what God made you” etc). But I warmed to him in the end, seeing that he was ready to preach also unpopular ideas, and at the time when preaching such ideas could have cost one dearly.


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