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.


William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 18’ ctd.

Satan observes, with what struck me as uncharacteristic honesty, that Lucifer cannot say Jesus wants to reclaim the lost souls unfairly, since Lucifer himself got them by tricking Eve into eating the apple. So now there is no helping  and they have to open the gates of Hell to Jesus, who is at the door and repeating more or less the same argument. After they are open, the souls of people who died before Jesus emerge. There are some interesting points in the passage, the first one being Satan’s claim that Jesus’ saved people from sin for thirty-odd years, while the biblical account has Jesus to be active publicly only in the last three years of his life. Satan also claims it was him who tried to scare Pilate’s wife in her dream so that she would persuade her husband not to execute Jesus, and therefore sabotage the whole plan of salvation. Now we are getting into the twisted logic of medieval theology: assuming crucifixion was a Good Thing, because it led to the salvation of humankind, and anybody who stood in its way was a villain (or an unwitting tool of Satan, as in the case of Pilate’s wife), why should Faith earlier on curse all the Jews for demanding Jesus’s execution?

The third point is not so much literary but visual: at some point Jesus describes Lucifer in Eden as “as lizard with a lady’s face”. This is a trope in medieval iconography that actually persisted in some variations even beyond the Middle Ages and you can see some of its elements in Michelangelo’s depiction.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 18’ ctd.

Righteousness takes the side of Truth and calls Peace ‘drunk’ for believing such preposterous things as salvation, since they are not according to the letter of the Law. Peace explains that evil had to enter the world so that people could appreciate the good. Now Jesus is going to go through all the stages that mankind went before him – from heaven, through life on earth, to the descent into hell. She is supported by a man called Book with “two broad eyes” (probably referring to the Old and New Testament), who describes how all the elements were subject to Jesus and how during the Crucifixion, when the graves opened, the sons of Simeon (the old man who recognised young Jesus as the Saviour when he was brought to the temple) were resurrected; this is another detail from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Now Jesus approaches Hell like a leader of the besieging army with siege engines and calls for opening the gates. Satan and Lucifer, who are two different devils in this story, are downcast: this is the power which took away Lazarus from them, now he is going to take everybody else and they can close the shop. But Lucifer argues in a way similar to Truth and Righteousness: it’s simply not fair, this was not the deal when Adam ate the apple and God is now basically about the break the law that he himself has laid down.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 18’ ctd.

After Jesus’ death, Faith begins to curse Jews in what seems to be a standard medieval outburst of antisemitic sentiments: it was not honourable of them to send a soldier stab him after death, and for that reason they are going to be cursed forever and doomed to earn their living by sinful usury etc. The footnotes in the NAEL say that in other passages Langland could have a fairly enlightened attitude towards Jews, for instance setting them as an example of charity. I guess the general atmosphere of the times is hard to shake off even for the brightest minds. And let us know forget that all Jews were expelled from England by King John a century earlier, so Langland (unless he had some secret life full of travels we know nothing of) knew Jews only by hearsay. Fortunately, after this unfortunate passage he says he got scared and moved to another vision. In this one he sees the four figures from Psalm 85: Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace. But interestingly enough, he starts by presenting them as rather at odds with one another: Truth asks Mercy about the reasons for all this noise, Mercy tells her the whole story of salvation, but Truth is a bitter realist: there is no redemption, the Old Testament says so, all the patriarchs from Adam and Eve are still in hell. Then Peace arrives, bringing similarly joyful news, but Truth and Righteousness don’t believe her.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman’ Passus 18

This text opens a selection of the texts titled “Christ’s Humanity”, showing the shift that took place from the 12th century on in theology and worship, emphasizing the human nature of Christ, especially regarding his suffering on the cross. Believers were encouraged to meditate upon Christ’s passion and empathize with him. The new kind of devotion put more emphasis on the emotional identification with Jesus and less on theological disquisitions.

In Passus 18, Langland describes the vision he has of Christ’s passion, using material from the Gospel and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. In his vision Jesus becomes almost identical with Piers, but the relationship between these two is kind of difficult to pinpoint. The excerpt starts with Christ’s entrance to Jerusalem, which is described in terms of a knight’s entering the tournament, where he is going to joust with the Devil in Piers’s armour, that is his body. So it seems like Piers at this point in the poem Piers stands for human nature, which Christ assumed through Incarnation. What follows is the account of Christ’s passion: the trial, death, and piercing of his side by a Roman soldier named Longinus who (this is the apocryphal element) was blind and was cured by Jesus’ blood.

William Langland “The Visions of Piers Plowman” C-text

The blog went on hiatus during the Christmas break – I was travelling and really didn’t feel like lugging the fat volume around. We’re back to where we left off, in the somewhat obscure world of William Langland. Today’s portion is from the C-text, or a version of the poem that was probably written last – it’s more or less as long as the preceding B-text, but it was revised and updated, as can be seen in a number of historical references, referring to the then-current events.

In the passage selected here, Langland gives us some oblique information about himself. These are the only things we know about him, together with some scribbles made in the margins of the manuscripts by unknown readers a century later, and some guesswork by a 16th -c. antiquarian John Bale. So not so much to rely on and even the information that we do have is not very reliable. Langland here indicates that he lives in London, together with his wife Kit (elsewhere he mentions also his daughter Collette), in a rather seedy district of Cornhill. He is in lower clerical orders (it was OK for deacons to marry, but it closed the door to any kind of real career in Church), he makes his living by praying for the dead and receiving food donations for the service, but not enough to take home – he just has a chance to get his belly full (so what did his family live on?) However, my favourite conspiracy theory is that the real author of Piers Plowman was a provincial priest named William Rokele, and all these facts are just fog and mirrors to mislead the readers, especially those who were powerful and not particularly keen on some of the messages included in the poem. Even though, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Langland’s worldview is essentially conservative, there was enough material in the poem to make Piers Plowman a symbolic figure for the protesters who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The whole passage has a form of the conversation between Langland (or, to paraphrase Chesterton’s quip about Homer, another writer of the same name) and the allegorical figures of Reason and Conscience. Reason asks him whether he can do any sort of useful physical labour, but Langland answers that he is too weak and to tall to do any sort of work that requires stooping. Well then, is he so rich he doesn’t have to work? Nope. Reason then accuses him of being a fraud, like many of the hermits Langland himself satirizes, unless he has some real illness, in which case he can be excused. “I was educated to be a priest and I cannot imagine myself doing any other job”, says Langland. He also quotes Leviticus to argue that he cannot engage lawfully in any other occupation. The job of priests is to pray and study the Bible, and let the other lesser beings do the menial work. Unfortunately, the world has gone to dogs, what with the sons of serfs and other lowllife scum making brilliant career in Church, while the sons of lords who mortgaged their lands have to serve them. So basically his argument is that he cannot become a priest because all the good jobs have been taken by people who don’t deserve them because of their low birth. Conscience then answers that all these arguments are not very relevant and all the self-justification cannot hide the fact that Langland is essentially a beggar. Langland still hopes that despite the fact that by his own admission he wasted a lot of time, he can still achieve salvation at the end, like the woman who has found the pearl in the Gospel parable.

There is a very interesting dynamic in this passage, I think. Langland gives himself most of the lines, and he comes off as a bit whiny and self-entitled (“I am too good for any job, I should be paid only for being a priest, I am a gentleman’s son and can’t make a career in Church because all the good positions are occupied by serfs’ sons and bastards, oh poor me”). But Reason and Conscience make a lot of valid points – isn’t Langland a little bit like all these false hermits and friars he criticised? And the very fact that he puts these words in the mouth of allegorical figures of virtues shows that there is some kind of doubt gnawing at him. His predicament is a little bit like this of contemporary graduate students – he’s got some of most expensive and sophisticated education medieval England could provide, but then he realizes the contemporary world doesn’t really need him. Of course he can always fall on the belief that he contributes to the world’s salvation in the grander scheme of things. The modern newly-minted Ph.D with a degree in sociology doesn’t have that solace.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman Passus 7’

This is the most puzzling passage in the whole poem and generations of medieval scholars tried to decipher it. After all this moralizing that went on in the previous parts along the lines “work hard, pay your tithes and you will be saved”, Piers gets a letter of pardon from Truth absolving him from punishment and guilt, not only him but also his descendants and everyone who helps him. According to Catholic teachings, pardons could absolve one from punishment, but not from guilt – this could be done only through confession. So this is something way out of line, especially taking into account the collective nature of the pardon. But then something even stranger happens – a priest offers to translate the letter to Piers (because of course God writes in Latin) and he says that he sees no words of pardon here, just “do well, and God will reward you, do evil and God will punish you”. Piers then becomes very angry and tears the paper in two, saying that from that moment on he will stop working and start a religious life of prayer and penance. He’s not going to care about his food, in accordance with the line from Luke’s about birds which are fed by God. The priest notices that Piers is suspiciously well-versed in the Bible for an illiterate peasant and asks him who taught him. “Abstinence and Conscience”, answers Piers. They have some more Biblical banter which I don’t get, and then the narrator wakes up.

Now, what can this all mean? After what seemed like the promise of unconditional grace, Piers gets a message very similar to the general tenor of what was written in the previous passages. Why does he threaten to start some kind of contemplative religious life? Does he start to subscribe to the  idea that the standard of “doing well” is so impossibly high that regular people can never be certain of their salvation and you have to become a monk to come even close? As for his banter with the priest, I have a gut feeling that it has something to do with the Lollards and John Wycliffe, who around that time advocated the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and letting the common people become acquainted with it directly.

Some critics point out that the letter may actually constitute a pardon, as it gives one simple directions to salvation. The priest reads “the letter that killeth”, while Piers grasps the spiritual meaning of the letter. So his tearing up the letter is a rejection of priestly authority and indicates his heretical tendencies. But perhaps he deliberately obfuscates it because he does not want to run into trouble with the authorities.