A pilgrim in sheep’s clothing? The nature of wandering in Piers Plowman.
“Why should ‘the world’ ask (require) men and women to wander?” (B.Prol.20). The reason may be linked to the Fall when human beings are exiled from their native land and the presence of God, a wandering further compounded by Cain’s murder of Abel. For L wandering also functions as a “highly significant spiritual indicator”: lack of holiness is indicated by “wandering away” from “sanctified stability” as demonstrated by true hermits and anchorites. There is a problem with construing the sheep of l.1 as ‘shepherd’—Will is neither pastor nor preacher and has yet to learn the lessons of Holy Church. Pace Godden and Robertson and Huppé, Mills’s discussion opens up the possibility of reading the word as “sheep.” There is biblical justification for seeing “exiled humanity as lost sheep” and this is consonant with the world-view of the poem. Will, in “sheep-mode,” wanders to seek wonders, indicating that perhaps he suffers from curiositas. It is in this context that Holy Church re-directs Will’s wandering—similar to the busyness of the denizens of the feeld who are oblivious to the existence of Heaven—to the concept of “life pilgrimage.” This concept serves three purposes: first, it is the illuminating theme of the following episodes; secondly, it provides the “theological rationale” for the state of the world as Will encounters it; and thirdly, it illustrates the ideal journey of the “life” pilgrim as a quest for salvation.
English Language Notes 39.4 (2002): 1–12.