Beyond Reformation? An Essay on William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the end of Contantinian Christianity
Aers explores L’s ecclesiology through a close reading of PPl C, focusing in particular on the final two passus of the poem. Aers first considers the authority of the pope. When L reframes the Petrine commission as a commission to Piers Plowman, he establishes clear limits to papal power: Piers’s authority to pardon sins is conditional on the Christian paying back what he owes, ‘Redde quod debes’. The lessons of the second vision place further conditions on the kinds of power Piers can exercise: the poem has already established that the use of coercive force to make people pay what they owe undermines the Christian community, and that the legitimacy of pardons and indulgences is open to challenge. Next, Aers turns to the nature of the institutional church. The early church of C.21 is a ‘Pentecostal polity’, where the Holy Spirit distributes gifts of grace without the mediation of the pope. Piers establishes the church as a Barn of Unity, but then departs on a pilgrimage with Grace without nominating a successor; this moment shows that the church is best established not by founding an institution, but through an ongoing evangelical mission. The narrative that follows suggests that an institutional church is inevitably subject to the forces of ‘de-Christianization’, where secular concerns take priority over the gospel, and the definitions of virtue and vice become confused (drawing on the work of Quentin Skinner, Aers shows how different figures in the poem use paradiostole to reframe vices as virtues). Conscience, who is left in charge of the Barn of Unity, is ultimately unable to resist the forces of ‘de-Christianization’, with the result that the relationship between work and Christian virtue that was fundamental to the Pentecostal community becomes obscured. Conscience emerges as a compromised figure in Aers’s reading: he relies too much on Kind Wit, a form of natural intelligence that is not illuminated by divine revelation, and on Nede, who Aers describes as a simulacrum of the virtue of temperance, and he forgets the relationship he once perceived between Christ and Piers. Kind Wit encourages Conscience to think of the church as a fortress under siege by outside forces when in fact the threat of ‘de-Christinization’ emerges from within, and Kind Wit and Nede together encourage Conscience to admit the flattering friars, who turn the sacrament of penance into a commodity, obscuring Christ’s injunction to pay what you owe. PPl takes up many different discourses of reform as it seeks to imagine how this crisis in the church might be resolved: Liberum Arbitrium proposes the disendowment of the church by secular lords, echoing Wyclif’s position, yet the poem ultimately abandons this proposal because it depends on the exercise of coercive power rather than charity; Conscience articulates apocalyptic prophecies, but these are shown to depend on selective and problematic readings of scripture. Ultimately, L is drawn towards the notion that ‘a tiny dissident minority’ of ‘foles’ might preserve the true faith, keeping Christ’s promise to remain with his disciples until the end of the world (Matt 28:20) (p. 128). This understanding of the true church finds support in the work of Ockham. The dreamer himself becomes one of these ‘foles’ in the final passus of the poem. The ‘foles’ are open to the ‘present absences’ of Piers Plowman himself, whose unpredictable comings and goings are, by their nature, beyond the control of any institution. For Aers, Piers’s ‘present absences’ are themselves expressions of L’s dialectical mode of procedure, a modus loquendi that has profound consequences for his theology and ecclesiology: the kinds of theology that emerge from such a procedure will always be at odds with an idea of the church that depends on domination and coercion. Aers positions PPl in relation to grand narratives of ‘de-Christianization’ and reformation, looking ahead to the English reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The book is addressed in part to readers who are unfamiliar with L, and includes Derek Pearsall’s summary of PPl in its preface. Instead of conventional chapters, the book is divided into seventeen ‘passus’: Aers proposes that this is ‘the appropriate form for developing an argument around a close reading of Langland’s poem that is … driven by his own dialectic’ (p. xiv).