Grace Abounding: Evangelical Centralization and the End of Piers Plowman
Of course, PPl was, on the one hand, of great interest to sixteenth-century reformers but, on the other, superficially connected, if not totally unassimilable, to their program of reform: PPl offers “a reformation of its own in which grace is distributed in a wholly uncentralized way,” but in the early sixteenth century, “[e]vangelical spirituality is intensely centralized,” in ways that find “unexpected consonance with the centralization of secular grace in the person of Henry VIII.” The essay elaborates this claim under three headings. 1.) “Works, Grace, Predestination.” Tyndale’s Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528) illustrates how works are devalued in a protestant scheme of salvation that posits predestination as its central ontology. A consequence of such an ontology is that works “have no purchasing power on God,” that works are only a sign of election, and that sinners cannot plead their rights to God. PPl does, at places, argue for “God’s monopoly on spiritual initiative,” yet it also leaves open the possibility for negotiation, for “human initiative,” the right to plead for a salvific future that is not already determined, as in the episode with Will and Scripture at B.11.137-39a. 2.) “The Church.” L anticipates the Reformation polemic against pilgrimages and the endowed church, as later expressed in Simon Fish’s Supplicacyon for the Beggars (1528) and Cromwell’s Injunctions (1538). Yet the similarity between L and “late evangelical polemicists” ends there, when one realizes the “institutional consequences” of these two versions of reform. L argues for a totally re-structured church with Piers as Pope, a church bound together by the material practices of charity and deeds, and one that sustains the sacraments as the “functional practices for negotiating with God,” whereas evangelical polemicists reduce the material, visible church-its buildings, relics, and images-to its pre-destined constituency, with an inscrutable deity at its head, as in Robert Barnes’s Supplication (1531). 3.) “Labor and Politics.” Whereas “Langland’s understanding of labor relations and ecclesiology . . . springs from his theology,” evangelical polemicists speak of labor in terms of strict obedience to the king (even to a tyrant) and not in terms of a comprehensive theological program that, as in PPl, argues for a demotic church. Even those reformation works that either accept “Piers Plowman” into their titles or that are loosely affiliated with the Wycliffite “PPl Tradition”-A Godly dyalogue and Dysputacion Betwene Pyers Plowman, and a Popysh Preest (c. 1550), I Playne Piers which can not flatter (c. 1547), Praier and Complaynte of the Plowman (printed, 1531), Plowman’s Tale (printed, 1536), etc.- bear a theology “wholly dependent on the king for any change.”
YLS 14 (2000): 49-74.