Piers Plowman Pastoral Theology, Pastoral Theology, and Spiritual Perfectionism: Hawkyn’s Cloak and Patience’s Pater Noster
This essay discusses the encounter between Conscience, Patience, and Hawkyn in PPl B.13–14 as part of L’s response to an important contradiction in medieval pastoral theology: the contradiction between that theology’s perfectionist ideology and its universalist mandate. Birthed in the eschatological climate of the early thirteenth century, in which it was possible to hope for the perfecting of the entire world, pastoral theology came to be divided into a universalist stream, which held out hope of salvation at the cost of lowering the level of Christian commitment required for salvation, and a perfectionist stream, which insisted on that commitment at the cost of the hope that most baptized Christians could be saved. The essay argues that PPl can be read as, in part, an attempt to bring these two streams back together: first, through the figure of Piers, whose attempt to reform Christian society from within represents a new hypothesis about how pastoral theology might attain its goals; second, after the failure of Piers’s reform movement, through the meeting of the binary figures of Patience and Hawkyn. This attempt also fails: despite its radical simplicity, Patience’s ethic of total renunciation cannot include the society represented by Hawkyn, since it depends on that society for its survival. However, where readers of PPl generally regard Patience as an ideal figure, this essay sides with Hawkyn, the poem’s figure for contemporary Christian society, arguing that L is critical of Patience’s conscious virtue and continues to insist on the possibility that Christian society as a whole can be saved, even after he has abandoned any hypothesis about how this may be achieved. (NW)
YLS, 21 (2007), 83–118.