Spirituality and Economics in Passus 1-7 of the B Text.
Although B.2-4 appear to demonstrate WL’s rejection of a profit economy and a system of human relations based on mede (a reward beyond desert) as corrupting both justice and loyalty, he describes the relations between God and man in fundamentally economic terms, often in terms of a profit economy (e.g., B.1,5). This use of economic images finds its model in such passages as Matt. 20:1 ff.; John 4:36; Matt. 6:19-21, 13:44-46; Matt. 18:23-35; and Luke 6:35. WL uses such images when he is specifically rejecting a profit economy in the earthly realm. He draws on the scholastic distinction between absolute, strict merit (meritum de condigno) and relative, conditional merit (meritum de congruo), or reward as wages and reward as gift. In B.3 mercede represents just or condign reward, whereas meed from God is congruent merit. Theology’s description of reward from God as mede is that of a gift beyond desert; Piers’s wage from God is condign (B.5.542-52). The plowing of the half-acre scene moves from a traditional restatement of feudal ideology to a depiction of Piers as a peasant landholder paying peasant wages on a contractual basis, a relationship of strict equality between merit and reward. The failure of this arrangement suggests that to Langland strict de condigno merit is impossible to attain in the face of God’s justice. A conditional reward is required, in which God out of mercy grants the gift of salvation to repentant man.