The Non-Christians of Piers Plowman
The depiction of non-Christians in medieval literature must be understood not only in terms of the actual history of relations between different faith communities but also in terms of the ideologies that underlay the construction of religious identity. This topic in PPl presents a special challenge: while works such as the Song of Roland or Dante’s Inferno present a relatively self-contained, internally consistent view of the non-Christian ‘other,’ L offers no such certainty to his reader. Instead, his poem presents a range of possible perspectives, leaving the reader to sift through the various theological positions on non-Christians that might be adopted by a believer. The chapter begins with a short account of how PPl obliges the reader to weigh alternative positions against one another before turning to the depiction of non-Christians at some key moments in the poem. The representation of non-Christians varies between the B and C versions of the text and is further complicated by variations to be found within the manuscript tradition. The chapter addresses all three kinds of non-Christians found in PPl – Jews, Muslims, and generic non-Christians – beginning with an examination of the ways in which the poem constructs Christian identity based on the imagined identity of the pre-Incarnational Jew, going on to explore how the ambiguity in Jewish identity (from the Christian point of view) inflects the Christian view of non-Christian others, especially Muslims, who were seen as both participating in a retrogressive return to the so-called “Old Law” of Moses and embarking upon a novel Christian heresy. The chapter then turns to the generic non-Christian, especially the figure of the so-called “virtuous pagan” that is the focus of L’s exploration of whether God could choose to grant salvation outside of the sacrificial covenant of Christ. Akbari reads the poem’s presentation of non-Christians in the context of L’s vision of salvation history, and compares L’s account of the ‘virtuous pagan’ to similar explorations of the theology of salvation found in Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Middle English alliterative Saint Erkenwald, and to Walter Hilton’s more dogmatic view of the possibilities of salvation for non-Christians as presented in his Scale of Perfection.
The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 160-76.
Akbari, Suzanne Conklin