Title Background

Will and the Penitents: <i>Piers Plowman</i> B X.420-35.

Will and the Penitents: Piers Plowman B X.420-35.

The list of famous sinners cited by Will in his ill-tempered diatribe against Scripture is a highly conventional one that occurs (with some additions or deletions) throughout medieval and Renaissance penitential literature. Three contexts are typical: (1) in didactic texts, where a pastoral voice urges hope without presumption and counsels against despair; (2) in lyric appeals from Christ to man, where the Savior urges upon the despairing soul the example of greater sinners who have received mercy; and (3) in petitionary prayers of sinners, who appeal humbly for mercy on the basis of the grace previously accorded to such notorious characters as Mary Magdalen. WL deliberately altered the circumstances and tone of the penitential situation so as to emphasize Will’s aggressive presumption and quarrelsomeness. Moreover, Will appeals to the example of the great sinners not, as was the custom, to emphasize the availability of mercy but to justify a rejection of learning as an aid to salvation. Though any educated Christian could have been expected to appreciate the irony of Will’s misappropriated examples, WL evidently feared that the argument might sound plausible to the “lewed,” for he was careful in the C version to attribute the entire diatribe to Recklessness.