Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Two central questions of Christian theology concern defining the just society in this world and finding salvation in the next. Piers Plowman addresses both of these issues. The first two visions focus mainly on the first question. Though Langland is sometimes presented as a revolutionary, his ideal commonwealth is hierarchical. When in the prologue the rats want to bell the cat (perhaps an allusion to Parliament’s attempt in 1376 to limit the king’s power), a mouse says that everyone is better off with an unfettered ruler. If the king ruled with the advice of Reason and Conscience, and if all who could do so labored in their vocation, everyone would live comfortably. Holy Church, as early as the first passus, says that Will already knows Truth, which is that love is the key to the just society.

It is also the source of salvation. A key question that the poem explores, however, is whose love? Is it enough for one to love others, including one’s enemies, to give charity, to shun the Seven Deadly Sins? Passus 11 presents the Roman emperor Trajan, who was saved through his love of others and his good life, even though he was not baptized. In passus 12 Ymaginatif argues that Aristotle and Solomon also achieved salvation because of their actions. Langland constantly stresses the importance of good deeds. One of his repeated targets of satire is the granting of pardons that eliminate the need for action. Such indulgences troubled many Catholics and would help spark the Protestant Reformation.

Yet human action alone is also inadequate, as Langland indicates in his parable of the Tree of Charity that Piers shows Will in passus 16. The tree represents three ways of living properly: in matrimony, widowhood, and virginity. As the vision proceeds, Will sees the devil shake this tree and steal the fruit (its souls) away to hell. Only Christ can retrieve what the devil has taken. Similarly, in passus 17 Langland redefines the parable of the Good Samaritan. Traditionally, it is read as Christ’s message to help others, to give love and charity. To that meaning Langland adds another, for in the poem the Samaritan is Christ, the wounded man assailed by sin, whom only God’s love can retrieve from eternal death. Works and grace thus emerge as the twin pillars on which salvation rests.