William Langland’s version of Piers Plowman is an interpretation of Christian theology. The author reworked the story of Piers’ visions to focus on two interrelated themes: the nature of a just society in this world and the way to find salvation or gain existence in the next world. Both of these are enabled by God’s love. Langland explores divine human behavior and will as ways of enabling divine love to be carried out. Using allegory to explore the English political dimensions relevant to these questions, Langland often locates his quest for answers in his own time, thereby suggesting a subsidiary theme of social reform.
The text emphasizes the need for love along with reason and conscience as key elements of justice. While many of Langland’s arguments may be generally applied, he also invokes contemporary issues. In the late 14th century when he was writing, reform movements were underway in England; in 1376, Parliament had attempted to limit the king’s power. Langland apparently references this event in the Prologue’s reference to rats that put a bell on a cat.
Numerous questions related to love arise in the distinct Passus segments. The human responsibility to bear out God’s love includes extending charity; the author reminds the reader that this love includes forgiving one’s enemies. Love of God is also embodied in right behavior, such as rejecting sin. Langland explores the antecedents of Christian love among pagans, such as ancient Greeks and Romans, and in the Old Testament.
The necessity of God’s will and action, surpassing any human intention or behavior, is emphasized throughout. Passus 16 with the Tree of Charity emphasizes this central point. Langland depicts this tree, with its three branches representing right ways to live in matrimony, widowhood, and virginity. Here Christ’s salvation is depicted: when the devil shakes the tree and steal the souls represented by fruit, only the intervention of Christ can rescue them from hell. Langland similarly interprets the Good Samaritan as Christ rather than a human exercising charity.
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...
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