Symposium Introduction

Theological genealogists of modernity have always recognized the importance of literature to the sweeping intellectual stories they tell. Alasdair MacIntyre devoted a chapter of After Virtue to Jane Austen. Charles Taylor acknowledges a profound debt to Iris Murdoch’s novels and dips in and out of a vast array of poetry, from Homer to Milosz, to illustrate the spirit of the age. John Milbank’s counter-modernity is enchanted by Charles Peguy and Tolkien, while Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern casts Coleridge as tragic hero. Yet in none of these projects does fiction or poetry receive sustained engagement on par with philosophical and theological texts; rarely is literature allowed beyond heuristics and into the argument. (The great exception is Hans Urs von Balthasar, who generates some of his most important and genealogically surprising moves in sustained, textually sensitive engagements with Dante, Calderón, Hopkins, Peguy, Claudel, Bernanos. Minor exceptions are Pfau’s 20 pages on Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Minding the Modern and Jennifer Herdt’s wonderful reading of Jesuit drama in The Splendid Vices.)

In Beyond Reformation? David Aers dares to enter these debates with a book-length essay on Piers Plowman, the most ambitious work of theological poetry produced in England before Milton’s Paradise Lost. Aers’s most pressing concerns are also the most urgent questions for the likes of MacIntyre, Milbank, or Brad Gregory. How have political and economic forces shaped the ethical landscape of modern society? How have churches and individual Christians contributed to the de-Christianization of the west? Where do the temporal and spiritual authorities of church and state begin and end?

These are also the pressing concerns of Piers Plowman, a thrillingly, even sublimely, difficult dream vision composed and serially revised between around 1365 and 1390 (overlapping with Chaucer’s writing of The Canterbury Tales) by a poet who may have been named William Langland. In fluent alliterative verse, Langland manages to produce crystalline vignettes of vivid, personal beauty out of intensely learned biblical, theological, and natural-philosophical explorations. As in Dante’s compressed and allusive Divine Comedy and in T. S. Eliot’s fragmentary The Waste Land, the only way to the theology is through the poetry. David Aers, who has spent the latter part of his career at Duke interpreting Piers Plowman to Duke Divinity School faculty and students, is the ideal guide to this mysterious yet evangelically direct poem. Writing always with non-specialists in mind, Aers explains how the poem works as poetry in order to reveal its significance for historical and modern theology.

Aers demonstrates that Langland was vigorously involved in the ethical and ecclesiological debates of his own day and, indirectly, in those of the Protestant Reformation. The result of this conversation is that William Langland emerges as a profoundly insightful, agile, and unique theological voice addressing the crises of a de-Christianizing church. Any account of the theological origins of modernity must grapple with this powerful figure.

The following responses do just that, engaging not only with Aers’s arguments but also with Piers Plowman directly. And this direct engagement is necessary, for while Piers Plowman raises first-order theological questions that admit to exclusively theological discussion, the poem proffers multiple, often conflicting answers in a range of forms alien to the magisterial theological tradition. The discipline of theology is not capable, by its own resources, of handling and adjudicating these conflicts. Each respondent, then, must grapple with the literary side of topics familiar to theology—authority, revelation, dialectics—as well as with less familiar topics such as personification allegory.  The result, as Stanley Hauerwas notes, is that “questions regarding the genre of theology cannot be avoided.”

And so the respondents’ disagreements over ecclesiology and other theological topics ultimately hinge on the form of the poem. As the dreamer Will searches for Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best—for the right form of Christian living—he discovers no shortage of answers, but the answers conflict. Readers of the poem have a similar experience. One passus ends with a monarchist (or proto-Erastian?) solution, a virtuous king taking the Church’s interests into his own hands. Another episode exposes the thorough corruption of the aristocratic court, setting it in enmity with the authentic quest for Saint Truth. Which model of church-kingdom relations commands credence?

At the mystogogical climax of the poem, the dreamer is transported by the Apostle’s Creed into hell (descendit ad inferna) to witness the events of Holy Saturday. He awakes on Easter morning and exhorts his wife and daughter to join the simultaneously penitential and triumphal procession to kiss the cross. Next Will falls asleep again, this time in Mass, and encounters Piers Plowman as Christ in the Eucharist. Together these beautiful and mysterious scenes commend participation in the devotional and sacramental life of the institutional church. Yet the poem itself ends with the institutional Church—the “Barn of Unity”—attacked and ruined by corrupt clergy and laity, with the only persistent seekers after truth wandering out into the wild world in search of Grace and Piers Plowman. It is an apocalypse of what Aers, echoing John Paul II, calls de-Christianization, a process at work throughout Christian history but particularly pernicious in the late Middle Ages. Which of these conflicting images does the poem hold out for our orientation, and which are spurious?

The answer to this hermeneutical question will have to rely on formal analysis. Aers’s interlocutors here generally agree with him that Piers Plowman works dialectically, but what kind of dialectic is this, and just which elements are sublimated and which negated along the way? Perhaps the most important formal datum for these considerations is the poem’s ending. Does the end of the poem command special hermeneutical insight, as the ending of a comedy or tragedy conditions not only the direction of all that came before it, but also its genre and therefore the very conditions of its interpretation? Or does Piers Plowman’s final ending have a status equal to the many other endings in the poem (the ends of its chapters, or passus; the ends of dreams; the ends of alliterative patterns), drawn back by a centripetal force to the theological middle of the Incarnation and the structural and sacramental middle of Easter morning and the Eucharist?

Aers’s understanding of the poem’s dialectical structure leads him to read the ending as itinerant beyond every form of church that has come before. In the wake of the Barn of Unity’s corruption, Will the dreamer joins a group of “fools” (Piers Plowman C.22.213-16), a “small, dissident remnant” (151) who commit themselves to “learn[ing] to love” (C.22.208). Aers argues that “the eschewal of institutional solutions and formations by the inspired fools in Passus XXII [the final passus] . . . [has] a tendency, a drawing beyond the poem’s ending, an ending, after all, which is the initiation of a search for Piers the plowman under the invocation of the Holy Spirit. My name for the direction in which Langland is moving with the ‘foles’ and the present absences is congregationalism” (160). Aers ventures this interpretation tentatively, with the qualification that Langland develops this image of the church of holy fools not as a radical ecclesiology to be institutionalized universally but with “thoroughly particular contexts and justifications” (160).

Where might this tendency have led in Langland’s own world? Aers cautiously suggests as historical example the house church of Hawisia Mone of Loddon in Norfolk, a lay woman who was tried for heresy in 1430 (155-56). Mone and her friends eschewed sacramental confession and considered the Pope the Antichrist. Instead of participating in the Roman church, they forged a community bound by charity alone, constructing a church within the heart, as Piers Plowman counseled Will in passus 7 (cf. 169). Aers sees similar congregations emerging a century or so later “in opposition” to all institutional and hierarchical instantiations of the church, Protestant as well as Catholic. Langland then becomes a precursor to Milton, sharing the seventeenth-century radical Puritan’s “subversive [vision] of Constantinian Christianity [and] the magisterial forms of authority it performs” (168).

The responses to follow all take issue with some aspect of the ecclesiology Aers finds in Piers Plowman. The points of contention are of several kinds. The participants in the symposium disagree about ecclesiology; about what kind of ecclesiology the author of Piers Plowman commended; about how the poem’s forms and structures guide us to resolve these disagreements; and about the historical possibilities for ecclesial reform. Such disagreements require several approaches, among them first-order theology, church and political history, and intellectual history. They also demand attention to the poetry, and none of the participants limits herself or himself to theological and historical argument. Rowan Williams attends to the poem’s Eucharistic poetics.  Arabella (fille) and John (père) Milbank contribute an article-length response (thanks to Syndicate for running it in full) in which they make formal arguments in order to lend support to their theological contentions. Sheryl Overmyer finds Langland’s personification allegories to be the perfect figure by which to see how, in Thomas Aquinas’s terms, infused and acquired virtues blend to produce gradations of virtue. Steven Justice, the sole professional literary scholar, takes up the concept of the classic to challenge theology’s own disciplinary understanding of the term. Each of these responses, then, practices some mode of inquiry more common to literary studies than to theology, intellectual history, and church history in order to address first-order theological questions.

“Why,” Hauerwas asks, “are poems like Piers Plowman not included in the canon of texts any one pretending to be a theologian must know?” One answer is simply that theologians typically are not trained to read such works. David Aers’s Beyond Reformation?, in many ways the culmination of a life’s work, is an excellent example of how to join “literary” texts in their theological inquiries. And the lively responses in this symposium point especially to the fruits of grappling with the question of theological genre. For despite the concerns they share with many recent genealogies of modernity, neither Piers Plowman nor Beyond Reformation? takes the form of a grand narrative. Aers is emphatic that Langland’s ecclesiology is one adapted to the exigencies of a particular moment. The same could be said of Aers’s brief, dialectical book. At a time when some in the humanities are returning to the big questions with big answers, Piers Plowman emerges as a pertinent guide to some of the most important questions, one that proffers definite but localized answers. Aers has written a critique of a specific ecclesial modernity, modeling a critical mode that does not rest its authority on genealogy but rather on dialectical engagement with a master text that speaks with striking intimacy to our present age.

Beyond Reformation? would make an excellent companion for theologically inclined readers who want to encounter Piers Plowman for themselves. George Economou’s translation of the C-text (the latest version of the poem) is readily available, and is the version Aers uses for translations. Readers of the translation will also appreciate the excellent annotations in Derek Pearsall’s edition, from which Aers cites the Middle English. An outline of the poem’s plot, such as it is, can be a great help while reading. The poem roughly corresponds to the liturgical calendar, making it good Lenten reading, as detailed in this study guide by a former student of Aers and Hauerwas.

Stanley Hauerwas


Piers Plowman and the Moral Life

The convention surrounding an exercise like this requires the critic to raise questions about the work under consideration that upon reflection may be devastating. Readers are going to be disappointed if they expect me to conform to that convention in this response to Aers’s Beyond Reformation? David Aers is a scholar’s scholar. I just barely get by as a theologian who has never pretended to be a scholar. At best I know enough to be able to recognize a real scholar when I see one, and David Aers is the real deal. So do not expect me to make any criticism of Aers’s reading of Piers Plowman or his understanding of the significance of the poem.

David knows the complex and beautiful poem Piers Plowman in a manner I can only describe as “intimate.” In truth he does not simply know the poem. He loves the poem, discovering in Langland’s poetry his own deepest convictions about the Christian faith. Moreover though Aers disavows being a theologian he brings an extraordinary knowledge of theology to his analysis of the poem. He, therefore, is able to put Langland in conversation with Aquinas and Milton as well as Barth and John Paul II. In the process he helps us see the ongoing relevance of the poem for our day. Again, do not expect me to call into question his reading of the poem.

Indeed one of the challenges Aers’s account of the poem, particularly in this book, raises is: why are poems like Piers Plowman not included in the canon of texts anyone pretending to be a theologian must know? For I take it that one of the crucial insights that animates Aers’s reading of this poem and is particularly important for theologians is that there is an “intimacy” between Langland’s ecclesiology and his forms of writing. That is a remark that reflects Aers’s contention that the “teaching we receive is inextricably bound up with the mode in which it is composed” (xi). If that is the case, and I certainly think it is, then I think questions regarding the genre of theology cannot be avoided. We are living in a time of transition in which Constantinianism is being left behind. This transition necessitates a patient pondering of our Christian modes of speech. It is a disturbing task for many of us who pretend to be theologians because we are seldom good poets. That is why theologians need poets; poets remind us that the work of attending to language, especially language about God, is something to relish—not relinquish.

Another reason I find it difficult to assume the position of the critic is because, as David mentions, we taught a class together in which he had begun to develop some of the arguments in this book. As one fortunate to be in the classroom with David, I have learned to read the poem by watching David read the poem. He has been my teacher. The best I can do, therefore, is to ask David to say more about some of the arguments he begins in Beyond Reformation? Moreover, I am one of the people to whom the book is dedicated. I should like to think that dedication is an indication of our friendship and an acknowledgment that our friendship has facilitated some of the judgments forged in the conversations we have with one another.

That said, friendships, and in particular intellectual friendships, should not be based solely on agreement. David and I may share many judgments but that does not mean we agree about everything. For example, I love grand narratives. David has never met a grand narrative, particularly ones about the Middle Ages, he did not distrust. He rightly worries that advocates of grand narratives often do not pay appropriate attention to texts like Piers Plowman. Therefore, in our course on the grand narratives, represented by such notables as MacIntyre, Taylor, and Milbank, we sought to test those narratives in the light of a close reading of Langland’s poem. Allowing this kind of testing, as David makes clear in Beyond Reformation? (48), often shows the grand narratives under consideration do not do justice to the complex world identified as the “Middle Ages.” From Aers’s perspective some grand narratives tend to romanticize the Middle Ages by failing to do justice to the unfaithful character of the Church of Rome that is so brilliantly described by Langland.

Aers is no doubt rightly critical of grand narratives, but I cannot help but wonder if Beyond Reformation? does not reproduce a narrative every bit as grand as a MacIntyre or Milbank. Think, for example, what is implied by the phrase, “the end of Constantinian Christianity.” That phrase suggests a story about the church that assumes that there has been and are alternatives to the accommodation of the church to the world in the interest of power. David’s focus on the poem surely is a way to test that narrative but it nonetheless reproduces the presumption that any account of the church cannot help but entail a story of all that is.

If that is the case I think Aers owes us a more detailed account of the kind of Constantinianism to which Langland was trying to offer an alternative. Aers acknowledges that he learned the general account of Constantinianism from John Howard Yoder, but he notes that his usage of the phrase “Constantinian Christianity” remains Langlandian rather than Mennonite (xiv). It seems an important distinction to which I can only respond by asking that he say more about that difference. I suspect, moreover, that that difference will entail something that looks very much like a grand narrative.

If David chooses to address this issue, I encourage him in the process to explain why there is a question mark after Beyond Reformation? Does the question mark suggest that Langland’s poem was a critical response to the corruption of the church that is more radical than the magisterial reformation? Or is the question mark questioning whether Langland is successful in offering an alternative to the Church of Rome as well as Wyclif? Perhaps the question mark is David’s way to indicate that the story Langland is telling is not a grand narrative.

One of the ways Aers might make his account of Constantinianism more concrete is by attending to Yoder’s account of the various forms of Constantinianism in The Original Revolution. To be sure Yoder’s characterizations of the diverse forms Constantinianism can take was an attempt to help us see that Constantinianism is not to be limited to the legal establishment of the church “after the Reformation.” Nonetheless, I still think Aers’s case could be strengthened by developing a thicker account of the kind of Constantinianism Langland was critiquing by comparing it in more detail to Yoder’s account.

By asking Aers to tell us more about the kind of Constantinianism Langland is critiquing I am not suggesting that Aers does not tell us in some detail the effects of Constantinianism. For example, his observation that Langland thought the de-christianization of life to be generated by the Christian community, a community with a church in its center, is a very Yoderian point. But by showing how that development made it almost impossible for the Christian community to recognize usury, which is wonderfully described as the sin of unkindness enacted against the Holy Spirit, is an insight peculiar to Langland. Aers’s argument that Langland rejects a Constantinian solution to Constantinianism by opting for a church of fools is also a point Yoder would have thought commensurate with the Anabaptist alternative to Constantinianism.

One of the reasons I would like David to say more about these matters is that I think there is a fundamental insight at the heart of his reading of Langland; that is, that there is an essential relation between the character of the church and how Christians, both positively and perversely, understand the moral character of our lives. Those familiar with my work as a Christian theologian/ethicist won’t be surprised by my sensing the stakes of such an insight. This is a theme he develops a number of times in the book where he deals with the status of the infused cardinal virtues. In particular he suggests that Langland draws on an agricultural analogy of seed to ground to develop an account of the infused cardinal virtues. According to Aers, Langland rightly thinks the infused virtues are a gift of the Holy Spirit making salvation possible (33). According to Aers the infused cardinal or moral virtues are not different from the acquired cardinal virtues except that the former are directed to a different end.

Aers develops this theme by directing attention to Langland’s understanding of how practice, practical reasoning, and language are inseparably intertwined. Through such practices Langland is able to show how the infused cardinal virtues “kindle” the acquired moral virtues (40). Such a transformation is crucial because the acquired moral virtues must be determined by the infused moral cardinal virtues if they are to be saved from becoming vices or forms of life destructive of human flourishing (85). In particular Aers directs attention to the treatment of temperance in Passus V and XXI to show that Langland understands temperance to be a virtue incumbent not only on the mendicant poor but also on the well off. But when the church is unable to provide contexts for the graceful transformation of temperance by the infused cardinal virtues temperance becomes a travesty (89–90).

All that seems just right to me. But I should like for Aers to reflect more on the relation of the acquired moral or cardinal virtues to the infused virtues. For I think he may be suggesting that the view that the acquired moral virtues must be transformed by the infused cardinal virtues reflects an ecclesial point. The point being that the church that makes such a transformation possible is what David calls the Pentecostal church which, of course, he takes to be the alternative to the Constantinian church.

If that is the case that puts the question of the relation of the acquired moral virtues, the so-called natural virtues, and the infused cardinal virtues, into a different register than they are usually discussed in relation to Aquinas’s work. Put directly as I can: I am asking if Aers is suggesting that the attempt to base the Christian moral life on natural law is a Constantinian strategy that does not do justice to the presumption, a presumption that can be found in Aquinas, that the acquired cardinal or moral virtues must be transformed by grace if we are to be directed to our true end?

In other words I am asking David to explore a bit more the relation of the ecclesiology of the poem and how the moral life is understood. Such an exploration would not only enrich our understanding of Langland (and Aquinas), but it would hopefully help us understand better how to think about the challenges before us today. For it is surely the case that Aers has not written Beyond Reformation? only as an historical and literary exercise, but he means for his reading of this poem to help us better understand what it means for us to be Christians today. That he has made Piers Plowman available for such an investigation is a gift for which we should be deeply grateful.

Sheryl Overmyer


The End of Virtue?

Beyond Reformation is, by Aers’ admission from the start, an “idiosyncratic little book.” (ix) It works as a single essay that tracks the events of Piers Plowman, not according to its plot points or passus-by-passus, but according to a specific inquiry concerning “Constantinian Christianity.” Langland worries that the church is so immersed in every relevant facet and aspect of the social, political, and economic world that “Christianity now forms the social cement and political ideology of the current form of saeculum.” (xiv) For those readers familiar with Piers, Aers’ writing recalls and intensifies its delights; for the uninitiated, it serves as a wonderful window into them.

Langland first, and then Aers building on him, develops two fascinating threads in the virtue ethics tradition. Late medieval England is marked by upheavals on all fronts—the aftermath of the Black Death and the Great Schism, corrupt political institutions, labor disputes and the emerging market economy, and a Church in dire need of reform. Aers offers a robust account of the virtues, not as theoretical constructions, but as shaped by these practices and institutions. That forms the first thread, and the second is that the problems characteristic of these political, social, and ecclesial arrangements lead naturally into Aers’ analysis of Langland’s use of “paradiastolic” speech. Paradiastole is a rhetorical technique designed to redescribe an adversary’s claims to virtues in terms of adjacent vices.1 Aers’ writing is therefore a gift to scholars interested in the virtues and for the sake of accenting its appeal, I will sketch some of Langland’s writing (Passus XXI.274–309 and 396–476) and Aers’ interpretations (portions of Beyond Reformation, Passus IV and V and substantial sections of VIII, IX, and X).

In Passus XXI, Langland writes in an allegorical mode that draws heavily on agricultural imagery. The figure of Grace gives Piers four great oxen (the Gospels), four horses (the Church fathers) to harrow all Holy Scripture, “And Grace gave Piers seeds, the cardinal virtues, / And he sowed them in man’s soul” (274–75) At first blush, these would seem to be what Thomas recognizes as the infused cardinal virtues. (33) “These infused virtues,” Aers writes giving us a wider context, “are part of the answer to the crucial question Wille had put to Holy Church so long ago: how may I save my soul? (I.79–80). Langland’s vision of Pentecostal polity thus shows how Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell is mediated through His spirit to bring humanity to a harvest beyond the happiness of natural man in the natural city (XXI.274–334).” (ibid) Will(e) is the proper name of the narrator of the poem, a personification of the power of the soul, and ostensibly the first name of the author himself. We follow his wanderings throughout the poem as he struggles to come to terms with the varied answers given to his guiding question: “how may I save my soul?”

Despite the names Langland gives these virtues—Spiritus prudencie, Spiritus temperancie, Spiritus fortitudinis, and Spiritus iusticie—one strains to recognize them as the infused cardinal virtues. Spiritus prudencie is excessively concerned with mundane matters in teaching men “to buy a long-handled ladle / Who mean to stir a crock and save the fat on top” (XXI.279–80).2 Spiritus temperancie is as worldly, though perhaps with greater merit in helping one spurn worldly riches, watch one’s tongue, dress modestly, and eat humbly. Spiritus fortitudinis is again in some measure better as it seems to concern both this world and the next, and “whoever ate of that seed was hardy forever / To suffer all that God sent, sickness, and troubles. / There may no liar’s lying or loss of property / Make him, for any mourning, lose his cheerful outlook” (XXI.290–93). Spiritus iusticie is the most promising, indeed it is “squarely true with God,” and sets one at odds with predominant socio-political arrangements: “Spiritus iusticie spares no punishment for the guilty/ And to correct the king, if the king’s a guilty party . . . He was never afraid / Neither of duke nor of death that he wouldn’t distribute justice” (XXI.299, 303–34, 306–7). Why do the infused cardinal virtues take such strange forms? Because there are forces that continue to resist divine grace in the soul. Piers explains, “For commonly in the country crabgrass and weeds / Foul up the fruit in the field where they grow together, / And so do vices virtues.” (XXI.313–15).

If we were to transpose him into blatantly Thomistic terms, we could say that Langland takes seriously the habituation of sin and the stumbling block it poses for Christian’s embodiment of the infused virtues. He offers fascinating gradations of virtue: infused moral virtue that fails to express its orientation toward a supernatural end (Spiritus prudencie), infused moral virtue that resembles acquired virtue and may be implicitly directed toward a supernatural end (Spiritus temperancie), an admixture of acquired and infused virtue (Spiritus fortitudinis) to infused virtue that approximates its ideal form (Spiritus iusticie).

I find myself so thoroughly absorbed by Langland’s treatment of the virtues that, until Beyond Reformation, I had not appreciated what immediately follows in the poem. It moves from the sowing of the seeds of the cardinal virtues to their need to be stored in a house that the Holy Spirit tells Piers to build. Aers focuses our attention on these ecclesial implications. “As soon as Grace has shaped the gifts of Christ’s redemptive acts into the house, the church,” Aers concludes, “he sets out on an evangelical mission taking Piers with him (XXI.332–34). This gives us the divine warrant for Liberum Arbitrium’s insistence that the church should be committed to a universal, evangelical, and nonviolent mission. It should, that is, follow the church of the martyrs. This makes an eloquent contrast with the hierocratic late medieval church of immense temporal possessions.” (35) (Liberum Arbitrium is an allegorical figure who represents, in Augustinian terms, the power to choose to do good or a will attaining its proper end.) What happens next to these same virtues is a logical entailment of a Church that is indistinguishable from the world “with its concentrations of power, dominion, wealth, and coercive jurisdiction.” (37) In short, the virtues Langland depicts are products of specific institutional formations. This reminds us that virtues are found within and depend upon material conditions for their corruption or flourishing, rather than, as they are so often treated by scholars, abstractions floating above the contingencies of human existence.

The cardinal virtues devolve further in the second episode of XXI.396–476 and Aers’ VIII–X. The figure of Conscience invites Christians to partake in Eucharist, provided that they Redde quod debes—a refrain throughout the poem whose meaning accrues to rendering to others what they owe, forgiving one another, in short, Spiritus iusticie. The community collectively rebels. Representatives from various walks of life—a brewer, a lewd vicar, a lord, a king—justify their continued enslavement to sin. The brewer spurns Spiritus iusticie for maximizing profits, claiming it is his nature: “that’s the kind of guy I am” (XXI.400). “Langland is showing,” writes Aers, “how practices normalized in the occupations of his culture can create a second nature that transforms one’s ‘kynde,’ transforms a nature created in the image of God.” (64–65) The lewd vicar claims that he fails to see Spiritus prudencie in practice, yet another indictment of the contemporary church. (66) And to this Aers adds pages of illuminating commentary on the Great Schism, problems of simony, the habitual violence of the papacy, clarion and competing calls for reform, and crusading pardons. (67–75) The lewd vicar reveals the shocking reality that “Spiritus prudencie among the people is deceit” (XXI.455). In short: “Langland is exploring how neither the meaning of vices and virtues nor the central concepts of Christian theology will be independent of specific social formations and the practices they elicit and normalize.” (75)

Aers’ conclusions pile on with the two other figures:

Unhinged from their cultural role in building a virtuous community, the cardinal virtues now name practices that had been traditionally understood as vices, forms of life inimical to human flourishing. . . . There is a rhetorical term for such redescription: paradiastole. It has been illuminatingly studied by Quentin Skinner in his work on Hobbes. He shows that paradiastole was a technique in forensic speech designed to redescribed an adversary’s claims to virtues such as justice in terms of adjacent vices.3


In what remains are clusters of questions that are not so much direct queries as invitations for Aers to say more.

The first concerns the place of paradiastolic speech within the existing virtue ethics tradition. Aers writes: “Langland has introduced paradiastolic speech to identify a profound challenge to Christian-Aristotelian ethics and its language of the virtues.” (86) My questions are: is paradiastolic speech new in the sense that now we can see how it undergirds the institutions of the lay ruling elites and the Church? Perhaps, yes. But is paradiastolic speech novel use of language? Does paradiastolic speech give us new ways of identifying realities that we had not seen before? I, for one, don’t think it is or does. The tradition of Christian-Aristotelian ethics is preoccupied with what Thomas variously calls “false” or “counterfeit virtues” in the Summa Theologiae and Augustine contentiously labels “no virtue” in the City of God. Are not the so-called virtues that sustain and perpetuate the Roman Empire in fact vices? Is there a difference between the lewd vicar’s Spiritus prudencie and false prudence?

Rather than, as Aers suggests, Langland’s introducing a “profound challenge to Christian-Aristotelian ethics and its language of the virtues,” I regard Langland’s work this way: Langland puts a finer point on the facade of virtue than had been done before (while at the same time challenging Christians and the Church). This constitutes not so much a challenge to the Christian-Aristotelian tradition as a contribution (while taking the form of charity’s hard love: fraternal correction).


The majority of the ecclesial questions, I will leave to the other respondents. There is one, however, that impinges on the possibility of true virtue. In Passus XIX, Langland offers a moving portrait of the practices needed for folks to cultivate and sustain a charitable community through a re-enactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, the figure of semyuief is half-dead from sin and must be borne into the Church by Christ the Samaritan and given salve in baptism, penance, and the Eucharist. The Samaritan embodies Divine Charity as true virtue and enables the community to enact charity. Aers’ book that precedes this, Salvation and Sin (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), devotes a substantial chapter to this episode, whereas it is largely absent in this book. How does Aers now read Salvation and Sin’s XIX with its specific ecclesial, sacramental, and moral configurations? Given the lessons Aers illustrates between virtues and institutional forms, the pilgrim fools who break from the Church in XXII in Beyond Reformation also abandon the possibilities for realizing charity through the institution and practices established by Christ in XIX. Instead we have the final counsel to “Lerne to loue” (XXII.208), to seek apprenticeship in a craft where the master is absent and the fabric for orderly common life is unwoven. (159) Ultimately this catastrophe is the result of the unyielding devastation wrought by Christians’ own habituation to sin. Throughout the poem Langland illustrates the power of our enslavement to sin. Given this reality, is the relationship between virtues, practices, and institutions envisioned in the poem’s ending even viable? Under such conditions is habituation in love—and all of the other intellectual and moral habits needed to attain our supernatural end—possible?


Another question concerns Aers’ engagement of John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. Within the Catholic tradition are lively debates over how to receive the authority of the Magisterium, how to interpret Magisterial documents, and how the Magisterium’s teaching develops over time. Aers’ reading in Beyond Reformation concedes much to traditionalist answers to these questions. Aers remarks in a critical vein:

The modern pope has one major source of confidence that Langland does not share with him. John Paul maintains that in the face of the forces of “dechristianization” and “secularism,” forces able to blind conscience in “even the attitudes and behavior of Christians,” there remains “a great help for the formation of conscience” (VS, 64; see too 88 and 106). What might this be? It is “the Church and her Magisterium” (64; original emphasis). That is, the actually existing Roman Church, with its contemporary “Magisterium,” can transcend, without qualification, the forces of “dechristianization” that have, according to the pope, so thoroughly transformed Christians. . . . Little could be further from Langland’s vision of the Roman Church and its “magisterium.” (140)

Aers interprets Veritatis Splendor’s concern with “dissent” from doctrine as a symptom of dechristianization and the text itself as a set of instructions for the Christian community on the issue of the formation of conscience. (48, 139)

In context, Veritatis Splendor is addressed to Roman Catholic Bishops and speaks among a number of other voices that came after Vatican II claiming to speak on its behalf. Gaudium et Spes, for example, seemed to invite reconsideration of some of the Church’s stances on moral teaching in language that protected the upright norm of one’s own conscience.4 Having invited this language of conscience, in 1968, Humanae Vitae seemed to detract from it. In its wake, some Roman Catholic moral theologians developed the idea of “proportionate reason” which they saw as a mode of reasoning wherein if the end of the act (finis operas) was interpreted with the agent’s end intention in mind (finis operates), and there was a commensurate reason for doing an act, it might not be sinful; in such cases commensurate reason was determined by one’s conscience and one’s own reason rather than the Church’s teachings. Veritatis Splendor thus addresses this “dissent” “encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology” amounting to a “genuine crisis.”5 This text is an intervention into and a contribution to a specific set of conversations in Catholic moral theology in the late twentieth-century. I wonder if Aers could say more about how John Paul II’s teaching to the proportionalists matters for Piers Plowman in its own historical context? Also, what does it mean to put the Constantinian Church of Piers and the contemporary Roman Catholic Church into direct conversation, despite the latter being an institution some seven hundred years’ removed and mediated through Veritatis Splendor?


Finally, I have a question about epistemic ambiguity and the ending of the poem. Glib assurances of clarity and confidence that characterize our theological discourse—most contemporary discourse—are utterly foreign to Will. Will falters throughout the poem, and is more akin to the Augustine who questions even his own motives for confession.6 This endures even to the end of the poem in “an exemplary act of trust, of faith drawn by love. Wille commits himself to follow the divine counsel even though he cannot yet see what will be the specific embodiment love could take this unpropitious historical moment.” (159) Are Will’s conclusions always penultimate and open to revision? As readers who have formed habits of reading through Piers, does this mean anything for our interpretations of the poem and its ending?


It cannot be helped that given the ecclesial trajectory of this particular book, there were times that I found myself at odds with it. It was the first time that I questioned whether I appreciated Langland’s answers as much as his questions. To Aers however—as an author and teacher—I am grateful for his answers and questions.

  1. Beyond Reformation?, 85, referring to Quentin Skinner, “Thomas Hobbes: Rhetoric and the Construction of Morality,” Proceedings of the British Academy 76 (1990) 1–61.

  2. The indexing of BR conflates Spiritus prudencie in XXI.276 and XXI.455—something Aers does not do in his prose.

  3. Ibid., 85. In another vein, Veritatis Splendor might offer support to the paradiastole thesis in claiming that the Christian tradition of martyrdom “rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning’ one might claim to attribute, even in ‘exceptional’ conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s ‘humanity,’ in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it” (Veritatis Splendor, ¶92).

  4. Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes; promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965, ¶26.

  5. John Paul, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, Addressed by the Supreme Pontiff Pope John Paul II to All the Bishops of the Catholic Church regarding Certain Fundamental Questions of the Church’s Moral Teaching, ¶4, 5.

  6. Augustine, Confessions, Book X. See Aers, BR, 98–99.



Langland’s Theology of Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman continues to be the subject of spirited debate, and this admirable book will generate quite a bit more of it. What Aers is arguing is that Langland ends up commending something like a Catholic/Mennonite fusion of ideals: Langland’s excoriating hostility to the actual practice of fourteenth-century hierarchical Christianity is not to be underrated or softened, yet he clearly refuses the shortcut of Wycliffite reliance on the secular power to bring about reform. It may be that the exasperated protester appeals to lords and kings to confiscate the property of religious orders that are failing in their primary vocation (e.g., V.168–79.)1; yet the end of Passus XXI lays out with the sharpest clarity how such an appeal can be distorted by lay aristocrats for their own purpose, and how it can even reinforce the idea that the king is above the law (XXI.469–70)—not a view endorsed by Conscience, who promptly reminds the king that his right to claim what he wants is conditional on the general lawfulness of his rule and how far it secures the well-being of the people. As Aers repeatedly and effectively argues, the critical edge of the poem is directed against both the violence of a corrupt Church and the (implicit or explicit) violence of a self-defending body of purified believers, exploiting the protection and resource of secular authority.

This in itself suggests a little more tension between Langland and William of Ockham than perhaps Aers wants to allow. The convergences on issues of papal abuses and the Church’s collusion with wealth and force are of course undeniable. It is clear that, as the quotation from Ockham on p. 110 makes plain, Christians are prohibited in Ockham’s view from exercising coercive power to punish or secure conformity; but the appeal to secular reforming force is an equally undeniable element in Ockham, one which played its genealogical part in both the Lutheran division between the two realms (the gospel realm of freedom and the law which secures routine stability by force) and the classical Anglican insistence (as in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes, for example)2 that the Church as such is always nonviolent, even when the state it sanctions behaves otherwise. To the extent that Langland preserves the liberty of Conscience or the evangelically restored Church to challenge the mode in which secular power is exercised, and to name and shame the ways in which this power can make corrupt use of the reforming agenda, he brings to the discussion a dimension not always to the fore in Ockham. It is a feature of the poem that puts it closer to Tyndale than to the later mainstream of English Reformed thought: Tyndale, like Langland, does not spare lay abuses while castigating clerical ones, and, though he looks to royal support for reform, he does not create quiet so comprehensive an ideology of secular justice as some of the late mediaevals and the establishment Anglicans.

But mention of Ockham prompts a further point about Langland’s intellectual and imaginative world. Aers is right at every point in insisting upon Langland’s distinctiveness both from much of the mainstream practice and teaching of the Church of his day and from the “Reformation” narrative. Part of what is going on in the Reformation is a wariness about the idea that the material things of this world truly participate in the agency of God—a movement away from a sacramental ontology. God’s will establishes a functional connection between God and the created means of God’s self-communication, but we should not look for any kind of continuity between created and uncreated action: the risk to be avoided at all costs is of compromising the transcendent freedom of divine action by appearing to make it depend on created initiative, or by binding the receptive understanding of God’s action to the understanding of a finite process. Thus, taking this to an extreme statement of the position, sacraments are arbitrary signs of God’s will to communicate; the mind must accept that this particular created sign is in fact the bearer of what God has determined to say. And any more ontologically robust account of what God communicates, and how, is disallowed. This leads to an interiorised picture of what a sacrament is: it acts upon the mind, informing the knowing subject that God is at work, but its connection in itself with the work of God is an extrinsic affair. The roots of this lie again in some aspects of Ockham’s thought, above all in his privileging of divine command and divine decision. Famously—or notoriously—in his Christology, he argues that there would be no obstacle in principle to God’s becoming incarnate in a non-human medium, since the incarnation is a free divine decision unfettered by any natural “aptitude” for incarnation in human nature rather than other sorts of created being.3

Wycliffite suspicion of the doctrine of transubstantiation already shows the impact of this kind of thinking; Ockham, as Aers notes (190–91n133), seems to favour some form of consubstantiation, i.e., a doctrine in which the natural substance of the Eucharistic elements was not destroyed in the sacramental transformation. This is still a long way from the Reformed unease about anything other than a “spiritual” presence, but it can be read as introducing into the Eucharistic event a kind of duality, an equal and opposite difficulty to the difficulty of transubstantiation—as if the working together of finite and infinite reality required either a side-by-side coexistence (consubstantiation) or the radical displacement of one by the other (transubstantiation). Langland’s Eucharistic vision, which bypasses this particular standoff, is neither a purely conventional example of late mediaeval devotion nor a Wycliffite one. As has been noted,4 Langland explicitly distances himself (XVII 117–21) from the Lollard idea that an unworthy priest invalidates the sacrament; and when he speaks about the presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament, it is always in strongly “realist” terms. Thus in XIX.85–95 we read that Faith and Hope are ineffectual without the objective gift of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and XXI.383–92, a kind of counterpart to the former, insisting that the reception of Holy Communion requires the payment of what we owe to our fellow human beings, whether materially or spiritually, also describes the Eucharistic presence in unambiguous though nontechnical words. I am less inclined than Aers to see the phraseology (“bred yblessed and godes body therunder”) as qualifying belief in an objective presence in any way. It simply renders the theological language of the body existing “under” the perceptible form of bread, even if it does not commit itself to the disappearance of the bread’s essence. I do agree with Aers, however, that the clear commendation of frequent communion is distinctive, as is the close connection of communion with social reconciliation, a theme echoed strongly in the First Exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer, with its requirement that the worthy communicant restore what rightfully belongs to others, including not only overdue loans or securities, but wages withheld, before presuming to approach the Lord’s Table.

More significantly, Passus XXI begins with a vision or dream occurring during the Mass. As the Eucharistic offertory is conducted, with the elements laid on the altar ready for consecration, Christ appears in the form of Piers Plowman. Covered in blood, he is described as armed in Piers’ human nature for his “joust” against Satan (5–14, cf. XX.17–29). It is as if Langland sees here a double continuity: Christ has put on the garb of humanity, just as his glorified humanity puts on the “garb” of sacramental bread. The body of Christ is no less really at work in the bread than is the divinity in the humanity. The familiar mediaeval romance trope of the disguised knight at the tournament is brilliantly deployed as a variant on the patristic commonplace that God in Christ misleads Satan into thinking that he is merely human, and traps him into a conflict he cannot win. And it is of course this trope that has already been developed further in the exchanges during the Harrowing of Hell in Passus XX: the devils are rightly worried that they have no legal title to the souls in hell, since Lucifer tricked “godes ymage,” Adam and Eve “in goynge of an addre” (326); and now God has turned the tables, having “bigiled us all in goynge of a weye,” behaving as a man (327). Christ himself reinforces the point a little later (375–402), explaining that deceivers are bound to be deceived in turn and that the “gyle” of Satan is turned back on him (399) as grace triumphs over it (396, 400). We could say that the “disguise” of humanity taken on by God, like the “disguise” of the sacramental bread, is God’s way of restoring the content of a true likeness between God and God’s human creatures when it has been eroded. Beguiled by Satan, humanity becomes less than it truly and internally is, the divine image. Its true nature is overlaid as a result of Satan’s disguised seduction. God meets humanity in its body-and-soul conformation in order to make that reality to be once more animated by internal spiritual life; his physical engagement with us is the means of conveying transforming love into our hearts by grace. We as unredeemed humans have the appearance of slavery and loss; God will share the appearance in order to renew the inner reality. Or, more succinctly, we are “disguised” as fallen and wretched beings; God’s “disguise” as a man (specifically a man suffering the full effect of sin and defeat, “peynted al blody,” XXI.6) while he is internally the complete realisation of divine life restores to the light of day a buried truth about us. Seen in this light, the “disguise” that is the sacramental bread can be understood in the same way. Here is something that is not what it seems so that we may become again what we really are rather than what we seem.

If we try to disentangle this a little further, Langland implies that God habitually deals with us for our salvation through the hiddenness of his work in finite agency and finite substance; but this is not the same as the adoption of an arbitrary concealment. Nor is it the deliberate assumption of a deceiving form, as with Satan’s “goyng of an addre”: Satan adopts this disguise in order to tell lies to Adam and Eve about himself and God and them; his purpose in concealing himself is to create a false perception, with all the disaster that follows therefrom. God demonstrates that what seems desolate and defeated, the shabby and wounded humanity of Piers, is in fact the place where charity lives and triumphs, despite appearances; and the sacramental re-embodiment of this, Christ present as the common food of a renewed social community, likewise declares that what seems lifeless is in fact the source of life and joy—an insight that also makes sense of the recommendation to venerate the cross (XXI.471ff.). When the finite stuff of this world is indwelt in this way by God, it is not that the finite is a deceptive surface concealing a different truth beneath or within: it conceals the infinite as infinite (since this cannot in any case be seen or apprehended in its infinity, as if it were an object in the world), but reveals the universal indwelling of the infinite in the finite. It is a “disguise” that establishes the truth. The deceit of Satan in the garden of Eden is what happens when a finite agent pretends to be what it is not in order to corrupt and mislead other finite agents and make them what they are not. The divine self-concealment in Jesus / Piers / the Eucharistic bread is in contrast the infinite declaring that it is truly present in what it is not, the finite, through the indwelling of the agency of divine love.

The reason for drawing this out at length is simply to underline that whatever is going on in Piers Plowman is distinct from one of the more troubling aspects of much Reformation thinking. There is no background anxiety about representation as such, of the kind that led some reformers to see “realist” accounts of sacramental presence as tantamount to a confusion of the finite and the infinite, a real deceiving of the believer by claiming divine presence in a finite form. Langland has no such epistemological or metaphysical anxiety. On the contrary, the act of God in Christ makes God share “kynde” with us all (XX.417–18), so that what he does through Piers is the outworking of a true continuity in creation and redemption between God and us. When in XXI.386–87 we meet the startling claim that God has given Piers power to “make” the sacrament, we should not read this as overturning a theology of priestly ministry in the celebration of the Eucharist, given what is said about it elsewhere in the poem, but as affirming the way in which redeemed humanity in Christ is endowed with the power to make Christ present in the sacrament in virtue of this newly reestablished continuity between God and the human creation. And it is this that leaves me finally uncertain about the argument that the renewed post-Constantinian Church that Langland looks to can be described in quite such “congregationalist” terms as Aers proposes. It is clear that the Eucharistic focus of the Church is not in doubt; nor is the priesthood as such under assault (any more than the religious life as such, including, importantly, the contemplative life). It is not by any means clear that even the papacy is being attacked as an institution, and there are challenging passages about what a reformed episcopate ought to be and do (e.g., IX.256ff.). In other words, it is difficult simply to conclude that all that matters in the renewed Church is the local body of holy fools. That they hold a central place is evident: the Church is called to judgement by those who have abandoned any search for profit, security or reward. Yet the very logic of their vocation and witness is grounded, for Langland, in a divine action that changes things not just for the body of the radically committed but for the mixed body that is the Church at large. God, by coming in the disguise of Piers and by committing to Piers qua renewed humanity the sacramental privilege, has brought into being a shared and public communal life, with certain providential structures. These are subject always to the most intense moral and spiritual scrutiny and that scrutiny may and will strip from them much of what they take for granted about their functioning. But behind the vision of the Church refounded is the basic belief in a God who has always already in creation established the possibility of communicating through the finite—a God whose being is participated by creation, not one whose infinite life is a separate “thing” alongside it. And this is a perspective that suggests we have to think through what it is that makes the Church more than just a local phenomenon, and how the Church’s “culture” is conserved as a school of discipleship from generation to generation. It is a question that Aers himself notes (157–59), with full acknowledgement of its seriousness; and he begins to give an answer in terms of how love itself shapes the “crafts” of the new community. Whether what he calls “holy anarchism” captures all the richness of what Langland believed about the Church and its possibilities I am not sure. The basic narrative of participation, the sharing of goods in the light of God’s participatory economy of salvation and the transformation of finite substance into the vehicle of immeasurable gift, seems to require a valuation of the density of tradition and social form rather than pure anarchy, even if that social form is always open to the most uncompromising questioning about its integrity, its freedom from the domination of “Mede,” payment, as the fundamental form of life together. Yet, all this being said, Aers’s account of Langland’s vision remains one of the most compelling readings for very many years. It reads with real attention to the progression of the poem—the passus really being understood as steps in an argument the poet conducts with himself, an examination which the poet conducts of his own metaphors. And it brilliantly illustrates the point that locating a poem firmly in its historical setting enhances rather than diminishes its capacity to challenge readers in another age.

  1. References are, as in Aers’ book, to Derek Pearsall’s edition of the C-text of the poem (new edition, Liverpool University Press, 2008)

  2. See Sermon VIII, “Of the Sending of the Holy Ghost,” in Andrews, Ninety-Six Sermons (Oxford and London, 1874), vol. 3, esp. 258–59.

  3. Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences III.1; pp. 33–34, in the Franciscan Institute ed. (St. Bonaventure, NY).

  4. Pearsall, ed., Piers Plowman, 27.



Aers’s Langland and the Truth of Poetry

Beyond Reformation? is a strangely powerful book, and it puts me in a fix: the strangeness and the power are both measured in the sheer impertinence of everything I could responsibly say about it. Were this a review, and written for medievalists, I would praise the attention and philological acuity that Aers brings to Piers Plowman: repeatedly he shows me how many lines I had never bothered to think through. I would say that Aers captures the experience of reading the poem better than any other critic—the experience of finding oneself ambushed, time and again, by a hectic moral urgency that somehow, unexpectedly, holds out a piercing promise of moral beauty. I would say that his book not only captures but mimics that experience in his argument’s unpausing march; it makes conventional monographs, by contrast, seem like pastimes of the leisured. Finally I would say that its argument persuades me not at all, that it seems to me to miss the deepest rationale of Langland’s art. Aers thinks that absences in the poem are meaningful: no pope in Piers’s vision of the Church, so Piers wants no pope in the Church. I think that part of Langland’s genius is defeating the expectations of continuity that would let us canvass what should be present and therefore know what is meaningfully absent. Aers thinks that inept and partial formulations, uttered by characters who briefly seem Langland’s mouthpieces, are “superseded” (98, 120, 170) by later and better ones; I think that they are displaced by formulations differently partial and inept. He thinks that the poem hustles toward urgent conclusions; I think that it hustles up the experience of thinking urgently and inconclusively.

But I could be wrong, and anyway cannot imagine that this journal’s readers care what an English teacher thinks about a poem most have not read. More important, my objections are simply beside the point of this remarkable book and the challenge it issues. Aers sees Piers Plowman as a poem with a claim on us, and wants us to see it too. Historians of secularization, for instance, “should become careful readers of Langland” (x; also 48), not because Piers played a role in the history they write, but because it explains what they have misconstrued: it shows that medieval Christendom did not enjoy an integral and communal Christianity that modernity squandered, but that it already was “de-Christianized” from within by the entanglements of “Constantinian” endowment. That is, historians should read Piers because Piers tells the truth. Aers unapologetically breaks the stupidest rule of our discipline: instead of treating Langland’s poem as a document or a monument, he advocates it as a source of understanding. This is so bold and admirable that I am choosing to concede for argument his reading of Piers, proceeding as if he is right where I think he is wrong, to ask how he pulls it off, and with what lessons for the rest of us.

Aers first states his claim for Piers in historical terms: the poem shows how the medieval Church was. But history is not what he offers us as warrant for granting that claim. Over the years Aers has made historical arguments. He does not make one here. Take the instance of indulgences. He says that “medieval and modern apologists” for indulgences have taken the “line” that they did not displace contrition, confession, and satisfaction (and thus short-circuit conversion and restitution with a money payment), but presupposed them. In rebuttal, Aers quotes the report of the Leicester chronicler Henry Knighton that people seeking the pardons issued for Bishop Despenser’s Flemish crusade “were not absolved unless they contributed as they could”; he comments, “Knighton makes the reality of such exchanges perfectly clear” (71). Now the quotation is not really apt for Aers’s rebuttal: he needs Knighton to say that payment was thought sufficient for indulgences, but Knighton says only that it was necessary for Despenser’s. But waive that point and say it is apt. As he has shown in the past, Aers knows that no chronicler can be believed on his mere ipse dixit, so he undoubtedly assessed Knighton’s passage and deemed it trustworthy. The point is that he declines to share his assessment, which suggests that historical demonstration is not crucial to the kind of assertion he is making. Despenser’s pardon is not evidence for the historical truth of Piers’s judgment, but an instance of the history its truth judges. He declines also to engage with the most significant historical scholarship on indulgences in the period, R. N. Swanson’s recent magisterial book. In one footnote (178n13) Aers directs the reader to it “for a sympathetic account of indulgences,” and concludes with distaste: “This work is a hymn to positivist methodologies of history.” The slur “positivist” usually implies indifference to the conditions under which historical sources are produced and studied. Swanson, conscientious to a fault on these matters, cannot accurately be accused of that. But it is true that his five hundred pages will tell you everything about indulgences and the debates concerning them, except why they might have mattered so deeply, as boon or scandal, and provoked serious people over several centuries to passionate abuse or defense. This seems to be what bothers Aers about the book, and it suggests that for him a truer vision of history is not the warrant for, but the result of, accepting what Piers Plowman discloses. The warrant itself must therefore be something else.

Obviously it is in some sense doctrinal. But Aers does not assemble doctrinal authority the way medieval literary scholarship usually does, by quoting the dicta of putative authorities. Not because he does not know them: Aers’s deep reading in medieval theology is in evidence, and one of the book’s most attractive features is its serious but not servile engagement with Aquinas. Aers uses him effectively (and very accurately, to my amateur’s eye) to illuminate Langland on the virtues (37–40, 78–79, 89–90), on natural law (47), on humanity’s natural and supernatural human ends (120–21), on forgiveness (137–38). But Thomas is an expository aid that helps unpack Langland’s thought, not the authority that warrants believing it. No Thomist fundamentalism here: where Thomas differs from the poem—on the papacy (21–23), on the Eucharist (61–62)—the difference redounds unmistakably to his disadvantage.

So it is not Aquinas, or in any other theological authority, that grounds Langland’s claim on our belief. Emphatically not, for Aers’s very first pages criticize theology of the schools because it “not only sidelined the narratives of scripture but was a committedly antinarrative genre” (3). Readers of this journal know more than I do about the postliberal rescue of narrative from its eclipse in biblical studies, theology, and moral thought. MacIntyre makes an early appearance in Beyond Reformation?, and dialogue with Hauerwas seems pervasive. In something of the latter’s spirit, Aers claims that Piers touches the quick of doctrinal truth, as scholastic theology did not, because Langland “disciplined” his thought and composition “by the Christocentric narratives of the New Testament” (2–3; see also 97). He knew that Christ is “alone . . . the hermeneutic key to scripture” (28), and made his poem answerable to this narrative exigency, line by line, episode by episode. Aers’s fellow literary critics can be grateful: while some disciplines perhaps need to learn that intelligence can be exercised narratively, ours needs to relearn that narrative can be intelligent. Showing how Langland makes the gospel narratives touchstones against which propositions test themselves and as a challenge which other narratives try to answer, Aers gives a vivid example of how narrative thought can be detected and conveyed.

At the same time, his example does not encourage us to think that the procedure is straightforward. This fidelity to the “Christocentric narratives of the New Testament” may be the prime source of Langland’s claim on us, but, again, it does not seem to be the grounds offered us for accepting that claim. That is, he does not first establish what the gospels require and then demonstrate that Piers faithfully grasps and communicates it. It’s the other way around: as the book proceeds, we assemble piecewise a dynamic sense of the gospel’s demands as, and because, Piers’s own narrative reveals them. This is not an oversight or an inconsistency. It is what any serious claim for the primacy of biblical narratives must mean: they cannot be reduced to a tabulation of doctrinal criteria against which a statement may be measured. They must be understood as and in narrative: only through a hard and recursive effort of imitation, analysis, and self-correction such as Piers offers can one begin to pull them free from ideology and self-interest, and see the gospel straight.

So again: what warrant does the book give us for letting Piers call us to account? Not historical argument, I have said, not the theology of the schools, not even a characterization of the New Testament narratives. Then what? Though Aers does not voice an answer, I think the answer is implied by his voice. Take this instance. He discusses (23–25) a passage, unforgettable and almost unbearable, in which Christ warns that to the “unkind” the Holy Spirit will be “grace withouten mercy”; Aers acutely observes that unkindness is therefore the unforgiveable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31); he cites a later passage in which the Holy Spirit prophesies that Unkindness will be a cardinal; and he concludes that Langland shows that institutional church will be led by those guilty of that unforgiveable blasphemy. All this is quite pertinent. Aers continues:

It is hard to imagine any description of the church more forceful in its authority. The confidence of this judgment is indicated by Langland ascribing it to the Holy Spirit. . . . Nor does Langland allow readers to blunt the implication of the Holy Spirit’s prophecy of the church’s history by sliding into the pleasures of metaphysical speculation so central in the training of medieval theologians. (25)

Evidently “metaphysical speculation” would be not just a mistake but an evasion of this prophecy’s authority. But the passage says nothing about metaphysics or speculation (my word-limit precludes quotation; see Aers, 24). How does it proscribe them? What Aers must mean is that any honest reader will see the truth of the prophecy in a clarity so absolute and peremptory that speculation would be an impertinence. When Aers speaks of its “forceful . . . authority,” you want to ask for the sign of its authority, but the phrase has already answered for itself: its authority lies in its force, in the eloquence of hard truth conveyed in its intensest lucidity.

So Piers Plowman seems to be its own warrant: the power so many readers sense, the power Aers helps us sense, is the reason to accept its claim. No irony attaches to my formulation: the compelling seriousness with which Beyond Reformation? treats the poem as self-warranting raises a great old question anew. We literary critics spend our lives on poems. Can these supply us some truth, some grip on the real, that we cannot get elsewhere? If they cannot, it is hard to explain why anyone would care about them or us; they may be worth a laugh, but not a life. But if they can, how do we know it and show it? If there is some external standard against which we can measure a poem, then the poem itself is otiose; it may bring aperçus powerfully home, but they can be achieved without it. But if there is not, if you must just surrender yourself to the one that sings most irresistibly, you offer yourself as hostage to the eloquence of the song. An old question, as I said—indeed the very oldest in European criticism. But the recent form of it most pertinent here is not a literary-critical one. The response Aers’s postliberal study asks us to give Piers Plowman superficially recalls a document of liberal theology’s late summer. I mean the analysis of “the classic” in Tracy’s Analogical Imagination. Tracy wanted a way for religious traditions to preserve their distinctiveness in public nonsectarian discussion without resorting to the private and sectarian truth-claims of revelation. So he appealed to “the classic” as an empirical and public fact: empirical in that we can observe how it catches us up, makes alibis die on our lips, wrings recognition from us willy-nilly; public in that its very status as classic affirms that we have responded to it collectively. It sounds as though Aers asks us to approach Piers Plowman as Tracy’s classic. But there is one insuperable reason why that description is wrong: to the vexation of us who love it, it simply is not a classic, does not enjoy that public status. Even most English majors never read it. What difference does this make? It means that the whole drift of Beyond Reformation both raises and suggests an answer to a question Tracy slips quietly past. Tracy speculates about how a classic is produced, but not about how, once produced, it becomes classic; he treats its shared and public recognition as somehow given in its initial production. Aers knows (cannot help knowing) that Piers has not been so recognized: his first paragraph speaks of “those who do not share (yet) my own love” of it. His rhetorical achievement in this book—its stomach-drop precipitancy, its brusque way with received ideas, its abrupt deployments of deep learning, its resourcefulness in conveying Langland’s eloquence, its insistence, its repetitions—are all calculated to help us grasp and be grasped by Piers Plowman’s power, to grant (as I said before) its claims on us. Throughout he says, in effect, “Look here, look harder, read more carefully. Think. Can’t you hear it, see it?” Imagine that many do, in some utopian future, come to hear it and see it; Tracy could at that point cite Piers as an instance of a classic presented to us as a public fact. But before that happens, it is not: it is just one person after another encountering the poem, trusting it, feeling its power, learning to see the world and the Church through its eyes. A classic discerned before it has become a classic looks surprisingly private, surprisingly like what Tracy thought a revelation discerned would be. Are we really willing to entrust ourselves to such private apperceptions? It is not just to liberal theology that Aers’s demanding and passionate book poses that question, but to all of us who want to believe that poetry can know things, and that we can know things by its means.

But the book has a question to face also. At its center is a discussion of Langland’s remnant ecclesiology, which Aers manifestly endorses. I have said nothing about this central topic; other contributors to this symposium are, to speak mildly, better qualified to do so. But one point about it illustrates the question I have in mind. Though, true to his own premises, Aers does not give a systematic exposition of Langland’s ecclesiology, features of it emerge, gradually. Here are some. The church the Holy Spirit founds would feature no intricately logical or metaphysical theology (2–4), no coercive violence (16–17), no papal plenitude of power (30–31, 34–35), no elaborate institutional structures (36), no distinctive priestly power (62), no rejection of the world (53–54), no threat of divine punishment (102–4), no animus against sex (111), no support for war (119) or for capital punishment (120), no transubstantiation (162–65); kindness would be prescribed as the most fundamental ethical demand (24); a magisterium for “policing orthodoxy” would be emphatically excluded (140, 150–55). Do these features not—and let me pause mid-sentence to admit that the evidence behind my question barely rises to the anecdotal—do they not represent attitudes commonplace among churches in the more prosperous neighborhoods of university towns and coastal US cities? If I’m right that they do, we are surely pointed to one of two possible conclusions. It may be that by disciplining its thought and writing by the narrative of Piers Plowman, which itself had been disciplined by the New Testament narratives, Beyond Reformation? has indeed disclosed the authentic challenge of the gospel and can announce the happy discovery that the remnant Church is flourishing in haut bourgeois congregations all around us. Or it may be that, at least in our cultural moment, narrative alone does not have the dialectical weight to anchor thought, so that submitting to its discipline, even in the rigorous and exhilarating form Aers offers us, results in our thinking . . . what people like us think anyhow. Aers may be right that the speculative thought of the fourteenth century needed to be “disciplined” by the New Testament narratives; our own attachment to narrative may need to be disciplined by the dialectical pull of metaphysics and logic—perhaps even of a magisterium.



“I am Ymagynatyf”

Some Comments on David Aers’ Accounts of Piers Plowman


William Langland: Radical or Conservative?

David Aers’ new book, Beyond Reformation, provides an unprecedentedly expansive account of England’s Commedia: the extraordinary work of radicalised orthodoxy that is Piers Plowman.1 Its unique contribution lies not least in the open-endedness of its form, crafted to be as “dazzlingly dialectic” as the poem it is in conversation with: assessing and reassessing in a way that complements a poem that is, celebratedly, resistant to alignment with other writers, currents or ideologies. But what is to be welcomed above all is Aers’ argument that William Langland’s fourteenth-century dream vision, in all its exceptionality or idiosyncrasy, merits reinsertion in the “grand narratives” of the relationship of the medieval, the Reformation and the modern. These narratives, as he suggests, are prised open to reshaping and reframing by their encounter with a thinker who hitherto has not found any “fit” with the bifurcating categories of heresy and orthodoxy, radicalism and conservatism, revolution and reform which histories tends to present.

We would up to a point agree, as Aers suggests, that the pro-Catholic revisionist account of the Reformation most famously articulated by Eamon Duffy is carried by the very vehemence of its properly corrective argument towards a somewhat inadequate and flattened portrait of the later Middle Ages. Whilst the Scarisbrick-Duffy-Rex account is crucial in articulating a majority popular opposition and Catholic continuity in the face of what was undoubtedly the fracturing force of Reformation change, it may have thereby colluded in underselling the later medieval anticipations of reform, which could be at once decadent, differently continuous, creative and disruptive.

To join these stories need not be to revive the teleological and emancipatory narrative that Protestant historiographers themselves told—in the telling of which Piers Plowman was involved, since William Langland’s poem was adopted by sixteenth-century reformers as they concocted tales of the survival of the invisible church into a “hidden canon” of subverted elements and figures (John Bale, Robert Crowley, etc.), already rising to consciousness and concerted action with the phenomenon of Lollardy.2 For this account, just as much as the revisionist one, may well deny to the Middle Ages its own reforming fire, or fires, and hence the unrealised possibility of multiple and alternative reformations: intensely reform-minded critiques of the late medieval Catholic Church that are not always anticipating the Protestant ones, nor even in every respect the Renaissance Humanist ones.

The “careful readers” Aers calls to the detail of Langland’s poem will indeed find there some of the most subtly paradoxical reflections of his age, whose originality is yet medieval in its rootedness in Christian tradition, transcending the tradition through the tradition in its laicisation of the Patristic legacy and mutation (arguably) without distortion of the Latin via antiqua. Aers clearly does not consider Langland to be in tune with later Latin theologies of the via moderna—neither with their arid logical reflections concerning the divine potentia absoluta, nor the split between will and intellect (that begins well before Ockham with John Duns Scotus, at the latest), nor some Franciscan and Terminist (“nominalist”) tendencies to entirely “spiritualise” the Church and therefore hand all material governance over to the secular arm. One could compare here equivalent vernacular transfigurations within a fundamental continuity that were wrought by Dante, Eckhart and indeed Julian of Norwich, whom Aers often mentions.

Thus the social and ecclesiastical critique of Piers Plowman can be read as radically reformist without apparently having been judged heretical or as having intended revolution. For this reason one might rightly hope, with Aers, that it could for us today still critique and offer visionary alternatives to both Reformation and Counter-Reformation in their unintended amble, soon to become a canter, towards modernity, so that the premodern can speak directly to the post-modern from a time when different futures were possible.

In this respect, Aers offers a series of contextualised claims, backed by close readings, about the poem that—so he argues—push Langland’s critique of contemporary fourteenth-century Christianity “beyond Reformation.” That is to say, beyond what would have sounded like an acceptable reformist rhetoric to the Middle Ages and also beyond what actually happened in the revolutionary Reformation with (in England) its newly drastic compromises with temporal power.

The claims are as follows (and here we must apologise for where our account of the book in a short space must inevitably be reductive of its dialectical content):

  1. The poem articulates an escalating critique of almost all temporal power, but above all that of the “Constantinian” Medieval Church and its “worldliness”: what Aers terms “the immersion of the church in the political, coercive and economic fabric of the social world.”
  2. The poem depicts and satirises the wholesale undermining and repurposing of religious forms and language, from the sacrament of penance to the cardinal virtues, in ways that its poet appears to regard as devastatingly and even finally perverting of the language and “sustaining practises” of the Church.
  3. The apocalyptic denouement of the poem, in aligning almost every element of the secular and spiritual hierarchy with Antichrist, including the Pope, and ending with Conscience’s departure from the Barn of Unite, and the apparent reduction of any goodness to a small parcel of “foles” (fools), constitutes Langland’s final statement on the Church and may suggest he can only see hope in a form of “congregationalism,” and integral separatism (uniting the spiritual with the material) that anticipates the Radical Reformation, but refuses any concrete institutional proposals.

In response, an initial point can be made. There is an inherent difficulty, and perhaps even error, in trying to move from the “negative” position of understanding the whats and even the whys of the poem’s radical critique, towards the “positive” position of how—and if—the poet envisaged a different reality, ecclesia and polity. Especially one has to be on guard against reading the goliardic tradition of clerical poetic mockery of its own practice (in which Langland partially stands) as if this had the destructive implication that one can often safely attribute to the modern satirical idiom. Instead, the very security of belief in tradition could sometimes lend itself to an extreme of mockery whose implication remains one of constructive critique, besides embracing a spirit of pure ritual inversion that, as with festivals of misrule, tends to confirm the very order that it momentarily overturns.

This problem of anachronistic misinterpretation is compounded by the danger of reading specifically allegorical alternatives—such as the Papacy of Truth, the Petrine role of the plowman, etc.—as if they were intended to be literal ones, as opposed to a fictionalising of the ideality of existing structures. David Aers appears to fall into the latter trap when he suggests that Langland’s position constitutes a critique so coherent of the late medieval church as to finally entail its abandonment and the framing of an anti-ecclesiology to correspond to the “remannt” of “foles” who seem to remain representative of the true Church. Sometimes the drift of the book seems to be that because the Church that is so thoroughly critiqued is institutionally materialist and rigidly hierarchical, this leaves the only possible Church as one free of any normal cultural trappings whatsoever.

But that logic to us rings false to the timbre of the poem as a whole, above all because (as Aers would agree and has best articulated, in a superb fashion, in the past)3 the main thrust of the poem’s critique is not against inherited structural stabilities but against disruptive radical mendicancy and its hypocritical outcomes. For this critique depends upon arguing that the refusal of all dominium, or all cultural fyndinge—all secure, legally backed provision, role and endowment—tends to generate a kind of “spiritual black economy” which is also a material black economy of endless bribes and back-handers linked to the hope of a morally irresponsible shortcut to heaven. Thus it appears prima facie implausible that Langland would be recommending something entirely astructural and in effect acultural. For his message is clearly not that any and every institution is inevitably corrupt, but the much more subtle one that precisely the vaunting of purity can engender a corruption worse not just by virtue of its hypocrisy, but also of its extremity.

Aers avers that his own “non-Constantinian Christianity” is Langlandian rather than derived from that of Yoder or Hauerwas today. However, his deep suspicion of temporal power and all of its structures, including all modes of property, tiered authority, coercive jurisdiction and violent conflict, does seem to derive from his close association with their brand of theology and its Anabaptist legacy. Insofar as this had any medieval antecedents, it would certainly not be, as Aers strangely implies, with Ockham and his ilk (whose proto-Erastianism, royal absolutism and proto-sovereignty doctrine Aers so oddly glosses over), but with the likes of the spiritual Franciscans and their Joachite tendencies to conceive of the apocalyptic time as a “post-material” one. Thus insofar as Aers, rightly with Langland, is suspicious of such Medieval phenomena, this would appear to pose a problem of consistency for his analysis.

“Grace is a grasse therefore”

Aers’ debatable concept of a “Constantinian Christianity” rests on an abrupt distinction between the secular realm of coercive justice and the spiritual realm of charity that in itself seems to be rather alien to Langland’s poem. And it is notable that he very curiously seems to endorse the now dangerously revived (and largely American Catholic) neoscholastic promotion of a sharp rift between nature and grace that an overwhelming body of especially Continental scholarship has long shown to be alien to the Fathers and to Aquinas.4 Curiously, because first of all such an outlook is much at variance with the teleological, virtue-orientated versions of Aquinas with which Aers often aligns himself,5 and secondly because Langland (with a specifically laicising exaggeration, possibly akin to that of Eckhart) stresses yet more strongly an “integralist” position with regard to grace and nature.

Thus “truth” and “reason” are taken to rule the whole of supernatural as well as natural reality, and we should “Seketh Seynt Treuthe” more than “Seynte James and seintes [at] Rome” (B V, 56–57), to the degree that at times it can sound as if Langland is endorsing a theologically “naturalising” (as opposed to supernaturalising) discourse—though that would be misleading. Piers Plowman, speaking out of the mere soil, is certainly said to see more deeply than the whole of written and oral tradition, yet one needs to read this as his near-identity with a divine ground that represents the unity of the whole created and redemptive economy: “Ac Piers the Plowman parceyveth more depper / That is the wille and wherefore that many wyghte suffreth / Et vidit Deus cogitaciones eorum” (B XV, 195–200). Similarly Piers, is said to cultivate a fully divine truth out of the earth: “My prowour and my plowman Piers shal ben on erthe / And for to tilye truthe teeeme shal he have” (B XIX, 262–63). The same integralism nonetheless shows a reverse, supernaturalising bias, when finally it is claimed that only Christ shows us even a natural “doing well” (by fulfilling the law) and “doing better” (by works of mercy) and finally a “doing best” in his founding of the Church as the organ of supernatural penance and forgiveness (B XVIII–XIX).

Evidence of Langland’s lay humanist and holistic approach is further found in his situating (rather like Dante) of his theologically universal dream-drama specifically in one place and time, namely in the realm of England and sometimes around the court of Westminster. Neither the threats nor the promises of a royal reform of the Church through an evidently partial disendowment, removing gross wealth but not all provision for either the contemplative life—since monks continue to be commended (C XVI, 353–54; C V, 152–55)—or specifically ecclesial welfare, are ever rescinded in the poem, contrary to Aers’ claims. And in the first apocalyptic prophecy of the poem as articulated by Conscience, a collapsing of the ecclesial and the secular courts together is even envisaged, under the auspices of the natural-sounding “True Tongue, a tidy man” (B, 320–22).

At the heart of the reformed Church of Piers Plowman and his tree of charity lies the Spiritus Iustitiae, which, as with Aquinas (and as Aers notes) can shift from being a natural, to being a supernaturally infused virtue (B, XVIII–XIX). But given this shift, it is not always clear that the ordering role of the Monarch and the protective role of Knighthood is limited to the spiritual order, especially because the ideal role of the knights (whose anarchically just vigilante violence remains in the later Pentecostal community, somewhat to Aers’ embarrassment: B XIX, 244–47) is particularly to protect, besides “Holi Kirke,” against human and animal foes, the rural labourers (B VI, 27–32) and the latter are now celebrated as realising a reform from the base upwards.

This is not so much seen as reassertion of the natural order as of the rooting of grace itself in the soil (in keeping with the agricultural examples of Christ’s parables), such that grace is described by Ymagynatif as “a grasse,” immanently growing from a poor life as much as transcendently descending (B XII, 59; B I, 152–58) and Piers in his material planting, harvesting and weaving self-presents as the surest exemplar of Truth in its entire natural-supernatural sway (B V, 538–56). Therefore a kind of priesthood and lay ecclesial office is ascribed by Langland to ordinary workers, just as, inversely, Love and Conscience will “make of Lawe a laborere,” a more modest shaper of community (B III, 300 and B IV, 147–48), and eventually the knights with their enthusiastic agreement, are set by Piers to allegorical ploughing (B VI, 101–105). This points indeed, as Conscience proclaims, to an apocalyptic time, when swords will be beaten into ploughshares and so negative restraint be evermore transmuted into positive upbuilding. One should probably assume that the poem here reserves the right both to point to the pacified end of times and to a future reform that would more approximate to them (B III, 284–330).

Both Barn and Cart

Even at the final apocalyptic Pentecost in B Passus XIX (C XXI), Grace founds the entire Christian community on earth by giving interlocking gifts of “alle crafte and konnynge” that include those of tradesmen and knights as well as mathematicians and stonemasons: establishing the divine distribution of power and possession in the ordered polity (B XIX, 227–61). If there is any subversive element here, it could be an echo of Richard Fitzralph and John Wycliffe’s radically Augustinian notions of both ownership and rulership by grace, rather than anything in Ockham, or again any mainline Protestant accentuation of the two powers, or else a radically reformed refusal of either of them. Even though one can agree with Aers that Langland refuses any Wycliffite notions of a royal governorship of the Church, it is hard to escape his endorsement, partially echoing Dante’s, of a certain translatio imperii to the monarchic arm that will facilitate ecclesial reform (B III–V). Given this endorsement, it is surely impossible to describe his viewpoint as “anti-Constantinian” and indeed Constantine is once invoked in the C version as an exemplary figure of English royal reform: “And Constantyn shall here be cook and couerour of here churches” (C V, 175).

Langland also indicates an analogical relation of the heavenly polis to the earthly, when he talks about Christ, the “kingene kynge” having “knighted ten” who are the angelic orders that echo and convey the inner divine order of the Trinity (B I, 105–9). The idea that he rejects attempts to echo a celestial hierarchy image in the ecclesial corporation is not born out by the poem. As Aers would have it, Langland’s own creative and imaginative edifice, his allegory of the Church as the Barn of Unite, is written in a way that deliberately illustrates its own impossibility or fragility: a too-embattled edifice that in some sense is falling apart from the inside, having constituted itself in too “formal” a manner. However, the Patristic inheritance carried for the Middle Ages an orthodox distinction between the Church as it eternally is and would finally be, and the Church as it is in time, the authentic, yet incomplete ecclesia militans, which neither comprehends nor is comprehended by the ecclesia regnans. This was combined with the Augustinian idea that the only true progress of history is occurring in the erection by sacramental means of the edifice of true believers for whom what is built on the foundation of Christ actually cannot be lost.

We think this is the (orthodox) inheritance Langland is reasserting and yet it is definitively not one that abandons formal structures, rather one that looks to their radical fulfilment. The final departure from the Church-barn of faith and Conscience, then, of which Aers makes much, along with the presentation of Piers outside the barn, ploughing with a new plough sheaves which Grace loads onto a cart (B XIX, 325–46; XX, 380–86), is a statement about the Church’s current incompletion that is utterly in line with the poet’s generous soteriological hopes as articulated especially in C Passus XVII. There he imagines a new vocation for the friars in worldwide evangelism to the pagans. The Church is Barn and cart, Unite and the labour in the field, Polis and pilgrimage, while the new sheaves loaded onto the cart of grace are obviously to be borne back into the barn of the Church. The allegory of the barn also inverts itself insofar as, though its materials are allegorical, they are grounded back in the literal materiality of incarnate salvation which Langland cannot be renouncing: the Church is timbered with the wood of the cross and morticed with the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side. Nor does the “pile” or fortress, with its moat filled with the tears of the penitents, seem so different from the Castle of Kynde and its “mote of mercy” as Aers tries to claim.

Dialectic or Fulfilment?

Aers can only maintain this anti-institutional reading by effectively discounting all the apparent conclusions of most of the poem—all the surface endorsements of (the ideal forms of) kingship, papacy and the power of pardon, the religious life, theological education and clerical leadership. To do so is to claim that the poem is throughout radically dialectical in a somewhat Hegelian or Marxist sense. In other words, that the “steps” (passūs) of the poem are stages of aufhebung, in which earlier stages are once and for all surmounted.

This claim might appear anachronistic and yet is not wholly false, in a manner that we will shortly specify. Nonetheless, it is on the face of things implausible in terms of both epoch and genre. Notoriously, premodern writing could be careless of developmental structure and many long medieval religious poems can be construed as more like a sequence of wall-paintings whose ordering is scarcely diachronic, if it possesses any order at all.6 And this aleatory factor is surely compounded by the circumstance that the steps of the poem do, sometimes quite realistically, possess the logic of a dream, with specifically oneiric shifts of theses and personae, plus obsessive reiterations of the same themes. There is certainly a lot more organisation than in any real dream, but the dream-like shiftings are surely structurally deliberate—as C. S. Lewis astoundingly overlooked.7

What is more, the ordering of the poem, insofar as it has one, looks more like one that passes from nature and law to gospel, suggesting a structure of imperfect anticipation and fulfilment rather than any progress through negation of a dialectical type. For the most part, what dialectic is in evidence is Socratic rather than Hegelian—a matter of rather open-ended debate. And insofar as this debate indeed takes the form of a psychomachia, then it is scarcely to be supposed that conscience, reason, imagination, patience, love, temperance, fortitude and the spirit of justice and soul in toto represent radically different existential options, since the first eight are all aspects of soul. At most, their perspectives are seen as partial and mutually corrective. Just for this reason it seems most unlikely that the verdicts of their allegorised representatives are later abandoned, as opposed to integrated. Indeed if, as Aers rightly insists, the final outlook of the poem is more and more one of charity and “kyndnesse,” then by what warrant would one take as rejected the early comparison in the poem of love to the mediating role of the mayor between King and community in a human polity (B I, 159–61)—a comparison that seems to assume that it can be inverted such as to say that the mayor’s role is properly one of charity, or of social binding, in a manner that combines both participatory and hierarchical elements?

Nevertheless, it can be conceded to Aers that certain faculties of the soul—imagination, will and love, specifically (though love in the mode of charity is more than just a psychological faculty)—are more integrating than others, along, of course with anima itself. Thus when imagination, will (taken to include judgement here, as Aers says) love, soul and kynde (the whole human person and race) speak, their perspectives can indeed be regarded as more fundamental and inclusive. And it is in this context that one can situate a certain dialectical element, in Aers’ “Hegelian” sense. The crucial dialectical play would seem to be between the viewpoint of truth and justice on the one hand, and a waiting on grace on the other. Consistently, as a kind of ostinato, the poem insists on an exact reciprocity that it equates with justice as mercede or the just recompense for a deed done or an item sold, in a way that is possibly somewhat less suspicious of market transaction than high medieval norms. Thus Treuthe is more pardoning of merchants’ likely excessive profits than the Pope, provided that they become benefactors (B VII, 133).

In keeping with this secular moral economy is a religious one that is the substance of Piers’ contradictory “pardon”: good deeds will be eternally rewarded, bad ones punished (B VII, 113–14). Yet jangling higher notes keep intruding: in the B version Piers tears the pardon and appears to abandon regular ploughing for the chances of mendicancy (B VII, 120–35). And if the extreme advocacy of this path (especially in C) by “Rechelessnesse” (C XII–XIII) is eschewed, then both Patience (B XIV), Piers after the tearing of the pardon, and the narrating Will himself (B X, 349–91) besides the “lunatyk lollars” more to the fore in C (C IX, 106–8), appear to advocate it in a more moderate form.8 In the case of Will’s protest against “Scripture” in B X (C XI), there is a modulation from a mendicant waiting upon humanly mediated charity to a seemingly Wycliffite or proto-Protestant waiting upon divine grace, regarded as no longer correspondent with the inspiring of, or reward for merit, as the example of the ultimately condemned Solomon (wise and good but traditionally now resident in hell) suggests. Aers rightly agrees with James Simpson9 in seeing an anticipation of a magisterial Reformation “solution” here, and also agrees with him in regarding this as less the culmination of “re-form” than its despairing abandonment, in the sense that all cultural re-workings, along with works themselves, are displaced from the centre of salvation, in effect handing them somewhat over to more nakedly secular and cynical calculations. He further concurs with him in suggesting that Langland rejects such despair and rather proffers a synthesis which sustains the ground bass and yet overlays this with strong notes of merciful allowance for human weakness and forgetting of past transgression.

For this indeed dialectical synthesis, which turns out to be a fuller elaboration of Piers’ pardon (which, despite the tearing recorded in B returns to the fore later in the poem, even in the B version: B XIX, 183–87),10 punishment for sin can be commuted and guilt wiped out, provided a full restitution is made to those who have been wronged. As Aers rightly stresses, the logic here is that mercy cannot be shown to those who refuse mercy, for by definition such people are blind to the medium of mercy, and as not understanding it in their practice, cannot comprehendingly receive it either (B XIX, 183–90). Thus the refusal of “kyndenesse” is the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, the personal essence of God himself as mercy and open-handedness, which cannot be forgiven since it is the very refusal of the offer and medium of forgiveness—including the practice of just restitution that is requisite for full reconciliation—a medium that is at one with the very “might” or capacity of God, and outside which God has no capacity at all, since true reality and power has been thereby denied. But equally, for Langland, all our capacity for justice and charity and mercy derives entirely from God’s might and thus we must pray for the grace that alone can make us good (B VIII, 60–61). Here the natural and inherited liturgical forms of speech deployed by Langland themselves seem immune to the contorted late scholastic debates consequent upon the treatment of divine and creaturely action as if they lay on the same plane, and could either be in a mode of merely “partial” cooperation with each other (like a man and a plough) or in a mode of possible competition.11 Instead, the language used seems to assume a more “synergic” metaphysical picture.

However, we must agree with Simpson against Aers that this synthesis appears to remain, not just with a traditional (and always somewhat neoplatonising) metaphysics, but also with traditional notions of ecclesial order. Indeed, even Simpson may be without warrant in claiming a definitively anti-hierarchical shift in the account of Pentecostal foundation. For the naming here only of genres of gift and occupation rather than the vertical aspects of their interaction seems merely to echo the Book of Acts itself with its contextual stress on the equal need of all offices and their fraternal, horizontal collaboration, which scarcely denies some requirement of architectonic direction and episcopally directed formation, which the apostles themselves are there depicted as inaugurating. The more evident radicalism here, as already suggested, lies in the bringing even of material, economic and political tasks within the scope of the gifts of grace. And it is in fact clearly indicated that Piers wishes to reform, to render more just, humble and dispersive the functions of Kingship, Dukedom and Papacy together with all the ecclesial offices and the whole structure of “Christendom,”12 rather than to abolish or ignore these things altogether (B XIX, 302–6, 328–30, 442–43).

For this reason, it does not seem legitimate to suppose that, beyond the “traditional synthesis,” however radically rethought and deepened, Langland offers a further “congregationalist” synthesis after a further negative moment of complete despair as to the effectiveness of the existing ecclesial processes. It is unclear as to just where in the poem one could locate such a degree of despair, as opposed to a very severe and goliardically mocking critique—which in any case significantly pivots, again and again, and with more emphasis towards the end, on the idea that it is not so much the inherited defensible citadel, but novel “mobility” that is the corrupting factor: mobility of the mendicants, of money permitting simony and of absentee clergy who draw an income in the town for no service in the country: “Ac now is Religioun a ryder, a [rennere] bi stretes” (B X, 311). It is always suggested that in fact there is a remedy to hand and that this remedy is the systematic provision of a more secure and stable fyndinge for everyone throughout Church life—a settled endowment subtly linked to the other meaning of fyndinge as spiritual search and discovery (B VII, 31; XII, 140–41). Thus the C version speaks of “Relacioun rect” as a “record of treuthe” which is a “Folowynge and fyndinge out the fundament of a strength” (C III, 345).

What is being attacked is not inherited order and hierarchy wholesale, but a “mobility” that is the beginning of the intrusion of disruptive and even “globalised” market forces. That is not to say that existing “feudal” order goes altogether unrebuked; instead one could argue that a new corrupt fluidity is regarded by Langland as a kind of exacerbation of the interpersonal gift-exchange dimension of feudal life. When gift starts to over-dominate as mede or reward, then ironically an unmoored interpersonal exchange leads to an encouragement of impersonal market forces, ready to sell offices, favours and salvation. By contrast, Langland wishes for a more just, because more regular and therefore more contractual exchange in general—a different kind of modern market one might say. Yet for him this is also a consolidation of the interpersonal, not just around the justice of mercede, but also around the mutual exchanges of mercy and growth of a fraternal sense that we are all one kind. What he is assaulting is the modern and largely Franciscan (given that they were the majority mendicant order in England and the most extreme in their refusal of formal settled endowment) encouragement of sheer impersonal contract on the one hand (yet often in the guise of “pure gift” that is in reality “reward”), and on the other hand the reconception of charity as pure unilateral favour without the intrinsic exchanging-bond of leauté—or a loyal equity. In theological terms this reconception takes the form of an arbitrary notion of divine grace, unrelated to infused transformation of life or to recompense for meritorious living. The two things are, then, for Langland diabolically combined in one as the ecclesial trade in the offering of pardons and indulgences. His complaint then coincides with the later foundational outrage of the Reformation, but his diagnosis of the disease is so much more penetrating than Luther’s that it encompasses the way in which the Reformation’s doctoring non-deliberately worsened that which it sought to cure.

A crucial aspect here of the dialectical move that Langland does make, is in seeing that gyrovagic refusal of all land, dominium and cenobitic order tends to invert into the grossest possible materialism. But just this aspect, to reiterate, renders it unlikely that he espouses any further dialectical move of rejecting all ecclesial order, for everyone. One can also note here one needs to qualify Aers’ implied account of the later Reformation, whether magisterial or radical. For the admitted tendency to secularise in despair the entire cultural realm, most evident in the Lutheran legacy, was later offset by Calvinist, Pietist and Methodist attempts to shape a better community around the appropriate works of the redeemed. By no means is all structure abandoned here, even if, in the Puritan case, a refusal of tradition and symbolic hierarchy can lead to more brutal modes of control, in anticipation of modern totalitarianism. And it is also the case that radical reformers, suspicious of secular law, still tried to craft their own engraced legal norms and practices. By comparison, Aers’ mode of what sounds like Christian anarchism (for all his attempted denial of this applicability of this term) appears to bee the most extreme spiritual Franciscanism, which is very odd if that is just what Langland most wishes to call dialectically into question.

The Crux of Imagination

Given the absence of a later, Congregationalist synthesis, there is every reason to take seriously Langland’s linkage of his espoused synthesis of justice and mercy to the existing Church itself. As again Simpson points out, “do best” finally turns out to be Christ’s founding of the Church, with its penitential practice and transmission of grace, just as “do best” is consistently associated, both literally and allegorically, with the episcopal function of anticipating a final, complete and healing eschatological jurisdiction (B VIII, 97–108; IX, 14, 208; XIX, 183–85). For this reason, one can construe the Passus spoken by “Ymagynatyf” (B XII, C XIV) as the core of the poem. For here, Imagination corrects the imbalances espoused by Rechelessenesse, Patience and Will which all tend to over-rely upon a waiting on providence and the supposed caprices of the divine Will itself. These can be taken as Franciscan tendencies, though even the “lunatyk lollers” are the impractical and sacrally “idiotic” involuntary and legitimate beggars (as unable to work) and (against Aers) Patience seems to be praising poverty and its fewer temptations as the poverty of sufficiency and not of total abjection and dereliction.

Just for this reason there is slightly more integration of a “Franciscan” desirability of poverty as dispossession into the poem than Aers allowed in his earlier essay (B XI, 272–73).13 Nevertheless, he is wholly right that for Langland, as for Aquinas, charity and not poverty lies at the centre of the Christian life, and it is specifically declared that it can be consistent with either lack or abundance, kingship or indigence, learning or folly, though not culpable beggary (B XV, 220–26). Beyond either justice or mercy, charity is concerned with a childish fauntelté or fantasy (imagination again!), spontaneity, liberality and gaiety (B XV, 150–51), besides a binding conviviality and mutual atonement that can be taken as the recovered truth of a socially fundamental gift-exchange: “Forthi love we as leve [children] shal, and uche man laughe up other, / And of that eche man may forbere, amende there it nedeth, / And ever man helpe other, for hennes shal we alle: / Alter alterius omnia portate” (B XI, 209–12 and XV, 216–19). Yet Langland consistently identifies the operation of charity with the true operation of the given Church (C XVII, 125–29).

Thus Ymagynatyf above all claims the necessity of “Clergy.” By this term Langland means, in a complex way, the clerical profession, but also all learning insofar as it depends upon the skill of writing. Imagination will finally (and confusingly) go on to praise knowledge of the natural order, but this is understood in terms of the hermeneutic ability of the poet to discern nature’s allegories (B XII, 262–67). So much is nature deemed to be also a salvific book, whose message is coincident with that of scripture, that Will is rebuked for his limitation of the divine salvific reach (B XII, 280–97). Yet this is said notably to work through the laws and customs of other cultures and therefore one can argue that for Langland here the Bible and ecclesial tradition represent a kind of cultural apogee, which may be an apogee of poesis itself, since the magi at the crib are identified, along with Plato, as “poets” (B IX, 37; XII, 148). Thus it is—extraordinarily—insisted that, without written learning there could be no “extra” arrival of salvation, beyond nature, and this process is depicted as reaching a culmination when Christ, the Logos itself, bends down to write on the ground and thereby has mercy on the woman taken in adultery: “as Cryste of his curtesiye thorw Clergye her saved” (B XII, 77). Only because they can write and because they share in a written transmission, are the clergy able to turn bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood and thereby to convey, materially and spiritually, the Archa Dei of grace that continues to work mercy (B XII, 85–113). Yet there is also a concealed complexity here: Christ’s writing in the soil recalls Piers’ furrowing of the same and therefore the “additional” inscribing in either case is also paradoxically a reaching deeper into the natural ground of fertility that lies before the law.

It is then as if, for Langland, the ostinato of natural justice, linked to our being of “one kind” with “Kynde” itself, who is both immanent nature and transcendent God (like wisdom in the Bible), is fused with the descant of descending and unprompted grace precisely by the “written” exchange of pardon which constitutes a culture of mutual mercy. It overlays and intensifies what Langland describes as the “direct” participatory relations of mercede, or just market exchange, which, in the C version, in elaboration of a short indication in B, Langland regards themselves according to a grammatical analogy of the agreement of adjective with noun (C III, 310–403). This supplementary ecclesial exchange is systematic and organised, rather than spontaneous and random (as Aers seems to desire) just because this is, for Langland, a matter of genuine participatory government. It is a possibility more radical than ornamental and marginal anarchy.

The Church Imagined

And it is in this context that Langland, to repeat, never imagines the total disendowment of the Church, although he does seem to advocate, and understandably, a partial but drastic one. To turn to the passage in which the poet recounts the legend of the Donation of Constantine: the making over by the Emperor of imperial property and lordship to the Church. This legend is itself a part of the inherited Christian tradition that had always managed also to transmit suspicion of the collusion between papacy and empire. It describes the descent of an angel from heaven who bemoans and protests the gift. The angel cries thus in Piers: “Dos ecclesie this day hath y-droinke venym / And tho that han Petres powere arn apoysoned alle” (B XV, 560–62; C XVII, 220–24). However, notably here the Church’s endowment (dos ecclesie), not the Church simpliciter is the subject that drinks venom and Peter’s power is precedent to the poisoning.14 Clearly Langland is here making a macaronic play between the Latin word for dowry = dos, and the meaning of “dos” in Middle English which is dose, reinforced by the etymological connection of the two words in Latin in any case. Although dosis in Latin can mean poison besides medicine, since it denotes any “dose,” the syntax here, combined with the macaronic play, and the fact that Langland upholds some degree of Church endowment, would suggest that his meaning is that the stream of gift to the Church turns poisonous at this point in time when it becomes excessive and too secularised. This becomes all the more likely insofar as the word play would seem to invoke the Latin adage sola dosis facit venenum, meaning that all poison is a surplus of an otherwise beneficial dose. Langland, actually unlike other versions of the legend, deliberately refers to a certain degree of originary possession and dominion, a grace-given or dowry independent of the saeculum (though recognised by it) but then swollen and perverted by secular increase, rather than to an origin in absolute poverty. So the poet’s allegorical figure of Holichirche is dressed not in rags or even wool but in linen: she is clothed adequately, even finely (B 1, 3–4). This concurs with Langland’s strong critique of mendicant absolute poverty as opening the way for what the poem consistently views as their destructive influence on the parish system and the measured, bounded work of the secular clergy. His hope that a fyndinge (in this context a regular and minimally sufficient endowment linked to a definite calling not in conflict with the calling of others) might be discovered for the friars is a hope for their better integration into the main body of the Church. This emphasis on modest provision in turn fits the poem’s wider and main theme linking the arrival of grace to appropriate justice and restitution.

Of course it is all too easy for a historical perspective to reduce the Church to its clerical hierarchy and its sacramental forms (as opposed to the sacraments themselves). What Aers does recognize is the importance of narrative theology to the poet of Piers Plowman, the theology carried by the stories of scripture and their dramatic framing in the context of the liturgy. It is the poet—often supremely conscious of his potentially suspect identity as writer of tales and of verses, and yet at the same time consciously defending his storied faith—who attacks over-elaborating scholastic theology as practised by the mendicants. And here one should note that medieval poets sometimes saw themselves as representing a rival vagrancy to that of the mendicants. In Langland’s case his construal of a different journeying would seem to include the offering of a different theology.

However, the Church just as it was known to medieval laypeople, and in a reality that the poet is uniquely brilliant in evoking, was the crucial space of vision and of the bringing into simultaneous presence of these forming and shaping narratives of salvation history. The very circumstances of the poet’s most important visions of Christ’s work of redemption are ecclesiastical (we might say parochial) and liturgical. So in the C-version’s antepenultimate passus, the context of the vision of the Crucifixion and Harrowing is the medieval Palm Sunday liturgy—“of gurles and of gloria laus greetliche me dremed / And how osanna by orgene oelde folke songe” describes what the Sarum rite rubric instructs for this feast, the pueri singing from the rood loft (C XX, 6–7). This vision’s joyful conclusion finds its response again in ecclesiastically-situated ritual behaviour, the custom of creeping to the cross on Good Friday. In the penultimate passus, arguably the height of Langland’s vision of Christ’s nature, the faculty of vision consistently interacts with the given liturgo-dramatic context. His poetry and theology emerges as the consequence of an immersed life of traditional religion, embedded in and corresponding to these forms. The high points and most joyful moments in the poem are marked by corporate, and liturgical, hymning (B V, 509–12; XVIII, 423–27).15 Thus even if indeed Langland advocates a more participatory, just and in some ways more egalitarian Christian community, it does not seem evident that he sunders this advocacy from an existing experience of the hieratic and the hierarchical in the specifically theological sense of an ecclesial transmission of formative word and sacrament, which is also the means of a type of government properly designed (as Langland so strongly insists) to promote equity.

Part of the argument Aers puts forward is that we should be, from the outset, suspicious of the “fortress-like” Barn of the Church as a closed and embattled perversion of an original apostolic ideal. But this surely misunderstands the continued interaction of the field and the barn implied by the full scope of the strongly and positively insisted-upon agrarian metaphor, with its implicitly cyclical frame that is nonetheless also linearly directed towards the eschatological harvest. The closed barn would not be possible without the open field and therefore its closure is for now provisional.

Langland’s full vision of the Church here is characteristically Augustinian in its oscillation between stasis and motion, providing its own version of the two great Augustinian ecclesial metaphors of city and pilgrimage. When Conscience leaves the barn at the end of the poem, “gradding after grace” and to seek Piers (B XX, 380–86), the most obvious reference is to Matthew 24’s miniature apocalypse (and Luke 21:21) with its call to those in Judea to flee to the hills in what is both the last time at the end of days and the pattern anticipated in the penultimate crisis of the Destruction of Jerusalem. This is in search, as the glossa ordinaria puts it, both of higher virtue and “querant auxilium a deo ut pro videat de pastore bono.”16 When Conscience leaves, then, it is “for the hills” seeking again the traditional prophetic perspective. He is looking for the elusive shepherd, for Langland, Piers, who represents the aporia of difference between even an angelic Pope and Christ himself, but also the paradox of possibility formed by Christ’s robing in humble working flesh. The departure from the city, in Old Testament terms, the exile, never meant that those who departed in times of crisis did not remain citizens. Nor, we think, does Langland really so thoroughly reject the material-temporal and constitutional terms of that citizenship as Aers implies. It is a classical, and orthodox, theme in apocalyptic timetabling that the final historical stage is one of hypocrisy, pseudo-prophecy, and the pseudo-Christic. And if, as we cannot disprove, Langland’s apocalyptic belief is truly in an end soon to come, then this departure by Conscience following the apocalyptic directives of Christ announces the coming of the Lord and the descent of the heavenly City to whose blueprint the Barn has been attempting to conform. This frame, of parousia and the eschatological horizon, questions Aers’ whole argument (in a way he partially admits), since what for Langland lies “beyond” the inherited structures is not an alternative earthly non-structure but a final divine surpassing and fulfilment of their intimations.

The Necessary Extra versus the Step too Far

Indeed, it would be surprising if Langland had so far forgotten his suspicion of mobility as to celebrate in the end only a perpetual exodus. His alternative pilgrimage is rather one of paradoxically rooted “steps.” For these are not really for him ever steps away from rootedness, but rather towards a both higher and deeper rooting. One could see the topos of remaining and planting as equivalent to the sustained note of justice and equivalence. From that vantage the steps out, or the necessary “extra” of which the poem also speaks and of which it is indeed composed in order to render it a poem at all, can be taken to be equivalent to poetic writing itself and also to the “writing” that is the Church and biblical authority, in the way already described. “Ymagynatyf” here, as typically for medieval thought, fuses what has come through the senses from without with an internal repetition. In this way it can be seen as central to the constitution of revelation, just as, for Aquinas, for example, it was necessary—as what Coleridge later termed “the primary imagination”—to every act of intellection. But, as critics have suggested,17 there is more than a hint in Langland of Coleridge’s “secondary imagination,” of a linkage with creative power, since Ymagynatyf is said to envision the poet Will’s life (and so to compose the poem, B XII, 1–10) and he speaks most specifically of a series of historical works, pivoted around the divine-human act of inscribing. Later in the poem this human cultural “extra” becomes one with the “extra” added in the Incarnation, whereby it is seen that, after the Fall, only man as God can really do well and better, never mind best, even though this doing well must be truly realised in us and not merely imputed to us. Here Langland’s radical incarnationalism most of all sustains an “integralist” vision, averse at once to Lollardy and to a post-Franciscan stress on a separate suffering humanity of Christ.18 Thus for Langland the truly “nedy” God here shown is at the same time a triumphant, jousting humanity, defeating the devil on the Cross to establish a new kingdom in a manner that recalls the very earliest English poetic piety.

The passage about “nede” at the start of B Passus XX is one of the hardest to interpret in the whole poem, but perhaps it should be taken in conjunction with the equally ambivalent account of the King that immediately precedes it at the end of Passus XIX. For in a manner that puts one in mind of Giorgio Agamben, Langland here seems to endorse and link an “exceptionality” pertaining both to the very highest and the very lowest and so in some way coinciding.19 The ambivalence arises in either case because both the King and the poor person seem to make a case for overriding the law, the one because he is the very source of justice, the other because the law may not cover all equitable necessities, which was significantly the here-invoked experience of Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head.” It would seem, according to Aers, that this king, unlike the earlier one, is a “bad” king, but in actual fact Conscience endorses his claim to original exceptionality, though on the crucial condition that the king “rule thi rewme in reason [as right wol] and treuth” (B XIX, 478–79). Within that stricture only is the King’s infringement of law also its upholding. Langland’s case therefore is for the rights of an overriding juris-prudence or equity and not for an amoral Schmittian voluntarism of the sovereign source.

Similarly, natural need assumes priority when cultural provision breaks down and by an inverse token Nede cannot justifiably break the bounds of equity towards excess. For this reason Nede declares (not without precedent in Medieval thought, since the tempering of desire is fundamental for Augustinian tradition) that the “spirit of temperance” is yet more fundamental than the “spirit of fortitude” which may over deploy force, the “spirit of justice” which may be swayed by royal or popular prejudice and even the “spirit of prudence” which may sometimes and inevitably miscalculate (B XX, 1–35). By comparison, a sense of the naturally “tempered” is less likely to fail, it is here claimed by Nede. Should he be believed? Is his position one-sided as Aers thinks? Or is tempering of desire truly integrating of the other virtues, without denying their crucial role? There is no reason to entirely disbelieve believe him, as throughout the poem, as several scholars have argued, Nede is aligned with justice and fyndinge, rather than with the dubious exceptionality of mede, or the equal dubiety of a voluntary and so for Langland feigned mendicant dispossession.20 Thus one cannot agree with Aers in his earlier “The Sign of Poverty” and in the present book, when he aligns Nede’s invocation of Christ’s homelessness with the Franciscan option, so rendering Nede the harbinger of Antichrist rather than his opposite, since the Son of Man’s homelessness is here, as in the gospels, an involuntary one.21 It can also be noted that if the King represents the exceptional excess of natural spirit over legal convention, then Nede represents the exceptional excess of natural bodily needs over legal judgement. An air of ambiguity admittedly hangs over these passages, yet that may be linked to an ultimately positive account of the requirements of exception and emergency.

It can then perhaps be claimed that the ultimate stakes of the whole poem are to do with the difficult difference between a true and a false extra, a necessary and an unnecessary step outwards, away from home, departing from the Malvern down. Too much mobility and excessive gift will disturb regular order and just balance and at the extreme it is the opposite step of rapacious destruction of domestic roots taken by the archetypal friar, “Sir Penetrans domos” (B XX, 340). On the other hand, justice requires constant adjustment and moving away and forwards: it needs both divine and kingly jurisprudence and a constant re-recognition of the natural needs of the “poor” ordinary person, which culture can never quite keep pace with. And in Christ the exception of rule and the exception of need, of spirit and of matter, which are the paradoxical sources of regular equity, become entirely one. In this way Christ alone is the right final step, the true extra, the supplement both of divinity and of the eternal humanity of Piers by participation in which (this being ecclesia) the rest of us are alone human at all.

But finally the thematic of a “fundamental extra” is even read back into the godhead itself by Langland, in his complex play upon the notion that God as “kind” is the very type of the singular and yet thereby generic (and so one just insofar as he is many): “For he was synguler hymself and said seyde ‘Faciamus’” (B IX, 36). Also in his remarkable blending of the Christological and Trinitarian in the figuring of the Trinity as a tripartite man (B XVI, 176–201), and finally in his recounting of the Genesis narrative of Creation (B IX, 25–46). Here the “let us make” is read, as by patristic tradition in terms of the Trinity, with the Father being assimilated to “might” and “work” the Son to “word” and the Spirit to Life. Furthermore, the Father is here strikingly assimilated to manufactured parchment and the Son to a writing quill wielded by a Lord, in a way that links not just the incarnate, but also the eternal Son/Word to the “extra” of writing (extra both to nature and perhaps as legal decree extra also, in a “Derridean” fashion, to spoken utterance). Nothing can be done and nothing be given life, even for God, without “linguistic” intellection and without labour, the two powers (magi and shepherds) that are represented round the nativity crib, with the notable absence of wealth: “To pastoures and to poetes appiered [the] aungel” (B XII, 148)—in other words to “Piers Plowman” and to “William Langland.”

This double supplementation in God is then directly associated by Langland with the human historical process, both biological and cultural, since the wife of a husband represents the divine Son—as Eve was taken from Adam—and their child the Holy Spirit (B XVI, 202–24—an analogy found in both Richard of St Victor and Thomas Aquinas). In this way the circle is complete: God as singular kind is also many; human beings as many are also of one kind and solidarity by generation. But this means that the relational for Langland is temporal and vertical and not just spatial and horizontal. The hierarchical transmission of the Church through time is naturally grafted onto natural lineage, which includes ever-repeated death. Thus Christ, on the Cross, is a widow like so many a wife eventually, but by virtue of cultural violence, not natural senescence, and the Church is like every child a virgin, whose vocation is first to study, not to procreate. In this way, if natural kinship images the eternal Trinity, the Church images and sustains an immanent Trinitarian presence.

The Hierarchy from Below

All this is not for a moment to claim that Langland is content, nor to deny the quite drastic character of his critique of the contemporary Church and social order. Thus parish priests are to live more strictly on tithes (B.XV, 555–56); clergy who abuse the ecclesial patrimony (which is for welfare and learning) are guilty of the sin of Judas (B IX, 194); lords should be largely resident and eat in their halls with their vassals (B X, 103–106); marriage should be about love, including sexual love and not commercial benefit (B IX, 115–20, 185–94; C XII, 193–98),22 and one should hedge one’s bets by giving to beggars rather than withholding, since genuine distress is highly prevalent (B VI, 221–26).

But Langland is by no means alone in his surprising medieval radicalism as regards critique of popes, one of whom (in a time of two!) he may range as part of the corporate Antichrist in the final part of his poem. Dante puts popes in hell, and he, like our poet, uses Peter and Christ to critique the betrayal of the throne by its occupiers: speaking of the cathedra as a throne that is “vacant in the presence of the son of God.”23 The play of the presence and absence of Piers parallels this paradoxical construction in Dante, both witnessing to a medieval self-consciousness of the imperfection of papal occupiers, without erasing the crucial mediatory and representative capacity they have been given. So the very passage on the Donation of Constantine that Aers so emphasises is immediately followed by a moment of prophecy that stresses, even here near the end of the poem, the possibility and the hope for reform “were preshode more parfyte, that is, the pope formost. . . . His preyeres with his pacience to pees sholde brynge/Alle londes into loue and that in lytel tyme” (C XVII, 233–38), a hope which remains distinctly more ecclesial than when Dante’s Peter more obscurely promises swift aid from “l’alta provedenza” from some “Roman” (i.e., imperial) source. The poem does indeed, as we have already stressed, deeply investigate the terms of this prerogative for dispensing pardon, critiquing the partial transformation of the economy of salvation into a mart—especially through relatively new mendicant incursion on the parish system—and showing eerie precognisance in the significant anxiety over what the power of absolution actually amounts to, beyond a restatement of Gospel precepts that then seems to be entirely a matter for the individual and for God. The poem would, however, clearly seem to respond to that anxiety in terms of a necessary representative, mediatory, governing function of the pardoning clergy, acting on behalf of the whole community and with the weight of traditional precedent behind them.

Langland is in no way a revolutionary, and he deliberately refuses that possibility: the mice who wish to overthrow the rule of the cat will be ruled by more ruthless rats instead and therefore we should each “wite wel his owne” (B Prologue, 145–208). He rebukes sloth amongst workers almost as much as he rebukes the corruption of the rich and clearly distinguishes deserving from undeserving poor (B V, 81–441). He likewise recommends a fair distribution of property rather than common ownership (B XX, 320–21) and exhibits an almost proto-Erasmian desire to rid the world of beggary, which is no longer for him (as Aers indeed notes) much tinctured by sanctity. He pointedly insists that Christ was born in the outhouse of a Burgess’s “place” and not in a beggar’s hovel (B XII, 146–47), and that it is Judas-like to give silver to itinerant “jesters” who are themselves equated to Judas as liars, in a way that suggests that Langland sees himself as the “Platonic” poet of truth as opposed to a false, mere fictioner (B IX, 93; X, 29–31). And however uncomfortable we may find this, Langland does, contra Aers, seem truly to endorse the Statute of Labourers (imposed to restrict the rate of wages after the shortage of Labour consequent upon the Black Death), insofar as he agrees with its aim to restrict inflation, regarded as destabilising mercede, in parallel to the ruptures caused by excessive reward (B VI, 319–31). Arguably, Langland may have thought that this would bear down badly upon less successfully competitive labourers and above all upon the dispossessed, whose numbers plague had also augmented.

Nor can one quite agree with the way in which Aers describes the gospel pardon, as resumed by Piers—the power to “bind and unbind,” as having been given “determinate limits” or an “absolute conditionality” in a way he parallels to Ockham by the burden of penitence and restitution that forms part of it. For it is rather for Langland, as for Aquinas, that if pardoning grace is effective, then of itself it “influentially” (on a neoplatonic, emanationary model, present for example in Aquinas) brings about restitutionary behaviour.24 By contrast, outright literal covenantal “conditionality,” such that our “congruent” response is truly that of our autonomous free-will that is then graciously rewarded (though not “condignly” productive of grace in itself, as for Pelagius himself) would seem to yield a semi-Pelagian Langland, in some sort of agreement with the semi-Pelagianism of Ockham. In fact, Langland’s idea of “covenant” (in covenant that thei come and knewleche to paye / To Pieres pardon the Plowman, redde quod debes (C XXI, 186–87), as he more fully explains in the long analogy in the third passus between the relationship of the lord and the labourer and the relationship of God and the sinner, is one where the “right” to reward for labour or the grace of forgiveness is instituted in and through the synergic relation itself , the “covenant,” as he describes it in C.XXI, because the

leel labborer byleueth in his maister

In his pay and in his pite and in his puyr treuthe—

To pay hym yf he parforme and haue pite yf he faileth

And take hym for his trauaile al that treuthe wold

So of hole herte cometh hope

(C.III, 348–52)

This is another illustration, of many in the poem, of the way in which mercy can be justice and justice mercy and indeed law must be also love (as the redeemed pagan Trajan affirms, B XI, 171), of how grace does not negate merit, and how gift economy and contractual economy can be one. Both justice and mercy concern human flourishing and right relationship and thus the proffered space of forebearance is, of itself and by definition, one in which the chance is offered and the power granted, to make amends. The model is neither semi-Pelagian nor proto-Protestant, but wholly orthodox and Catholic. We think this is the hope Langland articulates, and despairs when it is not recognized, as near the close of the poem when some figures turn it down as a raw deal, viewing it, perhaps—one is a brewer, so a tradesman—in terms more of an absolute contract than a covenant which recognizes human incapacity (B XIX, 399–404).

So, yes, there is a conditionality to the power of absolution, but it is the kind of constitutive, covenantal conditionality that remains in double opposition to the alternatives of arbitrary divine imputed, or papal legislated grace (and there may well be a genealogy of the former from the latter)—thus indeed standing both prior to and beyond later debates. Moreover, Langland’s ideas about the relational and confessional nature of the mediation of grace and reward permeate—as the section quoted on the labour relation and (non!) “secular” reward indicates—his thought on all corporate life in the light of Christ, rather than narrowly dictating a theology of salvation. In fact, when Piers tears his pardon that may be because it has seemed presumptively to arrive as an alternative to the life of labour in the field that rather is Langland’s first depiction of the life of all those in the commune, of the “feld of folke” who are striving corporately to be the kingdom of God, the ecclesia. They are, in a certain sense, already on peregrinatio pro amore deo in so doing, although the interaction of the active and the contemplative is also one of the (many) things that the dichotomy between wandering and remaining represents in Piers. So the Pardon is perhaps misinterpreted (before it is opened) as a possibility of unmediated and arbitrary mercy, in accordance with a misunderstanding both promoted by a corrupt hierarchy and longed for by an existentially desperate populace, but is then revealed and declared as what Piers has already been doing in the field, that is, leading the people forwards in the ordinary life of virtue through the vision of corporate life in Christ that the Church upholds within itself and for the whole of society. That is to say: Piers’ power of absolution is intimately bound up in his humble guarding and guiding function, which is not to deny its reality, but rather to found its reality in the whole interdependent context of the calling to be Holichirche.

Rejection of hierarchy is surely not here the point; rather it is the more realistic and more genuinely radical reinterpretation and reconstitution of hierarchy as paradoxically as much built up from below as descending from above. Hierarchy in the Christian, Dionysian sense (without which there would be nothing left of Aquinas’s theology!) never, of course meant a fixed social order, and even when applied to such an order it is in some measure subversive. Descent from above only occurs in order to initiate upwards, but what Langland now adds is that, even from the outset this descent was also already an ascent upwards from material building which is also the liturgical response necessary to any reception and so paradoxically to any arrival from above. There is a no doubt unconscious echo here of the inversely perfect echoing of the One by matter that is carried from the Proclean tradition by Dionysius, Eriugena and Albert the Great.25

But the paradoxical equation of Pope with ploughman also attains to a radicalisation of the orthodox account of free grace and pardon as itself bringing about good works and practices of restitution. For now, from the outset it is as if the deification that descends from God is equally and painfully constructed and cultivated from the soil below. The radicalism of the poem is not that Piers has displaced the Pope, but that the Pope should also be Piers and that Piers is in a sense Christ, since he is, Taliesin-like, the eternal humanity who has been there since Adam and is even said to have instructed and warned Christ in his infancy against a premature battle with Satan (B XVI, 102–3). In other words, Piers is not the new, proto-congregationalist anti-mediator, but, far more drastically, even a co-instigator with God (with whom he is sometimes equated as “ground,” B XIX, 430–46) of the entire sustaining and renewal of Creation which requires both universal participation and hierarchy, in the sense that through time we must turn by turn assist each other to grow and cooperate in a social order in which different gifts of the spirit are adapted to different tasks: some specific and humble, others more coordinating and architectonic. In this respect, the “other” reform that he implicitly promotes is a Catholic and not a proto-Protestant one, however radicalised, if, following the renowned French liberal Catholic early twentieth-century literary critic Ferdinand Brunetière, we take the twin marks of the Catholic to be (1) that the Church is a system of government, and (2) that it is a process of mutual substitution and atonement which alone can thereby echo and sustain the one substitution of God for Man in Christ.26 Otherwise, government is handed over to pure power, with or without God, or else, if this is also refused (as by Aers) then the Church space is seen as one of an impossible pacifist anarchy which, in reality, will encourage existing power, now deemed arbitrary in theory, to be yet more arbitrary in practice. But that is, once more, but another version of the perverse dialectic that is the main subject of Langland’s denunciation: the claim to absolute poverty and so externality to culture of “the friars” results in a yet more invidious accumulation and cultural privilege. Similarly, the claim to purely sovereign, unilateral and absolute ruling gift, whether of Christ, Pope or King, must by reflex secularise all exchanges into cold formal contract, lacking in substantive justice. And if this model of “grace” is qualified to allow room for response, return and reward, then inevitably it will intrude (in a “semi-Pelagian” fashion) some element of covenant debased into contract between God and humanity itself, just as political and ecclesial relations become also “marketised.” But this is then to compromise after all the unilateral character of the divine gift and (to a lesser degree) the humanly sovereign gift, whereby here it is the very non-returnability of the gift of being, life, flourishing, beatitude and redemption itself that requires that created existence or (to a lesser degree) political and ecclesial existence, be entirely one of grateful return and working response. Langland one could say, implicitly accentuates this paradox in a way that parallels Albert the Great and Meister Eckhart rather than Thomas Münster or Gerrard Winstanley: if response and work is only reception of the gift, then equally the gift is given through the response, just as the seed falls entirely from above but grows solely from the earth in a twofold unity that is coincidence, not collaboration.

Love is the plonte of pees, most precious of vertues,

For heuene holde hit ne myghte, so heuy hit semede,

Til hit hadde of erte ygoten hitsilue.

Was neuer lef vppon lynde lyhtere hereafter.


Langland’s Grand Narrative

It is, therefore, difficult to agree with David Aers that one should not take literally and seriously Langland’s apparent demand that all clergy and religious be given by Church and Crown a sufficient provision for their vocation in analogy to the provision given to knights (B XI, 294–302; XII, 257–72). However, he is wholly right to emphasise the new note of apocalyptic urgency that Langland sounds throughout his poem, foreshadowed for him by disturbances in the natural order, besides a decline in human powers (though this suggests a more than merely institutional crisis: B XV, 361–84) and the degree to which his fear of ecclesial decline (though this is already an Augustinian theme) does seem to go so far as to anticipate a post-Christian era in which scientific medicine will rule instead of the Church and salvation will consist in the warding-off of death (B XX, 140–77). In this way, indeed, Langland appears to write his own grand narrative in advance—a narrative that includes a prediction of the “unintended” secularisation to which a despairing magisterial “reformation” would lead.27 However, it also includes both a diagnosis and a prediction of the way in which already and further into the future an extreme puristic refusal of all cultural and written dominium in every sense tends dialectically to release a far more brutal and corrupt dominion. Aers has seen more than anyone else just this verdict with respect to the Franciscans, but strangely does not generalise it, nor see how it would apply a fortiori to his own Yoder-like “congregationalism.” Nor completely the way in which, for Langland, the further step of cultural “writing”—including law, governance and property—may always be a danger, and may always have to counter-supplement itself with a return to natural, unwritten equity (as in the case of the King and Nede), yet is also the necessary source of redemption. This is just because mind as “language,” besides nature as “might” or capacity and the activating will which links the two are for him rooted in the Trinitarian God himself, where they are inherently conjoined by substantive relation, not distinguished, formally or really, in a typically Franciscan and Oxfordian scholastic manner, as respectively being, natural reason and autonomous freedom.28 Therefore if, for the alternatively English poet-theologian of the Oxfordshire countryside and the Malvern hills, we are to avoid (beyond “Hegelianism”) a negative dialectical demise, we must return to and reinvigorate the necessary nonidentical and analogical repetition which is human culture, allowed, empowered and informed by divine grace.







  1. David Aers, Beyond Reformation? An Essay on William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the End of Constantinian Christianity (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 2015).

  2. See James Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 322–82.

  3. David Aers, “The Sign of Poverty,” in Sanctifying Signs: Making Christian Tradition in Latte Medieval England (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 2004), 99–156.

  4. See John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

  5. See Jacob Schmutz, “La doctrine médièvale des causes et la théologie de la nature pure (XIIIe–XVIIe siècles),” Revue Thomiste I–II (Jan–June 2001) 217–64. The crucial point here is that the neoscholastic corralling of an autonomous natural end from the ultimate supernatural one goes along with a loss of genuine ethical teleology altogether, such that natural “ends” now become a matter of adhering to immanent natural given facts and formal norms. By comparison, as Eric Voegelin taught, even for the Greeks participatory and teleological metaphysical schemes were inherently bound up with the lure of transcendence. It is unfortunate that Alasdair MacIntyre himself (perhaps because he is not a theologian) fails to recognise this linkage and tends to endorse neoscholastic positions that are at variance with what he really wants to say.

  6. C. David Benson, “Piers Plowman and Parish Wall Paintings,” in the Norton critical ed. of Piers Plowman (New York: Norton, 2006), 596–609.

  7. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (Oxford: OUP, 1936), 159–61.

  8. For the ultimately implausible view, as Aers agrees, that Langland recommends a basically Franciscan position, see Lawrence M. Clopper, “Songs of Rechelesnesse”: Langland and the Franciscans (Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1997).

  9. Simpson, Reform and Cultural Revolution, 322–82.

  10. This perhaps renders it unlikely, as Aers suggests, that the C version has become yet more explicitly “anti Franciscan” by expunging Piers’ momentary mendicant turn. This excision may have been simply judicious, following the great English revolt of 1391 and increasing fears of Lollardy.

  11. See John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 42–49, 112–13.

  12. The “cart of Christendom” is indeed absent form C XXI, but it would seem excessive to infer very much from this, especially since the lines about reforming kingship, dukedom and the Papacy are retained there.

  13. Aers, “The Sign of Poverty.”

  14. The Latin syntax is then to be taken as it stands. Otherwise, if it is simply ecclesia that has drunk poison, the syntax would be not just “awkward,” as Derek Pearsall suggests, but nonsensical. See William Langland, Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the “C” Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2014), 291, n.223.

  15. The admitted liturgical incompletions here can plausibly be read as eschatological reserves in the face of the ultimate true liturgy to come.

  16. Glossa Ordinaria, Matthew, 24:16.

  17. See the note by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen Shepherd in the glossary to the Norton Piers Plowman, under “Imaginative” on p. 630.

  18. See Aaron Riches, Ecce Homo: On the Divine Unity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

  19. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2005).

  20. See Jill Mann, “The Nature of Need Revisited,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 18 (2006) 3–29.

  21. Aers, “The Sign of Poverty,” in Sanctifying Signs, 150–52.

  22. One can agree with Aers that Langland’s position here is striking, but not perhaps as unique in the Middle Ages as he suggests (and as a thousand academics writing about sex and gender should take note!). His comparison with the Parson’s Tale in Chaucer (X.942) does not seem quite accurate. The Parson does not forbid married sex for pleasure, but only if the participants altogether forget marriage’s link to procreation, to a mutual debt of bodies and the limitation of lechery. The latter is also invoked by Langland—indeed with a wholly regrettable, if not for the time unusual, imprecation against bastards—along with the importance of liturgical restriction of “bedbourde”: B IX 185–99.

  23. “Il luogo mio che vaca / ne la presenza del Figlioul de Dio,” Dante, Paradiso XXVII.22–23.

  24. See John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order, 42–49, 112–13

  25. See John Milbank, “Manifestation and Procedure; Trinitarian Metaphysics after Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas,” in Tomismo Creativo, ed. Marco Salvioli OP (Bologna: ESD, 2015), 41–117; Alain de Libera, Métaphysique et noétiique; Albert le Grand (Paris: J.Vrin, 2005), 61–94.

  26. Ferdinand Brunetière, Science and Religion, trans. Erik Butler (Les Brouzils: Fortnightly Review, 2016).

  27. See Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012).

  28. See Olivier Boulnois, Ětre et representation (Paris: PUF, 1999), 107–325, and Métaphysiques rebelles (Paris: PUF, 2013), 261–311.




Some Responses to the Commentators on Beyond Reformation? 1

. . . et ideo quod homo actu bene agat, [Langland’s “Dowell”] contingit ex hoc, quod homo habet bonam voluntatem [Langland’s Wille]

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I–II.56.3, resp

I am very grateful to Ryan McDermott for seeking to bring William Langland’s truly great poem, Piers Plowman, to readers of Syndicate, readers beyond the medieval sector of English departments, the product of disciplinary formations and constitutions quite alien to Langland and his culture. I am grateful to him for gathering a group of theologians and one literary historian to discuss my own recent attempt to show the brilliance, scope and relevance of Piers Plowman to our own self-understanding, to show how this visionary, prophetic, argumentative poem written in fourteenth-century England may shed light on the past, the present and the processes which join and divide them.

The commentators of Beyond Reformation in this volume raise many fascinating issues and pose some serious questions. They have given generously of their time to do this, and I hope their labors will encourage readers to go to Piers Plowman, starting with the translation of the final version of the poem by George Economou (University of Pennsylvania Press) and the superb annotated edition of the C version by Derek Pearsall (University of Exeter Press and new University of Liverpool Press). If some of my responses to some of the commentators’ statements are critical, even occasionally adversarial, then perhaps one might recall those moments in Piers Plowman where Langland, sometimes, nudges our search in a disputational mode: “‘Contra,’ quod Y as a clerk, and comsed to despute” (C version, ed. Pearsall, X.20).

Stanley Hauerwas is one of my three teachers to whom I dedicated Beyond Reformation. As he notes, we co-taught a course on grand narratives paying particular attention to the version and role of the Middle Ages in these stories about the passages to modernity. Both Langland and St. Thomas Aquinas were major presences in this course. It seems appropriate that he should recall these seminars because what I was learning in this course undoubtedly feeds into the modes of inquiry and expositions found in Beyond Reformation. The outcome of this research on grand narratives convinced me that too many current big stories were being fabricated with insufficient attention to textual and historical specificities, specificities which are often intransigent impediments to grand narratologists. Recently I coedited, with Russ Leo, a special issue on Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2012) for JMEMS 46.3 (2016). My part of the introduction fills out observations offered above and exemplifies the baneful influence of such modes of narrative in a long note I wrote on the Blessed John Duns Scotus. So, despite Stanley’s invitation, I have absolutely no wish to write in the mode of grand narratives of the kind now enjoying considerable vogue in the academy. As for the further exploration of Langland’s and St. Thomas’s treatment of acquired and infused virtues, which he also invites, this is something that has now been done by one of the other respondents in this issue, the admirable Catholic theologian Sheryl Overmyer.

She, after all, has just published a fine book on both Langland’s Piers Plowman and St. Thomas Aquinas: Two Guides for the Journey: Thomas Aquinas and William Langland on the Virtues (Cascade, 2016). In response to her first question I answer that where she sees my views on Langland’s “challenge” to “the Christian-Aristotelian tradition” as in opposition to hers, I do not. For I think a “contribution” to a tradition sometimes takes the form of a “challenge.” As Sheryl’s great teacher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, “A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely about the goods which constitute that tradition” (After Virtue, 222). And in the period of the Great Schism, the murderous conflicts in England in 1381 and in London in 1388, in a period which was witnessing the emergence of conciliar theory to depose warring popes, the most serious “contribution” to the socially embodied argument which is Langland’s tradition was, indeed, a very disturbing “challenge” called Piers Plowman. And I agree entirely that this is a beautiful example of “fraternal correction” about which Aquinas and Ockham both wrote so well. In the second question Sheryl Overmyer recalls my treatment of Langland’s rendering of the Good Samaritan and semyuief (Passus XIX) in Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology (2009), chapter 4. “How does Aers now read the ecclesial, sacramental, and moral configurations” of Passus XIX in relation to Passus XXII in which the fools who oppose Antichrist’s host “break from the Church”? She says that by breaking “from the Church” they “abandon the possibilities for realizing charity through the institution and practices established by Christ in XIX.” I am almost persuaded by this interpretation of Langland (XIX: XXII) and Aers (Salvation and Sin: Beyond Reformation). But not quite. Why not? Because neither Langland nor Aers says that the fools (with Wille) “break from the Church in XXII.” Look again! The fools resist the actually existing Roman Church in which, as Ockham too had found, some fourteenth-century popes had aligned their office with the forces of Antichrist (XXII. 58–68, 126–28). But they do not “break from the Church.” On the contrary, they are led by Conscience to go “into Vnite holi church” and wait there (XXII. 74–75). Similarly Wille is guided through contrition and confession into Unity where Conscience still is “constable” guiding Christians, “to save” (XXII. 207–14). In Beyond Reformation I actually did link this passage to the poet’s treatment of the Good Samaritan and semyuief (XIX. 48–79). But I also argued that the resistance to Antichrist’s army is “unmediated by ecclesiastics or the church” (Beyond Reformation, 151). Langland is utterly clear about this. Furthermore, as I observed: “these ‘fools’ escape classification in terms of the modern church’s fundamental and hierocratic division between clergy and laity” (151). At least for now it is the Roman Pope and his followers that have broken from the Pentecostal Church founded by the Holy Spirit (XXI). As for the sacraments, Aquinas explicitly acknowledges in the third part of the Summa Theologiae, that the desire and longing for the sacraments, in certain circumstances, will count—as baptism, as reception of the body of Christ, as the sacrament of penance. God is not bound by the habitual forms in which he has ordered his gifts. While Langland could have elaborated a Thomistic account of desire, unusual circumstances and the mysterious workings of God’s grace, he didn’t. Instead he concludes his poem with Conscience seeking “Peres plouhman,” crying out for Grace (XXII. 385).

From a Catholic theologian I turn to an Anglican theologian, recently Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Perhaps the most eloquent area of his response is his commentary on the Eucharist. There is of course no reason why he would have read my own work on the Eucharist in the later Middle Ages, on conflicts in Eucharistic theology and on Langland and the Eucharist. But although I do not write much about the latter in Beyond Reformation (though consult section VIII) this is indeed partly because I have written quite copiously on this elsewhere. Perhaps most relevant to Williams’s commentary are my discussions in Sanctifying Signs: Making Christian Tradition in Late Medieval England (2004), chapters 1–4; and in Salvation and Sin (2009), chapters 4 and 2. But even without what I wrote on “The Sacrament of the Altar in Piers Plowman” (in Sanctifying Signs), I had thought my writing on Langland’s understanding of the Eucharist, however brief, was clear enough. So I was puzzled to see such a distinguished interpreter of texts ascribe to me a view I certainly have not held and do not hold. Rowan Williams asserts that on the Eucharist in Piers Plowman Aers sees “the phraseology (‘bred yblessed and godes body therunder’) as qualifying belief in an objective presence.” Williams does not quote me here nor does he cite the page where I allegedly offer this reading. This is not surprising because I myself consider this view to be mistaken and an alien imposition on Langland. For me, this issue is as important now as it was when I wrote about Piers Plowman in Sanctifying Signs and in Salvation and Sin. Since then I have not changed my mind on this topic. The line in question (which Williams doesn’t locate) is XXI. 385: and it is discussed in Beyond Reformation, 61–63. The phrase itself is an utterly commonplace vernacular articulation of late medieval Catholic orthodoxy (transubstantiation). I cite plenty of excellent scholarship on the theology of the Eucharist in the later Middle Ages and also cite some of my own work in this area (notes 124, 125 and 127). This is what I actually wrote in Beyond Reformation: “The Mass was central to Christian life in the Middle Ages. Here Jesus Christ became present on the altar in the form of bread and wine. He did so at the prayer of consecration in the canon of the Mass, and he did so in his Galilean body, ‘not only the flesh, but the whole body of Christ, that is, the bones and nerves and all the rest’ (non solum caro, sed totum corpus Christi, id est ossa et nervi et alia hujusmodi.” Here I am quoting from St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, III.76.1, resp. and ad 2. I then go on to quote from Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars to illustrate the daily practice of the Mass (Beyond Reformation, 61–62). I do not, as far as I can see, make the claim ascribed to me by Rowan Williams. Neither Langland nor I want to qualify what Williams calls, albeit somewhat equivocally, “an objective presence,” in the converted bread. Here indeed, as Conscience says, with Langland’s full approval, “is bred yblessed and godes body therunder” (XXI. 385). How can such a brilliant reader as Williams misconstrue what Aers writes? I can think of two reasons.

The first reason might be that Williams was not really attending to what I am discussing on page 62. Namely, that throughout Piers Plowman Conscience is figured as a layman. He is never figured as a priest. Yet here (XXI. 383–408) this layman is dispensing (not consecrating) the Eucharist. I observe that in Langland’s Church lay folk were not permitted to dispense the Eucharist. This is, at least, a topic that should elicit some reflection but it does not call in question “an objective presence” in the sacrament. The second reason might be that Williams was reading with certain pre-judgements—namely, that Aers must identify himself with the Lollards discussed so sympathetically here (62–63) and must therefore have appropriated Langland to the same cause, including a sometimes hollowed out version of the Eucharist.

This is not the place to begin an exploration of Ockham’s political thinking and ecclesiology after 1328. But contra Rowan Williams and the Milbanks, it is simply not true to assert that “the appeal [by Ockham] to secular reforming force is an equally undeniable element in Ockham, one which played its genealogical part” in both Lutheranism and what Williams calls the “Anglican” church of Lancelot Andrews. The Milbanks similarly assert that Ockham displays “proto-Erastianism” and “proto-sovereignty doctrine,” whatever that may be. But neither Williams nor the Milbanks cite one work by Ockham. My own reading of Ockham’s Epistola ad fratres minores, his Breviloquium and his last work De imperatorum et pontificum potestate, to mention only three of the post-Avignon works, provides no support for the “proto-Erastian” genealogy asserted by these Anglican theologians. Anybody who wants to think seriously about intellectual history has to get rather more specific and textual than these Anglican theologians seem inclined to do in their rather breezy remarks about Ockham. As they seem reluctant to give careful reading to Ockham’s writing after 1328, I would like to recommend that they, and others tempted to fit Ockham into some “proto-Erastian” story, some long genealogical narrative to Luther and Lancelot Andrews, should begin their work by reading, slowly, two books on Ockham: Takashi Shogimen, Ockham and Political Discourse in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and the much earlier but never superseded book by A. S. McGrade, The Political Thought of William of Ockham (Cambridge University Press, 1974); with these, the study of Ockham in Brian Tierney, On the Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150–1350 (Brill, 1972) deserves attention. Rowan Williams is a distinguished reader of many complex works from Augustine to Dostoevsky. Perhaps Ockham in flight from the Avignon papacy, in perpetual exile, deserves the kind of close reading that Williams habitually gives to subjects he studies. A good place to begin would be Ockham’s final work, De imperatorum et pontificium potestate (1347).

Here I turn from theologians to one literary critic/historian among the commentators, the medievalist Steven Justice who has himself written about Langland. His opening paragraph states that Beyond Reformation misses “the deepest rationale of Langland’s art” and that “its argument persuades me not at all.” What is this “deepest rationale”? It seems to be the kind of systematic teleology of indeterminacy so fashionable in departments of English literature ca. 1980–2001. Langland’s art aims to defeat all attempts to discover “what is meaningfully absent.” Langland’s poem is aimed at preventing “urgent conclusions” while it “hustles up the experience of thinking urgently and inconclusively.”

To me such language might, perhaps, be relevant to some of Chaucer’s work (by no means all) but not to Piers Plowman. This is a poem which composes the writer as an intense seeker, a wrathful prophet, a disputatious lay clerk, a wanderer, a joker, a self-critical penitent, a weeping subject longing for humans to let God’s love into their lives, one who prays for God’s grace, worships the Trinity, generates models with which to think about the Trinity and writes a devotedly Christocentric work. Langland is one who presents himself as receiving, exploring and keeping the divine vision in a time of great danger. Perhaps the habitual eschewal of theology in Steven Justice’s work, even when he is writing on faith and miracles in the Middle Ages, may drive him to occlude Christian teleologies in Piers Plowman. But I do see how irritating Aers’s experience of reading the poem might be, an experience Justice describes superbly: “The experience of finding oneself ambushed time and again by a hectic moral urgency that somehow, unexpectedly, holds out a piercing promise of moral beauty.” How I admire the negative capability that enables Justice so faithfully to imitate an “experience” he finds neither congenial nor true to the “deepest rationale” of Piers Plowman. And I do sympathize with his irritation at Aers’s imitation of “a hectic moral urgency” which Steven Justice himself acknowledges is part of Langland’s poem. Many years ago one of my daughters, Lydia, wanted to do something she shouldn’t do. She was four years old. I tried to show her why she shouldn’t act as she currently desired by constructing an exemplum from Milton’s Paradise Lost. After listening attentively, this four-year-old child tactfully but firmly dismissed my approach: “that is very morally morally Daddy.” Across the years that judgement remains with me in all its acuity. So I think I understand something of Justice’s nuanced response to my version of what Langland’s poetry does. But there may be a little more overlap than he allows in our readings. For part of the dialectic I follow in Piers Plowman is one of absence and presence, presence into absence which draws the seeker onwards. This dialectic is found in some of Augustine’s work and is pervasive in some late medieval contemplatives. I learnt this from my most brilliant teacher, Elizabeth Salter, one of the people to whom Beyond Reformation is dedicated (see especially section XVI). But, of course, Walter Hilton (Beyond Reformation, 149–50), like Augustine, is not the kind of postmodern disseminationist into which Justice would make Langland: he is a Christian contemplative seeking the vision of God in the love of Christ.

But I now want to respond to an aspect of Steven Justice’s commentary which I found quite gripping, as it pushed me towards the kind of acknowledgements of our shaping loves that are mostly unwelcome in literary studies. Justice sets out to show that Aers treats Piers Plowman “as a source of understanding.” He succeeds in showing this and quite rightly observes that this is not what “our discipline” (English literary history/criticism) either does or approves. Furthermore he observes that whereas in the past “Aers has made historical arguments” now “he does not make one.” I was a little surprised to read this because, as Sheryl Overmyer noted, I give quite sustained attention to Despenser’s Crusade and its implications. But Justice points to a different topic, my treatment of indulgences and its footnote to the study of indulgences by the historian R. N. Swanson (Indulgences in Late Medieval England, 2007). Steven Justice notes my “distaste” for this massive work. He correctly identifies this: “His [Swanson’s] five hundred pages will tell you everything about indulgences and the debates concerning them, except why they might have mattered so deeply, as boon or scandal, and provoked serious people over several centuries to passionate abuse or defense. This seems to be what bothers Aers about the book.” So, he suggests, Aers thinks Langland gives us “a truer version of history” than the modern professional. But, Steven Justice asks, QUO WARANTO?

He continues to puzzle over this question. Aers does not seem to answer it by “doctrinal authority the way medieval literary scholarship usually does, by quoting the dicta of putative authorities. Not because he does not know them: Aers’s deep reading in medieval theology is in evidence” but this is used “to illuminate Langland,” to help “unpack Langland’s thought, not the authority that warrants believing it.” Considering my use of St. Thomas, Justice observes: “No Thomist fundamentalism here: where Thomas differs from the poem—on the papacy (21–23), on the Eucharist (61–62)—the difference redounds unmistakably to his disadvantage.” So, Justice ruminates, “it is not Aquinas,” or any other theological authority, that “grounds Langland’s claims on our belief. Emphatically not . . .”

What does? Justice rightly notes the presences of MacIntyre and Hauerwas on narrative in the book and this makes him surmise that Aers thinks Langland’s work may be a better guide for Christian theologians than medieval scholasticism because Langland disciplines his theology by Christocentric narratives drawn from the New Testament (Beyond Reformation, 2–3, 28, 97). It is perfectly true that the work I did on the moderni in preparation for writing Salvation and Sin taught me how commentaries on the Sentences systematically eschewed narrative and, more surprisingly to me at that time, eschewed serious engagement with Scripture. But here too Justice’s reading persuades him that even scriptural narratives are not the missing key to authority. Aers “does not first establish what the gospels require and then demonstrate that Piers faithfully grasps and communicates it. It’s the other way round: as the book proceeds, we assemble piecewise a dynamic sense of the Gospels’ demands as, and because, Piers’s own narrative reveals them. This is not an oversight or an inconsistency.” Justice then elaborates this perception of the way Beyond Reformation works. But it leaves the nagging and central question that troubles him.

“So again: what warrant does the book give us for letting Piers call us to account?” Justice plainly shares my own sense of the extraordinary power of Langland’s quite distinctive understanding of the one unforgivable sin and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: unkindness, being “unkynde” to others (XIX. 218–26: Matthew 12:31). But he is uneasy at both Langland’s intensity and my judgement that the poet writes with “authority” in a speech he ascribes to Christ as the Good Samaritan. Once again, QUO WARANTO? Justice decides that Aers “treats the poem as self-warranting.” But that only raises the same question, QUO WARANTO? In trying to make sense of what Aers might be thinking about this, Justice turns to the analysis of “the classic” in Tracy’s Analogical Imagination. But this turns out to be no help since Piers Plowman is definitely not recognized as a “classic.” After all, “Even most English majors never read it.” Surely Aers “cannot help knowing” this? Aers’s love of the poem and the intensity of his engagement with it seems to show someone trying to persuade us why Piers Plowman should become a “classic.” But a classic “discerned before it has become a classic looks surprisingly private.” So why indeed should we “entrust ourselves to such private apperceptions?” Why should we (especially those of us trained in English departments to recognize the folly of approaches such as Aers’) even “believe that poetry can know things, and that we can know things by its means”? Once again, QUO WARANTO?

These are beautiful questions formulated with enviable elegance and coherence. Exactly the kind of questions Langland will elicit from his more attentive readers. As for Aers’s own approach: “Throughout he says, in effect, ‘Look here, look harder, read more carefully. Think. Can’t you hear it, see it?’” What a truthful encapsulation this is of one of the modes I certainly recognize as central to the seminars I am privileged to teach on Langland. Justice’s characterization of what I do and the context of his question (QUO WARANTO?) reminds me of a passage I first invoked in the first book I wrote, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory (1975) page 6. It comes in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.) In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.) (Philosophical Investigations, tr. G. E .M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 1968: 531)

Hence, perhaps, Aers’s, “Look here, look harder, read more carefully. Think . . .” Perhaps I can help someone see what I discern, show them how I see the grammar, the dialectic, the allegory working. Perhaps what I want to communicate can be shown (“Look harder, read more carefully. Think . . .”) but not really demonstrated, proved. But then I wouldn’t leave the matter quite there. I would add that with Langland I work within determinate traditions: back to the passage from Alasdair MacIntyre quoted above in my response to Sheryl Overmyer. So not perhaps quite as “private” as Steven Justice fears? Of course, working against the grain of dominant secular traditions which rarely recognize themselves as such, people inhabiting the traditions I seek to study and follow may well be presented as eccentric, merely “private.” Quo Waranto? The answer Langland gives is teleological. What makes for human flourishing, what makes for the happiness to which God calls human beings has been revealed by “kynde” and by grace. We all work with what we have been given. In love, in exploration, in mutual fraternal correction, we continue the tradition which made us. I recall a passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “there is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. / For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (“East Coker,” V). Even in what might be experienced as defeat and danger, catastrophic defeat, whether Passus XXII of Piers Plowman or, for Milton the restoration of the monarch and the persecuting Church of England in 1660, the resources of the tradition, led by the Spirit, pour hope and perseverance into such subjects and their extraordinary art.

From Milton fallen on the “evil dayes” of the restored national Church and its supreme governor, the restored Crown (Paradise Lost VII. 25–27), I turn to the Milbanks. Although the Milbanks’ response is by far the longest, I am afraid I do not have much to say in reply. Their response seemed to me rather diffuse and oddly incoherent as well as being driven by an ideology quite alien to Langland’s political theology.

I will briefly illustrate the ideological nexus which the Milbanks’ essay assumes and projects. I do so from John Milbank’s latest book, a distinctively Anglican contribution to political theology, as one might expect from a prolific Anglican theologian: The Politics of Virtue (2016). Besides the strong critique of liberalism, the book seeks to show its readers what needs building in England’s green and pleasant land after the collapse of liberalism. This New Jerusalem will maintain a state Church, the reformed Church of England. The Church must not be like the churches of those Christians who opposed both the Roman Church and the churches of the Magisterial Reformation. No congregationalist ecclesiology, no practice of churches as the voluntary communities developed across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Mennonites, Brownists, Baptists, Independents . . .): on the contrary, a new/old Constantinianism in which the state church is at the center of the polity governed by monarch and benevolent elites:

Anglican establishment sustains the ideology that the Church is itself a polity and, indeed, the heart of the English polity, since sacramental coronation alone          ultimately confers legitimacy upon a political system and a constitution that remains creatively unwritten. (230)

Indeed, the lay sovereign will be able to receive the sacrament for the whole society led by just and virtuous elites (230–31). It is to this project that the Milbanks seek to appropriate Piers Plowman, an appropriation to which Beyond Reformation is a most unwelcome impediment.

But probably even more damaging than the imposition of an alien ideology is the Milbanks’ way of treating the modi loquendi in Piers Plowman. They seem unable to give serious attention to the specific contexts and processes of the poem, to what I call its dialectical and dramatic form. Instead they pulverize contexts and form. They even chop and change between the often markedly different B version and C version—if anyone needs an introduction to such differences compare B XV–XVII with their revision in C XVI–XIX. So unaware are they of basic problems in their practice that while discussing the C version they assume the personification anima is present. But Langland deleted Anima from B XV–XVI and substituted Liberum Arbitrium in the C version. Hardly a simple or insignificant change (C XVI–XVII). In Beyond Reformation I explain quite carefully what I mean by Langland’s dialectic and its modes (for example, Beyond Reformation, 98–99). But instead of paying attention to what I actually say about dialectic, they assert that I am imposing Hegel’s dialectic onto a medieval poem. They not only lug in Hegel but assert that their concern with Hegel is actually mine: “it is in this context that one can situate a certain dialectical element, in Aers’ ‘Hegelian’ sense.” But I care as little about Hegel’s “dialectic” as I do about Sartre’s. (Someone who does apparently care about Hegel is John Milbank, “For and Against Hegel,” chapter 6 in Theology and Social Theory, 1990 and 2006). As a matter of rather banal fact, my version of dialectic is something I learnt from studying Langland with the help of certain forms of inquiry followed by late medieval theologians—studies begun and led by Elizabeth Salter, my exquisitely brilliant, erudite teacher and the director of my doctoral dissertation.

It is tempting to move on from here to challenge the Milbanks’ confidence that their way of reading St. Thomas’s understanding of the relations between natural and supernatural is obviously correct as against those benighted scholars dismissed as “largely American Catholic,” whom the Milbanks vilify as “neoscholastic.” But all I will do here is ask readers to compare the treatment of St. Thomas in John Milbank’s The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (2005) with the critique offered by my colleague Reinhard Hütter in Dust Bound for Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (2012), chapters 5 and 6, together with the second edition of Lawrence Feingold’s monumental, profoundly learned study: The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters (2010).


One final cluster of brief reflections. I am not surprised that the Catholic and Anglican theologians in this issue should object to the ecclesiological sketches they find in Beyond Reformation. I am not surprised that they want to believe that Aers must, surely, misrepresent the fourteenth-century Catholic poet whose work he purports to be reading. I am not surprised that these theologians are disconcerted at the encounter with this strange work—in my view, Piers Plowman; in theirs, Beyond Reformation. I did try to anticipate such unease and incredulity by reminding my readers of something unmentioned by any commentator here. I reminded them of Paul’s Church in Corinth and took them on a brief visit there. I observed of this apostolic church: “What a mess!” For the Corinthian Church Paul “became a fool and an evangelist of the gospel’s foolishness to ‘the weak things of the world,’ to ‘the base things of the world and the things that are contemptible’” (Beyond Reformation, 158). Langland fully realizes this in Piers Plowman. Sometimes, reading the responses of the Anglican theologians, with their confident dismissal of Ockham and their commitment to their own genealogical narratives, I could not but recall the grand narratives favored by so-called Radical Orthodoxy and the recent one by Brad Gregory which I referred to earlier. And just as I quoted some reflections from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as I tried to think with Steven Justice about how I work, so now I will quote some other reflections from that work:

The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.—We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground! (Philosophical Investigations, 107)

What Wittgenstein says about “logic” has, in my view, relevance to the inclinations and modes of much grand narrative currently being assumed as well as being written. So, thinking about the late fourteenth century and Langland’s final version of Piers Plowman, “Back to the rough ground!” There we will find, among many other painful conflicts, something I did touch on in Beyond Reformation. Langland’s Church had two warring popes and for some time would have three: if our theologians were to visit the literature written during this time they would find some surprises which might, perhaps, help their thinking about the discursive and practical webs to which Langland belonged. As he was writing, a man later to be a cardinal was observing that the whole Church except baptized infants might fall into error (compare Ockham in Beyond Reformation, section XIII); he also surmised that if God destroyed Rome as he had destroyed Sodom, the universal church could licitly abandon the Church of Rome. This was Pierre d’Ailly. And at the Council of Constance, which would effect the deposition of popes to end the Schism, Jean Gerson argued that the pope was not absolutely necessary to the Council. God himself would provide for his indefectible Spouse (figured forth so memorably in Piers Plowman, Passus I). And he can do so without a pope. These matters are well covered in a copious historical literature which might remind theologians of something they would never deny in theory but might, in practice, prefer to set aside. Namely, that Christians do theology in determinate, often utterly baffling historical circumstances and they do so with the resources of a tradition that speaks with many, many voices, often contradictory voices. These Christians do theology in a wide range of genres which themselves demand close attention. They do not inhabit a grand, ornate invulnerable ark—like the Titanic? They are in a fragile little boat in which terrified disciples cry out in the storm to their apparently inattentive Lord: “Domine, salva nos, perimus [Lord, save us, we perish]” (Matthew 8:23–27).

  1. I thank Jessica Ward, my research assistant, for help in presenting this response.

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