As many readers might not know, my “day job” is as a medievalist, specifically as a graduate student working on the literature, philosophy, and theology of the middle ages. One poem, more than any other, motivated me to enter this field of study; that work happens to be deeply Christian, immensely challenging, and, despite what some might say, always enjoyable. The poem is Piers Plowman, a 14th-century alliterative, allegorical dream vision written by William Langland. My first experience of it was as much an exhortation to Christianity as it was a push toward this specific discipline.
Why write about it here though?
Well, just yesterday I was reading David Aers’ new essay Beyond Reformation, which boldly states the poem’s continued relevance for the Church:
“And in pursuing it [the topic of de-Christianization] I will sometimes bring Langland into dialogue with Pope John Paul II writing in the 1990s—for the poet’s responses to the pressures that led him to such a concern have striking implications for John Paul’s ecclesiology.”
He then goes on, in the preface alone, to quote or mention Thomas Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor: all names of interest for those navigating our increasingly post-Christian society.
Throughout time, the poem has been claimed to be a lot of things: clearly proto-Protestant, decidedly and unabashedly in line with the medieval Church, or somewhere between, presenting a spirit of reform not unlike, say, the early Franciscans. Aers’ take is unique, but has little bearing on why I am writing.
I am writing because Piers Plowman directly asks what the Church is to do in times of turmoil, overt or otherwise, when doctrine seems incomprehensible to some, yet cannot be abandoned, when corruption of all sorts seems to dominate, yet when we are all called to put God first.
It’s not, ultimately, a poem for everyone. I recall that when I first read it, my professor said something like “only about two of you will like this poem.” I can’t say I know if he was right, but I do know that I fell in love with a poem that deepened (and really in some ways led me into) my faith. It exists in at least three distinct versions (A, B, and C, each representing stages in its textual development); it exists in many translations (as it was written in Middle English). Still, I believe it (especially the B and C versions) to be worth the time of modern, non-academic readers interested in living the faith in a seemingly faithless world. Or, as Aers says of the protagonist: “His vision included a strange sense that in his own historical moment some moral concepts were being transformed and some traditions he cherished were becoming unintelligible.”
It’s also among the places Tolkien derived his idea of “Middle-earth”; just one among many reasons to tolle lege.