From Plowing to Penitence: Piers Plowman and Fourteenth-Century Theology

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Denise N. Baker, Associate Dean (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: Perhaps no episode in medieval literature has proven as puzzling to modern readers as the pardon scene in the B text of Piers Plowman. Critics continue to debate whether the document which Piers receives in Passus VII is a pardon. The document is, after all, sent by Truth, the divine authority whose tower overshadows the fair field. Its message - "Et qui bona egerunt ibunt in vitam eternam; / Qui vero mala in ignem eternum" - is an article of the Athanasian Creed and thus an orthodox tenet of the faith. Moreover, critics who argue that Truth's document is a pardon maintain that its text is consistent with the theme of the Visio. Frank, for example, contends that "the message of the pardon, do well, is a logical culmination of the doctrine of labor and good works preached throughout the Visio. If the pardon is no pardon, if do well is not the way to salvation, the reader has been led down the garden path by a most irresponsible poet."' Many readers of Piers Plowman remain uncomfortable with this interpretation, however, because, contrary to what we expect, Piers himself tears up the parchment from Truth and vows to change his life. Piers's response is hardly that of a man who accepts "do wel and haue wel" as a pardon, and his action forces us to examine what doing well meant to a medieval audience. If we place the poem in a historical context, we discover the importance of a crucial theological controversy of the fourteenth century to the understanding of the issues involved in the pardon scene. The relationship between the "doctrine of labor and good works" expressed in Truth's pardon and in the theological debate between the Augustinians and the Nominalists demonstrates conclusively that Langland does not intend Truth's pardon as a true pardon.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 1980
Piers Plowman, Literature

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