This essay argues that William Langland’s great poem Piers Plowman poses serious questions both to the tradition of the virtues that Langland inherited and to the possibility of their authentic embodiment in the contemporary Church Langland knew. Moving from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Hobbes and back again to Langland, the essay finds Langland imagining a troubling history in which the meaning of moral concepts is transformed and the powers of moral discernment baffled. Langland’s pictures of response to this scenario are enigmatic and elusive but potentially figure forth a revolutionary transformation of a Church embroiled in Constantinian forms of Christianity. The essay therefore posits a Langlandian vision contrary to some recent trends in the historiography of the late medieval Church and some recent accounts of Piers Plowman itself. Crucial to Langland’s concerns is the question of what sort of agents revolution might require, as well as what sort of eschatology might sustain them and what sort of community they might inhabit. In its search for answers Langland’s poem discredits ideologies of magisterial reformation. Langland offers instead significant gestures toward alternative forms of Christian community and authority, while likewise refusing to relinquish his abiding commitment to the Christian Church as a visible, historical polity.
David Aers; Langland on the Church and the End of the Cardinal Virtues. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 January 2012; 42 (1): 59–81. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-1473100
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