This article examines John Bunyan’s relationship to traditions of representing labor reaching back before the Reformation, from Piers Plowman and its imitators through to a range of “plowman” satires, complaints, and reformist dialogues in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bunyan’s provocative rejection of the virtues of labor in part one of The Pilgrim’s Progress brings together theological convictions about justification by faith with a vision of mechanic mobility and schooling in the Spirit that disrupts a range of social forms and hierarchies. Yet in part two of The Pilgrim’s Progress, particularly in the figure of Mercie, Bunyan offers up a new valuation of the exemplarist potentials of labor. Part two expands rather than contracts Bunyan’s exploration of the active life of dissent, reimagining questions of embodiment, habituation, imitation, and community. Mercie’s labors are performed in continuity with a late medieval tradition linking work and virtue. Her example prompts reconsideration both of Bunyan’s own dissenting allegories and of the uses of literary forms and ethical traditions across conventional period boundaries and confessional identities.
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William Revere; The Conditions of Mercy: Bunyan, Labor, and the Literal Sense. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 May 2020; 50 (2): 403–429. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-8219614
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