Aers, David. Beyond Reformation?: An Essay on William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the End of Constantinian Christianity. U of Notre Dame P, 2015. xix + 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0268020460. $35.00 paper.
David Aers opens this absorbing study with the disarming claim that it is a “somewhat idiosyncratic little book” (ix). Certainly, his book is not aimed solely at Langlandians or even scholars of medieval literature; its sustained close reading of the C-text of Piers Plowman informs a wider discussion of ecclesiastical reform, drawing the poem into conversation not only with relevant debates of the late-fourteenth century and the Reformation, but also with more recent anxieties expressed by the Catholic Church with respect to the march of secularism and the de-Christianization of present-day society. To frame his argument, Aers draws not only on expected figures such as Augustine, Aquinas and Wyclif, and on Langland’s contemporaries, including Chaucer, Walter Hilton and Julian of Norwich, but also, more surprisingly, on the thought of Milton, Hobbes, and John Paul II. Aers’s desire to introduce Langland to a broader audience is apparent in a number of features that will make the work accessible to those who are not specialists, namely the inclusion of Derek Pearsall’s summary of the C-text and the printing of George Economou’s translations alongside Langland’s Middle English.
As the preface demonstrates, Aers’s argument is informed by a number of influential narratives about ideologies of reform throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, including works by Charles Taylor, Eamon Duffy and James Simpson. While generously acknowledging the contribution of such studies, Aers makes it clear that the subtlety of Langland’s thought has not always been well served by arguments that offer a grand narrative either of traditional religion or of movements of reform and revolution. His study aims to demonstrate that Langland moved beyond the concept of reformation, advancing not the correction of Church institutions, but rather a species of what Aers calls congregationalism, a form of Christian community centred on domestic gatherings that recall those of the early Church (160). In Langland’s view, the donation of Constantine was a formative disaster for the Church, which led it to become enmeshed in political and economic fabric of the world; the entire poem can be understood as an extensive meditation on the damaging effects of Constantinian Christianity, as well as an attempt to imagine a better model for the Christian community.
The form of this study is one of its most striking and successful features. The title insists that it is an essay, which builds a single coherent argument about the central concern of Langland’s great work. Supporting this idea, and indicating Aers’s warm appreciation of Langland’s manner of proceeding, the book is divided not into chapters, but into 17 passus or steps, designed to recall the 22 passus of Langland’s C-text. The structure of the book thus encourages us to read Aers’s essay as the amplification of a central theme in all its complexity, and to remind us that the argument of Langland’s poem is built upon a model of sustained progression, which can only be properly understood when considered in its entirety, and which is poorly served by critical approaches that focus only on selective episodes. As Aers demonstrates with great sensitivity, Langland’s poem is “dazzlingly polyvocal, multigeneric, and dialectical” (xi), but the multiplicity of perspectives is not to be mistaken for a lack of moral and intellectual precision.
Given his central concern with Constantinian Christianity, it is unsurprising that a large part of Aers’s argument is taken up with what might be called ecclesiastical politics. He begins by considering the extraordinary display of divine power in the Harrowing of Hell episode in Passus XX of Piers Plowman, and notes that Langland’s account of divine power is always tempered by a focus on Christ’s burning desire to save mankind (2). This account of divine power and love provides a frame for a number of arguments in the early part of the book, including the role of coercion and fear in the Christian polity. From his consideration of the Harrowing of Hell, Aers progresses to another famous critical crux of the poem, namely Truth’s Pardon, an episode which demonstrates the limited powers of the Church’s ministers, who, in Aers’s formulation, can only declare Christ’s forgiveness to those who fulfil Christ’s conditions (11). This diminished role for the ordained clergy extends to other sacraments, and is most fully exemplified in the absence of any reference to a pope in the Pentecostal community (21). While Aers acknowledges the relevance of Wyclif to such arguments, he focuses here on a less obvious parallel, which he finds in the writings of William of Ockham against the forms of power and jurisdiction that would endow the church with temporal, secular power (29-32).
While the focus of Aers’ essay is very much on theological matters, readers will not be surprised to find considerable attention paid to the significant political and social challenges of the day, including the demographic and economic impact of the Black Death, the Statute of Labourers, and the emergence of a powerful mercantile class. These secular concerns are essential to the argument about the pernicious effects of Constantinian Christianity, since a church so thoroughly implicated in the world and its workings cannot remain untainted by the secular polity and its shifting values. Indeed, Aers demonstrates convincingly that Langland emphatically believed that one of the most negative effects of Constantinian Christianity is that it enables a process whereby “unkynde,” unnatural practices can become normalized in a Christian community, that even a community with a church in its midst might generate de-Christianization (47). In such a church, a cardinal virtue such as Spiritus prudencie can be debased into worldly wisdom and guile (87). This dynamic is crucial in helping us to understand the partial and imperfect authority of figures such as Kynde Wit and Conscience in Langland’s work.
As Aers notes, James Simpson has drawn attention to the slipperiness in the meaning of words denoting the cardinal virtues; Aers goes further, however, to argue that Langland shows “how words and versions of the virtues slip, slide, and perish because they belong to particular cultural practices and habits which themselves change, decay and perish” (76). This insight leads Aers to a thought-provoking (and, as he acknowledges, imperfect) parallel between Langland and Thomas Hobbes, based on Hobbes’ sustained critique of paradiastole, a rhetorical technique designed to describe an adversary’s claims to virtues in terms of adjacent vices, which renders moral language alarmingly malleable (85-6). Pulling back from the Hobbesian parallel, Aers proceeds to demonstrate a similar concern at work in Langland, for example in Nede’s version of temperance, which is a woefully diminished travesty of the virtue we find in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (90).
A key figure in Langland’s argument is Conscience, and Aers meticulously demonstrate that Conscience is no perfect guide in Piers Plowman, but in fact makes repeated errors. For example, Conscience is shown to have a limited and imperfect understanding of “kynde,” imagining it as a force akin to the planetary deity Saturn in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; Conscience wrongly assumes that those attacked by illness, age and death will repent and become more perfect Christians (106-7). Langland demonstrates that this understanding is misguided; Kynde does not bring violence to anyone, and encourages Wille to practice only love, though Wille can only come to understand this through a long and often erring journey (107-14).
Towards the end of his study, Aers pauses to reflect on some of the ideological paths that were open to Langland, but which he chose not to take. Conscience, for example, is shown to exhibit a millenarian vision that recalls Joachite traditions; but while Langland examines such visions, he also critiques and supersedes them (120). What vision of church history, then, does Langland advance in his poem? Aers argues compellingly that Langland locates the indefectibility of Christ’s church in a “tiny dissident minority,” a group known as “foles” (125). In this, Langland participates in a tradition stretching back to the early church, but also looking forward to the kinds of congregation that emerged in the English Reformation “both in opposition to the magisterial Reformation and in opposition to the restored Roman Catholicism of Mary Tudor” (160). In Aers’s reading, the Roman church of Langland’s day is a demonic simulacrum of the Pentecostal church of the Holy Spirit and Piers, which obstructs the visions of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit and dissolves the memory of true Christian doctrine (171).
The scholarship on display in this book is impressive, but contemporary debates within Langland studies are not allowed to intrude excessively on the progress of the argument; Aers foregrounds classic studies by Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter, while keeping his focus firmly on Langland’s text. As noted earlier, Aers brings Langland’s work into dialogue with a number of his contemporaries, including Chaucer and Walter Hilton, but I was surprised to see no engagement with Gower’s account of Constantine and Sylvester in Confessio Amantis. Such caveats aside, it would be impossible to deny the passion and erudition Aers brings to his exposition of Langland’s poem, which is shown here to be a work marked by extraordinary complexity, but also intellectual rigor and moral clarity. In many ways, this is an idiosyncratic little book, as its author acknowledges, but it is one that provides a compelling reading of the challenging poem at its heart, while also advancing Langland’s claims to a more prominent position in English literary and intellectual history. In it, Aers has achieved something quite remarkable, advancing a provocative reading that will surely challenge many specialists, while also making Langland accessible to scholars with little previous exposure to Piers Plowman.
Trinity College Dublin