Beyond Reformation?

An Essay on William Langland's Piers Plowman and the End of Constantinian Christianty

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David Aers
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , November
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Beyond Reformation is a singular and immensely rewarding book, a theological meditation on the nature of the Church and the Christian life by means of a close engagement with the Middle-English poem Piers Plowman. Difficult to summarize, the book reads as something of a marvelous fugue, with themes and authors appearing, disappearing, and reappearing transformed into new guises as author David Aers imitates the dialectical processes of his poetic subject. In this respect and many others, Beyond Reformation invites comparison with Vittorio Montemaggi’s recent Reading Dante’s Commedia as Theology (Oxford University Press, 2016), whose structure, likewise, imitates that of its own very different monument of medieval poetry. Both books evidence the way in which scholars of the great medieval poems are leading the way for those of us working at the intersection of theology and literature, and more broadly, all those interested in reimagining the shape and aims of academic writing itself.

In order to aid the reader’s journey through his “idiosyncratic little book” (ix), Aers provides an orienting preface in which he lays out the main aims and arguments of his “essay.” Here he situates his book in relation to “those who give us big stories about the relations between the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and modernity” (x), saying that his essay will argue that attentive reading of Piers Plowman destabilizes our assumed conceptions of the medieval, given William Langland’s persistent and compelling depiction of the “de-Christianization” of his 14th century society. At the juncture of late medieval and Reformation studies, Aers aims his critique at the “big stories” which posit a fundamental break between the medieval and the early modern periods (Eamon Duffy, James Simpson, and others are mentioned). Furthermore, he hopes to bring out Langland’s unique way of imagining the two major categories of his title, “Reformation” and “Constantinianism.” Finally, Aers invokes the dictum of Thomas Aquinas’s ex modo loquendi datur nobis doctrina (“we receive teaching according to the way it is said”) as a guide for the literary close reading that will compose the principal method of his essay.

Aers begins the book (passus [steps] I-IV) by contrasting Langland’s portrayal of the Pentecostal community and its “pope,” Piers the Plowman, with the institutionalized power of the late medieval Papacy. Here he introduces William Ockham, a recurring interlocutor, to elucidate Langland’s attitudes towards temporal power and coercive violence, and also demonstrates the main method employed in Beyond Reformation: close reading of important events at the close of Piers Plowman as the last stages of its nuanced and ongoing dialectic processes. Next (in steps VI-X), Aers addresses the scene immediately following in the poem in which Piers the Plowman has left the Church in the care of Conscience, and a process of “de-Christianization” seems to occur almost immediately, characterized by the “paradiastolic” speech of Conscience’s congregants, who use the names of the cardinal virtues to refer to their opposites.

Meanwhile, in the poem the armies of Antichrist assail the church—among them pope and prelates—and Aers turns (in steps X-XIV) to draw out Langland’s refusal to embrace calls for violent reformation of the church as exemplified in John Wyclif’s writings, and in Joachite apocalypticism. Instead of seeing lay power as capable of disciplining a corrupt church hierarchy, Langland depicts lay elites as equally aligned with Antichrist’s forces. This total corruption of the church is most dramatically represented in the portrayal of the sacrament of penance at the end of the poem, when it has become transformed by the collaboration of friars and lay elites into an institutionalized opiate.

As a result of this penetrating evaluation of his contemporary world, Langland locates the indefectibility of the true church—that is, its continuity from Christ to the present day—in “fools,” a dissident remnant without temporal power, rather than in the institutional church (steps XV-XVII ). For Aers, Langland and his church of fools recognize that the institutions created by Constantinian Christianity are nothing but “at best, parodic simulacra of the Pentecostal church with its allegorical edifice and evangelical leaders, Holy Spirit and Piers the Plowman” (143). The church’s true nature, unity, and authority are spiritual, as contrasted to the concreteness of temporal institution and magisterium, just as the elusive, pilgrim figure of Piers the Plowman is distinguished from the kingly and prominent popes of Langland’s Rome.

Beyond Reformation will prove fruitful reading for anyone engaging in questions of political theology, ecclesiology, and ethics regardless of their familiarity with medieval literature, as well as proving stimulating for those who are specialists in the literature and religion of late medieval and early modern Europe. The book also serves well as an introduction to materials which may be unfamiliar due to Aers’s ability to shed light on big questions through close, literary reading of his texts—and it is a profitable reading for the specialist for the same reason.

Because Beyond Reformation consists of a series of sustained engagements with Piers Plowman, a poem presenting its own steep learning curve, readers with and without experience in Langland will likely experience Aers’s book very differently. The broader cases which Aers argues in historiography and theology will likely appear more convincing to the reader who has already spent time ruminating on and digesting Langland’s great work. On the other hand, it is likely that the reader with no experience in Piers Plowman will find in Aers’s rich interpretations an intriguing introduction to a poem whose strange allure and haunting profundity always repays deeper study.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles "Austin" Rivera is a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Aers is James B. Duke Professor of English and Historical Theology with appointments in both the English Department and in the Divinity School at Duke University. His many publications include Sanctifying Signs: Making Christian Tradition in Late Medieval England(2004) and Salvation and Sin: Augustine, Langland, and Fourteenth-Century Theology (2009), both published by the University of Notre Dame Press.


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