What is charity? William Langland’s answers with some diachronic questions
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. Charity turns out to be the virtue which is both the root and the fruit of salvation in Langland’s Piers Plowman, a late fourteenth-century poem, the greatest theological poem in English. It takes time, suffering and error upon error for Wille, the central protagonist in Piers Plowman, to grasp Charity. Wille is both a figure of the poet and a power of the soul, voluntas, the subject of charity. Langland’s poem offers a profound and beautiful exploration of Charity and the impediments to Charity, one in which individual and collective life is inextricably bound together. This exploration is characteristic of late medieval Christianity. As such it is also an illuminating work in helping one identify and understand what happened to this virtue in the Reformation. Only through diachronic studies which engage seriously with medieval writing and culture can we hope to develop an adequate grasp of the outcomes of the Reformation in theology, ethics and politics, and, I should add, the remakings of what we understand by “person” in these outcomes. Although this essay concentrates on one long and extremely complex medieval work, it actually belongs to a diachronic inquiry. This will only be explicit in some observations on Calvin when I consider Langland’s treatment of Christ’s crucifixion and in some concluding suggestions about the history of this virtue.
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