Duty and delight

ENGLISH WRITER William Langland’s thirteenth-century poem Piers Plowman took place in a dream. In that dream, in an episode called the “plowing of the half-acre,” the people of an unnamed kingdom—disillusioned with their society—sought out a mysterious figure named “Piers the Plowman,” who represented true Christianity and the possibility of redeemed humanity. They asked him to lead them in a pilgrimage to Truth.

But Piers responded that they needed to help him plow his half-acre of ground first. He organized them in a way that reflected the ideals of medieval society: everyone was to work on the plowing except for the knights, whose job it was to protect the rest. 

To explain whether the journey commenced, we need first to step back a few centuries to the roots of that ideal medieval society. For medieval Christians, the word “vocation” referred first and foremost to salvation. All Christians, by virtue of their baptism, had been “called out” from their sins and offered a share in God’s eternal kingdom. They saw themselves as pilgrims on a journey—on which they feared Jesus’ warning, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” To be among the called was not necessarily to be one whom God had chosen to persevere on the difficult path from this world to the life to come. 

On my journey home

For medievals, on one hand, this world was created by God and showed forth his glory. On the other, it was fallen and sinful, a “vale of tears,” a “Babylon” where believers were exiled, hoping to escape and return to their true home. This tension derived ultimately from the classical heritage Christians had inherited from Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle saw virtue as participation in the human community and care for the common good; his writings shaped an understanding of how medieval societies fostered virtue and happiness. On the other hand, Plato understood the human soul as a heavenly entity trapped in a physical body. Human desires (for food, sex, drink, and the like) distracted from the desire to return to God from whom all things had proceeded. This strand of classical thought stood behind medieval understanding of Jesus’ harsh words about taking up the cross. 

Medievals expressed this as a division between the “active” and “contemplative” Christian life, symbolized by Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament and Martha and Mary in the New. In both cases, though the more active “elder sister” was necessary, the ”younger sister” was the more spiritually gifted and more central in salvation history. 

Sixth-century bishop of Rome Gregory I exemplified this tension. A Roman aristocrat, Gregory, like many of his generation, renounced wealth and position to become a monk. But power pursued him into his new, unworldly life, where he was given increasingly important assignments and eventually elected pope. Throughout his career Gregory struggled with the conflict between his exalted office and his personal ascetic calling—a struggle that caused him to describe the pope’s role in terms of Jesus’ command to serve the least, as “servant of the servants of God.” 

Why did Gregory struggle so? Because medieval Christians believed the surest way of journeying to the heavenly homeland successfully was by belonging to a monastic community committed to poverty, chastity, and obedience, and by the observance of the “evangelical counsels,” namely the teachings of Jesus in all their rigor. To be a monk or a nun was to hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Sell everything you have, leave your family, and come, follow me.” This was a particularly intense version of the call addressed to all Christians in baptism. But as the Christian Roman Empire crumbled in Western Europe and barbarian warlords set up new kingdoms in its shattered shell, monasticism seemed at times the only authentic way to live out one’s baptismal calling. 

Kings and priests

For two groups of people to whom the welfare of Christian society was entrusted—kings and members of the clergy—vocation was more public than a monastery. Priests and bishops taught, administered the sacraments, and (less explicitly) carried on Rome’s cultural legacy. Kings bore the name “the Lord’s Anointed” like Old Testament monarchs or Christian Roman emperors. For both, providing for the welfare of the people stood in tension with individual salvation. At the very least, the stress of public affairs left little contemplative time. But being involved in the world had a deeper problem: there one was entangled in structures shaped by basic human desires for pleasure, for wealth, and for power over others. 

The activities involved with these three desires were themselves innocent, necessary parts of created life in this world. But according to the Augustinian theology dominating medieval Christianity, all three were radically corrupted by sin; the desire fueling them would always tend to drag people away from God. To be holy “in the world” required one to eat only for sustenance, have sex only to have children, and engage in economic and political activity only for the common good. But human sinfulness made all of these things almost impossibly difficult

in practice. 

Clergy were to avoid sex in principle, although this was not compulsory for parish clergy until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Monarchs and other well-born laypeople had no exemption; one of their principal duties was to produce heirs to carry on the family line. For some pious monarchs, such as Earl Magnus of Orkney (twelfth century), who spent his honeymoon in prayer and never went near his bride, this was a serious problem. 

The burden of producing heirs weighed especially heavily on aristocratic women, for whom procreation was not just one of their worldly duties—it was by far their most important. Over and over again, pious queens and ladies sought to escape this duty, taking vows of celibacy instead of—or even in—marriage, or seeking to be released from the “marital debt” after producing the necessary heirs. 


No getting away from it all

Neither clergy nor laity could avoid economic activity either. Donations from laypeople made monasteries great landowners, and their cultural and educational activities gave them massive influence. Monasteries were central to the economic revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and, according to some scholars, instrumental in the early growth of capitalism. The Cistercian reform movement of the twelfth century, even while trying to avoid wealth and political entanglements, opened previously uninhabited areas to economic development. Yet these economic activities troubled many spiritually serious people—they seemed to contradict the very purpose of monasticism. 

Leaders could not escape politics any more than economics. Bishops and abbots held key political offices and sometimes led armies. Church leaders were the best educated, and often most talented, members of the upper classes: noble families disposed of surplus male heirs in church positions and placed extra daughters in convents. Many convents (such as famous eleventh-century mystic and intellectual Hildegard of Bingen’s establishment) allowed only upper-class members. 

Monarchs found the tension between political power and salvation sharp indeed. The church praised effective monarchs such as Charlemagne and Alfred the Great and often treated them as saints after their deaths because of their roles in defending the faith. But for some pious rulers, the bloodshed and self-promotion required proved too troubling. Earl Magnus and Russian princes Boris and Gleb all let themselves be killed by unscrupulous relatives and rivals rather than assert their rights by force. These royal victims too were canonized as saints, their nonresistance seen as imitating Christ rather than failing to exercise effective rule. 

By the High Middle Ages (eleventh–twelfth centuries), agricultural innovations had led to population growth, economic growth, and increased urbanization. Politics stabilized, and literature in Latin and vernacular languages flourished. The church experienced a wave of reforms leading to a sharper sense of its spiritual mission—and to the need for strict discipline so the clergy would carry out its task of preaching and sacramental ministry without fooling around with food, drink, and sex. 

These reforms coincided with a growth in Christian commitment by ordinary laypeople. The “Peace of God” movement (aimed at ending violence in Europe) and the Crusades, while spurred on by clerical initiatives, were carried out by mass movements of laypeople of all social classes. Eventually some lay movements rejected the authority of church hierarchy altogether, claiming for laypeople the callings to preach and teach. 


Saints, pilgrims, and hermits 

Soon the growing cities of twelfth-century northern Italy gave rise to an almost entirely new phenomenon: saints who were not clergy, monarchs, nuns, or monks. Some were of humble origins, others were prosperous, and one was a knight. Some were merchants; others engaged in manual trades. One, Teobaldo of Alba, began as a shoemaker and chose to become a porter as an act of asceticism—a less prestigious, more demanding position. Some spent lengthy periods of time as hermits—20 years in a forest, in the case of Gualfrado of Verona (d. 1127). All lived lives of ascetic self-denial; most did not marry.

Layman Raimondo Palmiero entered into an arranged marriage, but after four children suggested to his wife that they should abstain from sex. His wife said that since she wasn’t a nun she saw no reason to act like one. They had one more child, but after her death he gave away his possessions and went on a pilgrimage. 

These lay saints often used the proceeds of their labors to provide for the poor and to build conveniences for travelers and pilgrims. They sometimes involved themselves heavily in civic politics. In his later years, Palmiero tried to stem violence in his native city of Piacenza (for which he was imprisoned), criticized his local bishop for not doing more, and organized a procession of beggars who marched through the streets shouting, “Help me, help me, cruel harsh Christians, for I am dying of hunger while you live in abundance.” 

In the thirteenth century the role played by lay saints was taken over in many ways by the “mendicant” (begging) monastic movements, particularly Franciscans. Francis of Assisi in fact resembled his twelfth-century urban Italian predecessors who had sought to live lives of self-denial and devotion to the poor. 

The other mendicant order, the Dominicans, did not have as charismatic a founder or as popular a touch. But they were immensely effective preachers and, along with Franciscans, soon came to dominate university theological education. The greatest Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, used Aristotle to articulate Christian virtue as conducive to happiness in this world as well as in the world to come and Christian social ethics as a means of caring for the common good of earthly society. 

For Aquinas contemplation of divine things flowed out in active ministry to the world (see “Did you know?,” inside front cover). While Aquinas himself belonged to a religious order, his writings mapped out ways lay Christians could live according to divine law in the world, seeking both earthly happiness and eternal salvation. 

Franciscans and Dominicans also developed “third orders,” men and women who lived “in the world” while committed to a version of the monastic lifestyle. Other laity joined the Brethren of the Common Life (source of Thomas à Kempis’s devotional classic The Imitation of Christ). At the heart of the Brethren movement was a network of lay men and women committed to spiritual disciplines and to living in the world with hearts entirely fixed on God. Similar movements existed on the boundaries of, or outside, church approval: Beghards (for men), Beguines (for women), and Lollards. The last appealed to lower–middle-class men and women and developed a flourishing network of lay preachers. 


Wine, women, and song

All these movements dedicated themselves to evangelizing a surprisingly secular society. The sophisticated courtly culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries showed little interest in religion and sometimes even outright hostility. The hero of one medieval French romance told an old hermit he had no desire to go to heaven because only priests and monks went there. Rather he wanted to go to hell with all the brave knights and beautiful ladies. 

Latin poetry attributed to the anonymous “Archpoet” parodied the liturgy to proclaim the good of wine, women, and song: “To everyone nature has given a different gift. I myself have never been able to write while fasting.” Most people seem to have genuinely believed that church teachings were true and they should be reconciled with God before they died. But for most of their lives, they sought their vocations according to values different from those promoted by clergy or by earnest movements of lay piety. 

Indeed late medieval literature often breathed exuberant joy as much as austere devotion: in the beauty of spring, in the delights of love, good food, and laughter at human folly. Medievals knew both how to fast and to feast, how to rejoice and to mourn. Many Christian writers combined their piety with this-worldly zest and were concerned with following their baptismal call in social and economic matters. Famous Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s greatest work, Divine Comedy, dealt not only with the afterlife but with this life—imagining a human society lost in sin, journeying to the heavenly homeland, and redeemed and transformed by grace.

Dante’s paradise included men and women Dante had known or who were famous in public life. He even met people still concerned with the state of Florence and of Europe. Greed and corruption in civil politics, the French domination of the papacy, the ambiguities of romantic love which could both damn and redeem—all found a place in Dante’s masterpiece. For Dante, the baptismal vocation meant not escaping the world but transforming it. 

And so we return to Piers Plowman. William Langland wrote his long dream allegory amid late fourteenth-century social instability. In the wake of the Black Death, traditional understandings of a harmonious society in which each person was born to a divinely appointed “station” were falling apart. Social mobility through accumulating wealth was more and more possible, but losers in the economic game were bitter and angry. Peasant leader John Ball marched on London under a slogan of social equality: “When Adam dug and Eve span [spun], who was then the gentleman?” 


“Give what you owe” 

Langland’s poem largely blamed these social instabilities on the figure of “Lady Meed”: the vibrant early capitalism that made the later Middle Ages so culturally and socially dynamic. In the poem Lady Meed seduced most of the powerful people in the kingdom in spite of being accused of serious crimes. But not everyone agreed that she was evil. The word “meed” could also simply imply the legitimate reward a person was owed. Was Meed evil, or corrupted through those lusting after her? Could society ever be constructed without regard to the desire for reward and material gain? 

When the people sought out Piers Plowman, it was through disillusionment with Lady Meed. But her influence proved inescapable. When Piers organized the company to plow, many people didn’t want to work. Piers, in desperation, sent for Hunger to force them. This broke the bonds that held society together, and no more was heard of a pilgrimage to Truth. 

Like other reform-minded authors, Langland warned that pilgrimages and indulgences could not replace genuine conversion and a life based on love of neighbor. The quest for individual salvation was futile without attention to proper ordering of society with regard for the common good and the business of ordinary work. The pilgrimage that pleased God was the pilgrimage to Truth, which was impossible until the half-acre was plowed. But the half-acre never did get plowed. 

That frustration characterized many devout people at the close of the Middle Ages. The promise of a truly Christian society, in which people lived out their baptismal vocation in the station to which God had called them, seemed elusive. The tension between the ascetic demands of mainstream medieval piety and the joys and demands of life in this world seemed irreconcilable. 

Ironically this resulted from medieval Christianity’s success as well as its failure. Over time a critical mass of lay Christians had come to take the summons to live out their baptismal calling in the world with deadly seriousness. That was why Martin Luther’s radical solutions soon gained so much traction—solutions that created tensions and paradoxes of their own. CH

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #110 in 2014]

Edwin Woodruff Tait is a contributing editor at Christian History.
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