from an illuminated initial in a Piers Plowman manuscript held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford
The decline of Christendom
As Roger Garaudy wrote in The Alternative Future, ‘it all began with money’, with the forces of usury circumventing, and later breaking, the religious prohibition of interest-taking. Then came commercial transactions in land, which struck a mortal blow against feudalism. Finally it was the turn of human labour, with man himself turned into a commodity by the slave trade and with the establishment of the wages system. The labour force was transformed into a commodity, subject, like all others, to the laws of the market.
The common acceptance of the need to combat the relentless encroachments of usury upon the social organism, as demonstrated especially in the excommunicative strictures of Council of Lyons (1274), marked the epitome of the medieval synthesis, a time when Europe was as close to being unified as it would ever be. And it was the papal role in calling the Council and others like it that demonstrated the role of the Christian Church in holding together a diverse, scattered, heterogeneous collection of people in a common citizenship, as a spiritual confraternity. The Church became responsible for education, art, literature, the care of the poor and the comfort of the dying.
Immediately after the Council of Lyons, however, Christian unity was irredeemably shattered by political rivalries in which the papacy itself was often a participant.
William Langland’s poem “Piers the Ploughman” (written ca. 1360–87) is the perfect expression of this decline with its sense of ruin, yet hope for rebirth should the right choices be made. The anguished protests of the poem ring out against the defeat of true Christianity by the spirit of hardened selfishness.
The dream landscape into which we are drawn furthers this idea of choice through symbolic imagery. The wilderness is the earth and the unknown dangers it entails. The tower on a “toft” in the east is heaven; the deep dale and its dungeon are hell. These two put the poem in a cosmic perspective. What lies between the two extremes of heaven and hell is Langland’s major concern: namely, the Field Full of Folk which represents the Christian community. The presence of heaven and hell reminds the reader that choices made during the transitory life on earth have eternal consequences. One is, in effect, challenged to choose between heaven and hell.
The complete social spectrum is portrayed in the Field Full of Folk: the three estates, the rich and thepoor, men and women. At once the element of choice appears. The people are “werking and wandering as the world asketh.” Clearly the world’s demand is interpreted in two different ways: there are those who work hard and obey the strictest dictates of their social position and estate, and there are those who selfishly accumulate material goods. Yet Langland is not being morally ambiguous, for the distinction between the right choice and the wrong choice is clear-cut. Hardworking plowmen,anchorites and hermits who keep to their cells, and guiltless minstrels are the sort who are bound for heaven. The rest—gluttons, hermits in a heap, and friars, just to name a few—are the sort who are bound for hell. They have made the world and its pursuits their all. Notably, of those who have chosen worldliness, half are from the clerical estate. This spiritual rot undermines the Christian community throughout Piers Plowman and causes its final collapse.
A believer in the papacy, Langland deplored the failure of papal leadership and the pope’s growing encroachment on secular matters. Dante, too, was a devout Catholic who was a critic of the political ambitions of the papacy, his great poem the culminating achievement of the medieval synthesis.
The popes of Langland’s century had not been noted religious reformers but, rather, preoccupied with the secular concerns of law, statesmanship and questions of empire; activities which eventually cost the papacy religious credibility. As a result, Dante supported the emperor against the pope, with the vision of the radical Spiritual Franciscans and the apocalyptic followers of Joachim of Flora influencing his political writings, rather than the balanced theories of Thomas Aquinas. A defeated Pope Boniface acquiesced in the victory of Philip IV of France,which marked the triumph of the temporal over the spiritual power.
The Avignon papacy itself grew in efficiency and political skill, but as itdid, lost still more spiritual prestige, and religious reformers looked increasingly to the state for an implementation of their ideas. William of Ockham, for example, the most important thinker of the age, allied himself with the emperor against pope. State-papacy conflicts, as exemplified by Philip and Boniface,would not be reconciled. Fifteenth-century Conciliarism, founded on the principle that the universal church was a congregation of the faithful, not the Roman Church, was the last great struggle to preserve medieval unity on some basis other than the papacy.
William Langland wrote, “He called that house Unity — which is Holy Church in English.” Yet no one was more aware than Langland of the crumbling Christian edifice — the whole of Piers Plowman is an impassioned plea for social and religious reform,so much so that he has sometimes been regarded as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation. But his emphasis was always on a forlorn call to unity: “Call we to all the Commons that they come into Unity” “and there stand and do battle against Belial’s children.”
Until Langland’s time, markets had played only a subordinate, local role hemmed in by the limited economic boundaries of the feudal world. Human beings, land and money were not subject to the laws of the market. Non-economic norms set by the political and religious hierarchies regulated human labour and the ownership of land, neither of which were commercially transferable. “Belial’s children” however, would not be held at bay. Though trafficking in money was notionally blocked by the religious prohibition of usury, it continued to be carried out in increasing volumes by those excluded from feudal society, forced to live on its margins or in its pores. The money germ would not be dislodged.Eventually it would fracture Christendom.