Do Well

It wasn’t until near the end of Passus 7 that I got a clear picture of the way Piers Plowman reprimanded certain practices of the Church. My first hint came from lines 110-112:

“And it was written as follows, in witness of Truth: “Those who have done well shall go into eternal life; Those (who have done) evil (shall go) into eternal fire.”

While on this surface this might seem a simple statement- good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell- I believe it carried connotations that were actually revolutionary to this period. If people could reach heaven by simply being good people, what need was there for an authoritative clergy? And what of the whole business of buying pardons for sins? You could be a terrible person, but if you were a terrible rich person you could potentially just buy your way out of any pile of bad behavior. And what constituted bad behavior? Was it only violating the laws and guidelines set out by the Bible itself, or were there additional restrictions that the Church decided to be “bad behavior”? Piers Plowman does not seem to want to do away with pardons and the Church entirely, it just seems to be pushing against the idea that money can overtake action as the primary means of getting to heaven. Lines 180-195 present the moral of Passus 7 pretty clearly (notice “Dowel” is a substitute for the words do well):

“But to trust these triennials, truly, it seems to me, Is clearly not as reliable for the soul as Dowel. Therefore I advise you men who are rich on earth, You who rely upon your treasure to buy triennials, Don’t be so quick to break the Ten Commandments; 185 And namely, you rulers, mayors and judges, Who possess the wealth of this world, and are considered wise men, To purchase for yourself pardon and papal bulls. At the dreadful judgment, when the dead shall rise And all come to Christ to give their accounts, 190 How you led your life here and kept His laws, And how you aquit yourself each day—the judgment will reveal. Neither a bagful of pardons nor provincial’s letters [will help you]— Even if you belong to the fraternities of all five orders, And have twice as many indulgences—unless Dowel helps you, 195 I assess your patents and your pardons at the value of one pie’s crust!”

Aside from criticizing the monetary culture of the Church, this passage also seems to push against legalism. Its focus on “how you aquit yourself each day” does not seem to be on the breaking of abstract rules, but on the treatment of other people. I think this is part of why Piers Plowman has stuck around for so long, because its claims can still resonate with many cultures and beliefs today.

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