The Cold War: Biblical Edition

Passus 18 of Piers Plowman presents a fascinating dynamic between the politics of Heaven and Hell. In conventional tales of the Fall, you have the bad guys who want God’s power, and the good guys who concede to God’s authority. The bad guys are just plain bad and the good guys appropriately win out.

We have something far more complex here with Passus 18, as Heaven and Hell seem to be ruled by separate, yet largely parallel, political orders. While heaven is home to the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Righteousness, Peace, Truth), Hell is governed by Lucifer, Satan, Goblin, and the Devil. The Daughters operate under a checks and balances system, as seen through the discourse between Mercy and Truth, where the two engage in rhetoric regarding redemption for souls in Hell before Truth calls upon Righteousness for her input, saying “Let’s rest here awhile, For she knows more than we do” (line 164-165). Following input from Righteousness and Peace, Book carries us to the subsequent “invasion” of hell. Although the committee of Daughters does not seem to have a direct influence on Christ’s invasion, it seems their discourse provides a necessary narrative representation of God’s decision making process. Considering Peace gets the last word among the Four, we are left with the impression that her explanation is the culmination of their discourse; God understands the complication of human folly and sends Christ to enact forgiveness.

Hell’s council, on the other hand, seem to be more at fault for their legislative ineptitude, despite the attention they give to the terms of agreement outlined subsequent to the Fall. Lucifer posits to the group that he has a right to the souls in Hell due to a contract with God that would commit sinners to Hell “if Adam ate the apple” (line 279). Satan and Goblin warn Lucifer, however, that his intervention as the deceitful snake could possibly be in violation of the contract. The Devil, who seems to be the informational authority on Heaven’s council, suggests that the agreement’s disbandment could lead to Hell losing its dead souls. Of course, this becomes the case.

This idea of Heaven and Hell as bodies governed by respective councils is by far my favorite representation of each realm’s authoritative structure, and most likely informs later interpretations such as that seen in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Twain’s Letters From the Earth.


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