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Hell Really Exists

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Cooper, Helen. "Langland's and Chaucer's Prologues." Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987): 71-81.

Bonnie S. Millar

Piers Plowman: Passus 1 William Langland (ca. 1362-1386) Passus 1 from Piers Plowman expands on the nature of truth. Truth was at the heart of medieval feudalism. It referred to loyalty and the keeping of faith, exhibited in the duties and obligations of one's estate, and was dependent on the honesty and justice of all parties. A lovely lady comes down from the castle on the hill to instruct the dreamer. She is dressed in linen, which is a reference to Revelation 15:6, where fine white linen is linked to the righteousness of saints. She explains that the lord of the castle on the hill is Truth, who is the father of faith, and that the other lord is Wrong, father of falsehood. Humans owe Truth loyalty and Wrong nothing. He is faithless, and those who trust in him are betrayed. Truth is obviously God, and Wrong is the devil.

The choice seems easy, but it is rendered difficult by cupidity. God has given humans all the requisites of life "in mesurable manere" (B-text, l. 19), but most want more. Underlying this is the exhortation in Matthew 6:19-21 not to accumulate treasures on the earth but to store them in heaven. The dreamer realizes that his guide is Lady Holy Church and duly falls to his knees and asks her how he may save his soul. She replies that when treasure is tested, "Treuthe is the beste" (B-text, 1. 85). This is the central point of the poem, with the rest of it constituting an exploration of its implications. The fact that the dreamer's spiritual question is answered with a political axiom shows that both spheres are linked. Lady Holy Church expands on this relationship. She cites the examples of David and his knights and Christ and his nine orders of angels as examples of Truth. The Holy Trinity is the model of perfect harmony and the source of truth, while Lucifer is the source of its lack. In Piers Plowman, each answer leads to another question or series of questions. Thus, the dreamer duly asks, how does one know about Truth? Lady Holy Church explains that the natural understanding present in human hearts leads to loving the Lord above all else. Truth is expressed most fully through love, which is a state of will combined with matching outward behavior. Genuine truth is manifested in charitable actions, an outpouring of love, and such charity leads to grace.

Lady Holy Church's speech is structured like a medieval sermon, using devices to be found in the aids for preaching. For instance, she takes her starting point from quotations and develops her matter from them. Her speech shapes how the rest of the poem examines the meaning of truth and the problems surrounding it. Truth is the supreme principle for social behavior as heaven itself is based upon it. In this section, Lang-land's theology is influenced by concepts in Saint Augustine's City of God. The world is doomed, and although both love and loyalty exist in this corrupt earthly society, they do so without expectation. Social virtues reap their rewards, as do all other virtues, in heaven.

Lady Holy Church is not only a personification and a figure of authority who helps the dreamer interpret what he sees; she is also part of a tradition that stems back to the Bible. All the elements of allegory and dream visions found in Piers Plowman are ultimately derived from biblical tradition, where prophets have dreams and visions that frequently feature an angel or other figure of authority who explains what has been seen.

Debate still rages over how to interpret the satirical and allegorical elements in Passus 1. Recent scholarship has contextualized it within the medieval preaching and pastorship tradition. Another avenue of exploration is the tension between politics and religion.

See also passus, Piers Plowman (overview).

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