The Original Pilgrim’s Progress Was Catholic

Some anti-Catholic myths just refuse to die. Take, for example, those about the medieval Church popularized in contemporary secular history books (often influenced by older Protestant narratives and analysis). Medieval Catholicism, so we are told, was a time of great biblical illiteracy; it was a time when man’s effort counted more than divine grace; it was a time when people were goaded into practicing the Catholic faith not out of love for Christ, but fear of hell

Many such opinions entered public opinion in the English-speaking world through Reformation-era and post-Reformation anti-Catholic texts like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Few Americans have read such books, though many of their descriptions of Catholicism continue to inform public opinion of the Church. Yet even fewer are aware of Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century poem that in certain respects is the Catholic proto-Pilgrim’s Progress. Moreover, the story, told by little-known William Langland, actually refutes many of the most common charges leveled at medieval Catholicism.

Of course, to even read Piers Plowman—an allegorical narrative poem about a man whose dreams address pressing social and religious questions, including how to be saved—requires some translation work. Consider the opening lines as they originally appear in Middle English:

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In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.

That’s practically unintelligible to anyone but those who have actually studied Middle English, though if you read it aloud, you can at least appreciate the alliterative beauty of the lines. A new translation of the “A Version” (there are three versions total) by California State University, Los Angeles, professor of English Michael Calabrese offers a far more accessible—if sometimes too contemporary in its use of juvenile slang—introduction to this invaluable English text.

One of the first things that strikes the reader is how familiar the layman Langland is with Scripture—even if he sometimes misquotes it or gets the exact source of the biblical book wrong. His prologue features echoes of passages from Colossians and Ephesians. He demonstrates familiarity with stories from Genesis, penetrating reflections from Job, and various lessons of Christ found in the Gospels. He regularly cites the Psalms and Proverbs. This is a man with a deep, contemplative knowledge of Holy Scripture.

It also shouldn’t be surprising, even for the illiterate masses that comprised the majority of medieval Catholics. For even though they could not read the Bible, they knew it, as it was the most ubiquitous and frequently discussed text in Christendom. They possessed an intimate comprehension of biblical stories, often presented to them in the artwork of the churches they attended or taught and discussed on the many feast days. The Medieval world was certainly more biblically literate than our increasingly post-Christian, Protestant-influenced present day. 

The world of Piers Plowman was also one that understood the centrality and preeminence of God’s grace far better than it is given credit by later Protestant critics. In the sixth passus, or chapter, we read: “Thus you could lose his love from loving yourself—you’ll regain it from Grace alone, and from no other gift.” Only a few lines later, again: “I think it’s very hard for you—for any of you—to get in that gate unless Grace grants more than you deserve!” And at the end the passus: “and through the help of these two [Mary and Christ] have no other hope—you just might get some grace there.” Elsewhere he writes: “But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.”

Such language certainly doesn’t sound like the “works-righteousness” medieval Catholicism censured by Luther and his fellow Protestants. Nor does it share similarity with the “I can earn my way into heaven” thinking that Protestants often characterize as reflecting Catholic teaching. Rather, Langland, applying his impressive biblical literacy, understands well that it is God’s grace, not man’s effort, that ultimately saves the wretched sinner. 

Yes, it’s true, Langland’s theology also identifies fear of Hell as a motivator for repentance—“because of fear, we behave better; terror is such a teacher that he makes men mild of their speech”—but its emphasis is far more on the need of God’s divine grace. Indeed, God’s love is so powerful and relentless that “uneducated oafs, pierce with a Paternoster the palace of Heaven—without penance when they depart—and ascend to supreme bliss.” Ours is a God of ineffable, limitless mercy, ever-eager to rescue the helpless, repentant sinner even at the end.

Speaking of sin, it is in Langland’s analysis of human nature that some of his most insightful, perennially relevant observations are visible. He notes that “wedlock sustains the world, if you want to know the truth”—a recognition that stable, pious families serve as a bulwark against all manner of threats to human flourishing. He warns that sexual immorality results in all manner of personal and societal ills, and that those conceived outside of loving marriages often become “graceless, loveless, and worthless.” Harsh words, though much contemporary sociological data seems to confirm the sad truth that children raised in broken homes encounter many more obstacles to realizing a happy life and are often a greater financial and social burden.

Thus, men and women must eschew “the luxuries of Lust with Lucifer to languish in the estates of sloth” (wow!). They must fight sin so that it does not “overthrow conscience.” They must remain wary, lest sin lead men “to lose their lands and their lives both.” They must “work such works that pleasingly repay him [God]….and live life lawfully—almighty God likes that.” 

Yet the Christian, says Piers Plowman, is not alone in this spiritual battle. God “give[s] you the grace to live and to die well on this earth.” In this sense, Langland has offered us a truly Catholic consideration of the great struggle that is human existence, one that requires, first and foremost, God’s grace, but also our cooperation. “Faith without deeds is worthless—dead as a doornail,” he writes. Well, not just him. That’s also found in James 2:17. So much for sola fide…and all the erroneous mischaracterizations of Catholicism worthy only of the rubbish bin of history.

[Image: Manuscript historiated initial depicting the dreamer of the Prologue of Piers Plowman]


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