16.06.07, Aers, Beyond Reformation?

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Eleanor Johnson

The Medieval Review 16.06.07

Aers, David. Beyond Reformation?: An Essay on William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the End of Constantinian Christianity. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2015. pp. 280. ISBN: 978-0-268-02046-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Eleanor Johnson
Columbia University

As its title suggests, this book seeks to locate Langland's poem in a prominent position in the long history of the English Reformation. This book comprises a single essay--divided into seventeen passus--like movements rather than into traditional chapters--that is the subtle and robustly-argued product of a scholar who has spent years ingesting and metabolizing the sometimes overwhelmingly replete smorgasbord of a poem that is Piers Plowman. To produce a single, coherent, and compelling argument that, moreover, encompasses the entirety of Langland's poem is, by itself, an achievement meriting congratulations; to produce an argument about the entire poem that is carefully historically situated and immensely useful in helping contextualize Piers' theological investments alongside its social and/or ethical ones merits an award.

David Aers shows across his essay that Piers is unified both poetically and theologically by its desire to work against what Aers terms--surprisingly but with considerable justification over the course of his argument--the "de-Christianization" of late medieval England. This "de-Christianization" constitutes a recognizable "cultural revolution" (83) for Langland, one that he seeks actively to countermand. For Aers, Langland's is a world in which the materialistic values of the profoundly hierarchical institutional Church (culminating with the papacy itself) are becoming increasingly ideologically dominant, with the result that central Christian virtues--particularly the anti-hierarchical virtues of communitarianism and egalitarian justice--are sidelined or even abandoned both by clergy and Christians more broadly. The rampant materialism and hierarchophilia of the institutional Church--its "Constantianian" nature--are under attack throughout the poem, as Aers demonstrates by a series of close readings of particularly theologically dense moments. But Aers' argument is not limited to able close readings: he also correlates Langland's presentation of the Church's Constantinian corruptions with the writings of Ockham, Wyclif, and oth

Langland's participation in the cultural skepticism about the Church as a real resource or safe haven for true Christian practice causes him to envision a new Church that eschews authoritarianism, order, control, or dominion. Instead, through the figure of Conscience, Aers finds a vision of the Church in Langland's poem as perpetually searching for and reaching after a truly Christ-like lived experience of Christianity. That is, Conscience (and some other figures in the poem, including Liberum Arbitrium and Will himself) becomes a lens through which to view the possibility of a Church that, because liberated from its domineering and hierarchical ways, becomes capable of a purged and revivified practice of Christianity.

Though I find the specifics of the argument--both about Langland's theology and his intellectual/historical context--compelling, what I found the most useful about this book is the way that Aers makes plain that Langland is able to make his stout critiques of the contemporary Church and papacy in a way that his non-poet contemporaries (like Wyclif) were not: Langland's poem avails itself of the particular resources of poetic form itself--alliteration, personification, characterization, echo, allusion, and emplotment--to stage a meditation on the corrosive hierarchalism of the Church that unfurls slowly and, it seems to me, deliberately painfully over the course of his narrative. Langland, that is, isn't making an argument, per se, about the real or ideal nature of the Church, nor about its tendency toward de-Christianization. Instead, he is showing through his wrought poetics how even the best-intentioned Conscience or Liberum Arbitrium might well miss the cues that its institutional home is corrupted, and in need of revision from the ground up. As Aers puts it, "Langland creates a dialectic that is rooted in a logic of disputation, of restless argument. Multimodal, dramatic, lyrical, and adventurous, it moves by exploring a range of consequences. This process draws readers into all the moments that constitute it while simultaneously demanding that we do not isolate the particular moment from the wider process" (98-99). It is the gestalt experience of reading the poem that enacts the poem's revolutionary theology and social theory.

Both for its actual argument and for its modeling of how one might make an argument that takes in the whole, vast sweep of the poem, without getting bogged down in plot synopsis, this book will be of tremendous value to graduate students who are encountering the poem for the first (or second, or third) time. For those of us who have committed ourselves to the life-long study of the poem, Aers' book offers a refreshingly clean and straightforward take on it--one that focuses not so much on the poem's many blind-corners, illegibilities, inscrutabilities, or smokescreens, but instead on a strong and consistent through-line that has consequences not only for us as readers of the poem, but also for us as sometimes unwilling participants in massive and coercive hierarchies of power.

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