Fiction, theology, and social practice

The politics of Middle English parables examines the dynamic intersection of fiction, theology, and social practice in translated Gospel stories. Parables occupy a prominent place in Middle English literature, appearing in dream visions and story collections as well as in lives of Christ and devotional treatises. While most scholarship approaches these scriptural stories as stable vehicles of Christian teachings, this book characterises Gospel parables as ambiguous, riddling stories that invited audience interpretation and inspired the construction of new, culturally inflected narratives. In parables related to labour, social inequality, charity, and penance, the book locates a creative theological discourse through which writers reconstructed scriptural stories and, in doing so, attempted to shape Christian belief and practice. Analysis of these diverse retellings reveals not what a given parable meant in a definitive sense but rather how Middle English parables inscribe the ideologies, power structures, and cultural debates of late medieval Christianity.

The parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard

Chapter 1 investigates how writers reconciled the labour politics of late medieval England with a Gospel story that subverts common economic practices. The post-plague economy, marked by labour shortage, depended upon the full employment of all able-bodied individuals, yet the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard features a landowner paying workers for a full day when they only worked a single hour. Middle English translations reveal sharp disagreement over whether the parable affirms or condemns contemporary socio-economic structures. The chapter initially focuses on translations within sermons and identifies a prominent trend to retell the parable in ways that encourage work in traditional social roles. It then argues that the well-known rendition of the Vineyard parable in the Middle English poem Pearl should be read as a counter-narrative challenging a predominant homiletic discourse: the Pearl retelling dismisses the analogies between the human and divine realms upon which the sermons depend and rejects the notion that salvation could depend upon prescribed social practices.

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The parable of the Prodigal Son

Chapter 2 investigates how translators reconstructed the parable of the Prodigal Son in light of sacramental penance. In the centuries following the Fourth Lateran Council, the parable clashed with church doctrine insofar as the Gospel story features forgiveness of sin before confession and without restitution for the son’s misdeeds. Consequently, when translating the Prodigal Son into devotional works like The South English Ministry and Passion, The Mirour of Mans Saluacioune, and Book to a Mother, authors incorporated confession and sometimes even satisfaction into their retellings. Based on this integration of contemporary doctrine, retellings may appear to subordinate a scriptural story to institutional teachings and ecclesiastical power. But the chapter shows that the parables emphasise divine agency and the power of the individual penitent far more than the role of a priest. It especially focuses on the retelling in Book to a Mother – a potentially Lollard form of living that includes the most extensive integration of sacramental teachings into the parable. Although the retelling affirms the contemporary sacrament, it suggests that by translating the parable’s events into acts of penance, lay men and women may become biblical exemplars who preach the gospel more authoritatively than many priests.

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The parable of Dives and Lazarus

The third chapter brings together socio-economic and penitential discourses in its analysis of the parable of Dives and Lazarus – a story that features a rich man refusing to give alms and his subsequent damnation. The chapter highlights retellings in three story collections arranged around the Seven Deadly Sins – Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne, Peter Idley’s Instructions to his Son, and John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. In all three, the parable is presented as an illustration of gluttony, not avarice as in Luke’s Gospel, seemingly side-stepping the story’s emphasis on social division. The chapter examines how this penitential frame shapes the translated parables and finds two conflicting accounts of how gluttony affects the social body. For both Mannyng and Idley, the parable directs the rich to see beyond their own needs and to more consciously live in community with those in poverty. For Gower, in contrast, the parable prompts the rich to look inward at their uncontrolled desire. By casting the rich man as the primary figure in need, Gower advocates self-governance as means of social reform, effectively erasing the poor from the narrative itself and from his vision of a revitalised community.

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The parable of the Good Samaritan

Chapter 4 focuses on acts of charity with reference to an explicitly exemplary parable: in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus concludes the Good Samaritan story by telling his audience to ‘go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37). Yet for more than a millennium, patristic and medieval exegetes interpreted the parable as an allegory of redemption, encouraging audiences to identify with the wounded man who received charity rather than with the Samaritan who gave. Although medievalists predominantly read the parable allegorically, this chapter provides evidence for a dynamic vernacular tradition of interpreting it morally. With reference to Middle English sermons and lives of Christ, it highlights disagreement about whether the story enjoins indiscriminate charity or giving according to merit. The chapter then shows how Langland presents moral and allegorical readings as mutually dependent in Piers Plowman: although he advocates indiscriminate charity in reference to the parable, he rejects the idea that imitation of the Samaritan is the ideal ethical response. Instead, he encourages readers to work collaboratively with the Samaritan/Christ by performing their diverse vocations. In doing so, he characterises social responsibility as a means of participating in the Redemption.

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The parables of the Wedding Feast and Great Supper

Chapter 5 asks how translators reconciled divergent, seemingly conflicting portrayals of God within the Gospels. Although Matthew’s Wedding Feast and Luke’s Great Supper likely derive from the same source, the two parables project radically different images of divine power: one conveys inclusive, hospitable love and the other exacting, punitive justice. To demonstrate the theological difficulty of reconciling the two feasting parables, the chapter explores the varied exegesis of the stories in the Wycliffite Glossed Gospels. Against this nexus of historical interpretations, the chapter analyses the hybrid Wedding Feast/Great Supper parable retold in the Middle English poem Cleanness. It argues that the interpretive variety typical of academic exegesis can help us understand a poem that so often foregrounds multiplicity of meaning and paradox. Although the poet harmonises disparate biblical passages, he maintains and sometimes sharpens the contradictions that emerge between the two parables and between the two testaments of scripture. By foregrounding narrative discord, the poet asserts that divine truth ultimately transcends human understanding.

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Writing parabolic fiction: Langland’s pardon episode

The Epilogue argues that parable was a form of religious storytelling actively explored by late medieval writers, both in their translations of well-known scriptural narratives and in their creation of original tales. It presents a case study focused on the tearing-of-the-pardon scene from Piers Plowman. While showing the parabolic qualities of that narrative, the formalist reading illuminates the epistemological aims of some Middle English storytelling. Writing a parable for his own time, Langland constructs a spiritually and socially formative tale centred on a paradox – the notion that a works-based soteriology is itself a form of pardon. Instead of making definitive statements about salvation, Langland’s parable teases readers into open-ended intellectual and ethical enquiry.

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