Literature and Theatre

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Jill Fitzgerald

This chapter considers the proems of land charters that evoke the angelic rebellion. After providing an overview of the legal outlook surrounding treachery and rebellion from the age of Alfred – whose legal reforms sought to establish that landed entitlements were privileges descending from kings – onwards, I consider this social context alongside Genesis A, a vernacular poem that includes a striking episode detailing earthly creation alongside the doctrine of replacement using distinctly legal terminology. The connection between the charters and the biblical story thus allow us to see how notions of replacement may have had physical, earthly repercussions, and how new modes of sovereignty emerged through a growing reliance on biblical authority.

in Rebel angels
Jill Fitzgerald

This chapter considers renderings of the fall of the angels narrative in the homilies of Ælfric and Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Ælfric explores the complex relationship between sovereigns and disobedient subjects, imagining the angelic fall as a crisis of individual agency. Wulfstan adopts Ælfric’s approach in the wake of the viking invasions. With Wulfstan, I work to overturn some predominant readings of his famous Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (namely, that he characterises the vikings as heralds of Antichrist). Armed with the doctrine of replacement as his rhetorical weapon, Wulfstan suggests that the English body politic has instead come to resemble the rebel order of angels, implying that the vikings could supplant them and take their place as ‘replacements,’ inbound colonisers destined for heavenly seats. Just as the originally pagan Anglo-Saxons had been replacements for the sinful Christian Britons, Wulfstan urges Anglo-Saxon Christians not to cede to the vikings their providential role in salvation history.

in Rebel angels
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Space and sovereignty in Anglo-Saxon England
Author: Jill Fitzgerald

Over six hundred years before John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Anglo-Saxon authors told their own version of the fall of the angels. This book brings together various cultural moments, literary genres, and relevant comparanda to recover that story, from the legal and social world to the realm of popular spiritual ritual and belief. The story of the fall of the angels in Anglo-Saxon England is the story of a successfully transmitted exegetical teaching turned rich literary tradition that can be traced through a diverse range of genres: sermons, saints’ lives, royal charters, riddles, as well as devotional and biblical poetry, each genre offering a distinct window into the ancient myth’s place within the Anglo-Saxon literary and cultural imagination.

Jill Fitzgerald

Proems evoking the fall of the angels reach an apex of expression in the ‘New Minster Charter’, the prime textual forerunner to the Benedictine Reform. The charter’s author portrays the secular clerics at Winchester as a subversive threat to English ecclesiastical unity by aligning their alleged sinful behaviour with that of the ‘pride-filled angels’. I examine how the Winchester charters attest to the potency of biblical narrative in the lived experience of Anglo-Saxons through their depiction of adversaries to the English Christian community and in their aim to legally establish the secular canons as rebels. I also consider how these charters were not the first English documents to imagine disobedient and disorderly ecclesiastics as earthly replicas of the rebel angels, but represent part of a longer tradition of viewing the church as a reflection of the heavenly polity.

in Rebel angels
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Writing parabolic fiction: Langland’s pardon episode
Mary Raschko

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.

in The politics of Middle English parables
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The parable of the Good Samaritan
Mary Raschko

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.

in The politics of Middle English parables
The parable of Dives and Lazarus
Mary Raschko

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.

in The politics of Middle English parables
The parables of the Wedding Feast and Great Supper
Mary Raschko

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.

in The politics of Middle English parables
Fiction, theology, and social practice
Author: Mary Raschko

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 Prodigal Son
Mary Raschko

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.

in The politics of Middle English parables