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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.