Monday, June 20, 2005

Langland's Universal Salvation

The 14th-century Medieval poet William Langland presents an intriguing argument for universal salvation in Piers Plowman, Passus 18.399:

18.399 For I were an unkynde kyng but I my kyn helpe.

In modern English:

18.399 Because I would be an unkind king if I did not help my kin.

The context makes clear that by virtue of the incarnation, all mankind is kin of Christ the King, and this verse emphasizes that Christ is bound by the bonds of kinship to save all of his kin from the flames of hell.

The argument follows not from prooftexting the Bible but from an appeal that resonates all the way back to the 8th-century text of Beowulf 2594 ff:

2594 . . . [Beowulf has] cruelly suffered,
2595 encircled in fire . . .

. . . [Many warriors abandoned Beowulf, but] . . .

2599 . . . in one of them surged
2600 his heart with sorrows; kinship can never
2601 aught be altered, in him who thinks properly.

Beowulf, struggling with the malicious dragon that has attacked his realm, is engulfed in the horrific flames from its mouth and stands in mortal danger. His kinsman, one of those watching the battle, cannot endure to see him suffer and thus joins in the struggle in an attempt to save Beowulf from the dragon's flames (in the lines that follow 2601).

These two passages in conjunction (given their textual contexts) show that the old Anglo-Saxon views on kinship and its bonds held on quite long among the English. One thing has altered, however. Langland extends kinship to all mankind, something the older, tribal-based Anglo-Saxons wouldn't have done, and this extension, particularly in its link to the incarnation, comes into English thinking only from Christianity.


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