Jesus the Brave Knight: William Langland and William Dunbar

Done is a battle on the dragon black!
Our champion, Christ, confounded his force
The gates of hell are broken with a crack;
The sign triumphal raised is the Cross;
The devils tremble with hideous voice;
The souls are ransomed and to the bliss can go:
Christ with his blood our ransom does endorse.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro. [The Lord has risen from the tomb]

William Dunbar wrote this crackling, exciting poem, “A Hymn of the Resurrection,” in the early 1500s. We meet Christ, like St. George, coming off the field of battle, having slain the “cruel serpent,” the dragon Satan. Christ the champion knight reigns, his cross like a triumphant banner left standing.

We are in the middle of a Lent Series, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” Each week I consider a medieval “version” of Jesus—a representation in literature, art, or theology popular before the Reformation. These versions of Jesus may be strange, silly, scary, or inspiring to us today; above all they challenge us to consider our own versions of Jesus we encounter in our culture. Many of them capture important aspects of Jesus and the church that we overlook. None of these episodes comprehensively present these images; think of them like little introductions that you can dive further into on your own. I hope that as we draw closer to Easter, their aesthetic beauty gives joy too. 

So far, we’ve learned about two representations of Jesus in the medieval era: Jesus the Judge and Jesus Our Lover. Jesus the Brave Knight is a little different. Jesus as the Divine Judge at the End of Days comes straight out of the Book of Revelation. Jesus as Lover emerges from the allegorical Song of Songs. Both are rooted originally in scriptural sources, though they take on a life of their own. Jesus the Knight takes more creative license; though it can be distantly connected to Ephesians 6:13-16 and donning the armor of God, it is more obviously based in the art and culture of the times. While lovers have always existed everywhere, and judges have been around for a very long time across many different cultures, knights belong to a very specific time and place: medieval Europe. 

Knights reigned in imagination and literature in the very, very popular tales of King Arthur’s court, as models of the best courtly manners, and as chivalric lovers who wore tokens from their lady and fought on their behalf. Jesus the Knight appeared in both contexts, as a lover-knight and as a knight doing battle against Satan. Last week, we discussed Jesus the Lover, and he appears as a chivalric, knightly lover in the lyric poem I shared then. So today, we will focus more on the social and combative aspects of Jesus as Knight.

Medieval thinkers often conceived of their society as divided into three “estates”: the nobles and gentry, the clergy, and the peasants. Each one of these “estates” was considered to have its own essential role in a functioning society. The clergy were “those who prayed,” the folks who provided spiritual instruction, interceded for their communities, and administered the sacraments. The peasants were “those who labored,” the essential group who grew, cultivated, and harvested food for everyone. And the nobles were “those who fought,” the lords of society who were supposed to protect the realm from invaders, administer justice locally, and use their largesse to support the poor and the church in their community. The knights belonged to this last estate. In reality, of course, such divisions were far too neat. Peasants often bore the worst, most devastating effects of war; yet this was the theoretical division of feudal society that persisted for a very long time.

In order to dig into this figure more thoroughly, we will examine the most incredible Middle English poem that almost no one has read outside of the academy. It fills my soul with delight to share William Langland’s Piers Plowman with you today. Piers Plowman is a long, confusing, magnificent allegorical poem written, rewritten, and rewritten yet again in the tumultuous fourteenth century. In the last installment of this series, we had briefly discussed the power of allegory in the medieval imagination. I had quoted Gregory the Great on the Song of Songs:

For allegory supplies the soul separated far from God with a kind of mechanism by which it is raised to God. By means of dark sayings in whose words a person can understand something of his own, he can understand what is not his to understand, and by earthly words he can be raised above the earth. Therefore, through means which are not alien to our way of understanding, that which is beyond our understanding can be known. By that which we do know—out of such are allegories made—divine meanings are clothed and through our understanding of external speech we are brought to an inner understanding.

Gregory the Great, quoted in Eros and Allegory, Denys Turner

Allegory was deeply important for medieval folks because of its particular power to communicate abstract truth in homely and familiar words. Poets in particular used allegory to great effect. To overly simplify a complex poem, in Piers Plowman, Wille, whom we would now call the protagonist or main character, experiences a series of dreams that are allegories for historical events, scriptural events, and theology in fourteenth-century society. Wille himself is a figure of allegory: his name gestures towards his simultaneous existence as a person dreaming in the poem, and as the faculty of the will undergoing spiritual transformation.

Towards the end of the poem, Wille falls asleep again, and he witnesses something spectacularly beautiful: the events of Holy Week, set into allegory. It is Langland’s version of the Christ-Knight. I am using the excellent translation of Piers Plowman by George Economou, if you are interested in reading more.

One… barefoot came riding bootless on an ass’s back
Without spurs or spear—sprightly he looked,
As is natural for a knight who came to be dubbed,
To get his gilt spurs and cut-away shoes.
And then Faith was in a window and cried, A, filii David!
As a herald of arms does when adventurous knights come to jousts.
Old Jews of Jerusalem sang for joy,
            Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. (XX.8-16)

I love this initial image of Jesus the Knight. Langland creatively blends together Palm Sunday with a knight coming to joust in a tournament. We recognize Palm Sunday because of the onlookers who excitedly shout Hosanna and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Earthly knights come to battle in their best armor, arms emblazoned so that all will know their identity and their great deeds of prowess. Langland’s barefoot knight comes without weapons, on the back of a donkey instead of a great, expensive charger, yet he comes to fight a holier battle, one that ultimately eschews the typical knightly trappings of wealth and violence. Yet he is still a knight, one come to fight battles on behalf of those who cannot.

            Then I asked Faith what all this activity meant, 
And who should joust in Jerusalem? “Jesus,” he said,
“And fetch what the Fiend claims, the fruit of Piers the plowman.”
…Liberium-dei-arbitrium has for love undertaken
That this Jesus for his gentility will joust in Piers’ armor,
In his helmet and in his mail, humana natura… (XX.17-22)

The reader meets a picture of the Incarnation: Jesus clad in human nature, jousting in the “armor” of a simple plowman. The image is incongruous—a knight, fighting in the gear of a field-worker? Contemporary knights would have curled their lip in disgust at the thought of clothing themselves in a plowman’s garb. The image demonstrates God’s humble, action-oriented, division-destroying love in his relinquishment of power in his embodiment as Jesus.

Piers the Plowman is an extremely difficult allegorical figure in this poem who I won’t go into in great detail, but here we can recognize him as a figure of humanity and the backbreaking labor of living well after the Fall. In typical Langlandian fashion, the allegories expand further. The “fruit” of Piers the Plowman is both his labor and the actual people of God. The Fiend claims his rights to sinful humanity and their work; Jesus the Knight takes them back, and redeems humanity, their labor, and the fruits of that labor. The Free Will of God, “Liberium-dei-Arbitrium,” undertakes this task for love. 

Let’s pause for a moment and focus on Langland’s inclusion of human labor in the redemption sequence. One of the beauties of allegory is that it can contain so many meanings at once. When Langland’s readers in the fourteenth century encountered this image, they may have thought of a few different ideas. 

The first is Langland’s interest in the plight of laborers. Laborers were suffering under wage restrictions in the wake of the plague that decimated the population. Significant and unjust legislation kept them, in many places, as little better than slaves in the serf system still prevalent in medieval society. They simply were not appreciated by the society that depended upon them to eat. We should not feel superior; this is one of the many things we share with medieval folks. We too mostly harbor ignorance and disdain of the population, often migrants, that typically harvests our own food here in America. 

Additionally, the most popular method of making war in France and England during that time was something called the chevauchee. The chevauchee was akin to what we now call a scorched earth strategy—in order to win, you would deplete enemy resources by destroying not their knights and soldiers, but through burning and pillaging the villages that fed them. Most medieval cities and towns had walls to protect themselves from invaders, but little rural villages did not. They were the ones who paid many of the ultimate costs of war. Their homes were destroyed, their bodies were ravaged or slaughtered, and the fruits of their backbreaking work, food for their society, up in greedy flames or stolen by their own killers. The Christ-Knight has come to save these poor workers, in contrast to the Fiend and his knights of death who would gladly destroy both their bodies and their labor. He works the salvific redemption of all estates, knight and farmworker together preserved and transformed. He jousts with Death itself.

The image also reminds both medieval and modern readers of the importance of our spiritual labor. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking that unless things are easy, we are doing something wrong or life isn’t as it should be. But living well is hard. The virtues are hard. Laboring in the field of life is often really, really difficult. Sometimes we sidestep this difficulty entirely in order to make things easier on ourselves by saying that it doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as our heart is in the right place. Not fully true! One of the greatest evils in the world is when intentions and words become divorced from exterior action and response—this is actually one of Langland’s most pressing concerns throughout his entire poem. We can see the bitter fruits of this divorce in our current political situation. The so-called party of morality couldn’t be less concerned with morality in America right now as they follow at all costs a serial liar and cheater, a beacon of gluttony, callousness, and greed. But let yourself be encouraged, not shamed by your inability to follow through (an inability we all frequently share). You matter, and what you do and work in the world also matters. It matters so much that your labors themselves will be redeemed. Keep laboring in the difficult fields of your life. 

Such a labor requires the practice of courage. Your work may entail the courage of endurance rather than the courage of daring. Both of my current labors, parenting and writing, require both kinds of courage at times but mostly just endurance. Thankfully, Jesus the Knight gives us a model for both as well. Because, of course, the image isn’t just Jesus riding in to shouts of acclaim on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday leads to the Crucifixion, and to something called the Harrowing of Hell.

You may not have heard of the Harrowing of Hell. It is an ancient belief, that after Jesus died but before he rose from the grave, he drank the dregs of human death and actually went to Hell. In the Creed, we recite that he descended into Hell, but many view this descent as allegorical. For medieval folks, it was decidedly not allegorical. It was yet another indicator of the courage and willingness of Jesus to go to the greatest depths to save his people. For in Hell, Jesus does not just show up and putz around, taunting his archenemy Satan. Langland describes the Harrowing as if a distant light begins to appear from far away in the dim murk of Hell. The demons speculate on what it could be—nothing good for them, they feel. The light draws closer and closer. The demons wait with trepidation. At last the Light, brilliantly blinding, arrives at Hell’s gates. The demons cannot see who is at the heart of the dazzling, starry light. And at last Lucifer dares to call out:

“What lord are you?” asked Lucifer. A voice said aloud:
“The lord of might and main, that made all things.
Dukes of this dim place, undo these gates now
That Christ may come in, the son of heaven’s king.”
            And with that breath hell with all of Belial’s bars broke;
Despite all prevention, the gates were wide open.
Patriarchs and prophets, populus in tenebris,
Sang with Saint John, “Ecce agnus dei!” (XX.360-367)

Behold the Lamb of God! All the people of the old law are freed as the gates are broken. The Harrowing of Hell teaches that Jesus also redeemed those who came before him in his descent. The people in darkness have seen a great light, as Isaiah wrote. The patriarchs and prophets sing with ecstasy. 

Then Wille wakes up from his vision of the history of salvation. It is Easter morning in his own world. Filled with joy, he calls his wife and daughter to join the community of saints on earth at his own parish church and participate in the liturgy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection. He can hardly contain himself. 

There are different species of joy. One kind is a quiet, contemplative joy, the kind generated by sitting by cozy fireplaces with great books, holding hands with a beloved, listening to the ocean. The other is sparkling and wild. It is the joy that little kids have when they eat ice cream and then run around afterwards, losing their minds in the delight of the sugar rush. It is the joy that you experience when you receive unfathomably good news, when your sports team wins the championship, when you find something you thought was lost forever, when you meet with old friends and the words do not stop tumbling from everyone involved. This joy generates action, dancing, shrieking, singing, doing things. Such joy has been rare for everyone during the pandemic.

Langland and Dunbar’s images of Jesus the Knight are meant to evoke this latter, wild joy. Feel it and relish it with Langland and Dunbar. Death itself no longer has the last word. The dragon is dead! Our champion Christ has destroyed our ancient enemy! The gates of Hell crumble into dust as the Light of the World falls upon them.

What requires courage in your life during this Lent? How can you emulate Jesus the Knight? This week, as your Lenten practice, try something rather un-Lenten, especially since lately your entire life may have felt like Lent as you have given up going to your favorite places and seeing your favorite people during the pandemic. In the spirit of Jesus the Knight, go out of your way this week to provoke joy, in anticipation of the coming resurrection. Play a song you loved in high school. Go on a walk with a good friend. Surprise a family member with something that they will be excited about. Paint your nails a bold color. Create or plan something beautiful.

Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro!

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