“Church Reformers’ Ideas of Warfare and Peace in Forteenth-Century England: William Langland”
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 14 No. 1 (2006)
Langland takes a somewhat different view from Gower in his treatment of crusades and warfares in general. Unlike Gower, Langland in his Vision of Piers Plowman reveals himself as an ardent pacifist who strongly condemns the clergy’s waging war against heathens. But their sentiments of warfare tend to converge on a common point in that both of them refuse to condemn categorically waging war in conformity with God’s ordinance. They show similarly that the criteria―legitimate cause, pure intention, and authority―to fashion the justification of war were all based on the Old Testament examples of punishment and war, on to which were grafted the New Testament doctrines of love and purity of motive. However, what differs in Gower and Langland’s treatment of war is only that while Gower exhibits a tendency to depend more on the doctrines of the Old Testament than on the New Testament examples of love and charity, Langland seems to show the reverse. Gower does not deny, if necessary, what we would call aggressive or offensive wars for legitimate ends, while Langland advocates the least defense for self-preservation, if possible.
Langland’s attitude towards the clergy’s bearing of arms for a worldly and individual cause is shown even more strictly, compared with Gower’s flexible one in his Vox Clamantis and “In Praise of Peace.” Moreover, Langland’s biblical allusion in Latin—“Thou shalt not kill; vengeance is mine, etc” (cf. 10.208-10)—serves as his final statement about his attitude towards the crusades. Like Wyclif, his theoretical basis for the prohibition of killing comes from the belief that nobody can judge one’s guilt, except for the Almighty God; therefore, the infliction of punishment on the guilty in the light of positive law can be regarded as a willful act. Langland’s belief also reflects his doctrine of salvation for the Saracens.
Langland, though he might be apparently seen as a radical pacifist, did not denounce bearing arms and fighting against the enemies who disturb peace and hamper the betterment of common wealth. As the parallels between the secular and the sacred, that is, between king and God, and between knight and angel imply, Langland sees that the secular lord’s wielding of justice against wicked people can be justified as just punishment due to their sin. Compared with Gower, Langland is not referring to any words specifically related to warfare in his definition of the role of knightly class and king. But he is not much different from his contemporaneous man of letters, John Gower, in his thought on warfare. War, in both Langland’s and Gower’s view, was not wrong when used for legitimate ends, for example, for the defense of men’s rights and for the maintenance of men’s truth and common good, nor when it was initiated and controlled by a king who is equipped with Christian virtues. But Langland like Gower must have been a church reformer who desired peace with the cessation of the long-drawn war.