The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature

The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature

Vitto, Cindy Lynn

Doctor of Philosophy, Rice University (1985)


This work traces the issue of salvation for “virtuous pagans” (those who lived as virtuously as possible without the benefit of Christian revelation) as a theological and literary concern of the fourteenth century. Theologically, the issue is related to Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, an act which initiated a new era of mercy and made possible the notion of pagan salvation. From the first through the fourteenth centuries, the Church evolved a succession of theories to explain these matters: that Christ descended to convert (and possibly baptize) the pagan souls He found in Hell; that Limbo existed as an intermediate state between bliss and punishment for virtuous pagans; that salvation was possible for pagans who had done their best during their lifetimes. Related folklore and legends arose (notably, the legend of Trajan’s rescue from Hell through the intervention of St. Gregory), and the three books of the The Divine Comedy illustrate Dante the pilgrim’s growing enlightenment on pagan salvation. Three Middle English works from the latter fourteenth century also address this concern. St. Erkenwald  demonstrates the absolute necessity of grace for salvation and the limitations of natural virtue. Erkenwald’s “harrowing” of a pagan soul celebrates the continuing power of Christ’s mercy and His continuing reign over Hell. On the other hand, Piers the Ploughman clarifies the role of works, for the Dreamer cannot rely on baptism or intellectual inquiry for salvation. Also, whereas St. Erkenwald emphasized the positive aspects of the Harrowing, Piers the Ploughman closes with emphasis on the negative. As the turning point of divine history, the Harrowing ushered in a period of grace which is now drawing to a close. The final Harrowing, or Doomsday, is imminent, and the Church will be found wanting. The epilogue of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde raises the question of Troilus as a virtuous pagan. Several elements of the poem, though, suggest that Troilus is a parody of the virtuous pagan figure: he sidesteps Boethius’ reasoning on free will, and he is liberated from the “hell” of his desires to reach the false heaven of Criseyde’s arms. Troilus also fares poorly when compared to the virtuous pagans of legend. However, Chaucer leaves Troilus’ fate shrouded in the mysteries of Christ’s mercy. Indeed, ultimately all three poems conclude that, whatever the role of man’s efforts in salvation, the workings of grace are indisputable and yet unknowable–the only answer the medieval mind could devise for the paradox of the virtuous pagan.

Click here to read this thesis from Rice University

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