Love, personified in Piers Plowman, presents the reader with a contradiction. On the one hand, love never appears as a beggar (B.15: 227), never pretends, for example, to be disabled, when he might actually go to work (B.7: 90-93).(1) On the other, such beggars are no doubt scarcely literate--preliterate perhaps. They are lewed, "ignorant." It is exactly the lewed, however, who are justified before God, not by anything like their best attempts to support themselves, but by their faith: "sola fides sufficit to save with lewed peple." Moreover, in the view of Langland's personified love, this sufficiency is true not only for the unlettered, but for scribes themselves:
Wherfore I am afered of folk of Holy Kirke,
Lest thei overhuppen, as oothere doon, in Office and in Houres.
Ac if thei overhuppe--as I hope noght--our bileve suffiseth;
As clerkes in Corpus Christi feeste syngen and reden
That sola fides sufficit to save lewed peple. (15: 383-88)
This issue--whether humans are justified for Langland in the light of eternity by their own efforts to be good (for example, to labor so far as they are physically able) or whether by their belief in God's love for them despite any failure in effort on their part--can be examined in the notoriously difficult scene that personified love introduces.
The Tree of Charity scene aptly illustrates the bone of contention between readers of the poem who identify Langland as semi-Pelagian and those who identify him as neo-Augustinian. The former are represented by Robert Adams, who introduces his discussion of the scene as follows:
... Langland believed fervently in man's obligation to do his very best (facere quod in se est) and in its guaranteed complement, divine acceptation.... Evidence from Piers Plowman to support this assertion is cogent both positively and negatively. There are any number of important episodes and statements concerning man's relationship to God in the poem which make better sense when understood within this theological framework. Without it, some become either mysterious, shallow, or repugnant. (Adams, "Piers's Pardon" 377)
Adams and those in agreement with him argue that Langland presents human merit as inviting the grace God, acceptance by God being guaranteed by one's best efforts. Neo-Augustinians, however, claim that Langland stands on the side of sola fideism, faith in Christ's atoning death for human sins being sufficient and necessary for one's acceptance by God. Good works are not rejected by neo-Augustinians, who see them as following the conversion of the worker rather than preceding it.(2)
The episode of the Tree of Charity offers a significant challenge to a neo-Augustinian reading of the poem because of the determined activity of Piers in protecting the fruit, an act that seems to call forth the involvement of God on his behalf:
Ac whan the fend and the flessh forth with the world
Manacen bihynde me, my fruyt for to fecche,
Thanne Liberum Arbitrium laccheth the thridde planke
And palleth adoun the pouke pureliche thorugh grace
And help of the Holy Goost--and thus have I the maistrie. (48-52)
Having already fought the world and the flesh (27-39), Piers gains the victory as the Holy Spirit, operating through Liberum Arbitrium, overcomes the devil. The disagreement between semi-Pelagian and neo-Augustinian critics rests not on whether Piers needs help in defending the fruit, but on his meriting help because of his previous efforts. Thus the semi-Pelagian argument: Piers's efforts may not be enough to save the fruit (when the fruit is shaken from the tree [in death ], Satan carries it away), but his efforts are not lacking; he has done his part (facere quod in se est), and he is accepted by God, as is evidenced by the help God gives him.
Because semi-Pelagianism rejects the more radical positions of a fully Pelagian approach, some critics claim it as an appropriate point of view from which to examine Langland's intent in describing the Tree of Charity. They claim that a semi-Pelagian reading of the poem locates Langland as standing between Augustine and Pelagius in his treatment of free will and human depravity, the customary position of "popular Christian piety" (Adams, "Piers's Pardon" 378).(3) This therefore embraces certain elements of Augustine's teaching, for instance that the biblical patriarchs were temporarily under the authority of Satan when they died; but it rejects the idea that they were bound by depravity. After all, "[t]he tree and its fruit are good" (Adams, "Piers's Pardon" 379).(4) Adams tries to maintain a consistent position on the fruit's belonging to the devil by declaring that, by contrast, the "Tree does not belong to the Devil." "Despite [the Devil's] boldness and the impunity with which he carries out his raid, it is clear that he is a thief, an interloper in a plantation entrusted to Piers and his lieutenant liberum arbitrium."
Thus Satan claims a right to the fruit, which represents souls, but not to the Tree--an unreasonably fine distinction, because all that the tree produces ends up in Satan's hands. At this point it appears that Adams ignores the idea of original sin. Thus he misreads 18: 19-20 ("And fecche that the fend claymeth--Piers fruyt the Plowman.") and 18: 334-35 ("For the dede that thei dide, thi deceite it made; / with gile thow hem gete, agayn alle reson."), where Piers represents fallen humanity, beguiled but guilty nonetheless, and helpless to save itself. It is not Piers's righteous anger that causes the Incarnation, as Adams claims (379), but the mercy of God. Satan is a …