Christian philosophy in piers plowman

Andrew Cole, Andrew Galloway

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


“Philosophye,” the English word, appears just twice in Piers Plowman, the second time brimming with chilly suspicion when we are told that Envy, a follower of Antichrist, “freres to philosophye he fond hem to scole” (20.295). Here, as throughout the poem and indeed generally in medieval culture, “philosophye” refers mostly to Hellenic and Roman (i.e., pagan) ideas, methods, and authorities not directly illuminated by Christian insight and principles. “Philosofres,” even once modified as “philosofres wise,” appear another four times, yet here again we find meanings familiar to the medieval Christian reception of the ancient disciplines. Popular penitential treatises like the Somme le Roi (c. 1280) state the problem very plainly: “Des. iiii. vertuz cardonnaus parlerent mout cil anciain phylosophe, mes li Sainz Esperiz les done mieuz et enseigne cent tans, si com dit Salemons ou liver de Sapience” – or as translated in the late fourteenth-century Book of Vices and Virtues, “of þe four cardinal vertues speken moche þe olde philosofres, but þe Holy Gost ?eueþ hem moche bettre and techeþ hem an hundred so well, as Salamon seiþ in þe boke of Wisdom.” Clearly, there is “philosophye,” and its academic magistri, and there are sacred truths and their Christian expositors. At best, “philosophye” (and “philosofres”) is seen to anticipate the true principles of Christianity; at worst – per the fellowships that Antichrist's factotum doles out to friars – it is a perversion from Christian teachings, exactly the kind of worldly thinking St. Paul condemns when he rails against “philosophy and vain deceit [philosophiam et inanem fallaciam], according to the tradition of man, according to the elements of the world [elementa mundi] and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). This is the same sapientia huius mundi (the wisdom of this world) (1 Cor. 1:20) that Langland's Imaginative reproves in his naming the traditions of “patriarkes and prophetes” as “but a folye” (12.137).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to
Subtitle of host publicationPiers Plowman
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9780511920691
ISBN (Print)9781107009189
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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