Some anti-Catholic myths just refuse to die. Take, for example, those about the medieval Church popularized in contemporary secular history books (often influenced by older Protestant narratives and analysis). Medieval Catholicism, so we are told, was a time of great biblical illiteracy; it was a time when man’s effort counted more than divine grace; it was a time when people were goaded into practicing the Catholic faith not out of love for Christ, but fear of hell.
Many such opinions entered public opinion in the English-speaking world through Reformation-era and post-Reformation anti-Catholic texts like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Few Americans have read such books, though many of their descriptions of Catholicism continue to inform public opinion of the Church. Yet even fewer are aware of Piers Plowman, a fourteenth-century poem that in certain respects is the Catholic proto-Pilgrim’s Progress. Moreover, the story, told by little-known William Langland, actually refutes many of the most common charges leveled at medieval Catholicism.
Of course, to even read Piers Plowman—an allegorical narrative poem about a man whose dreams address pressing social and religious questions, including how to be saved—requires some translation work. Consider the opening lines as they originally appear in Middle English: