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American Philosophical Society
Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature
Cindy L. Vitto (au). For pious Christians of every age, the question of ultimate concern has been salvation: What is necessary to ensure the soul’s eternal bliss? During the Middle Ages, within the Church itself, the guidelines were clear: baptism, reception of the sacraments, an attempt to put into practice the teachings of Christ. But a theological debate arose on the possibility of salvation for those outside the Church, who fell into two basic categories: those who had been offered the Christian faith but had refused it, & those who, for reasons of chronology or geography, lacked the opportunity to join the Church but lived as virtuously as possible. Two categories of these “virtuous pagans” who received special attention were the classical poets & philosophers of Greece & Rome, & the Old Testament patriarchs. From the standpoint of human reason, it seemed especially unfortunate that these two groups should be damned eternally. This study discusses the theological background of this issue; the Virtuous Pagan in legend & in Dante; St. Erkenwald’s Harrowing of Hell; & “Piers Plowman”: Issues in Salvation & the Harrowing as Thematic Climax.
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