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Calling: Langland, Gower, and Chaucer on Saint Paul

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 53-97 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0014

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This article is about calling in late medieval literature, an idea that was most thoroughly installed in Christian doctrine by Saint Paul. Unsurprisingly, the Pauline imprint on late medieval writing is marked, but, in contrast, the notion of calling has not been much attended to by medievalists.1 I shall use William Langland’s Piers Plowman, John Gower’s Vox clamantis, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame and Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale in order to show not only an extensive engagement with the theory of calling in the work of three key late medieval English writers but also to demonstrate what was at stake in that engagement. A Pauline turn in recent Continental philosophy has acknowledged and endorsed a significant theological residue within Marxist thinking; in particular, it has rewritten Paul’s doctrine of calling to describe the relationship between individual and Law as intersubjective. In this article, I will use Louis Althusser’s recasting of Paul’s calling as “interpellation,” which has, in turn, been influential in theories of the Event (l’événement) and most notably, recently, those of Alain Badiou.2 I shall also look at Giorgio Agamben’s commentary on the Pauline epistles, which he wrote as a response, and partial corrective, to that turn. I do this because this theoretical work explicitly exposes the political mechanics of calling as it was written by Saint Paul and taken into key medieval texts.

While the self-evidence of Pauline philosophy in medieval writing may have deterred some medievalists from studying it, the centrality of calling to studies of the Protestant reform movement, since Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, has perhaps discouraged others. Weber, looking for the theologies that underpinned modernity, considered the modern sense of calling (Beruf, in German)—of a secular profession—to have been fathered in Martin Luther’s German Bible and fostered by the soteriology of John Calvin.3 This thesis has encouraged some historians of early modernity wrongly to imagine that anterior understandings of vocation, and even those of Paul himself, are “not yet,” that is, limited, immature, or monologic.4 Christiane Frey has also raised doubts about Weber’s “secularization narrative,” which caricatures and dismisses medieval thinking on calling.5 In this essay I will consider some of the complex pre-Lutheran thinking on calling that Frey acknowledges but that it is not her main aim to consider. Medieval debates about vocation were different from those formulated in the sixteenth century but nonetheless offer sophisticated and radical ways of thinking about the politics of Christian subjectivity, which, I will show, are complete in themselves, although trained on the different problems of their own times. Agamben argues that Weber understood Luther’s lexical choice of Beruf for Saint Paul’s klēsis as having produced a new regard for secular occupation and the lived life, because Weber overstated Pauline indifference to the mundane.6 Agamben rereads 1 Corinthians 7:20 to reassert Paul’s interest in the social world:

Klēsis indicates the particular transformation that every juridical status and worldly condition undergoes because of, and only because of, its relation to the messianic event. It is therefore not a matter of eschatological indifference but of change, almost an internal shifting of each and every single worldly condition by virtue of being “called.” For Paul, the ekklēsia, the messianic community, is literally all klēseis, all messianic vocations. The messianic vocation does not, however, have any specific content; it is nothing but the repetition of those same factical or juridical conditions in which or as which we are called. Inasmuch as klēsis describes this immobile dialectic, this movement sur place, it can be taken for both the factical condition and the juridical status that signifies “vocation” [here Agamben refers to Jerome’s rendering of klēsis in his Latin translation of the epistle] as much as it does Beruf.7

Although Paul portends the deactivation of social categories at the End of Days, he also recommends adherence to them in the time that remains. Far from dismissing human forms of organization, the messianic event encourages a retroactive and iterative connectedness...

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