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Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman. Late 14th-cent. poem by William Langland. Over 50 manuscripts survive, representing progressive revisions known as the ‘Z’, ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ texts, of which ‘B’, comprising a prologue and twenty passus, is the most frequently read.

Cast in the familiar medieval form of a quest, the poem uses a series of dream-visions to trace the tortuous progress of ‘Will’ from intellectual wrangling to spiritual understanding as he searches for Truth and then for Do-Wel, Do-Bet, and Do-Best. The climax presents Christ's mortal ‘joust’ and triumph over hell with extraordinary power; yet the close brings another departure, as Conscience, frustrated by corruption within Christendom, sets out to walk the world in search of Piers Plowman. Piers, who has appeared as type of the virtuous poor, ideal Christian, and almost Christ himself, has by now fused into St Peter as archetypal pope. Throughout the poem, personified abstractions such as the comically depraved Seven Deadly Sins interact, and overlap, with contemporary caricatures including the self-indulgent Master of Divinity and the besmirched pilgrim Haukyn the Active Man. Langland's passionate commitment to spiritual and social reform finds expression in his restless and emphatic alliterative lines, and in a complex battery of literary devices including allegory, recurrent metaphors, word-play, and Latin quotation.

D. C. Whaley

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Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman: see Langland, William.

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