Piers Plowman

views updated May 21 2018

Piers Plowman

by William Langland


An alliterative Middle English poem set mainly in Malvern Hills, Westminster, and London in the fourteenth century; composed in three versions: the unfinished “A text,” written c. 1368–75; the “B text,” written 1377–79; and the “C text,” written 1382–88.


In a series of eight dreams (and two dreams-within-dreams), Will the Dreamer deals with concerns such as truth, reward, and charity while trying to discover how to save his soul. He seeks the embodiment of Christian living—both social and personal.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The Poem in Focus

For More Information

Unlike modern works that feature the author’s name prominently on the cover, medieval poems were frequently written and read without much regard for the author’s identity. In the case of Piers Plowman, we have some evidence for the poet’s name; a handwritten note in an early fifteenth-century manuscript attributes the poem to “Willielm[us] de Langlond,” which seems confirmed by this cryptogram in the poem itself: “‘I have lived in land,’ said I, ‘my name is Long Will’” (Langland, Piers Plowman, B. 15.152). Since no other information about “William Langland” has come to light, however, this name is mainly a convenience, rather than a helpful piece of historical information. All other biographical materials about the poet come from the poem itself. The opening episode of Piers Plowman shows a strong knowledge of the area around Malvern Hills (in south west Worcestershire), and it is clear that Langland spent much time in London as well. He was married, and was associated with the Church at the lowest levels of clerical orders, probably as an acolyte who earned his living by saying prayers for benefactors (dead or living). But writing poetry—“medd[ling] with making verses,” as one character puts it (Piers Plowman, B.12.16)—was really Langland’s life’s work. Over a period stretching from as early as the 1360s—when he was in his thirties—to his death sometime after 1387 or 1388, Langland obsessively wrote and rewrote his poem. The only version we can be sure Langland believed was complete is the B text, on which the following entry is based.

Events in History at the Time of the Poem

The crisis of kingship

On July 16, 1377, a ten-year-old boy was crowned king of England. Richard II’s grandfather, Edward III, had reigned for over 50 years, but Edward’s oldest son and would-be heir to the throne—Edward Prince of Wales, the beloved “Black Prince”—had died in 1376, a year before his father. The Black Prince’s death dashed England’s hopes for a renewal of strong leadership after King Edward’s increasingly imprudent reign. During the “Hundred Years War” with France, for instance, Edward had signed a treaty in 1360, in which he ceded both his claim to the French crown and most of his territories in France, receiving in return only a ransom for King Jean II of France. In later years, a foolish policy of excessive favoritism toward a few courtiers, including his mistress, Alice Perrers, had further decreased the public’s faith in the king. The crowning of Richard did little to ameliorate the situation. During Richard II’s minority, England was ruled by councils who were often at odds with the young king’s four surviving uncles. These instabilities culminated in 1399, when Richard’s cousin, Henry of Lancaster (Henry IV), seized the throne. The strife continued in the fifteenth century’s War of the Roses between two clans, the Yorks and Lancasters, who traced their ancestry to Richard II’s uncles.

The Black Death and the Revolt of 1381

Feudal English society was divided into three classes, or “estates”: the knights and gentry at the top, the clergy in the middle, and the peasants at the bottom. Conservative thinkers taught that God ordained society in this way and that everyone should be thankful for his or her given status. In this schema, the knights would be the leaders of society. While it was commonplace to pay lip service to the equality of all humanity before God, manual laborers were not only physically exploited by their lords, but also rhetorically denigrated as the lowest of God’s creatures. The Bible seemed to promote this view. In the story of creation, Adam and Eve’s eldest son, Cain, is identified as the first murderer (of his brother Abel), as well as the first to till the earth. Langland’s decision to make a plowman the ideal figure of his poem is therefore a remarkable one. His exaltation of Piers registered powerfully against an accepted stereotype of the plowman as a cursed figure.

In 1348–49 disaster struck England in the form of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, which arrived from Europe on rat-infested ships. (The disease was carried by black rats and spread by their fleas.) The bubonic plague ravaged England, wiping out a third or more of the population, including half the clergy, and greatly upsetting the feudal system of labor, instigating the transition to a farm rental system. Before the Black Death, laborers worked for one baron on one manor, for the privilege of using land that was not theirs: “The lord gave use of the land—whether a baronry or a few half-acre strips; his ‘man’ responded with customary services which, if he was a bondsman, were often agricultural work (though they could include many other sorts of service, for example the messenger service)” (Baldwin, p. 69). However, on account of the Black Death, the demand for labor increased so dramatically that these peasants gained more power than before in the marketplace. In other words, feudal society was breaking down. The situation led to dramatically higher wages for the laborers and a less stable pool of workers on the manors. To counter these effects, Parliament enacted the Statutes of Laborers between 1349 and 1388, which sought to control prices, to prevent laborers from reneging on their contracts, and to force “the idle” to work.

In response to these statutes and to a series of poll taxes in 1377, 1379, and 1380, a mass of laborers stormed London in June 1381. Joined by artisans and other nonpeasants, the so-called “Peasants’ Revolt” brought mass destruction of property and loss of life: the archbishop of Canterbury and the treasurer of England, both major forces behind young Richard’s reign, were beheaded as the king remained helplessly ensconced in the Tower of London. Leaders of the revolt issued a long list of demands, including the abolition of the poll taxes, of the Statutes of Laborers, of church-held property, and of villeinage. A villein was a feudal tenant of a lord or manor to which he was entirely subject; villienage was the tenure by which he held some of its land. Now the rebels wanted to demolish the entire social structure, in which laborers were wholly subject to a lord. A meeting between King Richard and Wat Tyler, a leader of the rebels, resulted in the death of Tyler and the end of the revolt. But the events of June 1381, in which Piers Plowman played a part, had major social consequences.

Lollardy and the Great Schism

To conservative Christian thinkers like Langland, the social instabilities that prompted the revolt of 1381 were inextricably connected to the health of the Church. Langland and others saw signs of spiritual and ecclesiastical discord all around them. As Langland was writing, a major Oxford theologian, John Wyclif (or Wycliffe), offered ideas that seem to have inspired some of the rebels’ thinking in 1381. A call for the distribution of the Church’s property, for instance, was one of his central tenets.

Wyclif instigated a movement that has been called “the premature reformation”: he urged that the Bible be translated into English and made available to all Christians, rather than just to the clergy; he condemned what he deemed features of “idolatry” in the practice of the religion—pilgrimage and the Eucharist; and he questioned the legitimacy of bishops and priests in absolving sin. His ideas quickly spread beyond the ivory towers of Oxford University, becoming the seedbed of a movement called “Lollardy” (an abusive term derived from the Dutch word lollaerd, or “mumbler”) that appealed to individuals of all classes—individuals who often identified with Langland, believing him to be a kindred spirit. Regarding Lollards as a great threat, in 1382 the orthodox Church condemned Wyclif’s doctrines and in 1407 it outlawed ownership of any of his writings—or any vernacular Biblical writing.

Lollardy was only one of a number of Christian “heresies” that flourished in later medieval Europe. Another, close in spirit to the Lollards, flourished among the Hussites in Bohemia in the early fifteenth century.

The orthodox Church also suffered internal strife, which captured the attention of authors like Langland and his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer. Western Christendom witnessed a major event at precisely the moment that Langland was producing the B text of Piers Plowman: the papacy, which had been centered in Avignon, France, for decades (the so-called “Babylonian Captivity”), returned to Rome.

The decades of exile had developed from a conflict between King Phillip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII in the early fourteenth century. In effect, the French harassed Boniface so much that he had to flee Rome; he died soon thereafter, and in 1309 his successors relocated the papacy to Avignon, close to Philip’s realm. The papacy’s ecclesiastical and political authority waned during its period in Avignon, particularly among lands unfriendly to the French (especially England); because of this, Pope Gregory XI reestablished it in Rome in 1377.

Political antagonisms in 1378 led to a peculiar state of affairs: two popes were elected by different factions. Elected first was Pope Urban VI, and he returned to Rome, whereupon a faction of French cardinals, fearful of Italian influence, declared Urban’s election null; they proceeded to elect Clement VII, the “antipope,” who remained in Avignon. England supported Urban, France supported Clement, and various kingdoms throughout Europe took different sides. Known as the “Great Schism,” this situation of competing popes had disastrous political, spiritual, and psychological effects on Christendom. Langland himself appears to have been despondent over the situation. Passages of the B text express great anger at the papacy—so great, in fact, that some take it as evidence that Langland wrote the B text after 1378.

Other instabilities in the Church

Lollardy and the Great Schism were perhaps the most urgent, but by no means the only, instances of Christian instability addressed by Langland and his peers. In England itself, the abuses practiced by many mendicant (that is, begging) friars aroused the indignation of Langland and Wyclif, who believed that contemporary friars had fallen far from the ideals espoused by their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Since friars were answerable only to the Pope and not to local bishops, they could preach and perform sacraments anywhere


Pilgrimage is a form of religious devotion that entails journeying to a holy place. Popular destinations for pious medieval Christians included Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified, or, closer to home, the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Walsingham. According to the Church, pilgrimage provided a means for Christians to achieve penance after confessing their sins: this is a process Langland dramatizes in the Second Vision (although Piers the Plowman substitutes plowing the half-acre for pilgrimage). But companionship and sightseeing were, of course, other attractions of pilgrimages. People from all walks of life, from peasants to royalty, undertook these journeys. On the other hand, there were many who rejected the practice. These naysayers faulted the practice as one easily given to abuse, for it tempted Christians to seek earthly things rather than spiritual wholeness. Detractors accused it, as well, of fostering misplaced devotion, for pilgrims sometimes put their faith in the literal shrines rather than in the spiritual truths represented by these physical objects. While this attitude would later become a mainstay of Lollardy, Langland had long been against pilgrimages; Piers himself claims, “I wouldn’t take a farthing’s fee for Saint Thomas’ shrine” (Piers Plowman, 5.558). In the Prologue, pilgrims do not fare well among the “fair field full of folk” (Piers Plowman, Prol. 17):

Pilgrims and palmers [“professional” pilgrims] made pacts
with each other
To seek out Saint James [an important shrine in Spain] and
saints at Rome. They went on their way with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie all their lives after.
I saw some that said they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth—such talk was theirs.

(Piers Plowman, Prol. 46-52)

they liked. Antifraternalism—that is, the stereotyping of the friars as sly hustlers for money, who abused their authority and who preached poverty but lived grandly off others—were mainstays of Lollard satires, of some wonderful Chaucerian poetry, and indeed of Piers Plowman, which even depicts the Antichrist, who destroys Holy Church Unity as a friar. Yet it should be noted that in many ways Langland shows great affinities with Franciscan ideals, such as true mendicancy (i.e., the embracing of poverty) and missionary activity, and that it is the perceived decline from those ideals, not the institution of friars, that piques his anger.

Finally, the presence in this world of non-Christians was a major problem for Langland and many others in fourteenth-century England. Jewish communities had been expelled from England by Richard I in 1290, and it is unlikely that Langland traveled abroad where he could have encountered individuals of many faiths. Yet Langland, like many preachers and other writers, shows great concern for evangelism: the view was that the conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity should be a major goal of the papacy. This can be seen as a peaceful ideal, yet the corollary was severe: if these heretics refuse to believe and if they threaten Christian territories, they should be forced into submission, even death. Such was the ideology that fueled the many crusades led by Western bishops and secular leaders against the Muslims in the later Middle Ages (with little success).

In Langland’s day the Turks’ encroachment upon the West made these issues especially urgent. From the 1320s, the Ottomans had expanded their empire into Europe; by the 1360s they were consistently sacking cities in eastern Europe. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 gave the Turks control over the Balkan region. Western Christians sought to repel the Turkish advance by a crusade in 1396, but the Christians were slaughtered at Nicopolis, in effect ending the crusading era.

The Poem in Focus

Contents summary

The B text of Piers Plowman relates a series of dreams in which Will the Dreamer either witnesses events or has discussions with a variety of figures. Most of these are allegorical personifications, either of social concepts and institutions (such as “Holy Church,” “Scripture,” and “Meed,” the idea of reward), or of elements that make us human (“Reason” and “Soul”). The Dreamer’s encounters with such figures can be seen as the author’s struggle to understand these concepts and their role in social and individual well-being. The overarching structure is Will’s search for “Truth” and his attempts to understand how to “do well, better, and best”—that is, how to live a Christian life in the face of all the failings of humanity evident in late fourteenth-century England. Piers Plowman B is divided into a Prologue and 20 passus, or chapters, which relate eight dreams and two dreams-within-dreams. Many of the poem’s surviving manuscripts call the first two visions the Visio (meaning “Vision), and the final six the Vita of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best (meaning the “Life of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best”). But it is possible that these rubrics originate from later scribes of the poem.

The Visio begins in the Prologue, in which Will falls asleep and sees “A fair field full of folk” situated between a dungeon and a tower. In Dream One, Lady Holy Church explains the meaning of his vision: “Truth” lives in the tower, while the dungeon is the Castle of Care, whose captain is Wrong, “Father of falsehood” (Piers Plowman, 1.64). Next, Will learns about Falsehood through the figure of Lady Meed (“reward”), who is to be married to False. When Theology objects to the marriage, a trial before the King takes place in Westminster. Meed and Conscience, to whom the King has offered Meed’s hand, debate the role of rewards. To adjudicate the impasse, Reason is brought to the courts at Westminster. The King agrees with Reason that Lady Meed perverts the cause of justice. Most everyone in the court thinks she is “a cursed slut,” so she mopes (Piers Plowman, 4.160). The King scorns her: “Through your law I believe I lose many reversions. / Meed overmasters law and much obstructs the truth” (Piers Plowman 4.175–76). No one marries her; by the end of the episode the issue of her marriage has given way to that of reward and its role in justice.

At this point, the Dreamer awakens and promptly falls back asleep, inaugurating the second dream. Reason preaches repentance, prompting the Seven Deadly Sins to confess their sins and undertake a pilgrimage to Truth. A plowman named Piers offers to guide them by means of the Ten Commandments and the Christian virtues. First, declares Piers, the pilgrims must help him plow his half-acre. Piers calls upon Hunger to force slackers to do their share, and Hunger offers a policy for dealing with the hungry: the indigent (those who are physically unable to work) should be given food, but the able-bodied should work for theirs. Truth sends Piers a pardon, but when a priest claims not to find any pardon written on the paper, Piers tears it in anger, announcing that he will cease plowing and instead devote his life to penance and prayers.

Dreams Three and Four constitute The Life of Do-Well. After his second dream, having been awakened by the argument between the priest and Piers, Will asks two friars where he might find “Do-well.” The friars claim that Do-Well lives with them; Will argues with them by saying that Do-Well cannot be among sinners. The friars give an exemplum, that is, tell a brief story, to explain their point, but Will says, “I have no natural knowledge … to understand your words, / But if I may live and go on looking, I shall learn better” (Piers Plowman, 8.57–58). Will’s third dream continues his quest. Will encounters Thought, with whom he argues about the meaning of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. At this point, Will seems to think that the three are people or things, whereas the poem’s point seems to be that one finds “Do-Well” by doing well. Will and his companion meet Wit, who says that Do-Well lives in the body and goes on to discuss the body’s animating forces. Wit then offers definitions of Do-Well: almsgiving; marriage; and doing as the law teaches. The characters are joined


In the poem, Piers warns workers to labor while they may, since Hunger is coming; he gives a prophecy that “Daw the diker [will] die for hunger, / Unless God of his goodness grants us a truce” (Piers Plowman, 6.330-31). The next passage says “Truth heard tell of this and sent word to Piers / To take his team and till the earth, / And procured him a pardon a poena et a culpa [“from punishment and from guilt”], / For him and for his heirs for evermore after” (Piers Plowman, 7.1-4). Basically, the process of sermon, confession, repentance, and pilgrimage leads to such a pardon. However, the poem’s mention of the pardon has been the center of some controversy. In the poem, Piers tears up the “pardon.” One of the points of contention in his tearing it is whether he does so on the same grounds that he disapproves of pilgrimage: that is, whether he expresses the view that a person ought not to focus on paper pardons but on spiritual ones.

by Dame Study, who upbraids the misuse of reason by her husband, Wit, and other scholars. Will then debates the value of wisdom with Clergy and Scripture. He subsequently has an “inner dream,” or a dream within the dream, in which he foolishly follows Fortune. After friars refuse to help him, he discusses the nature of God’s justice with Lewte (Justice), Scripture, and the Emperor Trajan, a righteous pagan. Nature then shows Will the natural world, in which humans do not act according to Reason. Will and Reason discuss the value of human and divine suffering, after which Will awakens from his inner dream and encounters a new figure, Imaginative (the power to form mental images of external things or things from the past). Imaginative questions the worth of Will’s “meddling with makings” (writing poetry), which Will defends as a form of work (Piers Plowman, B.12.16). Imaginative says that while learning is very valuable, grace is more important, and responds affirmatively to Will’s question about whether the heathen can be saved.

Will awakens and considers his dream, then falls asleep again. In his fourth dream, Conscience invites him to dine with Clergy, an academic Doctor (professor), and Patience, a pilgrim. The Doctor, Clergy, and Patience all respond to Conscience’s request that they define Do-Well and Do-Better. Conscience and Patience set out on a pilgrimage together, on which they meet Hawkin, who represents “Active Life” and is the Dreamer’s alter ego. Hawkin’s coat, Will notices, is stained with sin; this leads Will to consider the subject of minstrelsy and poverty. Conscience says “your best coat, Hawkin, / Has many spots and stains; it should be washed” and proceeds to teach him how to do so (Piers Plowman, 13.313-14). Together Conscience and Patience offer to help him keep his coat clean by means of penitence and submission to God’s will. Patience teaches him that Charity is found among the poor and praises patiently borne poverty. Will wakes up again.

Dreams five and six constitute The Life of Do-Better. The first passage recounts Will’s encounter with Anima (Soul), who gives a long sermon on charity, its role in converting Jews and Muslims, and its manifestations in the history of the Church. Next, Anima teaches that charity is a tree in the heart, tended by Liberum Arbitrium (Free Will) on land owned by Piers Plowman. At the mention of Piers, Will swoons and has his second inner-dream, in which he sees the tree, whose symbolic significance Piers explains. The tree’s apples come to symbolize figures from the Old Testament who fall under the devil’s power. The Dreamer then sees the Annunciation, in which Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, and also sees events from the life of Christ before awakening from the inner dream. The rest of Dream Five relates Will’s encounters with figures for Faith, Hope, and Charity, embodied in Abraham, Moses, and the Good Samaritan. This last figure teaches Will about the Trinity, the doctrine that in one God are three persons: Father (God the creator of the world), Son (Jesus), and spirit (the spirit of God, or the holy spirit).

Will’s sixth dream occurs when he falls asleep before Palm Sunday services. He witnesses Christ entering Jerusalem and learns from Faith that Christ will take the armor of Piers Plowman to fight against Death. After Christ’s crucifixion, Will descends to Hell, where the Four Daughters of God (Mercy, Peace, Truth, and Righteousness) debate about whether man can be saved from Hell. Christ arrives, and they celebrate when he does indeed free the human souls. Easter bells awaken Will, who calls his wife, Kit, and daughter, Calote, to go with him to church.

Will again falls asleep in church. In Dream Seven he envisions Piers, painted bloody and carrying a cross, coming in among the people. Conscience explains Christ’s roles as knight, king, and conqueror. The Holy Spirit descends upon Piers and his fellows, distributing gifts of grace. Piers receives a plow to sow the Word of God, and a barn, which represents Holy Church Unity. Pride attacks Piers as he plows, so Conscience urges Christians into the barn, and Will awakens.

As the final dream begins, Will is disturbed; he encounters Need, who argues that Temperance is the primary Christian virtue. Falling asleep, Will dreams of the attack on Holy Church by the figure of a great adversary, the Antichrist, who is followed by friars. Will is attacked by Old Age and takes refuge in Holy Church. Kynde (Nature) and Conscience cannot thwart the entry of Friar Flatterer. Conscience announces he will go on pilgrimage to seek Piers Plowman, and cries for grace until Will awakens.

The figures of Piers the Plowman and Will the Dreamer

The implications of Langland’s decision to feature a plowman in his poem were enormously powerful—so much so that John Ball, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, cites “Piers Plowman” as if he were a historical individual rather than a poetic idealization.

Yet the details of the poem itself do not endorse the revolutionary ends that Ball and others seem to have found in it. When Piers says he will show the pilgrims the way to St. Truth after plowing a half-acre by the highway, a knight asks him to teach him to plow; Piers responds by insisting that both plowman and knight uphold their given positions:

I shall sweat and strain and sow for us both,
And also labor for your love all my lifetime,
In exchange for your championing Holy
Church and me
Against wasters and wicked men who would
destroy me.
               (Piers Plowman, 6.25-28)

The poem also affirms the centrality of the Church in English life—a role resented by the rebels, who directed their animosity against the Church by beheading the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, in the rising of 1381. The whole episode of the pilgrimage to Truth, as John Burrow argues in “The Action of Langland’s Second Vision,” dramatizes the traditional process of sermon, confession, repentance, and pilgrimage. Langland substitutes “plowing”—that is, performing one’s duties faithfully—for literal pilgrimage, which he disdains. But the structure of this episode, and of many others throughout the poem, makes clear Langland’s support of traditional ecclesiastical roles in society.

Moreover, Piers’s reference to “wasters and wicked men” seems to accept without question the definitions of society upon which the Statutes of Laborers rested: those workers who are “true” to their lords are indeed doing their part to “plow the half-acre,” while those who attempt to take advantage of the labor shortfall after the Black


Ball, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, refers to Piers Plowman as if he were real:

John the Shepherd [pseudonym for John Ball], formerly priest at Saint Mary’s in York, and now of Colchestre, warmly greets John the Nameless, and John the Miller, and John Carter, and bids them to beware of guile in the town, and stand together in God’s name, and bids Piers Plowman to go to his work, and fully chastises Hob the Robber, and take with you John Trueman and all his fellows, and no more, and obey only one leader, and no more.…

(italics added; Ball in Dean. p. 135)

Death are “wasters” who should be prosecuted (Piers Plowman, 6.28). Langland, to be sure, is no reactionary who blindly seeks to uphold the status quo; indeed, this and many other passages in the poem are poignant in their approach to the treatment of the destitute. Moreover, an element of Piers Plowman that resounds nearly as powerfully as the figure of Piers is that of the Dreamer himself, who expresses fears that his own work—the writing of his poem, an activity often likened to plowing, especially in relation to the “sowing of the Word”—might be deemed “wasteful” by those in authority (Bowers, pp. 214-15). The poem’s intimate relation to such events as the Revolt of 1381 and the Statutes of Laborers show conclusively that his poem is hardly wasteful, though. It can itself be an actor in history, despite the intentions of the author.

Literary context

It is impossible to identify any particular historical person or event that inspired Langland to write. Certain historical events are clearly reflected in the poem, such as the Prologue’s episode of the coronation, which is clearly indebted to the ascension of Richard II in 1377 (Baldwin, pp. 78-81). But other attempts to find historical personages in the poem—such as the equation of Lady Meed with Edward III’s mistress Alice Perrers, or the identification of references to the Great Schism of 1378—rest on flimsier ground.

As noted, Piers Plowman was an actor in social history as well as a respondent to it. Likewise, it played an active role in British literary history, initiating what came to be known as “the Piers Plowman tradition.” This tradition consists of a series of poems from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century that appropriate Piers Plowman’s imagery and alliterative style for radical political ends: Piers the Plowman’s


“And you meddle with making verse and might go say your Psalter, And pray for them that provide your bread, for there are plenty of books To tell men what Do-Well is, Do-Better and Do-Best both And preachers to explain it all, of many a pair of friars.” I saw well he spoke the truth, and somewhat to excuse myself Said, “Cato comforted his son, clerk though he was, To solace himself sometimes: so I do when I write. Interpose some pleasures at times among your cares. And I’ve heard it said of holy men, how they now and then Played to be more perfect in their prayers afterward. But if there were any one who would tell me What Do-Well and Do-Better were, and Do-Best the last, I would never do any work but wend to Holy Church And stay there saying prayers save when I ate or slept.”

(Piers Plowman, B. 12.16-28)

man’s Creed, Mum and the Sothsegger, and Richard the Redeless. These poems are also heavily indebted to the Lollard movement. Many Lollard writings share with Piers Plowman ideologies that might be seen as urging reform in the Church, such as a replacement of literal acts like pilgrimage with a renewed emphasis on Christian vocations that God has called upon a person to perform, vocations like plowing, for example. But in many other ways, Langland was unquestionably orthodox, and thus far from Wyclif and his followers. Landland’s writing, for instance, acknowledges the efficacy of the clergy in his day.

In fact, Langland’s extensive rewriting of the B text (so extensive that he produced a new poem, the C text) seems in part intended to reaffirm his orthodoxy and to reclaim his work from the rebels of 1381 (Justice, pp. 232-51). It is unclear to what extent Langland’s early readers recognized the presence of three different versions of Piers Plowman, but today we can identify their cumulative status as the most influential alliterative, satirical, and allegorical works of the English Middle Ages. In the Middle English canon, the 58 surviving manuscripts of the A, B, and C texts are second in number only to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the range of manuscripts in which Piers Plowman appears along with other works indicates that it appealed to a wide variety of readers. The success of Piers Plowman, scholars have argued, prompted “the Alliterative Revival” of the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, to which we owe such poems as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times).

Beyond its direct influence on John Ball and “the Piers Plowman tradition,” and its indirect role in enabling a rebirth of alliterative poetry after centuries of neglect, Piers Plowman has not fared well. “Regretfully one must conclude that, at least after the immediate and usually Lollard imitations,” asserts Anne Hudson, “Piers Plowman in the two and a half centuries after its composition was more honoured in the name than in the reading” (Hudson, p. 263). Yet, for those seeking to understand the English Middle Ages, Piers Plowman remains an illuminating work that constitutes both a reflection and an agent of social and literary history.

—Lawrence Warner

For More Information

Baldwin, Anna P. “The Historical Context.” In A Companion to “Piers Plowman.” Ed. John A. Alfrod. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Bloch, M. Feudal Society. Trans. L. A. Manyon. 1950. Reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Bowers, John M. The Crisis of Will in “Piers Plowman.” Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1986.

Burrow, John. “The Action of Langland’s Second Vision.” In Style and Symbolism in “Piers Plowman.” Ed. Robert J. Blanch. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

Dean, James M., ed. Medieval English Political Writings. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS, 1996.

Hudson, Anne. “The Legacy of Piers Plowman.” In A Companion to “Piers Plowman.” Ed. John A. Alfrod. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Kirk, Elizabeth D. “Langland’s Plowman and the Recreation of Fourteenth-Century Religious Metaphor.” Yearbook of Langland Studies 2 (1988): 1-21.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman: An Alliterative Verse Translation. Trans. E. Talbot Donaldson. Ed. Elizabeth D. Kirk and Judith H. Anderson. New York: Norton, 1990.

——. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text. Ed. A. V. C. Schmidt. 2d ed. Rutland, Vermont: Everyman, 1995.

McKisack, May. The Fourteenth Century, 1307-1399. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

Simpson, James. Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-Text. New York: Longman, 1990.

Piers Plowman

views updated May 17 2018


The full title of Piers Plowman, the master literary work of 14th-century England's alliterative revival in the West Midlands, is The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman. Common in the MSS and in early references are the Latin titles: Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman and Liber de Petro Plowman. The poem survives in 49 MSS in three successive versions of unequal length, known as the A, B, and C texts; ten of the MSS are composed of parts from two of the texts. The A text (2,558 lines), written c. 1362 to 1373, is divided into a prologue, 11 passus (cantos) and a "Passus XII" of dubious character, written by a John But and printed as an appendix in recent editions. The B text (7,242 lines), written c. 1377, has a prologue and nine additional passus following the 11 of A, these earlier passus being altered in many respects. The C text (7,357 lines), written c. 1387 to 1398, is a revision of B, having no prologue and 23 passus. The first printed edition (B text) was by Robert Crowley in 1550.

Authorship and Organization. Although the famous controversy over the authorship is not completely resolved, Piers Plowman is now generally attributed to William Langland on the basis of two 15th-century notes in MSS and of internal evidence. He was possibly the illegitimate son of Eustace de Rokayle, was born at Cleobury Mortimer or Ledbury in Shropshire, and educated at the priory of Great Malvern in Worcestershire. All else about him seems speculation.

Each version of the poem follows the same basic organization of two large divisions, each containing several visions composed of one or more passus. The B text, the one most often read and translated today, includes the Vision concerning Piers the Plowman (Prologue-Passus VII), two dreams, and the Lives of Dowel (VIIIXIV), Dobet (XVXVIII), and Dobest (XIXXX), eight dreams, two of which are dreams within dreams.

The Visio and the Vita. In the Visio, Will, a persona for William the author and the will of every medieval man, recounts his dream of the various contemporary professions, of the "fair field full of folk," working out their fates between the Tower of Truth (eternal life) and the Castle of Care (eternal fire). A Lady (the Church), the first of many tutors to appear, explains the divine origin and destiny of men and their duties to God. There follows a series of dramatic scenes dealing with the proposed marriage of Lady Meed (reward) first to False, and then to Conscience. In the second dream, the folk repent their past sins and begin a pilgrimage in search of Truth. Piers now makes his first appearance, directing them first to plow their own half-acres, after which Truth sends a pardon to him and his true followers: "Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam eternam;/ Qui vero mala, in ignem eternum."

In the Vita, Will's quest for the three degrees of doing well (bona egerunt ) moves mainly in his own mind; his search is a pilgrimage through the three grades of Christian perfection toward the ideal society. The pattern at the center of the poem, the lives of Dowel and Dobet, is progress through struggle. In the third vision, Will confronts his own faculties, such as Thought and Imagination, gradually learns the responsible use of man's distinguishing gifts, wit and will, and recognizes his sinfulness. In the fourth, under the tutelage of Conscience and Patience, he beholds Hawkin the Active Man's discovery of his stained coat (soul) and adopts an attitude of penance and poverty in preparation for the focusing of divine powers within his own soul, Anima. In the fifth vision, he then moves to the contemplation of the three theological virtues and the Trinity, and in the sixth, to a meditation on the Passion and its relation to his own salvation. It is in this last vision that Charity, who is also the Good Samaritan, takes on the flesh of Piers Plowman, who appears as Christ the Knight, come to joust at Jerusalem. In Dobest, Piers makes his third appearance as Christ's reeve, the Pope. The final two dreams present the testing of Will's love and poverty and of the 14th-century Church, which is attacked by Antichrist. Will recounts his own tribulations and the coming of old age; the poem concludes with his Conscience vowing that he will "walk as wide as the world lasts" in search of Piers the Plowman. Each passus, or "step," has made it clear that the pilgrimage is the poem's dominant motif, a fact that relates it to chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Relationship with Other Works. In form and technique Piers Plowman is related also to the works of other contemporaries. No other medieval poem presents such a mixture of genres. In keeping with the basic form of allegorical dream narrative, mental faculties (Reason), sins (Pride), virtues (Patience), institutions (Holy-church), and a great many other personifications, as well as divine persons (Holy Ghost), Biblical figures (Moses), and contemporary people (Friars) appear as characters, undergo a variety of transformations, and vanish unexpectedly. Parts of the personified action relate the poem to the morality plays, while mystery plays have clearly influenced other scenes (see drama, medieval).

The unifying action, a quest, connects it with the romance, and, inasmuch as the quest involves Will with a series of guides, it resembles the consolatio in which Boethius is tutored by Dame Philosophy. The character Will, uneducated but argumentative, is similar to the autobiographical ingénu of encyclopedic satire, and in the continual criticism of the actual in the light of the ideal, there are elements of complaint in the de contemptu mundi tradition. Other materials are derived from the sermon, the devotional, penitential, and ascetic handbooks, and the commentaries and glosses of the Bible. Langland "spoke Bible" and used at times both typology (see typos) and the four allegorical levels of Scripture (singly or in combination) to shape a poem that, in its eschatological orientation and its scattered prophetic warnings, is apocalyptic. Some of the alliterative lines are macaronic and acrostic, and others contain repetition, riddles, puns, and word play of all kinds. All critics agree that Piers Plowman is one of the most puzzling poems in English literature.

Main Theme. If the author's aims and accomplishments are to be understood, the three versions should probably not be regarded as variants of the same poem, but as a cumulative work in which successive attempts are made to develop and clarify his main theme, the search for salvation. This is treated thematically as a pilgrimage, in keeping with the Augustinian definition of charity as the motion of the soul toward God, and is associated with plowing, the tending to the duties of one's own estate. The value of both depends on cooperation with the way of the cross, the pardon. These motifs of pilgrimage, plowing, and pardon are unified in penance, which is not only the ritual followed in the confession scenes for which the poem is well known, but a virtue related to poverty and patience. For the author, these three seem to define the life of perfection.

In depicting Will's search, Langland incorporates all the elements associated with the medieval spiritual life: the creed; the Ten Commandments; the seven deadly sins; the three theological virtues; the four cardinal virtues; the four daughters of God; the world, the flesh, and the devil; and the three types of chastityin marriage, in widowhood, and in virginity. Key terms of medieval philosophical thought, such as Need, Fortune, and Kind (Nature), all receive systematic treatment as personifications, and the century's problems, such as the questioning of the value of learning and the rising emphasis on voluntarism, are given penetrating and balanced analysis. The poem, finally, is the most significant vernacular expression of English social thought in the Middle Ages; it makes explicit and detailed reference to the plagues, the Hundred Years' War, the Great Schism, and the wide variety of clerical and economic abuses; yet, grounded as it is in the actual religious practice, philosophical thought, and historical events of its time, it conveys, like no other English poem, the timelessness of Christian truth.

Scholarship Devoted to Piers. Piers Plowman has been fortunate in its editors and interpreters. The basic edition of all three texts is that of Skeat, but this is gradually being replaced by the new London edition, of which Kane's A text has already appeared. This edition, which was begun as a result of the famous authorship dispute between J. M. Manly, who argued that the composition of the three versions was the work of five men, and J. J. Jusserand and others, who argued for a single author, will probably not fully resolve the dispute for all, but Kane's book (1965) clearly indicates that the evidence points toward unity of authorship. Despite the speculations of A. Bright, little more is known about the author; the chief source for his biography is internal evidence, and most critics today agree that the events in the poem do not mirror his life in such close detail as has previously been argued. Chambers, Coghill, and Wells were among the poem's first great interpreters. Owst and Spearing have shown how much the poem has in common with the medieval sermon. Dunning's early study of the A text has left subsequent writers on all three versions in his debt, as has Donaldson's pioneering work on the C text. In more recent years, critical studies have focused on the B text and its Biblical, theological, devotional, and apocalyptic backgrounds; the best are those of Robertson and Huppé, Frank, Fowler, and Bloomfield. Interest in this important work is still very strong and further scholarship appears every year.

Bibliography: Editions. w. w. skeat, ed., The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts, Together with Richard the Redeless, 2 v. (London 1886). t. a. knott and d. c. fowler, eds., Piers the Plowman: A Critical Edition of the A-Version (Baltimore 1952). g. kane, ed., Piers Plowman: The A Version (London 1960). Translations. n. coghill, tr., Visions from Piers Plowman (New York 1949). j. f. goodridge, tr., Langland: Piers the Ploughman (Baltimore 1959). h. h. wells, tr., The Vision of Piers Plowman (New York 1935). Studies. a. h. bright, New Light on 'Piers Plowman' (London 1928). m. w. bloomfield, Piers Plowman as a 14th-Century Apocalypse (New Brunswick, N.J. 1962). r. w. chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind (London 1939). c. h. dawson, Medieval Religion and Other Essays (New York 1934). e. t. donaldson, Piers Plowman: The C-Text and Its Poet (New Haven 1949). t. p. dunning, Piers Plowman: An Interpretation of the A-Text (New York 1937). w. erzgrÄber, William Langlands 'Piers Plowman': Eine Interpretation des C-Textes (Heidelberg 1957). r. w. frank, Piers Plowman and the Scheme of Salvation (New Haven 1957). d. c. fowler, Piers, the Plowman: Literary Relations of the A and B Texts (Seattle 1961). d. l. owen, Piers Plowman: A Comparison with Some Earlier and Contemporary French Allegories (London 1912). g. r. owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England (2d ed. New York 1961). d. w. robertson and b. f. huppÉ, Piers Plowman and Scriptural Tradition (Princeton 1951). a. c. spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry (New York 1964). e. m. tillyard, The English Epic and Its Background (New York 1954). h. c. white, Social Criticism in Popular Religious Literature of the 16th Century (New York 1944). g. kane, Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (London 1965).

[g. l. o'grady]

Piers Plowman

views updated May 17 2018

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