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General Introduction

William Langland's Piers Plowman
Piers Plowman-- or The Vision of Piers Plowman--a long religious allegory in alliterative verse
A-, B-, and C-texts: The first, about twenty-four hundred lines long, breaks off at a rather inconclusive point in the action: the second, a revision of the first plus an extension of more than four thousand lines; and the third is a revision of the second. The entire work conforms with the notion that its author was a man who was educated to enter the church but who, through marriage and lack of preferment, was reduced to poverty and may well have wandered in his youth like those "hermits" he scornfully describes in the prologue.
The form--a dream vision: a common medieval type in which the author presents the story under the guise of having dreamed it. The dream vision involves allegory, not only because one expects form a dream the unrealistic, the fanciful, but also because people have always suspected that dreams relate the truth in disguised form--that they are natural allegories. 



Theme: Langland's theme is nothing less than the history of Christianity as it unfolds both in the world of the Old and new Testaments and in the life and heart of an individual fourteenth-century Christian--two seemingly distinct realms between which the poet's allegory moves with dizzying rapidity. The poet describes fourteenth-century English society in terms of its failure to represent an ideal society living in accord with Christian principles: Society's failure is attributable in part to the corruption of the church and ecclesiastics, and whenever he considers clerical corruption, he pours our savagely indignant satire. The failure of the wealthy laity--untaught by the church to practice charity--to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. 
Piers Plowman was widely read from the end of the fourteenth century to the reign of Elizabeth I. The leaders of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 used phrases borrowed from it as part of the rhetoric of the rebellion.  Langland's sympathy with the sufferings of the poor and his indignant satire of official corruption undoubtedly made his poem popular with the rebels, although he himself, despite his interest in social reform, remained a fundamentally conservative and orthodox thinker.   The passionate sympathy for the commoner, idealized in the work, also appealed to reformers who felt that true religion was best represented not by the ecclesiastical hierarchy but by the humblest orders of society.  Piers Plowman-- a prophecy and forerunner of the English Reformation 
Juxtaposition of vision and actuality--the visions themselves present actuality as much as they embody speculation and theological mysteries. In poetry only Chaucer approaches this manifestation of a daily interweaving of the humdrum, or the sordid, and the sublime. 


The persona is both a partly fictional character subject to impressions of the human and divine and also a vehicle conveying or embodying views, quests, questionings, which may or may not have been the poet's own, or those of some of his contemporaries. The poem is often called a spiritual autobiography; but this is a simpliste description, the ironical result of the very vividness of Langland's presentation of his dreamer. Thus at the end of the first and shortest recension (the 'A test'), as readers we feel the gulf implied between learning and salvation to be so great as to be unbridgeable; it was all too easy to suggest that the poet here cobbled up an ending, and then began again, at Passus XI in his 'B text,' when he had new light. 
The poet records a spiritual crisis that he experienced after a disputation with friars in later years. The poem, like Dante's, is certainly in one sense a Pilgrim's Progress--but hardly in Bunyan's sense; it describes not so much a spiritual journey (and journey was the dominant sense of 'progress' in Bunyan's day) as an unfolding, a development, stage by stage, passus by passus.
The allegory of a spiritual pilgrimage had taken impressive literary form forty years before Langland wrote, in a work that became immediately popular and remained so for three centuries. Guillaume de Deguileville had written his verse Pelerinage de la Vie Humaine in 1331 and a revised and enlarged (indeed verbose) version had appeared in 1355.  The seventy manuscripts (often illustrated) that survive testify to its popularity and accessibility, though evidently no English versions were made before the fifteenth century. There is no proof that Langland knew this subtle and elaborate work (if it influenced Bunyan it must have been at several removes, and in simplified form). But we can hardly avoid noting that it proceeds by the device of didactic dialogue that Langland was to employ, and that some of its characters--e.g. Reason, Anima-- appear in Piers Plowman, together with some of its distinctive features and images--e.g. the author who poses as a naïve narrator, or the barn which in Piers Plowman is Holy Church and in the Pelerinage stands for Christ. These, like the figurative courts or castles that appear in Passus V and IX suggest that directly or indirectly Langland was influenced by the French tradition of didactic allegory. 
The plowman who gives his name to the poem and who appears in such diverse manifestations has no antecedent (or genuine successor). When he 'puts forth his head' to address the puzzled pilgrims in the fifth passus a new chapter opens in English literature, and rustic life takes on a new importance, a new value.  Chaucer evidently took note: he presents a ploughman who is sufficiently well-to-do and independent to go on pilgrimage with his brother, a parish priest and a learned clerk. 
The development of the poem is not linear, but neither circuitous; it is that of a helix, or a corkscrew, in which, at certain points of rest, the Dreamer looks back at earlier scenes and views them in a new perspective; the simplifications or exaggerations of earlier views are thus tacitly or explicitly corrected. It is not altogether fanciful to regard the spiral as circling round four crucial conceptions: 
1) The Field of folk: an image of the material world, which narrows down to Piers' half-acre, widens again to be Middle-earth, is reduced to the tree of Charity growing in a garden, and finally becomes wholly spiritualized, ploughed by the four evangelists and sown with seed of the Spirit.
2) Holy Church: the repository of Truth--figured first as a high-towered castle(I); then as an interior castle of the soul (v); then as the Ark--the 'shingled ship' of Passus IX; finally as the barn of Unity (Passus XIX).
3) The theme of Pardon: introduced obliquely with the false Pardoner of the Prologue; dramatized in Passsus VII; linked with the capital sins in the person of Haukin who questions the efficacy of his priest's pardon; identified with the Christlike Piers (xix. 388). 
4) The rood of the Crucifixion, round which the whole work revolves: the symbol of Divine Love: so presented in Passus I, by Holy Church; by Repentance in Passus V; as the scene of Christ's duel with Death, from which he emerges as Dux Vitae and Rex Gloriae in Passus XVIII. Central as the death of Christ is to Langland's thought, the cross does not figure as athe object of devotion, as it did in the art of his time, and in the meditative and mystical writers--the scenes of agony that absorbed Julian of Norwich are compassed. Langland's piety is spare, restrained, not affective. 


The Dreamer: At first a spectator, then an interlocutor, he gradually comes to participate in the dream-action.  The involvement corresponds to his growth as a self-questioning, self-communing, Christian.  Development in self-knowledge characterizes the protagonists, or the poetic personae, of the greatest fourteenth-century poems: Gawain similarly, engaged on a more knightly quest, will emerge as a penitent figure aware for the first time of his frailty.  The allegorical figures that the Dreamer meets--Ymaginatif, Clergy, Study, Patience, represent qualities that he comes to value and even to assimilate. If at the close it is Conscience who becomes a pilgrim walking the world as the poet-dreamer does at the beginning, it is because only now is the Dreamer's Conscience fully apprised of the Person that he must seek.
The poem reflects the actualities of Christian experience, the tension of an intensely serious and disturbed intelligence, rooted firmly in orthodox belief and practice yet alive to the disruption facing feudal society, and troubled by the failure of the Church and the religious orders to meet the crisis.  If the poem is not spiritual autobiography, it does reflect the struggle and aspiration of the poet to provide some light in the darkness for his fellow Christians. And at the close the reader has come to share, through the intermediacy of the Dreamer, his moods, his meditations, his exaltations. The Dreamer has allied himself to us by his very imperfections, his stubborn insistences.

Gender and Personification

Gender and personification -- Female forms/bodies
In the Dreamer's encounter with Lady Holy Church we trace certain tensions in the masculine perception of an idealized body of the Church in female form; in the story of the marital fortunes of the more mobile figure of Meed of the Maid we see how the reward-dynamic of contemporary society is apprehended by the Dreamer.  Meed seems to embody at various stages both the dynamic of a reward-based society and its most common currency: material gifts and money. That she embodies an antithetical social order to that of Lady Holy Church and/or represents a lower social class are interpretations which depend on whose 'version' of Meed is being represented at any particular time in the Dreamer's vision.  Her changing form (e.g. from illegitimate rich maid to legitimate 'muliere' to common whore) is an index of the contested definition of her proper name. In the story of the changing marital prospects of this very much man-made object of desire, no less than in the story of Lady Holy Church, we can see something of the operations of the traffic in reward in the Dreamer's society and something, too, of his society's 'traffic in women.' (Men have certain rights in their female kin, and women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin.)
By the fourteenth century, the iconography of the female form, the realization of the figure of the Church as the Bride of Christ and as Mother Church had considerable currency in the imagistic repertoire of Western Christianity. 
It is significant that the Dreamer does not initially recognize the Lady in personal terms. The authority of the Lady is signaled by her social orientation as an inhabitant of the fixed and stable castle, and it is with an overwhelming sense of her "otherness" (in class and gender terms) that the Dreamer begins his dialogue.  Already we may observe a discrepancy between the perception the Dreamer has of Lady Holy Church in an idealized female form excluded, it seems, from his everyday life and the Lady's view of herself, which insists on her spiritual reality and her social immanence. 
Lady Holy Church emphasizes that the Dreamer's vision is socially determined yet fictional; as is her representation within it.  The 'real' Church is not female, nor perfected, any more than 'real' Christians are likely to find their salvation by merely dreaming. 
Both Lady Holy Church and Meed represent projections of male desire, although the desire for Meed seems to be more immediately recognizable by the Dreamer. When he sees Meed, he too is ravished by her appearance (Passus II, 8-16).  In the arrangement of women, on the right and the left, Lady Holy Church and Meed the Maid, it seems as though the Dreamer is drawing on a cultural cliché, a version of the Mary/Eve opposition, to express and explore other kinds of antithetical values, spiritual and secular. One kind of polarized binary opposition in circulation in his culture (the splitting of womankind into two opposed figures) provides him with a way into exploring other kinds of oppositions: the dichotomy between the operations of the heavenly economy of redemption and an earthly economy involving material reward appears to be aligned to the split between Lady Holy Church's world of guaranteed truth (alienating and mystifying though its language has proved to the Dreamer) and the context in which her rival Meed is ensconced. 
The Dreamer, in his visions, does not have access to a pure symbolic order: his visions, his conceptualizing abilities, are socially based and culture bound. The female forms he imagines are figured as social beings, with particular class-based interests (which in the case of Lady Holy Church and Meed the Maid appear to be in competition), not actually as females in the abstract (something which is virtually impossible to figure in isolation anyway). The language of femininity, of feudalism, of mercantilism (to name just three of the discourses in combination here) are in dialogue in the figures of Lady Holy Church and Meed the Maid, just as these figures are engaged in dialogues with the male figures who are around them, whose own access to social, material, spiritual capital is a variable (and in these stakes the Dreamer seems a poor man all round).

Opening Dream

The opening dream, by the side of a hillside stream on a warm summer morning, is of a field (with a tower on one side and a dungeon on the other) in which all sorts and conditions of men wander or work. Some of them make pacts to go on pilgrimage, others are enticed by the words of a false pardoner. The focus is soon on the state and function of the Church.  From papal power it shifts to kingly.  An angelic preacher exhorts that kingly justice must be mingled with mercy, and (in the B text) the problems of government for the common profit are particularized in a vivid topical application of the fable of the rats and mice who would bell the cat. The scene shifts again to the clamour of London shops and streets and courts. By the close of the Prologue our curiosity is aroused, and the opening of the first passus promises some explanation.  It is provided by Lady Holy Church, who comes down from a high tower in the form of a benign and beautiful Lady who might have stepped out of a niche or west portal of a cathedral where Ecclesia and Synagoga are seen juxtaposed. Her theme is that of the Redemptive Love which most men in the dale are disregarding. The pattern of her discourse is homiletic--it is replete with texts and biblical allusion--but she is not identified with the visible church except in so far as she reminds the Dreamer of his baptism.  The mercy enjoined by the angel of the Prologue is here shown as an attribute of God himself, and of his Son, who would have mercy on his murderers. Thus the Passion makes its first appearance in the poem; at subsequent high points it will be pictured with increasing fullness--the Cross is the kingbeam on which the whole structure rests. Equally noteworthy is Holy Church's definition of Truth:"a kynde knowyng”Kthat kenneth in thine herte / For to lovye thi Lorde lever than thi selve', a sense implanted in man. Piers will say that he knows Truth 'as kyndely as clerke doth his bokes' (which is 'by heart', as we say) where 'kindly' means not simply 'naturally, instinctively', but 'intimately'.  The Dreamer will ask Study to teach him to know what is 'Dowel' (x. 146); and Patience will say that Contrition, Faith, and Conscience are 'kindly Dowel' (xiv. 87): its very essence.  Lady Church's withdrawal from the dream action--after she has warned the Dreamer of the false allure of a richly decked maid called Meed who is to be married by Liar's contrivance to one False--underlines the differences between her and the fourteen-century church, with its venal and self-indulgent priests and religious, who are to figure largely in the remainder of the work.
In the next three passus the Dream compasses the evils and the problems of contemporary society, and the sins of individuals--portrayed in vignettes done with unprecedented satiric force and brio.  Coming after Holy Church's pronouncements, the emphasis may seem surprising: it implies that Man cannot advance in Christian perfection until he has settled the basis of society and his part in it. Elementary needs, elementary justice must be satisfied before he can grow in personal godliness. A King who has been involved in foreign ways, but is now governed by Reason and Conscience (Passus IV) finds no room for the Lady Meed that has almost overturned the rule of law. As the court moves to church to hear mass, the Dreamer wakes, only to dream again of the Field in which Reason, as a bishop, is preaching, as to the whole realm of England devastated as it is by storm and pestilence. Each estate of the realm is admonished and finally the pilgrims whom we have glimpsed in the Prologue are adjured to 'seek Saint Truth, for he may save you all.'
The capital sins now passed in review are--save for Pride and Luxury--characterized with a wealth of descriptive phrase that matches Chaucer: Envy, pale and looking like a leek that has lain long in the sun; Wrath, sniveling with two white eyes; Avarice 'bitelbrowed and baberlipped,' cheeks lolling like a leather purse; Glutton, with guts that 'gunne to gothely [rumble] as two gredy sowes'; Sloth, 'all bislabered with two slymy eighten [eyes]'.  Their confessions fill out these sketches with vivid vignettes: Envy, turning a covetous eye on Eleyne's new robe; Wrath, who admits to having been battered on the bare arse in the chapter house; Avarice, who thinks th French term 'restitution' means robbing; Sloth, who says he does not know his 'paternoster as the prest it syngeth' but rather 'ryhmes of Robyn hOod and Randolf Erle of Chestre.'
All these seemingly depraved characters--composite in so far as they embody multifold manifestations of the sins--recognize the need of penitence, and know, or learn, the formulas of the Confessional. Thus it comes about that Repentance the priest can pray on their behalf the great Easter prayer that links the Creation with the Crucifixion, and can beseech God 'that art owre fader and owre brother, be merciable to us,' That the prayer marks a turning-point is hinted by the sudden, if momontary, appearance of Hope, who seized a horn of 'deus, tu conversus”K' and blew it so that all the saints in heaven sang at once. Such heavenly song will not be heard again till the daughters of God 'carole' on Easter Day (Passus XVIII).
The folk who have made their Lenten penance are now fit to follow the bishop's injunction and seek Saint Truth. They are to pass through the Ten Commandments, and after a liturgical allusion to the Virgin Birth and the Virgin's part in Redemption, they conclude with the revelation that Truth is to be found in the heart; it was in the heart that Holy Church had located the Kind Wit that teaches one to love the Lord more than oneself. 
The conflict between good and evil, far from being settled in accordance with the dictates of reason, needs to be resolved by other means. At the end of the poem, therefore, we are brought to the last vision of all, that which transforms Piers into the human semblance of God incarnate and crucifies. Freewill, we are told, "for love hath undertake, / That this Jesus of his gentrise ”K shal jouste in Peers armes, ”K" (C Text, Passus XXI, 20-24).  By this supreme transformation, the scope of the whole vision is finally extended.  The duel between good and evil is described in terns of a 'joust,' a courtly tournament. Jesus has become a 'prykiere,' a knight riding out to meet his challenger, and his armour, the humanity he has assumed for the purposes of battle, is that of Piers, who has borne his active representation of the Christian virtues through the successive stages of his allegorical pilgrimage and is now ready to play his part in the decisive encounter.

Study Questions on Piers Plowman

  1. The Field of Folk in the Prologue is an allegorical representation of the world, but the description
     of the folk is also a satire of different trades and professions, and the episode ends with a realistic market scene where vendors cry out their wares. Trace the many varieties and shadings of allegory form in Piers Plowman.  Find examples to support your answers. 
  2. Passus 5, "The Confession of the Seven Deadly Sins," is an example of "personification" allegory, in which the sins are personified as allegorical agents who describe themselves and act out their natures.  Give some sketches of these " allegorical agents."
  3. Some actual/realistic elements are also manifested in the work. For instance, the tavern scene in which Glutton, on his way to Confession, is enticed into a drinking party, although an allegory, is also the most graphic picture we have of medieval London lowlife, not even excluding Chaucer's works.  Please find some more examples to present the juxtaposition of vision and actuality in Piers Plowman.
  4. Pilgrimage was a traditional metaphor for the journey of life, and the idea that the pilgrims are a representative group, exemplifying the virtues and vices on the human pilgrimage, is presented in Piers Plowman. How is the group of folk different from the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales?
  5. Compare the treatment of the Crucifixion in The Dream of the Rood with that either The York Play of the Crucifixion or Piers Plowman.  Can you draw any conclusion about the differences between Old and Middle English culture?
  6. What do Chaucer and Langland have in common to lump their works together and refer to them as "medieval" literature? 

Relevant Links

Texts and Images of Piers Plowman