||William Langland's Piers Plowman
Piers Plowman-- or The Vision of Piers Plowman--a long religious allegory in
||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
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.
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
||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
||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
- The Field of Folk in the Prologue is an allegorical representation of the world, but the
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
- 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."
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- What do Chaucer and Langland have in common to lump their works together and refer to
them as "medieval" literature?
Images of Piers Plowman