Pierce the Ploughman’s Creed

Pierce the Ploughman’s Creed
(ca. 1393–1401)
   Pierce the Ploughman’s Creed is a MIDDLE ENGLISH poem of 850 lines in ALLITERATIVE VERSE from the southern West Midlands. It is a social and political satire in the tradition of LANGLAND’s PIERS PLOWMAN, like MUM AND THE SOTHSEGGER, RICHARD THE REDELESS, and The CROWNED KING. The poem is more clearly LOLLARD (i.e., in sympathy with WYCLIFFE’s views) in its sympathies than the other texts it is grouped with. It is also the only poem in the Piers Plowman tradition that exists in more than one manuscript, surviving in two 16thcentury manuscripts and a 15th-century fragment, as well as a black-letter printed edition from 1553. In the poem, the narrator, like Piers Plowman’s Will, sets out on a spiritual quest. In this case, the quest is simple: The narrator wants to learn the Apostle’s Creed, and is searching for someone to teach him. He first visits each of the four orders of friars, assuming that such holy men must be able to teach him such a basic lesson in the faith. He finds that the friars are unable to give him what he calls the plain truth—they do not seem to know what it is, or at least are uninterested. His first visit is to a Franciscan, to whom he reveals that a Carmelite friar has promised to teach him the creed, and asks the Franciscan’s opinion. The Franciscan laughs, saying that the Carmelites are all lechers and liars, who follow no rule of obedience and preach easy penance for the people. They travel about with their harlots and claim they are their sisters. It is the Franciscans, says the friar, who live like the apostles of old. The Franciscan tells him of the Franciscans’ elaborate chapel, and tells the narrator that, for a contribution, he will absolve him of his sins, whether he knows the creed or not. The narrator agrees but as he leaves the Franciscan feels that something is wrong, and remembers Christ’s command to “judge not, lest ye be judged.”Uneasy with the Franciscan, the narrator next finds a sumptuously rich Dominican abbey, and finally finds a friar in the refectory who is “fat as a barrel” and richly attired.When the narrator mentions that an Austin friar had promised to teach him the creed, the Dominican berates the order of Austins, saying that they associate with whores and thieves. He goes on to boast of the prominence of his own order, but the narrator, realizing that pride is a great sin, leaves the Dominican and seeks out an Austin friar. The narrator tells the Austin that he seeks someone who can teach him his creed, mentioning that a “Minor” (that is, a Franciscan) had promised to show him the way to salvation.The Austin begins by cursing the Franciscans for their great riches, their luxurious fur-lined habits and their hypocrisy and greed, pointing out as well how far they were from the original ideal of St. FRANCIS. The Austin friar then invites the narrator to become a lay brother of his order, saying that if he gives enough goods to the friars, they will absolve him of his sins, whether he knows his creed or not. The narrator leaves, thinking to himself that the only creed here is one of covetousness. He seeks out a Carmelite and begs him to teach him the creed.When he tells the Carmelite that a “preacher” (that is, a Dominican) has promised to help him, the Carmelite attacks Dominicans for their pride and concern with worldly honors. The Carmelite claims priority over the other orders, saying that Carmelites date back to Elijah. For a contribution, the Carmelite says he will teach the narrator, but the narrator says he has no money, and asks the Carmelite to teach him for the sake of God’s love. The friar first chides the narrator, telling him point blank that he is a fool for expecting something without payment. Finally, he can’t be bothered with the narrator’s problem because he must go meet a housewife who plans to leave money to the Carmelites.
   Despairing that he cannot find someone to teach him the creed, the narrator finds a poor plowman. It is Piers,who,with his wife and three small children, is described in vivid detail in what is perhaps the starkest bit of social commentary of its time. Piers is dressed in threadbare attire, and his wife has no shoes yet walks with bloody feet on the bare ice. She goads the oxen attached to Piers’s plow, which are so feeble that one could count every one of their ribs. The children are crying off to the side, perhaps from hunger or cold, as Piers works in the field. But when the narrator approaches and Piers sees his sorrow, the poor Plowman offers to give him food—in stark contrast with the wealthy friars.
   Piers is the moral authority of the poem—a position he achieves because of his unwavering acceptance of God’s will in his life. Although he praises the virtues of St. Francis and St. Dominic, he condemns their contemporary followers, the hypocritical and greedy friars whom the narrator has just visited. Piers goes on, finally, to teach the narrator the creed, which he recites in simple, direct language. The narrator ends the poem by claiming that he writes only in order to amend the targets of his satire, and prays that God will forgive anything he has said amiss, that God will save all faithful friars, and that He will through grace bring other friars to repentance and amendment of their lives. Scholars have commented upon how the antifraternal sentiments of the poem owe a great deal to Lollard views of the late 14th century. Friars had been the targets of satire for decades, partly because they usurped the rights to preaching, hearing confession, and burial that more properly belonged to the secular clergy, but partly, certainly, because some of them truly were hypocritical, greedy, and power seeking, as they characterize one another in Pierce the Plowman’s Creed. In the mid-14th century, Richard FitzRalph, archbishop of Ireland, attacked friars, upheld Christ’s poverty (the state that gives Piers his moral authority), and called on the pope to strip the friars of their privileges. Wycliffe reiterated FitzRalph’s call for the revocation of friars’ privileges.
   In his criticism of the four orders, Piers specifically mentions his approval of Wycliffe for denouncing friars’ behavior. Piers also approves of the Welsh Lollard Walter Brut, who had been condemned as a heretic by the friars and put on trial by Bishop Trefnant of Hereford in 1393 (thus the poem must be later than that date). But the author of Pierce the Plowman’s Creed was not fully a Wycliffite, since he includes in the creed as Piers recites it lines that support the doctrine of transubstantiation, a doctrine Wycliffe had notoriously denied late in his career.
   ■ Barr, Helen, ed. The Piers Plowman Tradition: A Critical Edition of Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede, Richard the Redeless,Mum and the Sothsegger, and The Crowned King. London: Dent, 1993.
   ■ Dean, James, ed. Piers the Plowman’s Crede, in Six Ecclesiastical Satires. Kalamazoo,Mich.:Medieval Institute Publications, 1991.
   ■ Kane, George. “Some Fourteenth-Century ‘Political’ Poems,” in Medieval English Religious and Ethical Literature: Essays in Honour of G. H. Russell, edited by Gregory Kratzmann and James Simpson. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1986, 82–91.
   ■ Lampe, David. “The Satiric Strategy of Peres the Ploughmans Crede,” in The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981, 69–80.
   ■ Lawton, David. “Lollardy and the Piers Plowman Tradition,” Modern Language Review 76 (1981): 780–793.
   ■ von Nolcken, Christina. “Piers Plowman, the Wycliffites, and Pierce the Plowman’s Creed,” The Yearbook of Langland Studies 2 (1988): 71–102.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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  • English literature — Introduction       the body of written works produced in the English language by inhabitants of the British Isles (including Ireland) from the 7th century to the present day. The major literatures written in English outside the British Isles are… …   Universalium

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