Piers Plowman

   by William Langland
(ca. 1367–1387)
   One of the great religious poems in the English language, Piers Plowman is a text from the late 14th century ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL in England’s West Midlands. One of the most popular poems of the late Middle Ages with 51 surviving manuscripts, the poem is an ALLEGORY in the form of a DREAM VISION in which the narrator,Will, experiences a series of visions that take him from an overview of 14th-century English society to an exploration of his own psyche to a vision of the Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell and, ultimately, a vision of the coming of Antichrist and a besieged church. The Dreamer,Will, seems to be both the allegorical personification of the human Will itself, and the persona of the poem’s purported author,William LANGLAND.
   Langland is named as the poem’s author in one early 15th-century manuscript. In addition, the author seems to pun on his name at one point (in passus 15) when he says that he has lived in the “land” and that his name is “long Will.”But virtually nothing is known of the poet beyond what can be gleaned from the text of his poem itself. He may have been born in about 1330 near Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. If we can read the figure ofWill autobiographically (and that is questionable), Langland mentions living in London with his wife “Kit” and his daughter, and implies that he had taken minor orders and makes a living by singing psalms. One manuscript claims that Langland was the son of a gentleman of Oxfordshire named Stacy de Rokayle. In another manuscript, a certain John But says that Langland had died suddenly sometime before 1387.
   There are three separate versions of Piers Plowman, and the general scholarly consensus is that Langland is the author of all three. The earliest, known as the A-text (ca. 1367), comprises 10 chapters, or passus (“steps”) as Langland calls them. In some 2,500 lines Langland explores the need for reform in the Christian commonwealth. In about 1377 or shortly thereafter, Langland added nine more passus and 4,700 more lines, nearly tripling the length of the poem and turning the dreamer’s quest inward, a version known as the B-text. Finally, Langland revised the poem again in about 1386, making some structural revisions and hundreds of other minor editorial changes, aimed apparently at clarifying the poem and at altering sections that had been read by the rebels in the 1381 PEASANTS’ REVOLT as calls for radical change in society—the C-text.While the C-text is clearly the poet’s final version of the poem, literary scholars over the years have generally preferred the B-text as the superior literary achievement.
   The poem presents 10 separate dreams (sometimes dreams within dreams), separated by brief waking passages. It opens with Will’s first vision of a “fair field full of folk”—a brief ESTATES SATIRE in which Langland presents the Christian community, with its three estates, and the individuals who fall short of their obligations to the commonwealth. The prologue is followed by the appearance of Holy Church, personified as a woman, who gives Will the rudiments of the Christian faith. In a sense, the remainder of the poem follows from Will’s question to Holy Church in this first passus: What must I do to be saved?
   A first-time reader of Piers Plowman is generally confused and bewildered by the rapid shifting of scenes, the abrupt comings and goings of characters, the apparently illogical sequences of events. In part this may be explained as the logic of a dream. In part, as well, it may be that the poem is not intended as a narrative that would follow a cause and effect series of events, but rather is more like a sermon whose unifying theme is that initial question about salvation. Overall the poem falls into two sections—the first part, known as the Vision of Will concerning Piers Plowman (or the Visio), introduces the main themes of the poem and shows Will a vision of the contemporary world as it is; the second part, the Lives of Dowel, D-bet, and Dobest (called the Vita). The first part gets under way when Will asks Holy Church how to tell truth from falsehood, and is shown a series of visions involving Lady Meed. “Meed” is money or reward, whose influence in the king’s court threatens society. The king wishes to marry her to Conscience, but she is ultimately driven from the court by Conscience and Reason. It appears that society may be back on the right track, if led by Conscience without greed. Reason gives a sermon calling for repentance, and this is followed by Langland’s justly famous passage describing the confessions of the seven deadly sins, which are personified and described as individuals engulfed in the sins they represent. In response to the sermon, the people all begin a pilgrimage to find Truth (the allegorical representation of God). But they do not know the way, and a simple plowman, Piers, offers to guide them to Truth, once they help him plow his half-acre. The pilgrimage falls apart when Truth sends Piers a pardon, but a priest tells Piers it is no pardon at all, and in anger Piers tears the pardon and vows to leave off his plowing and spend his life in prayer and penance, searching for Dowel (i.e., “Do well”).
   This begins the vita section of the poem, consisting of three parts: Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest. There is no consensus as to what these three lives represent, but one suggestion is that Dowel focuses on one’s own individual needs, Dobet on the physical needs of others, and Dobest on the spiritual needs of others (Gasse 1994, 230). In the Dowel section, Will, guided by Clergy, Scripture, and Study, explores his own interior faculties of Imagination, Intelligence, and Thought. In a dream within a dream,Will follows Fortune for 45 years, before meeting Patience, Conscience, and Haukyn (the Active Man) in a new vision. But when this vision ends,Will enters a new vision, concerning the life of Dobet. This time Will is chided by Anima for seeking knowledge rather than engaging in charity. In another dream within the dream,Will sees Piers Plowman guarding the Tree of Charity, from which the devil steals fallen fruit, and then sees Abraham, Moses, and the Good Samaritan as the allegorical personifications of Faith, Hope, and Charity. This section climaxes in the famous HARROWING OF HELL scene in passus 18, wherein Christ comes to Jerusalem to joust in the arms of Piers Plowman, is crucified, and descends into hell, from which he snatches back all souls from the devil. In the final two passus Langland presents his last two visions, which comprise the life of Dobest, presented as a history of the church. Piers is now the vicar of Christ on earth—apparently in the role of Peter, the first pope (the name Piers is a variant of Peter). Piers receives the Holy Spirit and organizes the plowing of the field of the world—the allegorical representation of the ideal Christian society. But in the face of the onslaught of Antichrist, Conscience has a fortress built called Unity, the church itself. But when Conscience allows a friar into Unity, he begins to corrupt the people through easy confessions, and Conscience, seeing the fortress crumbling, turns pilgrim in the end and goes on a quest to seek Piers Plowman, at which point the Dreamer awakens.
   The poem, in all its apparent disorder and difficulty, is held together by recurring themes, such as the nature of sin, the nature of God’s love, the ideal of the perfect society, and the way to personal salvation. It is also unified by the figure of the Dreamer, whose search for salvation leads him on the whole roller-coaster ride of visions within visions. And the poem is unified by the motif of Piers Plowman himself, the most enigmatic of allegorical figures: He is a simple laboring plowman and a friend of Truth who knows the way to find Him. He establishes an ordered society in the world. He preaches the primacy of charity, is the guardian of the Tree of Life, and lends his arms to Christ. Finally he is God’s vicar on earth.While he seems identified at times with Saint Peter and with Christ himself, and at other times is a simple, poor workingman, it may be that Piers represents unfallen human nature—the image of God in man that was marred by the Fall and restored by Christ. Langland’s poem is a record of a deep spiritual quest filled with very human doubts, contempt for hypocrisy (particularly among the religious), concern for economic hardships, and a deep anger at corruption in the institutions of church and state. The 15 surviving manuscripts from the 14th century alone attest to the poem’s popularity, which probably extended to an audience of parish priests and local clergy, and to a growing and conservative lay public of middle-class readers who enjoyed didactic literature. Piers Plowman’s four printed versions before 1561 are evidence of the poem’s continued popularity into the 16th century, explained by the view of Langland as a precursor of the Reformation because of his anticlerical satire. The poem has enjoyed a revival of popularity in recent decades, perhaps because the indeterminacy of the text appeals to postmodern poetics. But whatever critical perspective one brings to the poem, Piers Plowman is one of the most remarkable achievements of MIDDLE ENGLISH literature.
   ■ Aers, David. Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
   ■ Alford, John, ed. A Companion to Piers Plowman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
   ■ Benson, C. David. Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.
   ■ Carruthers,Mary. The Search for St. Truth: A Study of Meaning in Piers Plowman. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
   ■ Davlin, Mary Clemente. A Game of Heuene: Word Play and the Meaning of Piers Plowman B. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989.
   ■ Godden, Malcolm. The Making of Piers Plowman. London: Longman, 1990.
   ■ Harwood, Britton J. Piers Plowman and the Problem of Belief. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
   ■ Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Reformist Apocalypticism and Piers Plowman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
   ■ Langland, William. Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation. Edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd. New York:W.W. Norton, 2004.
   ■ Simpson, James. Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-text. London: Longman, 1990.
   ■ ———. The Vision of Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text Based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17. Edited by A.V. C. Schmidt. 2nd ed. London: Dent, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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