Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

William Langland's poem Piers Plowman is one of the most popular and widely-studied Middle English works. This comprehensive, readable guide leads the student chronologically through the entire text and is designed to be read alongside it. Assuming no previous knowledge, readers are introduced to characters, plot and argument in way that enables them to enjoy and analyse the text for themselves.

A Guidebook to 'Piers Plowman':
* clarifies and explores Langland's thinking
* contextualises the religious, political and social issues he raises
* details the genres and sources the poet uses
* employs up-to-date bibliographical knowledge to offer alternative critical interpretations and suggest ways of relating these to the poet's key concerns
* explains Langland's historical, theological and psychological assumptions in helpful inserted text boxes
* features illustrations and suggestions for further reading.

Concise and approachable, this is an invaluable tool to help students appreciate the originality and modernity of Langland's poetry.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
To read Piers Plowman is to encounter a highly original and perceptive poet, one who was extremely popular in his own time and has fascinated readers ever since. What is most immediately striking about the poem is its variety and inclusiveness. There are scenes in the London markets, in the King’s Council, in the households of lords and beggars, in the church, in the field, on the hills. Everywhere we see human drama, as men and women struggle to gain status and wealth or merely their daily bread, oppress others or try to control oppression, indulge in pleasure or try to love one another. The poem shows the world as a whole; its shifting cast of characters is confronted by political, economic, social and religious forces at once, as we are in real life. This universal confusion is roughly shaped into a series of dreams, retold by the bewildered narrator, Will, who travels through the world and through his own mind, reporting the struggles of others while also struggling with himself. His very name, Will, is ambiguous, suggesting at once an individual called William and the general human will. This ambiguity makes his personal questions into ones which touch everyone.
Anna Baldwin

The Prologue

The Prologue

Abstract
Langland’s Prologue is a tour de force. It not only demonstrates that he will be looking at all society as it is and as it might be, but also introduces some of the genres he will be using (see the Introduction for definitions). First and foremost it is to be a dream-vision (or allegorical dream) but this form will include other genres as well. Allegorical dreams can be subdivided according to the kind of dream the author is supposed to be experiencing. In the Prologue it is a somnium or symbolic narrative set on an allegorical “stage”, here a field between a tower and a deep ditch. This is a backdrop for a passage of estates satire, where we meet figures representing different groups in society. Langland’s version is organised both by social classes (like Chaucer’s General Prologue, which may have been influenced by it) and morally, by the kinds of sin typical of those classes. The estates satire culminates in a short mirror for princes in which Langland seems to be describing the recently crowned Richard II. Finally there is an animal fable (like Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale) involving a debate reminiscent of one actually held in the Parliament of 1376.
Anna Baldwin

The First Vision: Passus 1–4

Passus 1

Abstract
Passus 1 is intimately connected with the Prologue; it can be read both as a commentary on it, and as a second prologue in the sermon genre. Though Will has not woken up, he now experiences a different kind of dream, an oraculum, in which a female authority-figure speaks to him. Like other authority-figures met in dream-visions, she treats Will quite roughly but offers him reliable advice; she will be succeeded in the poem by many other less reliable authority-figures of both sexes. As well as commenting on the Prologue, she introduces the key ideals of the poem, so much so that some critics see her sermon as ‘the poem in miniature’. In particular she explores the meaning of the word “truth”, which in Middle English suggested love and faithfulness as well as honesty and justice, so that his section includes some inspired poetry on the love of God. This “treasure of Truth” is contrasted with earthly treasure, whose potential to corrupt will be the subject of the rest of this first Vision. In trying to grasp what she says, Will reveals himself to be lacking in which he will experience truths which he heard first from Holy Church’s sermon.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 2

Abstract
The next three Passus tell the lively story of Lady Meed, a personification of monetary reward. This kind of allegory is known as venality satire, that is to say, satire against the unscrupulous acquisition of money. Contemporary satire of this kind can be seen as a response to an economic change in society — the emergence of a wage economy where services and labour were paid for in money, as distinct from a feudal economy where they were paid for in land that the peasants were allowed to work (though not to own). As England’s feudal economy waned, accelerated by the reduction of the population in the Black Death from 1348, lords were increasingly having to pay their servants in wages rather than land. And the development of a bourgeois middle class also meant that professional men like lawyers, clergymen and administrators expected good wages and (unless restrained by a strong monarchy) were not above taking bribes. Langland is not alone in attacking the profit motive; sermon-writers and satirists alike often targeted the officials of the Church and Common Law courts.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 3

Abstract
Our impression of Meed in this next Passus is hardly that of a victim. She is quite a superstar in London, courted by everyone, and well able to build up a new retinue. It include some new targets of the venality satire of the previous Passus, notably friars and London traders. However when the king attempts to arrange another marriage for her, we at last meet someone who can resist her charm: Conscience. He achieves the overthrow of Lady Meed through a debate, though the king is not convinced until he receives proof of her true nature in the next Passus. This debate is wholly within the tradition of alliterative verse, and comparable to Wynnere and Wastoure, though more daring in its topical political reference. This is particularly true of the C-text which includes some advice offered directly to Richard II. Both texts end with some more general advice couched as political prophecy (these generic terms are explained on pp. 12–15).
Anna Baldwin

Passus 4

Abstract
Passus 4 concludes the First Vision by showing the triumph of Reason and Conscience over Lady Meed. After all the talk of law and justice, it is appropriate that she is finally exposed in a law court, one moreover in which the king himself presides with his justices and councillors. This material not only continues the political advice offered in Passus 3, but is itself a model of good government, based on a contemporary procedure: in genre it is therefore a very practical mirror for princes. In it Langland can draw together the threads of his venality satire of Meed in society, and the political allegory which had begun with the Coronation Scene in the Prologue. He can moreover return to the principles of Truth which had been established in Passus 1 by Holy Church, and so brings the First Vision to an optimistic close. By combining satire with allegory Langland particularises the problem while also offering the solution.
Anna Baldwin

The Second Vision: Passus 5–7

Passus 5

Abstract
Will’s awakening and falling asleep acts as a marker to the beginning of a new Vision in which the hero of the whole poem, Piers Plowman, at last makes an appearance. This next Vision (5–7) turns from the way the kingdom should be governed, to the way individuals should govern themselves, in relation to each other and to God. It starts with a sermon by Reason, the character who had brought the previous Vision to a triumphant conclusion, now dressed as a prelate or bishop and carrying a cross. The rest of the Vision is structured on the Sacrament of Penance (see text-box on the latter, p. 89). This inspires his audience to contrition for their sins and they make their confession to a priest called Repentance who sets each one a penance of prayer, fasting or almsgiving, and then tells them all (plus a thousand more) to make a pilgrimage to a shrine which should offer a pardon. All Langland’s readers were supposed to enact this process at least annually, though not many would have taken it as far as a pilgrimage. In the next Passus the pilgrimage is interrupted by Piers who wants the pilgrims to help him cultivate his half-acre strip, but this does not seem to matter, because in Passus 7 Piers’ helpers are granted a pardon just as if they had gone on the pilgrimage after all. The pardon itself however is problematic, and provokes a new departure in the next part of the poem.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 6

Abstract
At the end of Passus 5 the Sins decided to make a pilgrimage in ‘satisfaction’ of their sins, and Piers appears to direct them on a difficult moral allegorical journey through the Commandments, Remedies and Virtues to St Truth. Now at the beginning of Passus 6 Piers apparently offers an easier alternative pilgrimage, but one which is just as unlike a “real” pilgrimage as that allegorical one had been. It too is to be performed at home, and will include everyone — both winners like Piers himself, and wasters like the cut-purse and ape-ward (5.630–631) who did not fancy the allegorical pilgrimage of the last Passus. It is to be a ‘pilgrymage atte plow’ (6.102), at first presented as a preliminary to the allegorical pilgrimage, but soon taking its place as a life of obedience to the Commandments and a Remedy for the Seven Deadly Sins. “Work hard and shame the Devil” would appear to be Piers’ message. But does the very inclusiveness of the pilgrimage not defeat its moral purpose, giving it the more worldly purpose of earning one’s daily bread? And how ideal is this glimpse of peasant life, considering how much it reveals of the real problems of fourteenth-century farming? Just as in Passus 2–4 the justice in truth was undermined by contemporary misuse of money and power, so here loyalty in truth is undermined by contemporary changes in the relation between master and servant; so how can this be the route to St Truth? And yet somehow, in the next Passus, Truth himself will dispense pardon to both Piers and ‘alle pat holpen hym to erye’ (helped him to plough, 7.6). So Passus 6 confronts the question of whether one can live an active life in the world and still avoid sin.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 7

Abstract
The last Passus in the Second Vision clarifies the structure of penance and pardon which has been used since Repentance’s sermon in Passus 5, and returns to the form of estates satire which had introduced the poem. It therefore seems to offer a resolution to the whole Vision. Truth sends a pardon for sin to those who work honestly in the world, helping Piers to feed Mankind. Their ‘pilgrymage atte plow’ seems now to be not so much a penance which pays for sin, as a way of life which will avoid sin altogether. But there are two problems with this scheme, and it is a mark of Langland’s intriguing genius that he confronts both problems and risks undermining the “message” of the poem so far. The first problem we have already encountered: not everyone who worked on the half-acre followed the principles of truth. Truth’s pardon includes not only agricultural workers but the other mestiers (crafts, 7) of the world, including those introduced in the Prologue and the Vision of Meed; ways of life are even more open to sinfulness than farming. Langland extends the problem even further by a discussion of beggars (expanded in the C-text), who do not work at all.
Anna Baldwin

The Third Vision: Passus 8–12

Passus 8–9

Abstract
Passus 8 introduces the long second half of the poem, known in some manuscripts as the Vita. From now on the narrator places himself at the centre of his visions, and only returns to his original role of reporter for the last three Passus. The journey Will makes is the search for Dowel begun by Piers at the end of Passus 7 because nothing else will apparently earn the pardon of Truth. Will does not explain why he is taking over Piers’ pilgrimage, but after an initial waking encounter with two friars, begins his Third Vision (Passus 8–12). This is constructed, like a traditional somnium, a dream-vision including speeches by authoritative allegorical figures (see Introduction, p. 12). These encounters lend themselves more to debate and sermon than to dramatic visions, but they are brought to life not only by modern preaching techniques (anecdotes, allegorical pictures, Bible stories and the like), but by Will’s confrontational attitude to them, his disagreements and downright rudeness. Perhaps it is because the characters Will encounters here are from inside his own head or from his educational experience, that he feels free to question and oppose them.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 10

Abstract
The next Passus continues in the same genre of a “somnium with questionable authorities”. Reversing the usual expectation that a husband is more learned than his wife, Wit’s wife Study seems to represent Will’s attempt to get beyond his own native wits by application to books. After lecturing Will on the proper use of learning, Study passes him on to two characters who seem even more external to his mind: Clergy and his wife Scripture. They are however both relations of Study: Clergy is her cousin and is married to Scripture. Thus they are all related to Wit, who is surely an aspect of Will himself; it is as if Will’s learning from others is also a part of his own intelligence. Their discussion occupies Passus 10 and 11, and is commented on in Passus 12 by a third more clearly “inward” character, Ymaginatif. These figures, who are both internal and external, discuss not only the nature but also the importance of Dowel, and so extend the reference from what Will should do as an individual to be saved, to whether mankind as a whole (including non-Christians) can expect salvation. Study and Clergy are concerned about the backsliding of those who claim to follow them, and Clergy even goes against his own kind and threatens all churchmen, and particularly the monks and friars, with disendowment. Scripture then asserts that men are saved only for following Christ’s law of love, but Will vigorously opposes this “salvation by works” suggestion and insists that the unlearned and poor are saved by grace alone. This debate puts onto the vertical axis of salvation the conflict between justice and mercy which had so occupied the Vision.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 11

Abstract
At the end of Passus 10 Will seemed ready to let determinism and a reliance on baptism replace free will and moral responsibility, and at the beginning of Passus 11 we see the practical results of this intellectual decision. He falls asleep within his dream, and as if the two dream-states cancel each other out, he is returned to the experience of life (or did Langland simply forget that he had not awakened Will at the end of the previous Passus?). At any rate the ‘inner dream’ which occupies this Passus involves Will in experience as well as in intellectual debate. For 40 years he abandons the quest for Dowel and follows Fortune instead, and is only brought back to his quest by Elde (old age) and the imminence of Death. Having been let down by the friars, on whose pardon he had relied, he is once again harangued by Scripture about the importance of obeying the law of love. It is the same message she gave in Passus 10, but this time Will (apparently made wiser by the years of experience) does not respond with an irresponsible reliance on predestination, but with his own sermon on the efficacy of a grace-given baptism.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 12

Abstract
The vexed questions of whom God saves and how, questions which have dominated the poem since Passus 8, are now brought much closer to resolution by a new character, Ymaginatif. He appears abruptly and comments on the Third Vision with an authority unmatched by anyone since Holy Church in Passus 1 had commented on the Prologue. With a tidiness uncharacteristic of Langland, he reduces the previous three Passus as a debate between Clergy (representing learning, Christianity, sacramental grace) and Kynde Wit (representing reason, experience, the natural and heathen worlds). It is perhaps unsurprising that he prefers Clergy as a route to salvation, and scolds Will for having (in Passus 11) rejected that in favour of Kynde Wit. According to Ymaginatif, Clergy empowers both the learned and those in their care to withstand sin; indeed Christ himself both sanctioned and used it. Above all, Clergy gives us the sacraments which are essential for the salvation of both learned and ignorant. This prompts Will to raise again the question of the righteous heathen, who died before the establishment of the sacraments, or die now without knowledge of them. Ymaginatif here seems to waver a little in his defence of Christian knowledge, for he allows the heathen salvation by their own law, and in a famous passage which concludes the Passus, offers us a belief in the salvation of all righteous which is remarkable in its tolerance and openness.
Anna Baldwin

The Fourth Vision: Passus 13–14

Passus 13

Abstract
The Fourth Vision is a relief after the long speeches of the Third. Once again we see a dramatic vision, an allegory where the personified characters act as well as speak, and where actions and props add significance to their words. Clergy is now incarnated as an academic doctor dining at Conscience’s house with the learned Friar, and Will and Patience are lowly pilgrims accepting his charity at a side-table. This allows Langland opportunity for much comic satire which somewhat undermines the authority of Clergy after the panegyrics of Ymaginatif. Their debate moves the search for Dowel from the intellectual discussions of the Third Vision to a more affective or experienced ‘kynde knowyng’. Piers Plowman himself is invoked as an authority, and Patience develops his advice to “love your enemies” into a programme of “patient politics” which could end all wars. Like the programme of social justice which he develops in the next Passus, these utopias have something in common with the political prophecies of the Visio, but there is an important difference. Instead of starting with the social institutions of his time and trying to make them more moral, working as it were from the outside inwards, Langland starts with the moral faculty of Conscience and the virtue of Patience and works outwards to the kind of society they would create, which leads to original and radical thinking.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 14

Abstract
This Passus concludes the Fourth Vision, and the experiment in practical Christianity which Conscience and Patience have been conducting on Hawkyn. Conscience has encouraged him in the last Passus to confess his sins, and Patience now takes him through the rest of the sacrament of penance. The satisfaction he imposes seems at first to be fasting, but soon is expounded as a life of patient poverty and dependence on God’s grace. Hawkyn, who might have hoped to find a way to live righteously without altering his comfortable and prosperous occupations, finds he must change his life completely. Using allegories of debt and of the changing seasons Patience demonstrates that a life of patient poverty will fit him for God’s saving grace. Patience spends the rest of the Passus explaining what is wrong with a life of prosperity, and why this life of poverty is not only the best life for the individual soul, but the best for society as a whole. Indeed it is one of the most radical indictments of wealth and celebrations of poverty written in the period. To adopt Patience’s teaching would make society more just, more spiritually wealthy, but also universally poor.
Anna Baldwin

The Fifth Vision: Passus 15–17

Passus 15

Abstract
At the beginning of Passus 15 Will awakes and begins a life which many consider foolish (3, 10); presumably he is following the advice Patience gave to Hawkyn, and living as a mendicant beggar. However he quickly falls asleep again and has a vision which is more concerned with charity than patient poverty, though it shows many links between the two virtues. An early rubric (subtitle) denominates Passus 16–18 as ‘Dobet’ and 15 as a transitional Passus, marked ‘finit dowel & incipit dobet’, which seems quite appropriate. Langland also leaves his discussion of the Active Life which was the concern of the Fourth Vision, and turns his attention to the life of the Church. In a new somnium a character called Anima (the soul) appears from nowhere and examines how far the life within the Church displays charity, particularly in those who supposedly live a life of patient poverty — the monks and friars. Like Clergy in Passus 10 he warns the monks that they risk losing their hereditary lands and wealth, and like Patience in Passus 14 he suggests a reformist policy involving peacekeeping and the redistribution of wealth. The writing is a mixture of satire and sermon, and develops the radicalism of the previous Vision. Where poverty heals the individual soul, charity heals society, but neither virtue will be adopted by the laity unless they are led by a reformed Church.
Anna Baldwin

Passus 16

Abstract
Passus 16 feels in many ways like a new beginning, although it is still part of the Fifth Vision. Abandoning the hectoring tone of Anima’s sermon, Langland now presents charity as a dramatic vision, which Will sees in another ‘inner dream’ where he actually speaks with Piers Plowman himself. The setting is at first a traditional allegory: a garden in which Piers cultivates the Tree of Charity. Will “wakes” into another vision, this time of the life of Christ. Both narratives refer to the allegory which will be crucial in the next Vision: the duel fought by a knight against the Devil for possession of the fruit fallen from the Tree. Will then meets Abraham, whose historical reality makes him unlike all the characters of the Third and Fourth Visions who were faculties of Will himself. Like Will he is on a quest. It transpires from his talk of the Trinity that both he and Piers might be looking for the same thing, Christ in Piers, God in man. Their discussion also looks forward to further discussions of the Trinity in the next Passus, and clarifies the Trinitarian divisions of the poem as a whole. Abraham is named as Faith, and so he is the first not only of the Biblical characters brought to life in the poem, but also the first of the seven Virtues which will be denominated in this and the Seventh Vision. If the early readers were right in seeing this Passus as the first of Dobet, which we have come to define as charity, then is it still man’s charity towards his fellow men, or a new topic of God’s charity towards man, which is the focus?
Anna Baldwin

Passus 17

Abstract
The next Passus is a vital one for the structure of the poem. If we accept the early reader’s rubric we can see Passus 17 as the second of three Passus on Dobet, concerned with God’s charity towards mankind, and written not as a series of debates but as a vision which mirrors human history. However in it Langland seems to be doing two things at once. In the first place he continues the historical movement I have just mentioned, from Old Testament time (Passus 16–17) to Gospel time (Passus 18) and so to the present day (Passus 19–20). To establish this pattern, the Old Testament characters Abraham and Moses must be seen as one half of a balance, on the other half of which are the New Testament characters of Jesus and St Peter, both of them appearing as figures of Piers Plowman. Abraham and Moses represent the Old Law, Jesus and St Peter the New Law of the Gospels and the Church. But in contrast to this duple pattern, Langland needs to establish a tripartite structure, to show that Abraham, Moses and the Good Samaritan form a triad of Faith, Hope and Charity which mirrors the triad of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is this vacillation between an opposed pair (of Old Testament with New Testament) and a developing triad (of the three Theological Virtues and the Trinity), using the same characters in different ways, which makes the Passus hard to disentangle. I have laid out the structure as a chart on p. 246.
Anna Baldwin

The Sixth Vision: Passus 18

The Sixth Vision: Passus 18

Abstract
Passus 18 is the climax of the poem; if you read no other Passus in the original language, read this one. In it most of the oppositions of the poem find a resolution — the opposition between justice and mercy, between book-learning and ‘kynde knowyng’, between force and patience, between the Old Testament and the New, and of course between works and grace. It is the culmination of the Faith, Hope and Charity sequence, in which the Good Samaritan is transformed into Jesus and suffers the Crucifixion as a supreme act of charity towards men. This is at once a historical narrative and an allegory of the duel already introduced by Faith in Passus 16. The history comes from the gospel story of the Crucifixion and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate, in which a dead body narrates Christ’s descent into Hell after the Crucifixion (see Atonement, p. 227). The allegory, is that of the “Four Daughters of God”, which he probably derived from a Middle English version of Grosseteste’s Château d’Amour. There is a wealth of other references and imagery, all transformed into a narrative at once ornate, realistic and more intellectually searching than the originals. The intellectual changes are focused on the task of reconciling God’s justice and mercy, or in other words of showing the legality of the Atonement. The Passus therefore acts as a keystone of the poem’s discussion of human salvation. But it can stand alone as a wonderful piece of poetry, working on symbolic, intellectual and vividly realistic levels at once.
Anna Baldwin

The Seventh Vision: Passus 19

The Seventh Vision: Passus 19

Abstract
Passus 19 is the first Passus of Dobest in the old rubric, and like Passus 18 is a single Vision. In the Trinitarian structure which underlies the Vita, it is under the protection of the Holy Spirit. It is dominated at first by Piers, who now fits into the succession of historical figures which was begun in Passus 16 with the appearance of Abraham. As was explained on p. 210, Faith and Hope together seem to represent the Father, the Samaritan/Jesus represents the Son, and this leaves Piers Plowman to represent the Holy Spirit. He appears in a new persona, that of St Peter, the first Pope, in this Passus, which therefore carries forward the history of the Faith into the early Church, though the last part concerns the corruption of the early ideals in Langland’s own time. This corruption is allegorised as a psychomachia, a conflict between the Vices and the Remedies. The next Passus will take the story forward to the end of the world, which also looks very like the fourteenth century. These two Passus therefore introduce an apocalyptic element into the poem, in which characters and events taken from the Apocalypse (the Biblical book Revelation) are used to satirise present society.
Anna Baldwin

The Eighth Vision: Passus 20

The Eighth Vision: Passus 20

Abstract
Passus 20 is the culmination of the poem as well as of Dobest. In it we see the failure of Langland’s Church to protect those values which have become crucial to the poem: charity, patient poverty, justice. The Church is threatened not only by individual sin but also by weak leadership and an institutional disunity which prevents it from healing and helping the sinner. The clergy have been seen as frequently corrupt throughout the poem, but now Langland focuses on how the inclusion of the unstable friars in their ranks has weakened them even further. These so undermine the crucial sacrament of penance that charity becomes dangerously naïve, poverty becomes an excuse for flattery, and justice bypassed. Even the individual conscience seems lost in a world without Grace or Piers Plowman, and Christ seems to have been replaced by Antichrist. And yet the values of the poem are not diminished but reconfirmed by this tragic close, which in any case seems only to be a staging-post on the journey.
Anna Baldwin
Additional information