Piers Plowman Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Piers Plowman exists in at least three versions. The A text, dating from about 1362, contains a prologue and eleven passi, or cantos. The Latin word “passus” means step or stage of a journey and is both singular and plural. About a decade later William Langland expanded the work from 2,400 lines to 7,277, arranged in a prologue and twenty passi. This expanded B text, dating from about 1377, is regarded as the most authoritative. Sometime in the 1380’s Langland began another revision to create the C text (1393), which contains 7,338 lines, divided into a prologue and twenty-two passus. Because the revision of the C text was left unfinished at Langland’s death, scholars are reluctant to regard it as definitive. In addition to the A, B, and C texts, there is a Z text, even shorter than A, which survives in a single manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

The allegorical poem Piers Plowman, an outstanding example of the later fourteenth century alliterative revival, combines various popular medieval literary forms. It presents a quest or pilgrimage, as the narrator Will seeks Truth, Dowel, Dobet(ter), and Dobest. This quest occurs within the context of dream visions that satirize secular and religious figures corrupted by greed. The poem includes debates, and many scenes recall the mystery and morality plays of the period.

As the prologue begins, Will falls asleep and dreams of a landscape flanked on one side by a tower belonging to Truth (God), that is, Heaven, and a valley with a large castle or dungeon representing Hell. In between is “A fair feeld ful of folk” that is this world with its living inhabitants. In passus 1, Holy Church expounds Will’s dream as he sleeps and urges Will to seek Truth. The main action of this first vision involves the conflict between Holy Church and Theology over the nature of Lady Mede. The former regards her as corrupt, whereas the latter...

(The entire section is 792 words.)