What is the vision of Piers Plowman in a summary, and what is the vision of Piers Plowman from a modern perspective?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Piers Plowman, Will falls into a dream vision, which was a popular mode of alliterative poetic narrative, and has a vision of the conflict between the Catholic Church and Theology. Truthe, represented by a Tower in Will's vision, is the allegorical symbol for the Catholic Church, Heaven and God (often in allegories, multiple values are allegorically represented by one symbol). The first of the encounters Will has is with the Holy Church, which prompts Will to seek Truthe. Truthe is juxtaposed to theological learning that has been corrupted by greed and self-serving desire. As he will in the other dreams, Langland gives a reasoned debate and, though Theology is cast as corrupt, presents both sides of issues.

'The tour upon the toft', quod she, 'Truthe is therinne,
And wolde that ye wroughte as his word techeth.'

Lady Mede is the chief example of the conflict between Church and Theology. Drawn from the real personage of Alice Perrers, Lady Mede is exiled by the Church for having accumulated rewards and accepted gifts. This parallels Perrers own life story as she was exiled for having accumulated land and riches. which was seen as immoral gain by the Church of the day (though this may escape our understanding today). In both real life and dream vision, Theology contested that gain may justifiably come as reward for effort and acumen (talent).

'What is this womman,' quod I, so worthili atired?'
'That is Mede the mayde.' quod she, hath noyed me ful ofte,'

In Will's second vision, Conscience comes to admonish the masses previously seen between the Tower and Dungeon (Hell) with exceedingly great effect. This sermon sets off the allegorical feature of a parade of Sins and penitent sinners. These penitents are on a quest for Truthe (God, Heaven) and, as is the standard feature of allegory, get lost. Piers Plowman is introduced to guide them on their way. He negotiates a deal with them: he will guide them after they help him plow his field. This sets up the theological debate of salvation from good works versus salvation through God's grace. Though the good works of the penitents lead to a better and well-ordered society, Piers comes to agree with the Catholic Priest who asserts that pardon without God's grace cannot exist.

In his next dream vision, Will tries to unravel the allegorical meaning of Dowel (do-well), Dobet (do-better) and Dobest (do-best). Various characters he meets give their own idea of what the allegory for Dowel, Dobet and Dobest might be. Using this mode of narrative allows Langland to introduce argumentation that both supports and contradicts the various points of view. Langland essentially presents apologetics (a defense of a position) for the works/grace salvation debate, though he doesn't always draw a conclusion about the ideas raised. The resolution of the poem is in this same vein since Conscience starts on a pilgrimage to find Grace and Piers Plowman. Langland suggests that even God's Grace recognizes that a pardoned soul without a bequest of good deeds and an improved society cannot have true salvation: salvation requires both good deeds and God's grace.

And how the preest preved no pardon to Dowel,
And demed that Dowel indulgences passed,

A modern perspective may accord with Langland's perspective or may reject his vision, depending upon which beliefs a modern person holds. In Medieval times, there was a unitary perception of concepts and life. Duality had not taken fiercely hold as it later did. For Langland, the questions posed in Piers Plowman were debatable, without hard and fast rights and wrongs. Bear in mind the debates were about the application of opinions within one system, not about one system against another system as the debates are today. This may be the best way to perceive the modern perception: Then there were debatable concepts and modes of conduct within one unitary system, while today there are contradicting systems that debate against each other for primacy, to decide which is true and which false.