Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121

Like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), William Langland’s Piers Plowman is one of the great vernacular works of the fourteenth century. Unlike Chaucer’s poetry, however, Langland’s work is apparently of and for the people, rather than the court. That the poem was popular can be seen in the meter in which it was written and by the existence of more than fifty manuscripts. Within the manuscripts are three different texts, the second and third being revisions containing additions to the first and earliest. The three texts, or versions, have been dated respectively by scholars at about 1362, 1377, and 1393.

Langland’s poem is in part a work of social protest, written from the viewpoint of the common person. The last half of the fourteenth century was a period of disaster and social unrest, the time of severe visitations of the plague (with accompanying moral, social, and economic upheavals), of the Peasant Revolt of 1381, and of John Wycliffe’s Lollard movement. Langland often inserted, on behalf of the common folk, protests against unfair dealings by the Crown, the courts, the clergy, and even the tradesmen. Being of the common folk himself, the poet recognized the trouble visited upon them, and he cried out bitterly against the cheating of the poor by the butcher, the baker, the miller, and others.

Most authorities now grant that the poem was probably written by one person, although some doubt has been expressed in the past on this point. Internal evidence indicates the author to be Langland, a recipient of minor orders in the Church and a married man living in London. Despite allusions and references to himself and to happenings of the times, however, the author has retained the anonymity typical of the medieval author. The alliterative verse, much like the metrical structure used in Beowulf (c. 1000) and other Anglo-Saxon poems, was the native style of versification lost when the conventions of the metrical system were popularized by court poetry. In the hands of medieval writers, including Langland, the Old English alliterative verse had not the subtlety and power it once had in the ninth and tenth centuries. As used by Langland, the measure consisted of lines of any number of syllables, divided into half-lines. Each half-line was given two heavy beats in important words, with the heavy beats accentuated by alliteration, as in such a line as “And wo in winter-tyme—with wakynge a nyghtes.”

To emphasize the social or metrical aspects of Piers Plowman seems unfair to the poem, for it is essentially a religious work, filled with the religious doctrines, dogma, views, and sentiments of medieval Catholicism. In the poem, the poet has a series of visions that he relates to the reader, each vision concerned with humanity’s relationships to God, relationships that concerned every aspect of life, according to medieval thought.

In the first vision, which is probably the best known, the poet dreams of a vast field of people going about all the tasks and activities of the poet’s world. The vision is explained to him by a lady named Holy Church, who informs him that the castle at one end of the field is the home of Truth, or God, and that in the dungeon in the valley dwells the Father of Falsehood, or Satan. When asked by the poet how he might save his soul, the lady replies that he should learn to accept Truth, along with love and pity for his fellow humans. The poet then envisions a long, involved sequence in which appears Lady Mede, representing just reward and bribery simultaneously. A king proposes to marry...

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Lady Mede to Conscience, after her rescue from False, but Conscience proclaims against her and refuses. Bribery, it is implied, cannot be reconciled with conscience. Reason, sent for by the king, promises to serve him, too, if Conscience would be another counselor. One interesting part of this sequence of the poem is Conscience’s explanation of Latin grammar, with its declensions and agreement of noun and adjective, as a symbolic representation of the relationship between humanity and God. The king in the vision demands a full explanation because, as he points out, English, the only language he knows, had no such grammatical relationships.

In another vision, the poet views the seven deadly sins. After a sermon by Conscience, Piers Plowman offers to show the company the way to Holy Truth, but only after he had plowed a half-acre field. Mentioned in this section are Piers’s wife and children: Dame Work-while-I-am-Able, Daughter Do-this-or-thy-Dame-shall-beat-thee, and Son Suffer-thy-Sovereigns-to-have-their-Wishes-Dare-not-Judge-them-for-if-thou-Dost-thou-shalt-Dearly-Abide-it. At the end of this vision Piers is granted a pardon for himself and his heirs forever.

In the next sequence the poet takes up Piers’s quest for Truth. This quest is divided somewhat ambiguously into three parts, searches for Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. To achieve the state of Do-Well, the poet learns, one must fear God, be honest, be obedient, and love one’s fellow human; this seems to be the task of the ordinary person. Do-Better, apparently the lot of the priest, represents the teaching of the gospel and helping everyone. Do-Best, the seeming lot of the bishop, involves everything in the first two categories, as well as the wise administration of the Church to save all souls.

Piers appears again and again in the poem, each time being more clearly an incarnation of the Christ. Seen at first as a hardworking, sincere, and honest plowman, Piers later shows up in the poem as the figure who can explain to the poet the Tree of Charity and the nature of the Trinity of God. He appears also as the Good Samaritan and, later, as the builder of the Church and the one who will joust in God’s armor against Satan. These appearances serve to hold the poem together; without them the work would be a loosely coupled series of episodes and digressions.

The poem presents much biblical lore, from both the Old and New Testaments. The events in Eden, Job’s trials, the perfidy of Judas, Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, along with many other familiar and traditional Christian elements, are recorded in the poem. There are digressions on sin and virtue, on the nature and value of learning, and on the activities of laity and clergy, some good and some bad. These individual portions of the poem are beautifully executed and deeply moving. They are probably of more worth when considered by themselves insofar as a modern reader is concerned. To read Piers Plowman in its entirety is tedious, largely because of its rambling qualities, and few general readers will have the patience to do so nowadays, even with the help of a translation into modern English.