The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator, generally referred to as Will and presented as the author of the poem, wanders the world dressed as a hermit, until one May morning, near Malvern Hills, he falls asleep and dreams. In the vision, he sees a field full of folk of all social classes, including beggars, members of religious orders, knights, kings, and plowmen, going about the various activities of life, with a tower at one end and a dungeon located in a hollow beneath. At this point, a group of mice and rats assemble to determine what action to take against a cat at court who has been terrorizing them for some time. They agree that the best plan will be to put a bell around the cat’s neck, but then they realize they do not have the courage to attempt it. One sensible mouse suggests that they are better off with the cat than with a different cat or on their own.

A woman named Holy Church explains to Will that the castle is the home of Truth, or God, and that the dungeon is the home of Wrong, or Satan. She advises Will that to save his soul he needs to follow Truth. The poet then witnesses the making of arrangements to marry Lady Mede (Reward) to False; dispute over the marriage is eventually brought to London to be adjudicated before the king. The king proposes instead that she marry Conscience, who refuses the marriage, precipitating a series of debates on the nature of meed, or reward. The vision ends hopefully, with the king resolving to rule with the help of Reason and Conscience.

In a second dream vision, the poet hears a sermon calling for the repentance of society delivered to the field of folk by Reason, followed by the public confessions of representatives of each of the seven deadly sins. Society decides to search for Truth, and the farmer Piers Plowman, a long time follower of Truth, offers to show the people the way if they will help him plow his half-acre field. The attempt at plowing together eventually fails, despite the efforts of Hunger to help Piers motivate the workers. Before they leave to seek Truth, Piers is offered a pardon by Truth, telling him only to “Do-Well.” Piers then tears the pardon to pieces, vowing to seek Truth himself. After waking, the dreamer spends a long time pondering the meaning of this vision and again becomes a wanderer.

The poet continues to seek Do-Well, and, after a waking dispute with two Franciscan friars on the nature of Do-Well and Do-Evil, falls into a third dream. In...

(The entire section is 995 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Alford, John A., ed. A Companion to “Piers Plowman.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. A collection of eleven original essays, each followed by a selective bibliography, designed to furnish both beginning and advanced students with the essential information on every major aspect of the work. Includes an introduction surveying the six hundred years of the poem’s critical history.

Blanch, Robert J., ed. Style and Symbolism in “Piers Plowman”: A Modern Critical Anthology. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969. The thirteen essays are gathered from a number of scholarly journals in the field, many of them unavailable in smaller libraries. Designed to orient the beginning student to the major issues in Piers Plowman studies.

Godden, Malcolm. The Making of “Piers Plowman.” London: Longman, 1990. Examines the differences among the three texts of the poem and sets the work in its historical and literary context.

Hussey, S. S., ed. “Piers Plowman”: Critical Approaches. London: Methuen, 1969. Twelve essays, all of which were written especially for this collection. Hussey’s introduction to the collection surveys the basic information about Langland and his poem for the beginning student.

Salter, Elizabeth. “Piers Plowman”: An Introduction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. A short and readable, though somewhat dated, introductory survey of the structure and meaning of the poem, treating it as an alliterative poem, sermon, vision, and allegory.

Scott, Anne M. “Piers Plowman” and the Poor. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001. Focuses on the way Langland portrays poverty and the poor in fourteenth century England and how the work exemplifies its cultural milieu.

Simpson, James. “Piers Plowman”: An Introduction to the B Text. New York: Longman, 1990. A detailed overview of the B version, which is the most frequently encountered form of the poem. Summarizes the range of critical opinion on key issues and includes comparisons to similar material found in the contemporary Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Witting, Joseph S. William Langland Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1997. A close reading of the B text. A good, accessible introduction to the poem.

Zeeman, Nicolette. “Piers Plowman” and the Medieval Discourse of Desire. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006. A scholarly treatment of this iconic exploration of human nature as shaped by medieval theology.