Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599
Piers Plowman recounts an allegorical dream vision in a fourteenth-century poem which is attributed to William Langland. The poet relates a series of visions which are concerned with the human relationship to God as this permeates life.
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There are three distinct versions of the poem, which together survive in more than fifty unique manuscripts, none of them written in Langland's own hand. Because Langland‘s language was what is now known as Middle English, his poem can be challenging for the modern reader. In addition, the author relies extensively on allegory, including Biblical and Classical stories and characters. While a medieval audience would likely have been familiar with many of these references, the modern reader may prefer to consult an annotated version. A distinctive feature of the poem is his extensive use of alliteration, or the repetition of an initial consonant; he uses this device in almost every line.
The Prologue is probably the most well-known part of the poem. The first two lines are presented here first in Middle English.
In a somer sesun, whon softe was the sonne,
I schop me into a shroud, as I a scheep were . . .
Here are the same lines translated into modern English.
In a summer season · when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were . . .
The poet presents a dream in which he encounters an array of people, both rich and poor, going around in a field; they are apparently performing normal activities and duties.
A fair field full of folk—found I in between,
Of all manner of men—the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering . . .
Many of them are engaged in pious acts, including pilgrimage to Rome. Lamenting that many of them seem insincere, the poet suspects them of making up the stories or at least lying about their motivations.
I saw some that said · they had sought saints:
Yet in each tale that they told · their tongue turned to lies
More than to tell truth . . .
The poet’s concern with hypocrisy is evident throughout the Prologue. He criticizes corruption within the Church, such as the selling of pardons. This he sees as doubly wrong because the rich are ostensibly able to buy their way out of sins and the pardoners are getting rich off other people’s sins and keeping the money that poor parishioners should get.
There preached a pardoner · as if he priest were:
He brought forth a brief · with bishops' seals thereon,
And said that himself · might absolve them all . . .
Parish priest and pardoner · share all the silver
That the parish poor would have . . .
The end of the dream includes a vision of a talking rat, who speaks of seeing dangerous, elaborately dressed men, who he calls “cats.” He recommends putting a bell on them so that people can stay out of their way. This has been interpreted as Parliament trying to limit the King’s powers.
"And right so," quoth that rat · "reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell · or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar · for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck · then we may hear
When he romps or rests · or runneth to play . . .
And if he gets angry, · beware and shun all his paths."
The poet concludes saying the he cannot, or dares not, decipher the dream’s meaning:
What this dream meaneth · ye men that be merry,
Divine ye, for I never dare · by dear God in heaven!
The full text is available from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/43660/43660-h/43660-h.htm ).