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.
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...
(The entire section contains 599 words.)
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