William Langland's great Middle English poem from the 14th century comprises eight "visions," themselves divided 20 total passūs (Latin for "steps," which act as chapters). The poem, a commentary on greed and corruption, begins with the narrator, Will, falling sleep on a morning in May in the Malvern Hills (in modern Gloucestershire, England). While asleep, he sees a "Lady Church" that points out to him various residences of personifications such as "Truth" and "Care" that live in castles nearby. Lady Church points out a lady elaborately adorned with gold jewelry in nice clothing. Her name is "Money" and she is to be married to "False."
In his next (second) vision, Will encounters the personifications of the seven deadly sins, such as "Anger" and "Gluttony" and "Sloth." Positive personifications such as "Repentance" offer to advocate to God on behalf of these sins. Gluttony, for example, vows to fast.
Various stock personages such as merchants, priests, vagabonds, and scholars make an appearance and give the narrator advice on how to live a good life. Finally, the narrator resolves to find "Do-well," whose nature is explained to him by Piers the Plowman. Will begins looking for Charity, and has a dream (within the visionary dream that composes the narrative) that he finds the tree of Charity tended by none other than this Piers the Plowman. Piers the Plowman seems to Will to be Christ himself.
In the 18th passus, Will glimpses hell (ruled by Satan and assisted by Lucifer) during the point when the souls are released upon Christ's death. They try to bar the gates so that the penitent cannot leave; however, Christ's redemptive power is too strong, and hell's gates are opened.
After this, the narrator reaffirms the need to follow and glorify Christ in one's actions. At the end, the narrator grows old, and sees Lady Church undermined by a friar who doles out confessions for money. Conscience vows to go find Piers in order to enlist his help in aiding the church.
Piers Plowman exists in at least three versions. The A text, dating from about 1362, contains a prologue and eleven passi, or cantos. The Latin word “passus” means step or stage of a journey and is both singular and plural. About a decade later William Langland expanded the work from 2,400 lines to 7,277, arranged in a prologue and twenty passi. This expanded B text, dating from about 1377, is regarded as the most authoritative. Sometime in the 1380’s Langland began another revision to create the C text (1393), which contains 7,338 lines, divided into a prologue and twenty-two passus. Because the revision of the C text was left unfinished at Langland’s death, scholars are reluctant to regard it as definitive. In addition to the A, B, and C texts, there is a Z text, even shorter than A, which survives in a single manuscript at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.
The allegorical poem Piers Plowman, an outstanding example of the later fourteenth century alliterative revival, combines various popular medieval literary forms. It presents a quest or pilgrimage, as the narrator Will seeks Truth, Dowel, Dobet(ter), and Dobest. This quest occurs within the context of dream visions that satirize secular and religious figures corrupted by greed. The poem includes debates, and many scenes recall the mystery and morality plays of the period.
As the prologue begins, Will falls asleep and dreams of a landscape flanked on one side by a tower belonging to Truth (God), that is, Heaven, and a valley with a large castle or dungeon representing Hell. In between is “A fair feeld ful of folk” that is this world with its living inhabitants. In passus 1, Holy Church expounds Will’s dream as he sleeps and urges Will to seek Truth. The main action of this first vision involves the conflict between Holy Church and Theology over the nature of Lady Mede. The...
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