► Introduction to the poem

Introduction to the poem

Dr Lawrence Warner, Reader in English at King’s College London, introduces the poem and its key themes – from money to the apocalypse

Photograph: R. 3.14 – Piers the Plowman AC Conflation (Trinity College Cambridge)
What is Piers Plowman?

iers Plowman is better considered an event than a poem, given its complex history of production and reception. The basics are these: its author is called William Langland, but nothing secure about his life is known, even his name, except what can be gleaned from Piers. He spent some thirty years writing the poem, from about 1360-90. Langland was most likely originally from Malvern (Worcestershire) but clearly knew London well and places some waking episodes in the city.

The poem is an allegorical dream-vision, in which a Dreamer, Will, has visions including the ‘fair field full of folk’ (i.e., this world), the ‘Belling of the Cat’ beast-fable, the trial of Lady Mede (money or reward), the confession of the Seven Sins, a dispute between Wit and Study, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, and the downfall of Holy Church Unity, among much else.

The opening portion of the poem (the Prologue and first seven passus, meaning ‘step’ or ‘steps’, similar to chapters) make up the Visio (‘Vision’), while in the remainder, Will seeks Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. The figure of Piers the Plowman appears sporadically throughout the poem, sometimes as an honest agricultural labourer, sometimes as Christ himself. The letters of John Ball, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, mention Piers the Plowman. Most literary scholars assume he knew the poem but it is also possible that Langland and Ball drew on a common source. The poem is written primarily in alliterative long lines, but with frequent appearances of Latin tags or sentences from the Bible, Cato, and other conventional materials. It is one of the greatest artistic productions of the English Middle Ages. The following sections offer an overview of some of the general themes of, and contexts for, Piers Plowman.

Piers and Money

t its core, Piers Plowman is an attempt to reconcile the spiritual or metaphorical economy — Redde quod debes, ‘pay what you owe’, is one of its catch phrases — with the realities of the contemporary economy. The Black Death of 1348 resulted in much higher wages for survivors who worked the land, many of whom realised they could hawk their skills on the open market. Statutes of Labourers in 1349 and 1388, which prohibited serfs from working for anyone other than their lords, represented attempts of by landowners to curtail such developments and prevent the steady growth of a money economy. Such developments inform many of Langland’s episodes.

One of the major allegorical personifications in the poem is ‘Mede’: a woman whose name means something like recompense or reward — one recent translator has it as just ‘money’. Mede is a morally neutral character but she does tend to instill feelings like lust and greed in those around her. Friars are willing to accept her gift of a stained-glass window in their friary in return for easy penance. (The disruption of the economy of penance by greedy friars is one of the poem’s main themes.) Elsewhere in Piers Plowman Langland uses the metaphor of false coinage: false clerics are like a bad penny with a good print, whereas the true coin’s imprint is the mark of Christ on the cleric’s soul. Things get metaphorical very quickly in such passages. But Langland is also very concerned with the realities of the contemporary economy. A long digression in the Mede episode attacks ‘regraters’: those city merchants who buy up food in one market, mark up the price and unload it in another market. These evil-doers might well call the wrath of God on the entire community via a great fire in which the innocent, too, will be punished.

Piers and Labour

iers the Plowman is the worker par excellence in Western literature. His first appearance in the poem comes at a point in which Langland wishes to remind his audience of the Christian imperative to toil in the fields of the world. A group of penitents wants to go on pilgrimage to St Truth but don’t know how to get there; ‘don’t worry,’ says a newcomer, Piers. ‘I’ll get you there — but first, we need to plough my half-acre.’ And that ploughing, that labour, is the figure for one’s religious duty: knights’ ‘ploughing’ inheres in their fighting on behalf of their communities; clerics’, in their praying; and the rest, who made up well over 90% of the population of Langland’s England, the agricultural workers, whose ‘ploughing’ is indeed ploughing. The literal pilgrimage to a holy site has been replaced by a figurative pilgrimage, manifest in the Christian’s works in this world. But then things go awry. The workers revolt. Whether or not Langland intended as much, this situation reflects the economic realities of the post-Black Death world in which peasants’ labour was worth much more on the market economy than it had been. The ideal Christian scenario, in which everyone does what is asked for by God and the community so that no one will go hungry and Truth will prevail, has broken down.

It does not go too far to say that Piers Plowman exists on account of this tension between the ideal and the real, from which Langland does not recoil. It is a tension activated on many occasions throughout the poem: in one waking episode, the figures Reason and Conscience berate the dreamer for his seeming slothfulness: ‘Can you serve as an acolyte, sing in a church, or cook for my workers; can you work the fields, oversee the harvest, make shoes or cloth, or keep sheep or cows? Can you trim hedges, harrow the land, or drive geese—can you do anything that the community needs?’ His answer, in sum, is: well, I can write this poem. Piers Plowman is the testament to that conviction that poetry is the highest form of labour.

The Search for Truth

arly in Piers Plowman the Dreamer, Will, enquires after the identity of the woman who has been explaining the meaning of his first vision. Upon learning she is Holy Church, he kneels and prays to her to teach him to believe in Christ and how he might save his soul. Her reply is simple: ‘When alle tresours ben tried [tested], treuthe is the beste’. Bruce Springsteen said of Roy Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’ that after its devastating opening line, ‘Your baby doesn’t love you any more’, Orbison might has well have ended the song. So too, one feels, could Holy Church’s line have concluded Langland’s poem. Instead, Will spends a long time testing her claim, opening it out, exploring the nature of the ‘truth’ that is the best. In his first appearance, Piers the Plowman offers himself as a guide to ‘St Truth’, which turns out to mean doing well and loving God and your neighbour.

Often Langland explores the nature of faith by noting what faith isn’t or who doesn’t have it: prelates and bishops whose sees are in Eastern lands ought to work hard to convert Muslims to the true faith, since they ‘have a lip of our belief’ (that is, they are monotheists). And deep in the poem, Will meets a man who turns out to be Abraham, also known as Faith, the perfection of that concept under the Old Law, who is a ‘herald’ of the New Law. On the one hand, faith is one of the three virtues and that which the Dreamer is searching for; on the other hand, the very necessity of faith is a sign that even those in whom it is most abundant live in a world whose full meaning and glory will only be revealed in future days. Will’s quest will continue till that days comes.

Language, Manuscripts and Versions

iers Plowman’s inability to be nailed down is not just because of its allegorical abstractions or sometimes bizarre episodes and movements. Its metrical form, language, and textual history, too, are quite distinct from those of the more familiar Chaucer, and are topics worthy of study in their own right.

The author of Piers Plowman used a dialect of English that is localizable to the south-west Midlands, indeed to the Malvern area that is mentioned in the poem’s opening lines. He often uses the word he for ‘she’, for instance, in a position required by the poet’s metrical form, which is how we know that this usage, and not the sche or she spellings some scribes used instead in those places, are the poet’s. Langland deploys the alliterative long line. A typical line in this form has two main stresses on each side of a caesura, the first three of which alliterate. The final stress is always the penultimate syllable, and the b-verse (i.e., everything after the caesura) must have one – and only one – sequence of two or more unstressed syllables. The a-verse’s rhythmical principles are more difficult to ascertain, but they are generally longer and more various than b-verses.

Finally, the versions: editors have long determined that the manuscripts fall into three disparate authorial versions, now called A (completed by about 1370), B (about 1377-79), and C (about 1390); some find evidence of a ‘Z version’ that pre-dates A, while others consider that a scribal rewriting of the A version. But even if this scheme is generally accurate, the manuscripts attest many other responses to the text. There are a large handful of A-C splices, seemingly a way of ‘completing’ the much shorter A version. Debate is currently raging as to the possibility that B, long considered the only ‘complete’, authorially-sanctioned version, in its current state takes on a number of passages and readings, including the entire final two passus, from C. One scribe of the 1420s combined all three main versions into a text some 1000 lines longer than any other manuscript. Not for nothing has Langland’s poem been site of some of the most innovative, if controversial, editorial work in English studies.

Prophecy and the Apocalypse

iers Plowman can be categorized as a ‘dream vision’, but that does not do justice to all the modes and genres to be found within the poem. Estates satire (satire regarding people’s social status), sermon, personification allegory, psychomachia, and biblical history are just some of these. Underlying everything is a strong sense of Langland’s voice as that of a prophet, in the Old Testament sense of one who calls his people to repentance and the straight way. Langland has little time for the political prophecy based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Merlin’s prophecies—‘When you see the sun amiss and two monks’ heads, and a maid has the mastery’, etc. is the only such instance—but quite often the authorial voice breaks through the fiction in ways that sound more like Isaiah than Merlin. This is perhaps not much more than to say that the poem ‘is prophetic in the general biblical sense of “forthtelling” and apocalyptic within the orthodox eschatological tradition expecting doomsday to follow the signs of the end, of which the final attack of Antichrist is the most pressing’, as Richard Emmerson puts it. He refers to the final episode of the B and C versions, in which Holy Church Unity faces its downfall because it has been penetrated by Friar Flatterer, a.k.a. Antichrist, who disrupts the economy of penance by offering easy absolution. On its collapse, Conscience heads back out in search of Piers the Plowman.

Some critics have attempted to align Piers Plowman with a specific strand of apocalypticism, such as that associated with Joachim of Fiore, but as Emmerson’s comments suggest the poem is easily read in more conventional ways. To say that Piers Plowman is prophetic or apocalyptic is in the end to say not much more than that it is the product of a committed medieval Christian who took what he heard in church and read in his Bible and commentaries very seriously. It is telling that, while some readers of the mid-sixteenth century took it as a prediction of their own day (‘A king shall come’ who will disendow the church), even they did not see Piers as ‘prophesying’ the Reformation. It was for them, as for its earliest readers and for us today, primarily a magnificent poem of the Christian imagination.

Author portrait by David Tett

Dr Lawrence Warner is Reader in Medieval English at King’s College London and Director of the International Piers Plowman Society. His book The Myth of ‘Piers Plowman’ (Cambridge, 2014), won the 2016 Beatrice White Prize, awarded by the English Association for outstanding scholarly work in the field of English Literature before 1590.