Piers Plowman: an introduction

Lawrence Warner introduces the questions of penance and obligation that are at the heart of Piers Plowman, and shows how the work's fierce satire and commitment to justice have influenced English literature, from multimedia reimaginings to the work of Jonathan Swift and Zadie Smith.

Piers Plowman is better considered an event, perhaps, than a poem. The basics are these: its poet is called William Langland, but nothing secure about his life is known, not even his name; he kept on writing and rewriting it between around 1365 and 1390; and he was most likely originally from Malvern but clearly knew London well. It is a complex allegorical dream-vision, in which a Dreamer, Will, has a series of visions including the ‘fair field full of folk’ (i.e. this world), the ‘Belling of the Cat’ beast-fable, a dispute between Wit and Study, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and the downfall of Holy Church Unity, among much else. Composed within a period of major upheaval, the poem tackles all manner of social, religious and economic life in late 14th-century medieval England. The figure of ‘Piers the Plowman’ appears sporadically throughout the poem, sometimes as an honest agricultural labourer, sometimes as Christ himself. It is written primarily in alliterative long lines, but with frequent appearances of Latin tags or sentences from the Bible, Cato and other sources. And it is considered one of the greatest artistic productions of the English Middle Ages.

Piers Plowman

Text from the Piers Plowman manuscript

Piers Plowman was evidently a popular text, as it survives in over 50 manuscripts. The manuscript you can see here is known as the C-version, which is the last revision made by the poet.

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Holkham Bible Picture Book

Illustration of God surrounded by beasts, birds, water and plants, from the Holkham Bible Picture Book

Piers Plowman was written against a background of disquiet about the state of the Church in England. Much of the concern was about how ordinary people were able to access the biblical text. This ‘picture-Bible’ was made for people who could not read.

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Piers Plowman and its modern reincarnations

All that is true and important; but such an overview can give little sense of what captivates readers, still today, in Piers Plowman. The summer of 2017 alone witnessed the staging of ‘Fair Field’, a multimedia reimagining of the poem by Penned in the Margins, and the publication of ‘Piers Plowless’ (Past Present: Piers Plowless & Sir Orfeo by Maureen Duffy, The Pottery Press, 2017), a ‘contemporary riff’ on the poem by Maureen Duffy, whose opening lines play on that fine balance between the medieval poem’s seeming distance and its urgency:

Ho Piers, Peterkin, you hover on the edge
of our consciousness as I follow your footsteps
living in London and on London as you did
or rather your maker that Long Will
With Kit his wife on Cornhill, exercising his trade
not willing to dig or delve, as poets still
demand the right to write. But I can’t say
services for bread, only offer my words
propped up by day jobs, like Chaucer, ambassador
for whatever king, wheedling his way to kickstart
English Lit, while you my dear gave what?
Blessings for a groat, counsel, shrivings, masses?

This is not a translation of Piers Plowman, of course. Even better, it is a poet’s invocation of the poem across time and space, which Duffy sees as a model for her calling today. It is also an evocation of a particular episode, now often called the apologia pro vita sua (meaning ‘a defence of one's own life’), in which Will, here awake between dreams, is accosted by Reason and Conscience: ‘Can you serve as an acolyte’, they ask, ‘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?’ I am too tall to do manual labour! he responds. Instead he prays, reads the psalms, says services for the souls of his benefactors – and produces this poem. True work, both Langland and Duffy suggest.

What Duffy draws attention to in Piers Plowman is its commitment to divine justice – and to Truth – at the cost of the full embrace of those at the higher end of the social scale. Echoing the poem’s alliterative form in her own lines (‘for whatever king, wheedling his way to kickstart’), Duffy paints Chaucer charming his way around Europe in the company of ambassadors, becoming ‘father of English poetry’ on the way: but not Langland. Although Chaucer’s fame means that he is ‘on the syllabus’, Duffy insists that Langland is ‘there too, no courtier, just / versing the way of the world and now we need you / again’. Here, Langland’s is a pure and urgent poetry. It speaks truth to, and of, the world. Today, that truth and justice may not necessarily be of a spiritual nature, but it still grows from the very questions that Piers Plowman keeps on asking: what is the relationship between justice and mercy? What do we owe our neighbours, whether in kindness, compassion or money? What is the proper relationship between those with temporal power (kings, bishops) and those who work for their pay?

Penance and the role of satire

We are now in a better position to characterise this phenomenon. Piers Plowman is an alliterative poem, its lines comprising two halves on either side of a caesura, usually with three alliterative stresses (lyve, London, London) and one unalliterative stress on the penultimate syllable (bothe). The a-verse, to the left of the caesura, usually has more unstressed syllables than the b-verse, the main metrical characteristic of which is the presence of one – and only one – string of two or more unstressed syllables. These imbalances in each line propel the reader forward and resist the allure of easy stability. They do so, of course, because the language of the poem is for the most part that which all literate Englishmen and women could readily understand, an everyday vernacular that tells of a Christian sinner’s desire to lead a good life and save his soul.

That quest means that Piers Plowman is centrally concerned with penance, with the need for the world (and for the individual) to make things right with God. It is no surprise that a character called ‘Conscience’ interrogates ‘Will’, both the Dreamer’s given name and the concept of the will, or desire. The preacher preaches so as to prick the conscience; the sinner confesses; the confessor directs the penitent to undergo temporal punishment (e.g. pilgrimage); and the pardon is granted. That, at least, is how things should work. The driving problem of Piers Plowman, however, is that they so rarely do. If this penitential process is like ploughing a field, the workers (sinners) are likely to get hungry – or get angry at their low pay – or get distracted by storytelling, drink and women, and sin again. Or, to keep to this world rather than Langland’s allegorical one, even if the penitent is in earnest, the confessor is likely to be a friar who grants easy absolution so as to ensure he’ll get a nice tip (or donation to the friary). The poem has little time for friars, pardoners and parish priests who lollygag in London rather than protect their flocks, pilgrims, ‘japeres and jangeleres, Judas children’ – little time, that is, for just about anyone who might block the world’s path to union with God. In other words, it participates in the satirical mode that we also find in Chaucer’s portraits of the ecclesiastical figures of The Canterbury Tales.

The Ellesmere Manuscript (The Canterbury Tales)

The beginning of the Second Nun's Tale from the Ellesmere Manuscript, featuring an illustration of the nun on horseback and decorated borders and initials

Chaucer, like Langland, satirised ecclesiastical figures, like the second nun whose image you can see here.

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Usage terms © MS EL 26 C 9, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Held by© MS EL 26 C 9, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The most fantastic object of Langland’s satire is the figure of Meed (‘reward’), depicted as a woman ‘wonderliche yclothed, / Purfiled with pelure [in rich apparel], the pureste on erthe’. In depicting her, the poet delineates the rot at the heart of Christendom: Meed represents greed, selfishness and the accumulation of material goods. Holy Church, fresh from lecturing Will on the theme ‘Whan alle tresors ben tried treuthe is the beste’, is unimpressed at his sudden interest in her rival. But the episode of the marriage of Meed over the following passus makes for a terrific read. Take the bit where she tells a friar confessor that she would be perfectly happy to provide windows for his friary if he in turn will grant easy absolution to her lecherous friends: ‘It is a freletee of flessh – ye fynden it in bokes – / And a cours of kynde wheof we comen alle’, she explains [‘It is a frailty of flesh, as one reads in books, and natural behaviour from which we all come’]. He consents happily, to the great dismay of the narrator. Where cheap sex is on offer, where there is money to be had, the system of penance dissolves like so much candy floss. Corruption is shown to be endemic; but if it were not curable Langland would not expend so much effort exposing its pernicious effects on the human soul. He is at heart a true satirist in a tradition that runs from the biblical prophets through the works of Jonathan Swift, and which continues today on late-night talk shows and in the novels of Jonathan Barnes, Zadie Smith and many others.

14th-century Wycliffite Bible

Text from the Wycliffite Bible, featuring decorated borders and an illuminated initial

Piers Plowman is critical of ecclesiastical corruption, which was a central concern of the Wycliffite Heresy with which the Wycliffite Bible was associated

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Prophecy in Piers Plowman?

This unflinching satire leads one authoritative figure to call for secular lords to take over ecclesiastical holdings: ‘Taketh hire landes, ye lordes, and leteth hem lyve by dymes’ [‘Take their lands, you lords, and let them live on tithes’]. The poem even prophesies that ‘ther shal come a kyng and confesse yow religiouses, / And bete you, as the bible telleth, for brekynge of youre rule’ [‘there shall come a king who will serve as confessor to you members of religious orders, and beat you, as the Bible says, for the breaking of your rule’]. Was Langland a prophet, foreshadowing Henry VIII’s spearheading of the English Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536–41)? Robert Crowley, a staunch Protestant who published the first printed edition of Piers Plowman in 1550, does not go quite so far – what readers might take to be ‘prophecies’ are better considered ‘prognostications’ – but he certainly found in the poem a light in the darkness.

But it has recently become clear that these two possible Langlandian ‘prophecies’ circulated quite separately from the poem at large, and even in contexts that were by no means Reformist. The Winchester Anthology (British Library Add MS 60577, f. 212r) – a collection as staunchly Catholic and recusant as Crowley’s edition is Protestant – shows as much.

And the poem still speaks to us today. Like Duffy, the artists of Penned in the Margins who brought Piers Plowman to the stage in 2017 found prophecy as well: not about religion, but social justice. This was seen in their site-specific staging of five major moments from the poem through the lens of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, in which one ‘Piers the Plowman’ was cited as a rebel leader. The production culminated in a revolution-cum-party in which Piers led his followers onto the streets of modern-day London, or into the hills of Malvern, to question how, in a world of amazing technical wizardry, the gap between rich and poor could be larger than ever. The novelist Marilynne Robinson cites it as the book other than the Bible that has most inspired her faith, and in an essay on the Reformation notes that it articulates many of the beliefs commonly assumed to have begun with Luther. Piers Plowman informs works ranging from Teju Cole’s Open City, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, to Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen, a fascinating science fiction novel. And whether for its incisive satire, skilful employment of metrics, remarkable sexual politics, or profound vision of faith, Piers Plowman will no doubt continue to find audiences for the next 600 years as well.


Article text: © Lawrence Warner

All quotations from 'Piers Plowless' reproduced with the kind permision of Maureen Duffy (Past Present: Piers Plowless & Sir Orfeo by Maureen Duffy, The Pottery Press, 2017).

  • Lawrence Warner
  • Dr Lawrence Warner is Reader in Medieval English at King’s College London. His first book, The Lost History of ‘Piers Plowman’: The Earliest Transmission of Langland’s Work (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), received honourable mention for the Richard J. Finneran Award of the Society for Textual Scholarship, and his second, The Myth of ‘Piers Plowman’: Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive (Cambridge University Press, 2014), won the Beatrice White Prize for 2016, awarded by the English Association for outstanding scholarly work in the field of English Literature before 1590. His next book, Chaucer’s Scribes: London Literary Production 1384-1432 is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.