What is Piers Plowman about?
The famous late medieval dream vision Piers Plowman opens in summer, in the Malvern Hills in the West Midlands region of England. The narrator is weary from wandering and he falls asleep beside a stream. He has ‘a merveillous swevene’ [‘a marvellous dream’] in which he sees a ‘fair feeld ful of folk’ [‘a fair field full of folk’].
The poem is a sequence of 22 dream visions, called ‘passus’, which means ‘step’ in Latin. In these visions, the narrator, Will, meets a series of allegorical characters. The poem is an exploration of Christian faith, as the narrator strives to uncover how to live a good Christian life. It is a highly learned work, filled with quotations from the Bible and from patristic writers (the so-called ‘Fathers of the Church’, i.e. early Christian writers).
In the first passus, Will meets a character called ‘Holi Chirche’ [‘Holy Church’]. He asks her to ‘teche me’ [‘teach me‘], ‘How I may save my soule’ [‘How I may save my soul‘], which is – in some ways – the poem’s mission statement. The work is complex, however – a thought-provoking and highly intellectual text that resists easy interpretation, yet still entertains.
Piers Plowman is written in alliterative verse, a poetic form which was popular in the West Midlands in the 14th century. This form is also used in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.
Who wrote Piers Plowman?
The work was written by William Langland – or rather, we think it was written by William Langland. Very little is known about Langland; even his name is a guess. Only one among over 50 manuscripts of the poem name Langland as the author. This manuscript, held in Trinity College Dublin, has an inscription which reads:
Memorandum quod Stacy de Rokayle pater de willielmi de Langlond … qui predictis willielmus fecit librum qui vocatur Perys ploughman
It is worth recording that Stacy de Rokayle was the father of William de langlond … the aforesaid William made the book which is called Piers Plowman
This brief reference to the author appears to be corroborated by internal evidence in the text. The narrator of the poem says: ‘“I have lyved in londe”, quod I, “my name is longe wille”’ (B-version, passus XV, l. 152). This is taken to be a pun on ‘Will’ or ‘William long of the land’, or ‘Long-land’.
The poem’s dialect suggests that the author was from the West Midlands. Scholars have made other suggestions about the life of Langland, and it seems likely that he was a cleric in minor orders who lived in London at one point in his life. What is clear from the poem, however, is that he was possessed of a strong religious faith and a concern for social reform.