I first encountered William Langland’s Piers Plowman as a college freshman. The professor got up in front of the class and, in his meek way, confessed: “I shouldn’t be putting this on the syllabus, but I’m going to anyway. Ninety-five percent of you will hate this book; for the remaining few, it will change your lives.”
Within a few months, I had decided to become a medievalist and that professor was my newly-minted adviser; the following year I was staying at school all summer, doing research on Piers—it captivated me.
At first glance, this 7,000 and some-odd line poem isn’t much to look at. Like much medieval literature it is religiously didactic and allegorical; it breaks off at seemingly random moments, leaving existing conflicts unresolved. Such frenetic fracturing is, at first, alienating, but, as we shall see, also its singular charm—right down to its traditional alliterative verse, un-rhyming and occasionally incomplete, of a sort that makes Hopkins’s sprung rhythm look like Victorian child’s play. One critic (a fan of the poem!) has admitted that Langland “gives us thinking rather than thought. ” It’s not hard to see what my teacher meant those years ago: who would willfully pick up such a poorly-knitted tangle of themes, barely held together by a series of religious fever dreams?
Postmodern Christians in 2017, that’s who. Piers is undeniably an insane text, insofar as sanity implies an easily-discernible structure and digestible content. But that is a reflection of its historical context, one that, in spite of (more or less easily imaginable) differences, is analogous to our own. It remains not merely worth reading today but specifically important to read today because it is a work of spiritual edification drafted in a past with disconcerting prefigurations of our present. Its feverish vision and enduring spirit strike eyes used to Beckett and Brecht, Tao Lin and David Foster Wallace, as eerily familiar, not as if broadcast across a half-millennium-plus of historical time. The poem thus teaches us to see across the chasm of the past in the name of spiritual and personal edification; its inscrutability reveals our own and testifies to the recurrence of certain spiritual struggles in disparate times. It is the poem’s mysterious immediacy, its unaffected, homely foregrounding of religious struggle—both formally and narratively—that incites a desire for continued questioning, that elides the difference between now and then, between the ravaged society and corrupt Church of the fourteenth century and the 2017 of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option.
The poem asks questions that are still with us: what is the role of Scripture in forming the Christian? Does the will have any place in salvation? What value has an external Church—so bloated with corruption and scholastic indifference? Langland, who reworked the poem across several decades, passing three different versions down to us, never allows for an easy answer. His reformist tendencies and somewhat Ockhamist emphasis on the will (and Will is his own name as well as that of his main character) are subverted by long paeans to grace and humility.
When his poem’s titular figure was adopted as a sort of avatar or mascot by peasant rebels in 1381 (who themselves were, perhaps unfairly, associated with the radical reformist sect known as the Lollards), he edited the text so as to make his doctrinal orthodoxy clear, never forsaking his complex identification of Piers Plowman with (all at once!) St. Peter, the later popes, the Good Samaritan of Gospel fame, and even Christ. At the same time, he removed a shocking line— “Petrus, id est, Christus” (B, XV, 212)—in his final rewriting of the poem. A reformer in a time of both radical new ideas and conservative ecclesial decadence, Langland offers us his life’s work as mystery that, if partly comprehensible, still calls out for answers.
In order to help us at least get clarity on the questions, then, we ought to jump into the world of Piers Plowman itself. Finished (in its third and final version) around 1388, the poem was written during a time of deep uncertainty in medieval England. It was a society that was, in fact, just about to stop being straightforwardly medieval.
Forty years earlier, the Black Death had ravaged the countryside, killing 40 to 60 percent of the population. In its aftermath, a new political order emerged as wage labor became a more convenient employment option (a reduction in the number of farm laborers encouraged peasants to leave subsistence farming behind and compete for wages, rather than remain bound to particular landed manors) and as the merchant class jostled for political power. The death of the long-reigning Edward III in 1377 launched the kingdom into an uncertain future under the child king Richard II. As noted above, in 1381, the workers and merchants rose up against their masters in the Peasants’ Revolt, which devastated and shocked the land—the rebels entered the Tower of London, executed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord High Treasurer, and proceeded (some 400 years before the storming of the Bastille) to release prisoners from a local jail and loot the royal premises.
Soon peace was restored, but there was trouble again in 1388: the “Merciless Parliament” took affairs into its own hands, executed several major officials, and effectively grabbed power from Richard II. The next decade was characterized by constant political struggle until Richard was deposed in 1399. And that’s just in England—the Church throughout Europe was afflicted by the removal of the papacy to Avignon; by rampant corruption; conflict with secular power; the founding of new orders with their unsupervised, peripatetic friars, whose itinerant nature often led to conflicts with diocesan clergy, and a general sense of nigh-apocalyptic doom.
It is from this fractured milieu that the poem takes its central concerns and its unusual form. As one reads it, the text’s mystery comes alive; you begin to penetrate its depths (and the mind of its author). Langland spent his life—what we know of it—obsessed with the question of how a Christian could live in a world so broken by sin and folly. He wanted to know how the individual believer could go on; he wanted to know too how society itself could reflect anything like the tenets of the Faith. These were the questions that he wrestled with as he spent twenty years feverishly writing and rewriting Piers, developing its chaotic form as a reflection of the multiplicity and confusion of his lived experience. A friend of mine once called Piers Plowman “medieval Beckett,” and for good reason; it is no coincidence that recursive questing and hodgepodge as form emerge in moments of social and spiritual crisis.
Langland divides the poem into two halves: the first seeks to understand whether a top-down approach to spiritual and social growth is possible, that is, whether or not the principles of Christianity can take root in a culture torn apart by an emerging wage labor economy and the very beginnings of what would be capitalism, by political violence, and by deep division—a corrupt Church, the “Babylonian Captivity” as the papal court moved to Avignon, and the continual struggle between newly-empowered secular authorities and politically savvy ecclesiastics. Langland’s verdict: It can’t.
The second half of the poem emerges from the failed venture of the first, and retreats inward, asking how it is that a Christian can live in the world at all, how a devout person can even begin to reflect the tenets of a seemingly impossible religion rooted in a call to achieve perfection analogous to God’s perfection.
With these two halves in mind, perhaps we can make some sense of the composite forms buried within the text, and sort out how a poem can be “an amalgam of Blake’s Prophetic Books, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and Eliot’s Four Quartets,” as Derek Pearsall, one of Langland’s most recent major editors and commentators, notes with some glee.
Like many medieval texts, Piers is an allegorical dream vision, meaning that the tale is told through a series of experiences in which a dreamer encounters various figures that represent particular ideas or themes. In the first few pages of the poem, the Dreamer—Will, the poem’s protagonist—finds himself in a “fair feld ful of folk” (C.P.17a) poised between a tower and a dungeon (heaven and hell). The folk are all of us—the people of the world, in the middle of, but often unaware of, the struggle going on for our souls. In ignorance but desiring to understand what this vision means, he comes upon Holy Church, who, despite her incredible erudition, speaks in too incomprehensible a language. She leaves him in utter confusion, unwilling or unable to explain herself any better. And so the poem begins.
Before he has any idea what’s going on, Will (who, unsurprisingly, represents the human faculty of the will, trying to navigate the world) finds himself in all manner of places, including at the king’s palace, where those present attempt to determine who Meed (reward) should marry. Does she belong with the traditional and loyal knights? How about with the usurious merchants? One group is fading from history, of course, but the other is condemned by the Church. At the same time, even if the usurious option is bad, it at least gets men a living—reward is, after all, central to justice.
Then, for good measure, Langland throws in a beast fable about a little society of mice trying to determine whether they should try to put a bell on a cat in order to stop themselves from being eaten. And all of this in dreams. Obscure as these visions may be, he intends them to teach us a lesson about human reason and action as well as their limits.
The first half of the poem seems to be guaranteeing the possibility of a just society: Meed doesn’t end up in wicked circumstances (though she is characterized as something of a prostitute, since she is willing to reward the man deemed “worthy,” and worth is not necessarily tied to moral considerations).
But this optimistic vision quickly comes to an end when the titular character, Piers the Ploughman, shows up and tries to whip society into shape. Contrition (yes, that’s a character’s name) gets the Seven Deadly Sins to confess (in very comical fashion), but they rapidly return to their old ways. Piers (the name is a variant on Peter), troubled by the lapse in discipline, invites Hunger to force people to work so that society can function and everyone can be fed (Langland has a nearly Dorothy Day-like concern for the poor). Hunger (obligingly) makes everyone hungry, but this does nothing to transform the lazy, and the first sequence of dreams ends in dire confusion, with the hope for a Christian society predicated on justice for the poor totally quashed.
The failure of the outward quest leads Will to recognize that, in order to transform the world around oneself, one must first look within; one must, as the poem puts it, learn to “do well.” Thus the second half of the poem presents a bizarre series of images and allegories: the Dreamer, in his human stupidity, thinks “do well” is a person and not an idea (thus ironizing allegory itself!) and falls prey to Fortune, who leads him into a deviant life, in which he cherry picks from Scripture in order to justify his newfound, acedia-ridden despair. The Roman emperor Trajan comes back from the dead to attack studiousness and scholarship. And, after many other adventures, Will eventually meets with a series of characters representing internal faculties that must be reformed (such as Imagination). Before you know it he finds himself in dreams within dreams, watching Jesus joust with Satan, and, in the end, needing to defend the Barn of Unity (the Church) against the forces of Antichrist, peopled by giants, the Seven Deadly Sins, and even wayward friars.
If that all seems a bit confusing, that’s because it is, and it is precisely because life itself is a journey toward truth filled with false starts, competing influences, and constant social pressure to avoid introspection and contemplation. The poem’s form is intentionally variegated— a variety not unlike, though more ambiguous than, the “pied beauty” of Hopkins’s famous poem. Langland seeks to represent the multifaceted nature of Christian life in a world that seems—for reasons social, economic, political, and personal—to be unable to tolerate a robust concern for the poor rooted in a deep faith.
Experiencing the delight of Piers is always an inward journey and a call to self-reflection, because, while reading it, each of us can recognize the echo of Langland’s voice across history, calling out to us to continue what he would call “the pilgrimage to Saint Truth,” that is, the quest for meaning and sense amidst a fallen and broken world.
Though Piers’ original attempt to reform the world has, seemingly, failed, it is in him that the Dreamer, Will, apparently continues to hope. Piers had, earlier in the poem, said that he would himself become such a quester, and be with those who were on the quest:
“And I shal apparaille me,’ quod Perkyn, “in pilgrymes wise/ And wende with yow I wile til we fynde Truthe.’ / [He] caste on [hise] clothes, yclouted and hole, / [Hise] cokeres and [hise] coffes for coId of [hise] nailes, / And [heng his] hoper at [his] hals in stede of a scryppe: / “A busshel of bred corn brynge me therinne, / For I wol sowe it myself, and sithenes wol I wende / To pilgrymage as palmeres doon, pardon for to have. / And whoso helpeth me to erie or sowen here er I wende, / Shal have leve, by Oure Lord, to lese here in hervest / And make hym murie thermyd, maugree whoso bigruccheth it.
The companionship in the quest for Truth, and the “pardon” that Piers receives from Truth early on, which he was to pass on to penitents, seem to reach beyond the failure of the initial reform. Will can’t shake his original vision. In the final dream, Conscience declares that he too,
“…wole bicome a pilgrym, / And walken as wide as the world lasteth, / To seken Piers the Plowman, that Pryde myghte destruye / … Now Kynde me avenge, / And sende me hap and heele, til I have Piers the Plowman!”
The journey is not over, and the lesson is not simple. The pardon, originally, had not been enough, given too little guidance: it had seemed to offer insufficient hope for that fair field full of folk; in fact, in the first two versions of the poem, Piers tears it up. It is as though all Christians in the poem are struggling to understand the basis on which Christians can hope. That basis, even at the end, remains mysterious—except that the solution, clearly related to a continued openness to God’s love, is bound up in the quest to seek Piers, to do as Conscience does, and “greete [cry] after grace.”
Are our circumstances so different from those of Langland? As of yet, rebels haven’t broken into the White House and taken prisoners; tax officials have not been summarily executed by an angry mob. But even as events change, history returns us to past anxieties in different forms—the “nothing new under the sun” of Qoheleth and the eternal recurrence of Nietzsche in the saeculum that, Langland reminds us, will be renewed only by an end times to be awaited and hoped for, but never complacently expected.
In moments of transformation, Piers takes on renewed personal and social import. Written when early capitalists began to accumulate wealth such that the feudal system could slowly vanish from history, the poem finds us in a time when capitalism and liberalism are pummeled on all sides. We find ourselves, perhaps, at end of an era inaugurated in Langland’s own day.
What will Christians do? How will we respond? Certainly there is no easy answer, but I suspect that in the next few years my professor may be proved wrong—Piers Plowman may find a renewed audience, transforming more readers than Langland ever could have imagined.
1 John Lawlor, Piers Plowman: An Essay in Criticism, p. 11
2 William Langland. Piers Plowman: A New Annotated Edition of the C Text. Derek Pearsall, ed. p. 11
3 C, 6, 056-066. `And I shall apparel me,’ quoth Perkyn [a diminuative of Peter/Piers] · ‘in pilgrim’s wise/And wend with you I will · till we find Truth/Put on me my clothes · patched-up and ragged,/My leggings and mittens · ‘gainst cold of my nails,/Hang my seed basket at my neck · instead of a scrip,/And a bushel of breadcorn · bring me therein;/For I will sow it myself · and then will I wend/To pilgrimage as palmers do · pardon for to have./Who will help me to plow · or to sow ere I wend/Shall have leave, by our Lord! · to glean here in harvest/And with it make himself merry · spite of who may begrudge it. (Translation: Donald and Rachel Attwater, 1957).
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]