William Langland – Piers Plowman (Poem Summary)

Written sometime between 1360-1387.

It’s now commonly accepted that Piers Plowman was written by William Langland, about whom little is known. This attribution of the poem to Langland rests principally on the evidence of an early 15th-century manuscript of the C-text held at Trinity College, Dublin

The poem describes a series of wonderful dreams the poet-speaker has dreamed. Through these dreams, we see a picture of life in the feudal England.


Major Characters:

  • Will is the poem’s protagonist, narrator, and dreamer.
  • Piers Plowman is a humble peasant who is a follower of Truth
  • Conscience is first introduced as the knight whom the King wants Meed to marry. Later, Conscience becomes one of Will’s most important and most enduring teachers, appearing in the majority of Will’s dreams.
  • Christ is the Son of God, and one part of the Trinity (alongside God the Father and Holy Ghost)
  • Friar Flatterer is the friar who is called into Unity to heal those whom Hypocrisy and other evil forces wounded.
  • Truth is one of the two representations of God (the other being Kind).
  • The Samaritan is one of the biblical characters that Will meets on the road to Jerusalem.
  • The King oversees the court case of Peace vs. Wrong and also deals with Lady Meed’s misbehavior.
  • Meed is False’s fiancée and Holy Church’s enemy.
  • Simony is a shady character who conducts False and Meed’s wedding ceremony with help from Civil.
  • Wrong is introduced by Holy Church as being the leader and founder of the dungeon in the valley
  • Lecher is one of the Seven Deadly Sins who confesses to Repentance.
  • Covetousness, also called Sir Harvey, is a naïve man who knows so little about Christianity
  • Grace is God’s messenger, as well as the gatekeeper at Truth’s palace
  • Hunger is a threatening (not evil) man
  • Anima, represents the soul
  • The knight signifies the nobility in Piers Plowman’s ideal (but short-lived) feudal society
  • Parnel Proud-Heart is the woman who represents pride at the confession of the Seven Deadly Sins.
  • Trajan is the ex-Roman Emperor who lived his life as a non-Christian but was saved from Hell by Saint Gregory
  • Faith is the biblical figure Abraham, whom Will meets while on the road to Jerusalem
  • Hope is Moses, the biblical figure who received the ten commandments from God on Mount Sinai
  • Peace is one of the four daughters of God, alongside her sisters, Mercy, Righteousness, and Truth
  • Lucifer is one of the main devils in Hell
  • Satan is one of the devils in Hell
  • The Devil is one of the devils in Hell

Summary :

In the first dream, the author sees before him a fair field full of people. There are the rich and the poor, workers and idlers, nobles and merchants, unworthy priests, pardoners and jesters. All classes are there. The working people are working hard to plough and sow, but the idlers waste their labour fruit.

The speaker also finds all sorts of parasites. Among them are bishops and deacons, who, instead of preaching to their flocks, become the clerks of the law court. Rule of the Church is given to the cardinals who possess no cardinal virtues at all. There are also other religious idlers called friars, monks, hermits, and the like. All of them tell lies to the people, but a lot of money falls into their pockets.

In his dream, the speaker also notices a group of rats rush upon the scene. They discuss how to get rid of a court cat. One rat proposes that their enemy should be killed. But a mouse says that, even if the cat is killed, another will come in its place. So at last, all of the rats say: “Let that Cat Be.” By using the fable story of the rats, the author exposes the ugly features of the ruling class and sums up the political situation of the time.

In the next dream, the speaker finds Lady Bribery, who is the incarnation of the corruption of the ruling class, and the enemy of Truth. Lady Bribery is going to be married to a man called False Fickle-Tongue. Through the allegory of her marriage, those who are connected with the royal and ecclesiastical court are brought under the lash. The King is enraged at the news of the marriage. And Lady Bribery is asked by the King to wed Conscience. But when Conscience is called to the court, he flatly refuses to marry the lady and sets forth her whole manner of life. Conscience says that Bribery has corrupted the judges, and made it difficult for the poor to get justice. She releases the guilty, throws the just into prison, and hangs the innocent; and she is privy with the Pope, and lives secretly with priests as their concubine. When Lady Bribery is asked to defend herself against these charges, she makes an extremely cunning speech. She says that her intervention in all the relations of life is very necessary and important, and she makes the relationships between master and servant, King and subject, buyer and seller go well. Conscience exposes her fallacies point by point. He says there are two kinds of bribery, one the just reward for service, the other the price of misdoing. What labourers receive is not bribery, but wages; in merchandise, there is not bribery, but exchange.

Lady Bribery has no argument to offer but a misquotation from the Scriptures. She says Solomon declared that those who gave gifts won victory and obtained honour. But Conscience at once reminds her that she has left out the last part of the text: “He that giveth a gift shall have honour, but the soul of them that receive it is bound thereby.” Finally, the King bids them to be reconciled.

Here we can see clearly that the poet tries to lash the corruption of the ruling class and the church with the whip of a satirist. And he also describes the hard life of the poor peasants and shows sympathy to them.

The next part of the poem describes the pilgrimage of the people in search for Truth.

In the confusion, Lady Holy Church appears. She encourages all the people to seek Truth, which is the best thing in the world. But the people say that they can never find the way without a guide, whereupon appears on the scene the hero of the poem, Piers the plowman. Piers the plowman is a simple and honest peasant. Before guiding the people on their pilgrimage, he says that he must fist have his half-acre land ploughed. So he sets all the pilgrims to work in his field. He explains to the people that the best way to find Truth is to take part in labor. In this part, the author praises the dignity of honest labour. He considers that the hard-working farmers are the nearest to Truth.

Social Significance of Piers Plowman
Piers the plowman, the hero of the story, is not a representative of the poor peasants. He is one of the well-to-do peasants. He has no intention of upsetting the feudal order of society, and he accepts the existing social relations. This is the limitation of the poem. In spite of that, Piers Plowman remains a classic in popular literature. It praises the poor peasants, and condemns and exposes the sins of the oppressors. It was very popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. It played an important part in arousing the revolutionary sentiment on the eve of the uprising of 1381 headed by Wat Tyler and John Ball. It gives us a realistic social picture of medieval England.

Artistic Features of the Poem
1) Piers Plowman is written in the form of a dream vision. The author tells the stories under the guise of having dreamed them.
2) The poem is an allegory that relates truth through symbolism.
3) The poet uses indignant satire in his description of social abuses caused by corruption prevailing among the ruling classes, ecclesiastical and secular.
4) The poem is written in alliteration.


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