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Volume 9, Issue 5: Poetics

Piers Plowman

Douglas Jones


Then I wondered in my wits what woman it might be
Who could show from Holy Scripture such wise words,
And I conjured her in the high name, ere she went away,
To say who she really was that taught me so well.
"I am Holy Church," she said, "you ought to know me:
I befriended you first and taught the faith to you.
You gave me gages to be guided by my teaching
And to love me loyally while your life lasts." So begins one of the earliest scenes in Piers Plowman, that engaging medieval dream allegory (c. 1380 A.D.) attributed to William Langland. This now often neglected poem presents one of the best corridors into late medieval life. One commentator suggests that, "Piers Plowman is in many ways more representative of its time than Chaucer's poetry. It is hard to think of any other work that so strikingly opens a window on the Middle Ages and offers such a record of what it felt like to live and work and think with the constraints, channels, and possibilities of the period." As such, the poem also captures so many of the values which make up the vision of Medieval Protestantism expressed in this issue.

The poem is thoroughly medieval in its values and its mistakes, but like most medievalism it is a dialogue headed in the right direction, full of promise and beauty. It shares so many proto-Protestant concerns that it was read hundreds of years later in the Reformation as a prophecy of that time. And many of the poem's hopes for change become those of the Reformers, especially its emphasis on social mercy and care for the poor.
The poem is a sequential collection of eight dream-visions of the narrator, a wandering pilgrim "watching for wonders" yet "weary of wandering." The visions begin with an overview of England at that time with all its vitality and color and failures. The visions are also allegorical--the dominant medieval narrative form--and the narrator, Will, observes encounters between Reason, Mercy, Holy Church, Anger, and others. The mention of allegory usually makes moderns yawn, because we've seen so much bad allegory. But Langland's personifications take on a depth and dimensionality so often lost in later works. These characters are not plain plates, like some of those in Pilgrim's Progress; these personifications are very human in their self-contradictions, earthiness, and honesty. In fact, the poem is described by some commentators as one of the most complex portrayals of how the mind works. The poem is grappling with all the fundamental theological, economic, political, and personal questions of late medieval life. It requires many readings and meditations to start to fathom its treasures.
Though the narrator is the dominant eye and bearer of the visions, the contrasting character, Piers Plowman, plays mysteriously throughout as the goal, the one pursued in the visions. If we think in terms of a comparison with Dante, the narrator in Piers Plowman would be wandering alone through the inferno longing for a Vergil or a Beatrice. Piers Plowman himself is a sort of holy, earthy combination of Vergil and Beatrice, though never strictly a guide, more a savior sought. Piers begins as a quiet, unassuming farmer who knows the way to Truth, yet he becomes far more complex as the visions progress, until we see him as one identified with Christ's human nature--regenerate, mature humanity moving through history amidst papal corruptions, clerical hypocrisy, political intrigue, and peasant vices.
In the narrator's journey, we encounter the most fascinating details of medieval thinking. The narrator speaks to many themes, some directly, some in passing, and we encounter most of the values of the vision of Medieval Protestantism--beauty, antithesis, celebration, agrarianism, anti-papalism, family love, one holy Church, faith, loyalty, and a triumphant vision of the future.
In the prologue, the narrator sees and foresees, "friars there--all four orders--/ Preaching to the people for their own paunches welfare, / Making glosses of the Gospel that would look good for themselves;/ . . . . Unless Holy Church and friars' orders hold together better, / The worst misfortune in the world will be welling up soon." The immediate future is full of despair and gloom; at the end, the narrator sees "Antichrist and his followers will grieve the world, / and crush you, Conscience, unless Christ helps you. / . . . . And pride shall be Pope, Prince of Holy Church, Covetousness and Unkindness cardinal to lead him." But in the long term, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares / . . . . There shall be no battles, and no man bear weapon, / And the middle of a moon shall make Jew convert, / And for that sight Saracens [Muslims] shall sing Gloria in excelsis."
In a large part of the poem, the narrator is given an overview of biblical history, and when the account comes to the crucifixion, we read a fascinating argument between Righteousness/Truth and Mercy/Peace, an argument delving into the apparently inscrutable conflict between the demands of God's holiness and His love. How can a holy God forgive, a question which fueled the Reformation. The crucifixion is the answer: "And as Adam and all died through a tree / Adam and all through a tree return to life, / . . . . Many hundreds of angels harped and sang, / Flesh sins, flesh redeems, flesh reigns as God of God. / . . . . Mercy and Truth have met together; / Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other."
Piers Plowman is a wonderful medieval friend to find. It won't satisfy with just a quick skimming, but give it time and meditation. Treat it medievally.

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