Piers Plowman Summary

William Langland

Piers Plowman

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Piers Plowman Summary

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“Piers Plowman,” a Middle English poem by William Langland, is a quest that occurs within dream visions that satirize secular and religious figures corrupted by greed. The poem is divided into sections called passus, Latin for step (passus is singular and passi is plural) and means a stage, or the stages, of a journey.

Vision 1

Prologue: Will falls asleep and has a dream where on one side he sees a tower belonging to Truth/God/Heaven, and a valley with a large dungeon representing Hell. In between is this world with its living inhabitants.

Passi 1 – 4: As Will dreams, Holy Church urges Will to seek Truth. There is a conflict between Holy Church and Theology over the nature of Lady Mede. Will sees Lady Mede and finds out about her planned marriage to False. Lady Mede travels to the royal court, and the King proposes she marry Conscience, but Conscience denounces her. Conscience and Reason convince the King not to marry Lady Mede to False. Will wakes up.

Vision 2

Passi 5 – 7: Will dreams that Reason gives a sermon to the Field of Folk and the people decide to repent. The Seven Deadly Sins make a confession, and in penance attempt to go on pilgrimage to Truth. They get lost, and Piers Plowman makes his first appearance: he will help them if they help plough his half-acre. Piers and the penitents plough the half-acre. Some refuse to work, and Hunger punishes them until they do. Once Hunger has been satisfied, the people return to being idle. Eventually, Truth sends Piers a pardon for the penitents’ sins. When challenged on the pardon’s validity by a priest, Piers angrily tears it in two. Will then decides to seek Dowel.

Vision 3

Passi 8 – 12: Will’s search for Dowel begins. He enters into an argument with Friars. He then meets Thought. Thought instructs Will to “Do well, do better, do best.” The interpretation of this is to be provided by Wit. Wit attempts to understand Dowel, and Will meets Wit’s wife, Dame Study. She complains to Will about his ignorance. Will then proceeds to Clergy and Scripture to learn more about Dowel. Scripture complains about Will’s lack of self-knowledge. Will becomes angry and goes into a dream within a dream where he meets Fortune. Will serves her into old age, but she abandons him. Will then learns about the salvation of the Emperor Trajan and the power of love. Will has an argument with Reason, and concludes that Reason does not do enough to keep people from sin, but Reason disagrees. Will wakes from the dream-within-a-dream. He now meets Imaginatif, who advises him to be patient. Imaginatif emphasizes the need for humility and the importance of Grace.

Vision 4

Passi 13 – 14: Will dreams of sharing a feast with Conscience, Scripture, Clergy, and Patience. He also encounters the greedy Doctor of Divinity (who has a disdain for love). Then Conscience and Patience meet Haukyn, who wears a coat of Christian faith, which is soiled with the Seven Deadly Sins. Conscience teaches Haukyn to seek forgiveness and do penance. Patience teaches Haukyn about the merits of embracing poverty. Haukyn then cries out for God’s mercy.

Vision 5

Passi 15 – 17: Will finds himself disconnected from the waking world, but Reason helps him to go back to sleep, where Will meets Anima (or spirit). Anima gets upset with Will for his pride in wanting to know too much, but goes on to talk about charity, in particular how the Church should care for its flock, but how its priests and monks do not always fulfill this duty. Talking to Anima, Will starts to conclude that Piers Plowman is Christ. Will realizes that he needs to switch from searching for Dowel to searching for Charity. Will falls into another dream-within-a-dream, this time about the Tree of Charity, whose gardener is Piers Plowman. Will participates in a reenactment of the Fall of Man and then has a vision of the life of Christ; when this reaches the point where the Devil is defeated, Will wakes up from the dream-within-a-dream. Will goes looking for Piers and meets Faith/Abraham, who is himself searching for Christ. Next, Will meets Hope/Moses, characterized by the tablets of law, who is also in search of Christ. Will learns about the Good Samaritan, the prospect of salvation, and the importance of Love.

Vision 6

Passus 18: Will experiences Love and the intersection of human and divine time. Will witnesses Christ riding into Jerusalem and Christ’s crucifixion. Will wakes up, and now urges his family to attend mass.

Vision 7

Passus 19: During mass, Will falls asleep and sees Conscience. Conscience recounts the life and Passion of Christ. Will finds out about Pentecost, witnesses Pride attacking Unity/Holy Church, and then wakes up.

Vision 8

Passus 20: Will falls asleep and dreams of the Antichrist. Kynde sends Old Age, Death, and Pestilence to chastise people. Will is attacked by Old Age. He witnesses Holy Church undermined by a hypocritical Friar. Conscience goes on pilgrimage to seek Piers Plowman, and calls on Grace for help, whereupon Will wakes up.