Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Piers Plowman

Rate this book
Piers Plowman is one of the most significant works of medieval literature. Astonishing in its cultural and theological scope, William Langland’s iconoclastic masterpiece is at once a historical relic and a deeply spiritual vision, probing not only the social and religious aristocracy but also the day-to-day realities of a largely voiceless proletariat class. E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation of the text has been selected for this Norton Critical Edition because of its skillful emulation of the original poem’s distinct alliterative verse. Selections of the authoritative Middle English text are also included for comparative analysis. "Sources and Backgrounds" includes a large collection of contemporary religious and historical documents pertaining to the poem, including selections from the Douai Bible, accounts of the plague, and legal statutes. "Criticism" includes twenty interpretive essays by leading medievalists, among them E. Talbot Donaldson, George Kane, Jill Mann, Derek Pearsall, C. David Benson, and Elizabeth D. Kirk. A Glossary and Selected Bibliography are also included.

672 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1360

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

William Langland

169 books26 followers
William Langland, (born c. 1330—died c. 1400), presumed author of one of the greatest examples of Middle English alliterative poetry, generally known as Piers Plowman, an allegorical work with a complex variety of religious themes.

One of the major achievements of Piers Plowman is that it translates the language and conceptions of the cloister into symbols and images that could be understood by the layman. In general, the language of the poem is simple and colloquial, but some of the author’s imagery is powerful and direct.

Little is known of Langland’s life: he is thought to have been born somewhere in the region of the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, and if he is to be identified with the “dreamer” of the poem, he may have been educated at the Benedictine school in Great Malvern. References in the poem suggest that he knew London and Westminster as well as Shropshire, and he may have been a cleric in minor orders in London.

Langland clearly had a deep knowledge of medieval theology and was fully committed to all the implications of Christian doctrine. He was interested in the asceticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and his comments on the defects of churchmen and the religious in his day are nonetheless concomitant with his orthodoxy.


Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
611 (20%)
4 stars
777 (26%)
3 stars
993 (33%)
2 stars
431 (14%)
1 star
142 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 137 reviews
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,890 followers
September 26, 2019
Piers Plowman is a 14th century middle English poem, it comes down to us in 60 manuscripts in four versions logically known as A, B, C and Z . In the 16th century it appeared in print, today you can read in it in translation (verse or prose) or in middle English with gloss, glossary, or facing page translation, in a melange of the different versions or a facsimile of a single one.

The poem itself consists mostly of dream visions, which since I am of the Bagpuss generation, has great appeal to me. Now I have dreamt many a dreamy dream but never as the poet here in the middle of a dream dreamt a new dream nested inside the first dream. Naturally this is pretty tiring, so it happens that surfacing from his dreams the poet doesn't stumble so far before he must settle down to dream about the dreamy dream he dreamt while dreaming. Also the general idea of wandering about and settling down to get lost in dreams also appeals deeply.

This being the fourteenth century there aren't quite so many things to dream about as there are today, although he does manage to dream about the emperor Trajan and Cato in the context of his principal dream which is a vision of Christian society, the nature of this dream is such that he needs to have many more dreams about it to fully understand what he dreamt about in his dream while dreaming.

The guiding figure cutting the farrow for all to follow in his fair vision is Piers the Ploughman, he is humble, hunger his companion drives him to work and growing food is good for everybody, he serves Truth. Here already you may notice the poem has drifted in to controversial territory. Though the Gospel says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven Christianity as actually practised has generally taken the opposite view, you may recall the fuss around St Francis of Assisi and his gang of begging Friars and their attempt to reject ownership and property or perhaps you have read In the name of the Rose in which this issue comes up (along with poisoned books, murders and improper sexual relationships).

It reminds me of Everyman in how virtues and similar abstractions become characters with whom the narrator interacts in his dream, but also in its vivid theatricality. Eventually the story gets round to retelling the Passion of Christ and the Medieval favourite the harrowing of Hell thereafter, Satan speaks with one of his mates , saying that he would rather have kept Christ alive longer to delay his visit to hell and the revenge he will take, and indeed chivalrously Christ binds Satan in chains to make him pay for the lies he told Eve these passages had the flavour of a performance at Easter time on a stage before the Cathedral. It is no surprise though that it is not better know, even considering the Evangelical tastes of a slice of American Culture, no there will be no Piers Plowman film, nor epic all action cartoon series because the Antichrist's chief ally is Covetousness and covetousness is the basis and chief support of our consumer economy. Whither Capitalism if we weren't all prey to coveting our neighbour's HD TV or shiny new car?

To combat the Antichrist and his minions the faithful cry unto God who brings down the plague upon the world and the verse is full of festering boils - this was written in the age of the Black Death, I recall from lectures being taught that an effect of the plague was a new emphasis in Art on the dying Christ and the grief of Mary over her poor boy, if this is true or not I don't know, Medieval art can be difficult to date so precisely, but there is something of that urgency in this poem, this is a world adrift, the institutional Church which was meant to save souls was itself lost in corruption in Avignon , England was a realm at War - not always pursued with intense seriousness admittedly, but there were violent men with new found fortunes, recruitment and disruption, it was an uneasy period of time.

Here the humble ploughman is next to God and poverty the ideal state as it offers so many protections against sin, in the poet's view when you are poor how can you be proud? It is the rich and the powerful one must beware of here, the poem is explicitly socially and politically critical. The Church, the law courts, and the King's court are all prone to corruption and evil doing.

The sense of the poet's wanderings, awake and asleep, are beautiful as are the sudden lyrical descriptions of birds and animals in the landscape, this is why when asked where do I see myself in five year's time one of my answers tends to be speaking middle English. The brain I find reads sideways to work with the unfamiliar flow of the flowers of the speech of the commune of England six hundred and more years ago.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,217 reviews1,964 followers
February 19, 2023
3.25 stars
“And on a May morning, on Malvern hills,
Strange fancies befell me, and fairy-like dreams.
I was weary of wand'ring, and went to repose
On a broad green bank, by a burn-side”
I was thankfully spared from studying this at school. It was written by William Langland, most likely, in the 1370s, in Middle English. There are three different versions (inevitably a, b and c texts) and over fifty surviving manuscripts. This makes establishing a definitive text difficult, although modern translations are based on the B text. There is disagreement as to whether it is finished or not. It is split into twenty sections, known as Passus. The Passus are split into eight visions. It is effectively unrhymed poetry, alliterative verse.
We know very little about Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Langland’s influence was more of an underground one. It was certainly cited during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 by John Ball and was a point for radical and reformist tendencies until well into the sixteenth century. It has also been postulated that the figure of Piers the Plowman predates Langland and Ball and that both made use of him. It has been ignored for long periods, but there has been a resurgence recently.
There is a great deal about the culture, structure and practice of the Church. That is a given and I suspect a decent knowledge of how the medieval church worked does help. There are periodic and much more interesting (for me) glimpses of everyday life and nature. It is well known that the author had a knowledge of the Malvern Hills. There is also one of the earliest written references to the Robin Hood folklore.
It is certainly a critique of the medieval Church, with strong attacks on the industry around purchasing pardons, corruption and wealth. There is also comment about those without power:
“poor men have no power to express their needs even though they are hurting”
There is a celebration of the honesty of those who labour for a living and much criticism of those who keep them poor and wanting. The strongest and most positively portrayed character is Piers Plowman, an honest labourer who is shown as a good Christian soul, dismissive of the pomp and ceremony of the Church. Labour itself represents an act of faith. Piers insist that any who want to go on pilgrimage with him Plough half an acre of land. It is easy to see why he appealed to the rebels involved in the Peasant’s Revolt.
It was written in a period of rapid change following the plague years mid-century and it engages with the religious and social issues of the time.
Without some basic understanding of medieval England and the Church this could be very tedious. There are clearly radical tendencies within it and I don’t have enough knowledge to understand whether the translations maximise or minimise that tendency; although I could probably guess.
Profile Image for Antonomasia.
977 reviews1,220 followers
December 31, 2020
Penguin Classics edition in modern English, translated by Frank Goodridge

This may sound daft to anyone whose first acquaintance with Piers Plowman was as compulsory reading during an Eng Lit degree - so probably most people who've read it - but I had no idea quite how religious it was.

For at least twenty-five years, without reading the whole text, I'd thought of it as an interesting historical source about everyday life in late medieval England, because that's how it's quoted in history books. It absolutely does have passages like that - it was fun finding fully in context that famous earliest known reference to Robin Hood (as the subject of ballads sung in taverns by a lazy priest).

There are details of medieval poverty by someone well-acquainted with them and not that well off himself, horribly vivid in a way they wouldn't have been from someone further up the social scale and removed from this world:

For whatever they save by spinning they spend on rent, or on milk and oatmeal to make gruel and fill the bellies of their children who clamour for food. And they themselves are often famished with hunger, and wretched with the miseries of winter – cold, sleepless nights, when they get up to rock the cradle cramped in a corner, and rise before dawn to card and comb the wool, to wash and scrub and mend, and wind yarn and peel rushes for their rushlights.

This sounds like the voice of experience, or at least a first-hand witness:
Though he longs for good ale, he must go to his chill bedding, and lie uncomfortably huddled with his bare head askew; and when he tries to stretch his legs, he finds only straw for sheets. So he suffers a heavy penance for gluttony and sloth – the wretchedness of waking up crying with the cold, or weeping perhaps for his sins.

Just when you think those are over and it's all catechism now, there appears another occasional great detail.

It is, though, a great guide to the medieval Christian mindset and some common religious views of how one best ought to live - which many, of course, did not practice - via an eccentric, poorly-paid, implicitly Lollard-sympathising cleric. But this still makes it of much more interest for students of late medieval and Reformation history in England and Western Europe, than for people who have minimal background on the topic who are intent on studying literature. Is this still shoved at English students who haven't done A-level medieval or Reformation/Tudor history, or without a similar level of knowledge? Because it shouldn't be. No wonder they are bored. A lot of what's interesting in the religious content of the book (which will also make more sense if you were brought up in some form of Christianity, making it a far from universal text now), is in seeing what you've been told about popular opinion on the late medieval church reflected in a long primary source, written in a far more interesting fashion than a chronicle.

If it's a while since you formally studied the Reformation, this will bring all those specialist terms, like anticlericalism, indulgences and simony, flooding back. For all that I've seen examples from Piers Plowman used for social history, I don't think I've ever seen it mentioned that Langland advocated taking land and riches away from the clergy (who should then live on tithes) and giving it to the nobility - that this was an idea that had been floating around for over 150 years by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It was always made to sound like it was Henry's own shocking and venal strategy he and his ministers dreamed up, and I was using older university-level textbooks by historians such as Geoffrey Elton and John Guy, not vague popular history or schoolbooks. In Piers Plowman, this proposal for a forcible transfer of ownership is rooted in the three estates concept, which many contemporary historians consider has fairly limited application, but Langland is one of those cases where it's obviously relevant. He says that nobles have jobs to do as part of the social contract: they must defend from marauders, hunt animals who'd consume the peasants' crops, and are more appropriate custodians of land so that the clergy don't become corrupted by material concerns. There has generally been too much of a medieval/early modern tide wall, when the early modernists could have learned more about their era from going back in detail another couple of hundred years or more; this must have been one of the things that was stopped by it.

It has been interesting to contemplate the morality and politics in Piers Plowman and its marked similarities to and differences from today, when it really, really doesn't fit into one neat box on the political spectrum. Its concern with the poor, and reiteration that the rich (in both the church and lay worlds) are appalling and excessive, might find sympathy with contemporary socialists - yet its hardline conservatism about social structures and roles, both class and gender-based - part of the Great Chain of Being would be abhorrent to the same. Sometimes simple commoners are praised as naturally wise and admirable; at others society has much to learn from scholars - not very different from the aggressive jostling of viewpoints about the value of similar groups in recent years. But what stands out most in comparison to modern Anglo (predominantly secular) culture is the degree of concern with the afterlife - that's what really matters and actions in this world matter because of their consequences for the soul after death. If you don't read a lot of material like this and it doesn't grate on you, the change of orientation is rather fascinating to see. The focus on material poverty, or at best modesty, is particularly stringent and bracing when, online, it is common to run into content by or for Christians who are materially very comfortable and plan to stay that way. Langland essentially sees the rich as trading temporary wealth in this life for a far longer worse fate in the next, and even a morally good rich person essentially has points taken off.

I'd always found allegory-that-is-hardly-an-allegory (where the names are unchanged) deadly boring, in any form longer than the kids' picture book of Pilgrim's Progress I read a couple of times. So I was disappointed when I saw Piers Plowman was actually one of those; I always thought Piers literally was a ploughman, and that his life was among the text's main subjects; I imagined a sort of verbal, demotic, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry - but he, with his shifting identity (one of the more curious literary elements of the text) variously represents St Peter, Christ and/or Christian teaching. I don't know how much is because I've changed and how much is down to Langland and Goodridge as writers but, I found the Dreamer's journey and encounters with allegorical personages such as Lady Fee, Conscience and Charity as interesting as an old story with what to us are now 'normal' characters, and more interesting than I'd have expected to find a medieval chivalric romance about knights higher up the social scale. I found myself thinking about and visualising the characters as if they were people and wondering what might happen. I assumed it must end similarly to Pilgrim's Progress (which I'd never heard described as a descendant of Piers, perhaps because I'd not read much detailed commentary on medieval & early modern religious literature) - but there isn't an ending! How had I never heard that the text was unfinished or the ending lost? I'd owned a copy of the Everyman edition for over ten years and browsed through it, and seen all those references, yet not this info.

At first the text struck me as peevish and negative (though marginally less harsh in tone the beginning of Oxford World's Classics modern English version) and this was more disappointing than any of the above. It didn't really feel wise or generous, but closer in register to hearing some populist conservative bloke on a pub rant about the youth of today, women, rich arseholes etc etc. I regretted not being up to reading the original at a decent speed, because it felt like this wasn't the spirit of the text I'd heard about. But I got used to it, or it became a little less mean in tone, or there was more explanation for it - and soon it all made complete sense as part of the lead-up to the Reformation and the fermenting discontent with the Church. Langland may be strongly in favour of the old social hierarchy, but in his focus on poverty, and the poor as inherently morally better than the rich, I think you can arguably see glimmerings of the radical groups of the English Civil Wars like Diggers and Levellers, and, even while he lambasts greedy post Black Death labourers who demand higher wages, his underlying ethos is close to slogans of the Peasants' Revolt such as "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?" and "With King Richard and the true commons of England".

Every time I finish an old text like this - something I'd been meaning to read for 20+ years about which I used to put myself in the bind of "someone like me should read the original" coupled with "but I'm not really up to reading the original now, at least not at a speed I'd enjoy" - I'm grateful to MJ's 2013 post about The Canterbury Tales for saying "I wouldn’t learn German to read Goethe". The phrase broke the deadlock, coming as it did from someone who enjoyed Finnegan's Wake and stacks of other difficult modern novels. And thanks once again to that, I have finally read Piers Plowman.

At time of writing I haven't quite finished the volume (notes) and am only posting this because of the newsfeed glitch that means reviews are taking seven or eight hours to appear in the feed after posting, and because it's the end of the year. (I wanted to have the review up by the end of the year.) I expect to have finished the book by the end of the day.

(December 2020)
Profile Image for Robert.
817 reviews44 followers
January 26, 2010
After approximately a year of wading through Middle-English alliterative verse at an average rate of approximately one page per day, I have finally come to the end of The Vision of Piers Plowman. So was it worth it?

Yes! It is by some stretch my most ambitious undertaking in regard to reading Middle-English; I have not read two of the Canterbury Tales together and have only read about half of it (by number of lines - many fewer than half the Tales) and that's the limit of my Chaucer. I've never tackled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original and although I have read most of Malory, it is prose and more recent and again, not read as one big lump. Piers Plowman is not merely longer, though - it is, despite Langland being contemporary with Chaucer, fundamentally more difficult because the dialect is not Chaucer's. The London dialect went on to become the dominant one in the development from Middle to Modern English and is therefore somewhat easier for the modern reader. The concentration required and necessary time spent reading glosses and notes was rewarded, however. (It is slow going when one can only tackle it before going to sleep - hence one year to do it justice.)

The Vision of Piers Plowman is a Christian allegory and a deeply serious, heart-felt as well as intellectual one. Langland uses the older Alliterative verse style rather than adopting the new-fangled rhyming, iambic schemes as Chaucer did. I am a fan of this approach to narrative verse as it adds colour and interest (makes the story poetic!) without the risk of the unvaried rhythm of iambic metre sending one to snooze-land prematurely. Alliterative verse forms have strict rules, just as iambic metres do and it takes considerable skill to compose in them.

The seriousness and evident profound feeling behind the poem stands in stark contrast to the Canterbury Tales (insofar as I've read them) even though there are some themes in common. No matter where one stands regarding the debate about whether Chaucer's "very parfit gentle knyght" is being satirised or not, it is clear that the Tales in general are full of satire and humour and the various types of clergy are presented as a corrupt, greedy, hypocritical lot. Chaucer seems not to have much anger behind his satire, though - the Tales seem something of a frivolous entertainment. When Langland tackles such folk as friers and pardoners they come in for a metaphorical roasting and it is plain that he expects most of them to experience a literal one after Judgement Day. The only other Middle English poem I've read (in Tolkien's translation) that competes for expressing deep feeling on the part of its author is Pearl - another dream-vision, about the author's grief at the loss of a young daughter. Piers Plowman is on an altogether bigger scale, though. In a series of dreams (and dreams within dreams, which can get tricky to keep track of at one page a day) not only is a Utopian society envisaged, but every major question of Christian theology is addressed as the spiritual progress of both Piers and the dreamer are chronicled right up to the final battle between good and evil forces within humanity...

The prologue starts things of with an exciting little story where rats, mice and a cat take the place of nobles, commoners and the King. Matters continue apace and rather wittily with the Marriage of Mede, which gets tangled up in legal battles and corrupt practice. Later Piers sets up his farm and barn, eventually to be the scene of the dramatic finale. Most of this is lively and the narrative helps drag one through the worst difficulties of the language. (One learns as one progresses - once you know that "ac" means "but" it isn't a problem at future encounters, for example.)

Piers wanders off on a pilgrimage at about the half-way point as he believes he needs to understand the Biblical message better. The proceeding third or so of the poem is easily the most dull and dry as it descends into a series of theological discussions usually expounded by various characters quoting liberal quantities of Latin at each other. These matters were evidently important to Langland (and to many intellectual Christians, I suspect) but the excitement of the initial quarter of the poem becomes a distant memory. Things pick up again with the appearance of the Actyf Man (I love that name) and steadily accelerate to an Apocalyptic conclusion worthy of a poem of such scale and ambition.

We are lucky to have as much Middle English literature as we do and this work is a fine example of it: read it if you are a Christian, or if your interest in poetry will withstand 362 pages requiring total focus.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
Author 3 books61 followers
December 8, 2020
I love this book so much. I relate so to the deep confusion that comes in the pilgrim's search to Do-Well, Do-Better, Do-Best--and above all to find Piers, to know and do true love. It is a marvelous poem of vocation. Should Will write? Even with all the helping that needs done? What should he do next? What should he ever do? It would be well worth reading in a seminar type class on enduring questions, thinking through the "how do I know what I should do?" type thing. Especially meaningful, too, and less acknowledged in vocational type conversations) is its thinking through the topic of sin and how it is both individual and systemic and cosmic--emergent, even.
OH, and update: just thought of this, though it wasn't where I went this read-through. This is a GREAT poem for people struggling with the church and all its, ahem, brokenness.

I feel affinity with the mixing of high and low diction in the narration of the story, how Will's learning and imagination don't too far separate him from the sort of work and community that uses simpler and even vulgar language. I laughed, soared, mourned, felt the sting of conscience--all of it.

I read Piers first some 23 years ago, and had these flashes, reading it this time, remembering the killer lines and the way they electrified then--and still do. Here, in translation, was the most memorable passage...
Lo, hell might not hold, but opened when God suffered,
ANd let out Simeon's sons to see him hang on Cross.
And now shall Lucifer believe it, loath though he is,
For Jesus like a giant with an engine comes yonder
To break and beat down all that may be against him,
And to have out of hell every one he pleases.
And I, Book, will be burnt unless Jesus rises to life
In all the mights of a man and brings his mother joy,
And comforts all his kin, and takes their cares away...

The alliterative long line in Middle English--and in translation! (Good job, Donaldson!)--is heady and memorable, attractive. I keep thinking of illustrations, tapestry or stitchery that would render bits.

-What a tree took away, a tree shall restore

-Of Kind* and of his cleverness, and how courteous he is to beasts

- ...no sin may prevent
Mercy from amending everything if Meekness go with her

-Do-Well in this world is wedded people who live truly,
For they must toil to take their bread and to sustain the world.

-Keep mercy in your mind and with your mouth beseech it.

-And all the wickedness in this world that one could do or think
Is no more to the mercy of God than a spark amid the sea.

This edition is remarkable, though I do think an updated (and clearer) summary of the action of the text would be exceedingly helpful to orient students--they've recycled one from Donaldson, but we can help more, I think. . I mean, yes yes, we want to experience Will's bewilderment, but come on.

Also, it might help to read this with people. Around Passus VIII, I ran into the local medievalist in my department, and we had an IMPROMPTU TWO HOUR CONVERSATION, MASKED, about it. And I texted him a bunch of times after, too. Notable texts I sent: "Dame Study is a Brick House." "Oh my gosh, Piers Plowman is HARROWING (pun totes intended). Just when I get over chiding myself for being a little Doctoural in Passus XIIi, I realize I might be (okay, am) Active Man, which is by far the worse! But at least the lines “And [demeth] that Do-Wel and Do-Bet aren two infinites / Which infinites with a faith finder out Do-best” are SO awesome. We could live there, all of us, which is, I presume, what Piers intends. Also, I think there’s a missing quotation mark in the modern translation of XIII. 362."

Culpat caro, purgat caro, regnat Deus Dei caro.
Profile Image for Sarah.
396 reviews41 followers
July 29, 2016
"As on a walnot withoute is a bitter barke,
And after that bitter barke, be the shelle aweye,
Is a kirnelle of conforte kynde to restore.
So is after poverte or penaunce pacientlyche y-take:
Maketh a man to have mynde in Gode and a grete wille
To wepe and to wel bydde, whereof wexeth mercy,
Of which Cryst is a kirnelle to conforte the soule."
-Passus XI Lines 260-266

I'm rewriting this review since I've had a lot more experience with medieval literature up to this point and I really can't help but feel like maybe I was somewhat wrong about Piers Plowman. So here is my current opinion on it, I suppose.

Piers Plowman is, without a doubt, one of the single most difficult works I have ever read. Sure, the language is tricky, but one can expect that out of a work in Middle English. It's nowhere as challenging on a linguistic level as something like Gawain and the Green Knight, for example. The challenging part about this work is that it is one of the most complex ways the "allegorical dream" trope has ever been used. This is a common element of most literature of the time, but in this case it's done in such a complex way that I'm impressed and intimidated at the same time.

To go into more detail, I should begin by saying that not only are there dreams, but there are dreams inside of other dreams, which basically bends the reality of what is actually happening and what is not happening. This makes Piers very hard to grasp, but easy to appreciate just for its large scope.

I think when I originally read this, it gave me a huge headache and thus I was not sure what to think once I finished. But since I've had a lot of time to think about it, I appreciate Langland's work quite a lot. This is a very cryptic work, yet the concept is so eerily echoed in more well-known works such as The Pilgrim's Progress.

Certainly a staple of medieval literature for any aficionado. I do advise you to tread carefully, though. You might get a bit lost in the dreams in this case.
Profile Image for Douglas Wilson.
Author 300 books3,652 followers
September 18, 2016
Fascinating glimpse of a very different mental world. I was particularly struck by this very medieval assumption that the Antichrist was going to form in the papacy.
Profile Image for David Sarkies.
1,813 reviews315 followers
April 28, 2015
A medieval allegory of the Christian Journey
10 September 2010

My first impression of this book was that it reminded me a lot of Pilgrims' Progress, however it is nowhere near as simple or as straight forward as John Bunyan's text. In fact, having been written three hundred years earlier, not only does the text need to be translated, the period in which it was written is vastly different. Where Pilgrim's Progress is about a man's Christian journey, Piers the Ploughman is about a man who goes on an allegorical travel through the dream world to learn the truth of Christianity.

The world during Langland's time was a vastly different place. While Southern Europe was enjoying the fruits of the Renaissance, England was still a backward medieval realm at war with France. Corruption was rife and the gap between rich and poor was immense. Literacy was low and the black death had begin to ravage the land. Much of this can be picked up from Piers as the world that he describes is not a nice place. However it needs to be considered that due to the low literacy levels, the only people at the time who would have read Piers the Ploughman were the very people that Langland was attacking.

One of the very noticeable things about this story is that the author simply hates wealth. In fact one of his points seems to be that wealth gets in the way of one truly coming to know God. Obviously the Reformation was still two hundred years away, so there is still a lot of Catholic doctrine permeating the book, but it is also quite noticeable that one of the institutions that is attacked is the church. In fact this story seems to be laying the groundwork for the Reformation that was to come.

This book can be very difficult to follow as the allegory is quite thick and it does not move in a singular direction as does Pilgrim's Progress. The central theme is 'how is a man saved' and one of the answers is to turn away from wealth. However we must remember the proverb where the writer asks God not to make him too poor least he be forced to steal and thus dishonour God's name. Piers the Ploughman does not seem to consider that aspect and sees poverty as a way to salvation. Wealth brings with it countless temptations, and thus the only way to flee those temptations is to flee wealth. Without wealth then these temptations are meaningless. Obviously there is always the sin of covetousness, however in those days when one was poor there was no way to escape that poverty.

On the other hand to us living in our wealthy society it is a very uncomfortable book to read. In fact there are many here who dread being without a car, or a television, or even electricity, yet still a majority of the world (even within Australia) must do without these luxuries. There was, or still is, a scheme to get a computer into the hands of some of the poorest people in the world, but I think that that is ridiculous. These people want to feed themselves (and we throw away crate loads of food on a daily basis) and we want to give them a computer. There was a time that I believed that owning a computer would solve a lot of my problems (and maybe, if I had got my hands on a computer back then things may have been different), however while computers may be useful, but they cannot put seed in the ground, make the seed grow, and thus provide a food supply. They say give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Once again, true in principle, but when some of the most powerful people in the world seek to profit from the poverty of others, and the fact that our oceans are being overfished, then it is not necessarily as simple as that.
Profile Image for Matthew74.
3 reviews
January 24, 2013
This is a very difficult book! The work is composed of a series of allegorical dream visions and visions within visions. On the first reading it is hard to identify any clear structure, but the lack of clarity is in part a literary device meant to present the reader with the same confusion as the dreamer/narrator, or Piers Plowman experiences. It is not always clear whether what the characters say is to be believed, although some are more trustworthy than others. Each vision and conversation is intended to consider ethical questions and the nature of the spiritual life from different perspectives, none of which is wholly adequate in itself. The author gets the reader to work through a series of problems which lead to a greater understanding of difficult subjects and ultimately to greater spiritual maturity.

The work is sophisticated theologically, and it is advisable for readers not thoroughly familiar with Holy Scripture to look up each of the passages quoted, since they are only quoted in part. All are identified in the footnotes. An understanding of Medieval and/or Patristic theology and practice is required, but with reflection can also be gained by reading the work. Piers Plowman may be a forerunner to the Reformation, but it is by no means anti-clerical or anti-Church. It is very critical of corruption in the Church (especially anything having to do with money, mendicant orders, and indulgences), but does so from a well founded and very traditional point of view. This Roberson/Shepherd edition contains a number of critical essays (130 pages), including a useful summary, and many translated excepts of relevant primary sources (123 pages). There is a very short glossary. The facing Middle English, and modern translation format is great. The footnotes are excellent. There is no glossing of the Middle English text, although there is of course a translation on the opposite page.
Profile Image for Paul Gaya Ochieng Simeon Juma.
617 reviews36 followers
June 13, 2019
I think this is the only book written by William Langland. What I love so much about it is his discontent with the earth as it is. Its inhabitants are narrowly concerned about the welfare of others while caring so much about themselves. Langland is greatly disturbed by this state of affairs and tries to teach and encourage his fellow beings to shoulder the burdens of one another and help our fellow creatures in the spirit of friendship. Those were strenuous times, and indeed they still are. That is why Langland's book is very relevant today.
Profile Image for Gitta.
100 reviews65 followers
November 7, 2017
Piers Plowman is a difficult text to read and to attempt to understand. Personally, I prefer reading it in a modern prose version instead of poetry.
The poetry maintained its original Middle English alliteration, which made it very beautiful to read aloud, but difficult to understand the arguments made.
Profile Image for Annie.
19 reviews
July 7, 2012
This was my first real taste of medieval literature, and I enjoyed it! Mainly I liked this book's alliterative poetic style, and its unique look at the doctrines of the Christian church in the form of allegorical characters. I read the Donaldson alliterative verse translation, with edits and notes by Kirk and Anderson, so the language and spelling was modern, though not unnecessarily so. The notes were tasteful and helpful-- they boosted my understanding of what was happening, and introduced me to some unfamiliar medieval words.

The book contains a series of dreams that start with a criticism of the Roman Catholic church (the book was written in the 1300s or 1400s), and merges into the narrator's desire to find and learn from Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best in order to be truly righteous. On the way, he meets Piers Plowman, a name that shows that he is "everyman's man," ("Piers"= Peter, "Plowman" = Layman-farmer), who gathers up a few people who also desire righteousness and justice, but realize that it cannot be necessarily found in the externalistic, fleshly customs of the Roman church. What's really exciting is when Piers Plowman begins to reveal himself gradually through some of his words and actions, that He is the Son of Man, and the Son of God, and it is He whose grace helps us to Do-Well, Do-Better, and finally, to Do-Best.

Though the book dragged on a bit in the middle (it's not really organized, or supposed to be), the climax in Passus XVIII at the cross of Christ was thrilling and well worth the slower middle. In this section I found the quotes that had originally led me to this book: quotes of the sisters Mercy, Righteousness, Truth, and Peace debating over which one of them would triumph at the cross. Here is a close-up look at this section that I enjoyed so much:

(Quote beginning on p. 204)
Where out of the west a wench, as I thought,
Came walking on the way—she looked toward hell.
Mercy was that maid's name, a meek thing withal,
A most gracious girl, and goodly of speech.
Her sister as it seemed came softly walking
Out of the east, opposite, and she looked westward,
A comely creature and cleanly: Truth was her name.
Because of the virtue that followed her, she was afraid of nothing.
When these maidens met, Mercy and Truth,
Each of them asked the other about this great wonder,
And of the din and of the darkness, and how the day lowered,
And what a gleam and a glint glowed before hell.
"I marvel at this matter, by my faith," said Truth,
"And am coming to discover what this queer affair means."
"Do not marvel," said Mercy, "it means only mirth.
... Since this baby was born it has been thirty winters,
Who died and suffered death this day about midday.
And that is the cause of this eclipse that is closing off the sun,
In meaning that man shall be removed from darkness
While this gleam and this glow go to blind Lucifer.
For patriarchs and prophets have preached of this often
That man shall save man through a maiden's help,
And what a tree took away a tree shall restore,
And what Death brought down a death shall raise up."
"What you're telling," said Truth, "is just a tale of nonsense.
For Adam and Eve and Abraham and the rest,
Patriarchs and prophets imprisoned in pain,
Never believe that yonder light will lift them up,
Or have them out of hell—hold your tongue, Mercy!
Your talk is mere trifling. I, Truth, know the truth,
For whatever is once in hell, it comes out never.

(A longer debate ensues here, until they are joined by Peace and Righteousness)

...said Mercy, "I see here to the south
Where Peace clothed in patience comes sportively this way.
Love has desired her long: I believe surely
That Love has sent her some letter, what this light means
That hangs over hell thus: she will tell us what it means."
When Peace clothed in patience approached near them both,
Righteousness did her reverence for her rich clothing
And prayed Peace to tell her to what place she was going...
"My wish is to take my way," said she, "and welcome them all
Whom many a day I might not see for murk of sin.
Adam and Eve and the many other in hell,
Moses and many more will merrily sing,
And I shall dance to their song: sister do the same.
Because Jesus jousted well, joy begins to dawn.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Love who is my lover sent letters to tell me
That my sister Mercy and I shall save mankind,
And that God has forgiven and granted me, Peace, and Mercy
To make bail for mankind for evermore after.

Then they observe and discuss Christ's work on the cross, and what it means for all mankind, from the Old Testament patriarchs, to those who are yet to be born, drawing all sorts of analogies and allegories based on jousting and warfare, light and darkness, and the ripe wine of the passion of Christ ("For I who am Lord of Life, love is my drink/And for that drink today I died upon earth...When I shall drink really ripe wine, Resurrectio mortuorum./And then I shall come as a king crowned with angels/And have out of hell all men's souls./ Fiends and Fiendkinds shall stand before me/And be at my bidding, where best it pleases me.)

Peace continues to argue for the efficacy of the cross, showing a paradox that God causes storms so that serene weather is appreciated, and ugliness in the world so that Beauty would stand in sharper contrast:

Then Peace piped a note of poetry:
"As a rule the sun is brighter after the biggest cloud;
After hostilities love is brighter.
After sharp showers," said Peace, "the sun shines brightest;
No weather is warmer than after watery clouds;
Nor any love lovelier, or more loving friends,
Than after war and woe when Love and Peace are masters.
There was never war in this world nor wickedness so sharp
That Love, if he liked, might not make a laughing matter."

[Then comes the best part, which anybody who knows the scriptures will have been waiting for...]

"Truce!" said Truth, "you tell the truth, by Jesus!
Let's kiss in covenant and each of us clasp other."
"And let no people," said Peace, "perceive that we argued;
For nothing is impossible to him that is almighty."
"You speak the truth," said Righteousness, and reverently kissed her, Peace,
And Peace her, per saecula saeculorum:
"Mercy and Truth have met together; Righteousness and Peace
have kissed each other."
Truth sounded a trumpet then and sang Te Deum Laudamus,
And then Love strummed a lute with a loud note:
Behold how good and how pleasant, etc.
Till the day dawned these damsels caroled.

When bells rang for the Resurrection, and right then I awake
And called Kit my wife and Calote my daughter:
"Arise and go reverence God's resurrection...."

In the next "Passus," Piers Plowman, still bloody from the cross, gathers an army of Christians from every corner of the world to devote themselves to strengthening and purifying the church in unity.

I don't think it would be easy to appreciate this book half so much, if you did not know the Bible through and through. So many subtle hints about Biblical prophecies, analogies, and stories are dropped, to help the reader "discover" for himself what is so amazing about this story of Piers Plowman. Other reviews I've read said this poem was about medieval economics and social order. True, those are elements that show up, as any world being redeemed to Christ will have to address economic and society, but the main thing I saw was the story of Christ's redemption told through the characters of different virtues and vices.
Profile Image for Jonathan Honnor.
153 reviews
February 14, 2023
Not sure about this one! In some ways that’s the point, and that’s what I find exciting about the poem, its radical incomprehensibility and uncertainty, the idea “if any man thinks he knoweth anything, he hath not yet known as he ought to know” (Corinthians 8:2) (proto-Wakean, although more accurately the Wake gestures towards the pre-modern). On the other hand the structure of the whole from my admittedly inattentive reading appears haphazard or clumsy. That is the point of medieval dream vision genre as well — they have the possibility of being trivial or meaningful, but only the reader can decide. I will forbear judgement on this from an intellectual standpoint for now, but in terms of aesthetics so far it occasionally enraptures and more often frustrates.
Profile Image for Karlyn.
15 reviews3 followers
Currently reading
July 4, 2012
I'm actually reading an older translation by Henry Wells, which is probably much less accurate than the Norton edition but is fantastically bizarre and wonderful in its own right. Someone had a good old time making it.
A randomly chosen example:

"I bought her barley malt, and she brewed it for the traffic;
Penny ale and pudding ale were poured together
For labourers and poor folk;--she laid that aside.
The best was in the ben or in my bed-chamber;
Whoever took the bung from that, bought it thereafter
A gallon for a groat, God wot, or dearer,
And yet it came out by cup-fulls, craftily measured/
Rose the Retailer was her right name.
She had worked at huckstering all her lifetime."
Profile Image for Stephanie.
56 reviews20 followers
November 22, 2014
Oh Goodreads, how I wish you allowed non-whole number ratings! Alas, I cannot give "Piers Plowman" my honest rating of 2.5 stars.
I was originally going to round my rating down to 2 stars, but then I remembered a certain character mentioned in the beginning of Passus IX. Now my rating is 3 stars, thanks to the "haughty horseman of France."
Profile Image for Ashley.
268 reviews13 followers
September 20, 2008
I read this as part of a high school English assignment...I completely dreaded it from the moment I was given the assignment, and dragged my feet- but when I actually started reading, I completely fell in love.

If you can force yourself to get past (or rather, appreciate) the style of writing, it's an incredibly worth-while read!
Profile Image for Pritam Chattopadhyay.
1,855 reviews164 followers
February 18, 2022
Piers Plowman is one of the significant works in the middle English period before Chaucer. It is the greatest of all alliterative poems of social protest.

The poem has come down in three dissimilar texts which appeared in 1362, 1377 and 1400.

*The earliest or A-text consists of a prologue and eleven cantos or passus.
*The second or B-text is a revision of the first and a continuation with the prologue and twenty passus.
*The third or C-text is about the same length as the B- text and is divided into twenty three passus. Such repeated revisions of the poem are evidence of its continued popularity.

In its earliest form, the poem consists of three consecutive visions. Two of them are intimately connected and the third is rather disjointed.

In the first vision, that of the "field full of folk", the poet lies down on the Malvern hills on a May morning. He dreams a marvelous dream. He sees on the plain beneath him a massive amount of folk, an immense crowd expressing the varied life of the world.

He sees a vision of a high tower (Truth), a deep dungeon (Wrong).

All classes and conditions of people - beggars, friars, priests, lawyers, labourers, hermits and nuns assemble. In another vision, he sees Lady Meed, Reason, Conscience and other abstractions. In the confusion appears the Lady Holy Church who exhorts them all to seek the best thing - Truth.

The next vision is about The Confession of Seven Deadly Sins and a thousand of men moving to seek Truth. But the way is tricky and here Piers Plowman makes his appearance and offers to guide the pilgrims if they help him plough his half acre of land. - Piers sets them all to honest labour and preaches the gospel of work as preparation for salvation.

At the end of the poem, there is a vain search for do-well, do-better and do-best. Finally Truth gives a Bull of pardon for almost every kind of sinner. A dispute follows over the meaning of the pardon, and Piers and the priest quarrel.

To the degenerate Christians of his day, Langland offers the necessary virtues of work and love. This yearning and his choice of a ploughman as a hero make him appear as a rebel against social inequality, but in truth, his one aim was that all should live a Christian life.

Its two grand principles - the equality of man before God and the dignity of honest labour roused a whole nation of free men. It is one of the world's great works, partially for its national influence and to a degree for the picture it gives of the social life of the fourteenth century. The poem has a three-fold aspect - as a picture of contemporary life, as a satire on the corruptions of the church and as an allegory of life.

His satires on the corruptions of the church - particularly the hypocrisy, idleness and greed of the clergymen are biting and cynical. His satire is accompanied by an intense religious fervour which is absent in Chaucer.

The real pre-occupation of Chaucer is with the Christian life: the poor are nearer to Christ than others less removed from him by the vices to which idleness leads. Piers who is a ploughman is also a Christian.

As regards the form of the poem, Langland shows himself powerless to build up a harmonious whole. The first two visions are connected but the last vision is incoherent. It is a revival of the old English rhymeless measure, having alliteration as the basis of the line.

The lines themselves are fairly uniform in length, and there is the middle pause with two alliterations in the first half-line and one in the second. Yet in spite of the old English metre the vocabulary draws freely upon the French to an extent equal to that of Chaucer himself.

The verses do not thrill the sensibilities as poetry should. Thus his work has a social value but no artistic merit.

This elucidates why he has no descendants.
Profile Image for Simon Mcleish.
Author 4 books125 followers
March 10, 2012
Originally published on my blog here in July 1998.

Although I was able to read Geoffrey Chaucer in the original Middle English with only the help of a (fairly comprehensive) glossary, I'm glad I got hold of Piers Plowman in modern English. Judging by the excerpts given in this book, it is considerably more difficult to read, mainly because it is written in a Midlands dialect which didn't provide the basis for later literary English as Chaucer's language did.

The text of Piers Plowman is considerably more complicated than that of, say, the The Canterbury Tales; there are three major manuscripts, known as A, B, and C. This translation is based on the B-text, though appendices give some parts of the C-text (which contains more information interpreted as autobiographical than the other manuscripts).

Piers Plowman is the story of a series of dreams, told in the first person by William (Langland). These dreams show in allegorical form what is wrong with the society he sees around him, and by contrast the perfect society which is to come under the rule of Piers Plowman, who stands for Jesus Christ.

One very sophisticated aspect of the allegory is that the dreams are spaced throughout the life of the narrator, and the nature and meaning of the visions changes as his spiritual understanding matures. Other than that, the book is also notable for the strong criticism of the abuses of the church current in the later middle ages. You need some understanding of medieval theology to get the most from the book, but anyone interested in the medieval world-view should find it fascinating.
Profile Image for Marcos Augusto.
727 reviews5 followers
August 7, 2022
Alliterative poem presumed to have been written by William Langland. Three versions of Piers Plowman are extant: A, the poem’s short early form, dating from the 1360s; B, a major revision and extension of A made in the late 1370s; and C, a less “literary” version of B dating from the 1380s and apparently intended to focus the work’s doctrinal issues. Some scholars think that version C may not be entirely attributable to Langland.

The poem takes the form of a series of dream visions dealing with the social and spiritual predicament of late 14th-century England. In general, the language is simple and colloquial, but some of the imagery is powerful and direct. Realistic and allegorical elements are mingled in a phantasmagoric way, and both the poetic medium and the structure are frequently subverted by the writer’s spiritual and didactic impulses. His bitter attacks on political and ecclesiastical corruption (especially among the friars) quickly struck a chord with his contemporaries. In the 16th century Piers Plowman was issued as a printed book and was used for apologetic purposes by the early Protestants.
Profile Image for Sarah.
39 reviews
January 15, 2015
The use of allegory in this work is simply incredible. The extend to which the technique skillfully formulates and questions each character (power) relation in the text, forcing the reader to engage on ever more multi-facetious levels, only serves to add to the amazement that, in the hundreds of years since this work was written, we have neither surpassed it, nor truly recognised its brilliance. An argument against the period as an intellectual 'dark ages' in itself.
Profile Image for Beth.
46 reviews6 followers
November 29, 2016
I love Piers Plowman. There. I said it. It pulls you in without your realizing that you've been pulled in. The poetry is lovely--very good alliterative art--and it adds to the surreal feel of the narrative, which is so vivid that you live it as you read it. The theological and doctrinal points of the poem may not be a modern audience's cup of tea, but they are well-articulated and they make you think.
Profile Image for Jessica.
149 reviews
February 5, 2012
Historically significant, this text well depicts the day to day struggles of a common man with no voice and no power. I found the text slightly tedious due to the religious/spiritual context and the allegory that i could not completely relate to. An important work nonetheless and one that I am glad to have plowed through.
Profile Image for Ann.
253 reviews1 follower
December 10, 2010
Get by the language, already! If you can't do that at some time in your life, you'll miss some of the finest things humankind has written. This is a fascinating look at life at the brink of a new age. Sparked a revolution of sorts I read somewhere. There's a lesson for us today in this book.
Profile Image for Likka.
15 reviews59 followers
May 4, 2017
I did not enjoy this story. It was too bland for my tastes.
Profile Image for Meg.
559 reviews22 followers
July 26, 2018
I had to read this for my medieval visions class. It is difficult to get through, but once you do, the themes are interesting.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 137 reviews

Join the discussion

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.