about Piers Plowman

The Vision of Piers Plowman is a Middle English alliterative poem from the late fourteenth century, attributed to a man named William Langland from the South West Midlands area of England. Three distinct versions exist from the lifetime of the author: the shortest and earliest A Text, the much longer B Text, and the final, probably incomplete revision called the C Text. Multiple manuscripts of each of these versions survive, and each manuscript is unique, making the textual tradition of Piers Plowman one of the most complex and interesting in medieval English literature.

The poem is written in alliterative long lines, not in rhyme as Chaucer’s works are. In this verse form it participates in the native English tradition of alliterative poetry that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times but found a particular upsurge in popularity in the late fourteenth century: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Alliterative Morte Arthure are other familiar examples from this later era.

The lengthy Piers Plowman defies simple genre categorization. It is a largely allegorical poem that follows a narrator named Will on his quest for salvation (readers of Pilgrim’s Progress will be familiar with this form of allegorical narrative). Langland frames the poem as a series of dream visions in that the narrator’s adventures begin (and largely but not exclusively take place) while he sleeps. It is also a satire of contemporary religious corruption, which encouraged radical reformists and later Protestants to consider the poem a manifesto of their own beliefs. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that Langland created the C Text because he was troubled by the fact that rebels in the uprising of 1381 used Piers the plowman as their rallying cry.

The events of the poem vary somewhat from A to B to C Text, but the version most commonly read in university English courses is the B Text. In this version, a man named Will falls asleep on the bank of a stream and has a vision of a "field full of folk." Seeing all the different ways of making a living, Will begins to wonder how people can best live "in the world" and yet still attain eternal salvation. Guided by figures like Holy Church, Conscience, and Scripture, Will sets out to find Truth, and to discover what exactly it means to "Do-Well," "Do-Better," and "Do-Best."

Along the way, Will encounters a plowman named Piers, who becomes for Will a spiritual model: Will even thinks at one point that Jesus and Piers are one and the same. After Will and Piers travel together for some time, Will awakes and, after he falls asleep again, continues his journey without the plowman, though Piers is never far from his mind. In the most sublime poetry of the English Middle Ages, Langland celebrates the salvation won for humankind by Jesus’s death and resurrection, but the poem ends with a disturbing vision of a fallen world which foretells a dark present in which human amor habendi undermines Unity and separates Will and his fellow spiritual pilgrims from Piers and from the ultimate object of their quest.

Versions of Piers Plowman continued to be copied, read, and commented upon through the sixteenth-century, when it was read as a reformist Protestant text. By the seventeenth century, however, the poem was falling into obscurity, from which it emerged only at the end of the nineteenth century. It now holds an important place in the English literary canon.