William Langland “The Visions of Piers Plowman” C-text

The blog went on hiatus during the Christmas break – I was travelling and really didn’t feel like lugging the fat volume around. We’re back to where we left off, in the somewhat obscure world of William Langland. Today’s portion is from the C-text, or a version of the poem that was probably written last – it’s more or less as long as the preceding B-text, but it was revised and updated, as can be seen in a number of historical references, referring to the then-current events.

In the passage selected here, Langland gives us some oblique information about himself. These are the only things we know about him, together with some scribbles made in the margins of the manuscripts by unknown readers a century later, and some guesswork by a 16th -c. antiquarian John Bale. So not so much to rely on and even the information that we do have is not very reliable. Langland here indicates that he lives in London, together with his wife Kit (elsewhere he mentions also his daughter Collette), in a rather seedy district of Cornhill. He is in lower clerical orders (it was OK for deacons to marry, but it closed the door to any kind of real career in Church), he makes his living by praying for the dead and receiving food donations for the service, but not enough to take home – he just has a chance to get his belly full (so what did his family live on?) However, my favourite conspiracy theory is that the real author of Piers Plowman was a provincial priest named William Rokele, and all these facts are just fog and mirrors to mislead the readers, especially those who were powerful and not particularly keen on some of the messages included in the poem. Even though, as I’ve mentioned earlier, Langland’s worldview is essentially conservative, there was enough material in the poem to make Piers Plowman a symbolic figure for the protesters who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The whole passage has a form of the conversation between Langland (or, to paraphrase Chesterton’s quip about Homer, another writer of the same name) and the allegorical figures of Reason and Conscience. Reason asks him whether he can do any sort of useful physical labour, but Langland answers that he is too weak and to tall to do any sort of work that requires stooping. Well then, is he so rich he doesn’t have to work? Nope. Reason then accuses him of being a fraud, like many of the hermits Langland himself satirizes, unless he has some real illness, in which case he can be excused. “I was educated to be a priest and I cannot imagine myself doing any other job”, says Langland. He also quotes Leviticus to argue that he cannot engage lawfully in any other occupation. The job of priests is to pray and study the Bible, and let the other lesser beings do the menial work. Unfortunately, the world has gone to dogs, what with the sons of serfs and other lowllife scum making brilliant career in Church, while the sons of lords who mortgaged their lands have to serve them. So basically his argument is that he cannot become a priest because all the good jobs have been taken by people who don’t deserve them because of their low birth. Conscience then answers that all these arguments are not very relevant and all the self-justification cannot hide the fact that Langland is essentially a beggar. Langland still hopes that despite the fact that by his own admission he wasted a lot of time, he can still achieve salvation at the end, like the woman who has found the pearl in the Gospel parable.

There is a very interesting dynamic in this passage, I think. Langland gives himself most of the lines, and he comes off as a bit whiny and self-entitled (“I am too good for any job, I should be paid only for being a priest, I am a gentleman’s son and can’t make a career in Church because all the good positions are occupied by serfs’ sons and bastards, oh poor me”). But Reason and Conscience make a lot of valid points – isn’t Langland a little bit like all these false hermits and friars he criticised? And the very fact that he puts these words in the mouth of allegorical figures of virtues shows that there is some kind of doubt gnawing at him. His predicament is a little bit like this of contemporary graduate students – he’s got some of most expensive and sophisticated education medieval England could provide, but then he realizes the contemporary world doesn’t really need him. Of course he can always fall on the belief that he contributes to the world’s salvation in the grander scheme of things. The modern newly-minted Ph.D with a degree in sociology doesn’t have that solace.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman Passus 7’

This is the most puzzling passage in the whole poem and generations of medieval scholars tried to decipher it. After all this moralizing that went on in the previous parts along the lines “work hard, pay your tithes and you will be saved”, Piers gets a letter of pardon from Truth absolving him from punishment and guilt, not only him but also his descendants and everyone who helps him. According to Catholic teachings, pardons could absolve one from punishment, but not from guilt – this could be done only through confession. So this is something way out of line, especially taking into account the collective nature of the pardon. But then something even stranger happens – a priest offers to translate the letter to Piers (because of course God writes in Latin) and he says that he sees no words of pardon here, just “do well, and God will reward you, do evil and God will punish you”. Piers then becomes very angry and tears the paper in two, saying that from that moment on he will stop working and start a religious life of prayer and penance. He’s not going to care about his food, in accordance with the line from Luke’s about birds which are fed by God. The priest notices that Piers is suspiciously well-versed in the Bible for an illiterate peasant and asks him who taught him. “Abstinence and Conscience”, answers Piers. They have some more Biblical banter which I don’t get, and then the narrator wakes up.

Now, what can this all mean? After what seemed like the promise of unconditional grace, Piers gets a message very similar to the general tenor of what was written in the previous passages. Why does he threaten to start some kind of contemplative religious life? Does he start to subscribe to the  idea that the standard of “doing well” is so impossibly high that regular people can never be certain of their salvation and you have to become a monk to come even close? As for his banter with the priest, I have a gut feeling that it has something to do with the Lollards and John Wycliffe, who around that time advocated the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and letting the common people become acquainted with it directly.

Some critics point out that the letter may actually constitute a pardon, as it gives one simple directions to salvation. The priest reads “the letter that killeth”, while Piers grasps the spiritual meaning of the letter. So his tearing up the letter is a rejection of priestly authority and indicates his heretical tendencies. But perhaps he deliberately obfuscates it because he does not want to run into trouble with the authorities.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman Passus 6’ the end

The people subdued by Hunger get back to work. Piers thanks Hunger and asks him about advice how to deal with beggars and beadsmen (people who said prayers for money). Hunger’s answer is kind of evasive: everyone who is able should work, you should help as much as you can those in real need, don’t be angry about those who try to prey on your charity, let God deal with them. Then Piers asks about medical advice because sometimes his own belly and his servants’ ache so much they are unable to work for a week. “it’s all from overeating”, says Hunger (yeah, right, I’m sure it was the BIGGEST PROBLEM of medieval peasants) “don’t drink before you eat, don’t eat too much, and don’t eat till you’re hungry, If all the people follow this advice, they will soon put physicians out of business”.

Piers then thanks Hunger for his advice and wants to say his goodbye, but Hunger won’t go away until he is appeased. Now we get a more realistic view of the diet of medieval peasants: Piers has no meat or eggs to give Hunger, only bean bread (the bread of the poor), oatmeal cake and some dairy and vegetables. Hunger eats all that and still is not satisfied. People now bring Piers apples, cherries, beans, peas and leaks to appease him – all early crops, eaten in the worst months before the new harvest. As the harvest draws near, merchants start to sell out their grain before the prices drop even more. Now is the time of plenty, when labourers are well-fed and become picky – no more diluted ale or last night’s cabbage for them! They also become rebellious and start to complain about the government oppressing the working man. This refers to the situation in the 14th century when the government, trying to curb the inflation, put on various limitations on the wages. Since labour force was scarce after the Black Death and various wars, landlords tried to get around these laws by offering free food as a perk. Langland warns darkly people not to be so picky, because Hunger can return anytime.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 6’ ctd.

The people start to help Piers either in plowing or in doing other farm jobs, but soon some of them start to get slack. Piers becomes angry at them and swears he’s not going to give them any food if they don’t work. They become scared and start to fake various illnesses such as blindness or disfigured limbs. “I am going to support people who are genuinely too ill to work but not you, welfare queens!”, says Piers. “And I am going to support the hermits, but only the true ones, who eat but once a day, and the preachers, but only the licensed ones, and they can have a reasonable diet plan, because there’s no point in starving yourself for your religion”. (I think Langland here twists himself in a pretzel, trying to establish what is the reasonable austerity of religious life.) The Waster and his pals start to abuse Piers and he asks the knight for help. The knight, being a courteous man, tries to reason with them, but to no avail. The situation is solved when Piers calls the Hunger for help. (I can’t resist pointing out that the Knight turned out to be useless, after all.) The Hunger whacks all the lazy guys really hard and makes them work for the worst bread made of bran and beans, which in the Middle Ages was normally used to feed horses, but in times of famine was eaten by people. The whole argument reflects the situation after the Black Death, which caused depopulation, which in turn caused the rise of labour cost. This of course didn’t please the landlords who would like to play their surviving farm labourers the same wages as before the plague. The labourers in turn felt they could demand higher wages. So Langland here basically tries to use the pretense of social solidarity (we all have to work or we won’t have enough to eat) to retain the status quo.

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 6’

In this passage Langland gives us his theory of proper social organization. Piers offers to guide the pilgrims to Truth, but first he first has to plow and sow his half-acre. So if they help him, he will help them. What shall the women do? They should sow bags for wheat, or if they are fine ladies, church vestments and do other stereotypically female jobs. The knight then says that he is not trained to plow, but he will be happy to learn. Piers tells him that there’s no need for that, because he should do his job, that is defending him (meaning all his countrymen) and the Church and hunt wild beasts which ruin his field (Yeah, right, because protecting peasants from pests was surely the foremost thought in the mind of medieval aristos who went a-hunting.) And he should be also kind and just to his peasants, because he will be held accountable for that after death, and not to listen to any story-tellers who entertain people during feasts, because they are liars. Piers gets ready for work and says that he will be happy to share the fruit of his labour with everybody except for nasty people like criminals, prostitutes etc. We also learn that he has a wife and two children with long and very allegorical names, whose point boils down to “do as you’re told, work hard, don’t dare to complain about your superiors, but leave their punishment to God.” So Langland’s viewpoint is actually quite conservative: everyone should be happy in the estate he or she is born to, and not to aspire any higher or grumble.

Piers says that before his journey he is going to write his will: he leaves his soul to God, his body to the Holy Church, because he paid regularly his tithes and he hopes that the Church will take care of him after death with prayers for the dead. He also leaves to the Church “the residue and remnant”, that is one-third of his estate – the maximum amount a medieval testator had at his or her disposal. The rest had to go to the family, in this case Piers’s wife, who is going to decide about how to divide it among their children.Wi

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 5’

The pilgrims wandering to find Truth meat a professional pilgrim, who is completely bedecked with various souvenirs from the places he visited: phials of holy water from Canterbury, crosses from Rome, shells from Compostela and so on, But when the pilgrims ask him about the way to Truth, he doesn’t know it, despite his impressive list of journeys (he claims he’s been even to Mount Ararat). A plowman, later on identified as PIers, tells the pilgrims that he can show them the way to Truth, because he is its servant. doing various menial works. Then he proceeds to explain the way and his route is basically an allegory of the Ten Commandments, done in the manner: “go along the brook Be-Modest-Of-Speech, then cross it through the ford “Honour-Thy-Father-And-Thy-Mother, then through the meadoe You-Shall-Not-Swear” and so on. Then he describes the castle of Truth in a similarly allegorical manner. The gate-keepers are Grace and Amend-Thyself, and when you tell them you’ve done the penance assigned by the priest, they will let you in. When the pilgrims, who are sinners, hear this, they lose enthusiasm for their journey and start to drop off. It’s understandable that Langland includes among them the pickpocket, the prostitute and the pardoner, but why the cake-seller? What did the cake-sellers ever do to him? Overcharge him for some gingerbread?

William Langland ‘The Visions of Piers Plowman – Passus 1’

The Lady Holy Church continues her teaching, telling the story about Lucifer’s downfall. His fate is shared by all sinners, but those who love Truth will go to heaven. The narrator asks for more explanation because he has no “kynde knowynge”, which the translator conveys as “natural knowledge”, the kind of knowledge that comes from instinct. “How is faith formed?”, he asks. The lady chides him for being dull and unlearned. The natural knowledge in your heart means that you love God more than yourself and abstain from sin. And the only way of communication between people and God is Love, who is like the mayor, an intermediary between citizens and the king. Christ, forgiving his executioners, is the utmost example of love. Then the lady says her goodbye.