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.


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