William Langland is the presumed author of the Middle English alliterative poem known as Piers the Ploughman. “After George Kane’s thorough study of the available internal and external evidence in his Piers Plowman: The Evidence for Authorship (1965), single authorship is now generally, though not universally, accepted. The author’s name may appear within the text at B, 15, 152 in the first person narrator’s remark, “I have lyved in londe, … my name is Longe Wille.” Read in reverse order the emphasized words form the “name” Wille Longe londe, leading to speculation that the author’s name was William Langland. As some manuscript attributions use this name, “William Langland” has come to be accepted as that of the author.” (Poetry Foundation)
The poem is an allegorical work bearing a variety of religious themes. The Encyclopedia Brittannica says, “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.
“There were originally thought to be three versions of Piers Plowman: The A version of the text, which was the earliest, followed by the B and C versions that consisted of revisions and further amplifications of the major themes of A. However, a fourth version, called Z, has been suggested and the order of issue questioned.” The version most commonly used is the B version, which “consists of a prologue and seven passus (divisions) concerned primarily with the life of man in society, the dangers of Meed (love of gain), and manifestations of the seven capital sins; and 13 passus ostensibly dealing with the lives of Do-wel, Do-bet, and Do-best; in effect, with the growth of the individual Christian in self-knowledge, grace and charity.”
The Poetry Foundation expands on the idea of several versions of the poem: “By the early nineteenth century it had become evident that there are three different versions of Piers Plowman, known as the A-text, the B-text, and the C-text since Walter W. Skeat’s editions of 1867, 1869, and 1873 respectively. The A-text is the earliest and shortest of the three versions, being roughly 2,400 lines long. The B-text is an extensive reworking of the A-text: the original 2,400 lines are transformed into 3,200 lines, and more than 4,000 lines of new material are added. The B-text is the most poetic of the three versions, and the majority of criticism (including this essay) is based upon it. In comparison, the C-text is more prosaic. C is almost a total revision of B, except for the last two passuspassus which are untouched (the various sections of all three versions are called by the Latin word passus; the singular spelling is the same as the plural). Elsewhere, the cuts, additions, and shifting of passages result in a slightly longer poem (7,338 lines), but one which is radically different in style and effect.”
The Prologue begins with a May morning on Malvern Hills, where the poet dreams a marvelous dream. He is in an unfamiliar wilderness, and when he looks about him, he spots a town on a hilltop and below a deep dale with a dungeon. In between is a fair field filled with workers, wastrels, idlers, players, beggars, pilgrims, and hermits. All sorts could be viewed. There are even corrupt friars among the populace, as well as a pardoner who deceives the people. In short, he looks upon all of mankind.
Passus 1 begins with the poet receiving an explanation of what his dream means from a lady “lovely in face, in linen clothed.” She joins the poet by descending from a cliff. She makes the observation that vanity is the moving cause in all the people’s actions. The tower, according to the woman is the dwelling of Truth, the Father of all faith, who formed us all and presented us all things needful. But these “things” are to be used in Moderation. To Money, her attitude is the same as that of the Gospel: Render unto Caesar. The dungeon in the dale is the castle of Care, in which dwells a wight named Wrong, the Father of False, who seduced Adam and Cain and Judas.
Wondering who the lady might be, the dreamer is informed that she is Holy Church. He falls upon his knees beseeching her favor and begging her to teach him so to believe in Christ and do His will. She tells him Truth is the way. What is Truth? It is to prefer the love of God to all else. (History of English Literature: Part I ~ Early Saxon Through Milton, Hymarx Outline Series, Boston MA)
Passus II-IV form a self-contained narrative about the marriage of Mede.
In Passus V the dreamer awakes briefly only to succumb again to his dreams, which are more telling than ever before. He again observes the field full of a variety of people. Conscience preaches to them, foretelling of a great storm of wind on Saturday at evening (15 January 1362) and saying the damage the wind brings will serve as punishment for too much pride. Then Repentance arrives: Pernel Proudheart prostates herself; Lechery, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, Sloth, and Robert the Robber all repent.
The Poetry Foundation says, “For such a long and complex poem, Piers Plowman concludes very abruptly. Conscience vows to undertake another quest, this time to find Piers Plowman, and he calls upon Grace for help. Then the Dreamer simply wakes up and that is the end. There is considerable debate about whether the conclusion of the poem should be regarded as pessimistic or optimistic. The forces of evil seem triumphant, but things are not entirely bleak, as revealed by Conscience’s final thoughts about the friars. Although his attitude toward them has been consistently negative, Conscience finally urges not their abolishment but their reformation. Conscience’s aim in searching for Piers is in fact twofold: Piers Plowman as Christ / Good Priest will destroy Pride just as he once destroyed Satan; Piers Plowman will also ensure that the friars be granted a “finding,” endowed resources of their own, so that they will not be forced by ambivalent Need to beg for a living. There is still hope that the friars can realize their spiritual potential. There is also hope for humanity at large because Conscience still functions, Grace is still present, and Piers Plowman still exists. The reader only has to find him.”
A social reformer, Langland was oppressed with a sense of the universe’s evil. There is little humor or kindliness in his work, little brightness or sympathetic understanding. Piers Plowman rings with indignation against prevalent corruption. He discusses the Church, the law, and traders – and in all of them he concentrates on the evil side only. Langland wrote with fiery vigor. Although he deals in abstracts and seldom becomes specific in his delineation of character, he draws many realistic pictures which are emotionally effective. (History of English Literature: Part I ~ Early Saxon Through Milton, page 60)