Diana V. C. Suk
Dr. Grover Furr
ENGL 345-01: Middle English Literature
The Dichotomy in the Piers Plowman Character: Langland's Intent versus Rebel Symbol
My research into the political climate in which Piers Plowman was written, especially reading about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the events that led to it, has made me aware that the Piers Plowman the rebels adopted as a symbol of their cause is actually the polar opposite of the Piers Plowman Langland created in an attempt to help preserve the feudal hierarchy and economy. Put another way, the purpose of Langland's Piers was to coax or "guilt" the peasants back to work and the other members of English society to the honorable fulfillment of the obligations their respective social roles demanded, but the peasant rebels latched onto Langland's character as a motivating symbol for their rebellion against the feudal system that the aristocracy and diehards like Langland were convinced was ordained by God.
I am fascinated that a writer's obvious intent was so completely ignored and turned upside-down, and that his title character became a symbol for a movement which he regarded as an evil. How did this occur? This dichotomy in the Piers character and the processes that led to the split between Langland's intent in the poem and the rebels' understanding of it merit close examination.
A good way to begin the scrutiny is to look at some of the dialogue and actions of Langland's Piers. In our edition of Piers the Ploughman, the translation by J. F. Goodridge, we first encounter Piers on page 77. The crowd is inquiring of different people if they know Truth and where to find him. Piers calls out, "'I know Him, as well as a scholar knows his books. Conscience and Common Sense showed me the way to His place, and they made me swear to serve Him for ever, and do His sowing and planting for as long as I can work (italics mine). '"We see that even with the first words he utters, Langland's Piers is in favor of working as long as one is physically able.
On page 78, He tells the crowd how to find Truth: "'You must all set out through Meekness, men and women alike Then turn down by the stream Be-gentle-in-speech You will also see there two pairs of stocks; but do not stop, for they are Steal-not and Kill-not. Go round and leave them on your left, and don't look back at them. '" As we know from reading accounts like those in the Anonimalle Chronicle, the rebels violated every one of these directives.
Langland even used the names of Piers' family to further his point. On page 83, we learn that "Piers' wife was called Dame Work-while-you've got-a-chance. "The next page describes Piers' anger when the workers start "shirking" (really, rebelling by withholding their services):
'By the Lord, said Piers, bursting with rage, 'Get up and go back to your work at once - or you'll get no bread to sing about when famine comes. You can starve to death, and to hell with the lot of you!'
Then the shirkers were scared, and pretended to be blind, or twisted their legs askew, as these beggars can, moaning and whining to Piers to have pity on them. - 'We're sorry, master, but we've no limbs to work with. . . . we're so racked with pain, we can't lift a finger' (84).
These were some of the tactics rebels used to continue to withhold their services when confronted with people who wanted to force them to return to work under pre-plague conditions and wages.
Piers is not sympathetic, remarking,
I know quite well you are shirking
'If anyone is really blind or crippled, or has his limbs bolted with irons, he shall eat wheaten bread and drink at my table, till God in His goodness sends him better days. But as for you, you could work for Truth well enough if you wanted The fact is you would rather have a life of lechery, lying, and sloth, and it is only through God's mercy that you go unpunished' (84-85).
Some of the rebels lose their temper with Piers, and display a desire to fight him. Piers responds by appealing to his friend, a knight, and begging him "to keep his promise, and protect him from these damned villains, the wolves who rob the world of food" (85). The knight speaks courteously to the group's spokesman, whom Langland has named Waster. Langland represents this leader of the rebels very unflatteringly: "'I have never worked yet, said Waster, 'and I don't intend to start now' - and he began to jeer at the Law and rail at the knight, and told Piers to go and piddle with his plough, for he'd beat him up if ever they met again" (86; italics mine). Piers responds furiously, and summons Hunger to punish the shirkers, crying, "'Avenge me on these wretches who eat up the world!'" (86).
Hunger does as Piers asks, and Langland tells us that
thousands of blind and bed-ridden folk suddenly recovered, and men who used to sit begging for silver were miraculously cured! And the starving people appeased their hunger with bran-mash, and beggars and poor men worked gladly with peas for wages, pouncing like sparrowhawks on any work that Piers gave them (86). Then Piers feels pity for the people, and requests that Hunger leave the land. Hunger does, but not before advising Piers on how to handle these people. He quotes Genesis:"'In the sweat of thy brow . . . shalt thou eat bread" - that is God's command''" (87).
It is abundantly clear where Langland's sympathies lay, and how he felt about the rebels, whom he always referred to, through his Piers alter-ego, as "shirkers" or "wasters. "
During discussion of our edition, attention has been directed to the appendices at the end of the book (beginning on 257) for evidence that Langland's sympathies were not anti-rebellion and anti-socio-economic change, thus John Ball's and the other 1381 rebels' adoption of his title character as a symbol of their movement is not surprising. I respectfully beg to differ. I must point out that Langland uses not only the character of Piers as his own voice, but also the character of the dreamer, Will. He mostly uses Piers to express his opinions about the way things should be, and the dreamer, Will, to express his flawed humanity, which causes him to stumble away from his ideals.
In Appendix A, however, he uses Will to express a keen awareness of the difference between right and wrong (that is, right and wrong according to Langland) even
while in a state of sin, and Will's diatribe against the social ills of the time is every bit as harshly critical as any from Piers:
'So a cleric's duty is to serve Christ, and leave carting and labouring to ignorant serfs. And no one should take Holy Orders unless he comes from a family of freemen, and his parents are married in church. Serfs and beggar's children and bastards should toil with their hands, while men of noble blood should serve God and their fellowmen as befits their rank -- some by singing masses, and others by book-keeping and advising men how to spend their money.
'But nowadays, bondsmen's children are made into Bishops and bastards into Archdeacons; and soapmakers and their sons buy themselves knighthoods, while the sons of true noblemen toil and sweat for them -- for they mortgage their estates to ride out against our enemies and to fight for king and country in defence of the people. And the monks and nuns, who should feed the poor, buy up the incomes of knights and make noblemen of their relatives. Even Popes now, and ecclesiastical patrons, are refusing noble blood, and appointing the sons of Simony to keep God's sanctuary. No wonder charity and holy living have disappeared -- and will not return till this new fashion wears out, or someone uproots it' (258-59).
Langland's hatred of the movement away from what he considered divinely ordained feudalism toward an evil money economy could not be plainer, and the passing of time did not diminish it one iota. In the passage above, he essentially has Will support the pro-feudalism position he has expressed earlier through Piers.
Our edition's Appendix A is from the C text, which Goodridge states (on page 10) was composed after 1390; i. e. , after the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Langland's position was that of traditional Christianity at a time when, as J. R. Maddicott notes in his thought-provoking essay "Poems of Social Protest in Early Fourteenth-Century England", clerics (especially parish clerics who differed from the people to whom they ministered only in their religious vocation) "were familiar with what would later be called 'the condition of the people'. [Their social-protest poems typically] reflected much that had come to characterize the attitude of the [parish] churchmen in the century after the Fourth Lateran Council: a new awareness of the needs of the laity, a developing sense of social justice, sympathy for the poor . . . " (Maddicott 144). Throughout Piers Plowman, Langland does display a strong sense of social justice, but only within the confines of a feudal society.
Appendix B in our edition, also from the C text, is, at first glance, more in line with the position of the typical socially-protesting cleric/peasant of that time, in that it expresses a keen sympathy for the plight of the poor. Though this appendix does not reveal whether the speaker is Will, Piers or another of Langland's characters, it is clear that the opinions are Langland's own, and that his heart is filled with pity for these victims of misery. His "solution" is not a revolt against the social system, however, but charity: "I tell you, it would be a real charity to help men so burdened, and comfort these cottagers along with the blind and the lame" (260).
In any case, though I have demonstrated that both appendices in our edition show that Langland's views after 1390 were consistent with his views in the 1370's, when he wrote the A and B texts, whether or not the C text influenced John Ball and the other rebels of 1381 is immaterial, since they could never have seen it or heard it in 1381, for the simple reason that it was not composed until about eight years later.
This bring us back to my initial question: in view of Langland's hatred of the direction in which his post-Plague society was changing (i. e. , away from the feudal system and toward a money economy), and his fury and disgust with the "shirkers" and "wasters" (i. e. , rebels) who were fanning the flames of that change, a fury and disgust which he expressed so clearly and graphically through his title character, Piers Plowman, how could the rebels then identify with Piers to the point of making him the symbol of their movement?
In considering possible answers to this question, it is helpful to keep in mind, as David Aers notes, "the roles played by [any] text in the culture where it circulated. These roles may or may not coincide with the writer's will and hopes" (59). The role played by Langland's poem may have been determined, in part, by the form in which it was written, which Maddicott refers to as poetry of social protest or poetry of complaint. This type of poetry, which seems to have begun about 1300, integrates the literary traditions of estates satire, venality satire and popular sermons, but uses these conventions to comment on and complain about specific grievances (Maddicott 130-144).
That the rebels were thoroughly familiar not just with Langland's poem, but with many specimens of social protest poetry is evident in transcripts of letters written and distributed among them by their leaders, like John Ball, as well as in transcripts of Ball's sermons. Not only do they allude to Langland's poem in particular, but, as Maddicott states,
Although their language is allegorical and allusive, the letters replicate many of the characteristics of the poems: the denunciation of corruption, the call for justice , the skilful resort to literary devices, the use of what are clearly the common catch-phrases of complaint. Like the poetry, too, the letters make clear use of the literary techniques of alliteration and internal rhyme; and, again like the poetry, they point to an association between the clergy and the literature of protest.
The letters of 1381 thus link up in several ways --- theme, style, phrasing, possible circles of authorship -- with the 'protest' poems of the early fourteenth century. We might argue back from the use made of these letters during the revolt to suggest that most of the earlier poems should be regarded, not so much as the stuff of entertainment, but rather as the floating manifestation of commonly held grievances, given a memorable shape in verse, usually transmitted orally, and serving to satisfy the perennial pleasure of the shared grumble. Only in the circumstances of 1381 was the language of mere grievance transformed into the language of sedition" (Maddicott 138-139).
Moreover, the mere existence of the rebels' letters demonstrates that at least some of the peasant class, the one to which most of the rebels belonged, was quite literate. After all, what would have been the point of writing letters the recipients could not read? Steven Justice gives excellent evidence in favor of widespread peasant literacy (though the levels of literacy varied), and Maddicott demonstrates that some peasants had even been able to speak and write French as well as English. The letters themselves also show that the rebels were even familiar with common Latin expressions and phrases, like the si dedero in Jack Trueman's letter (Justice 13-66; Maddicott 139-140).
Accepting, then, the notions of rebel literacy and of rebel familiarity with social protest poetry, we must figure out how the gap might have occurred between Langland's intent and the rebels' understanding. One possibility is that the rebels, being used to literature/poetry of social protest, had preconceived ideas about the poem's meaning. Since the social protest poetry the rebels were used to typically sided with the oppressed lower classes, it is possible that the rebels did not read Langland's poem objectively, but instead read it (or heard about it) with the expectation that it was another social protest poem that portrayed the upper classes as evil oppressors. With that expectation, they pounced on its criticism of the aristocracy and its corrupt official representatives, and overlooked its criticism of the uncooperative or rebellious peasantry. They focused on the fact that Piers, a plowman and a peasant, thus one of their own, was the "good guy" in the story and the aristocracy and their officials were "bad guys. "So, it is possible that their expectations about the poem garbled the transmission of its message.
Another possibility is that John Ball misunderstood Langland's intent not because of any expectations or preconceived notions about its literary form, but because, viewing the poem from the perspective of a peasant, albeit one who was a cleric, he simply interpreted certain key passages differently than Langland, from the perspective of a higher class and with a higher level of education, meant and expected them to be interpreted. Justice makes a good case for the key to this problem lying in the "kind of reading [John] Ball brought to Piers Plowman, and the kind of writing he took from it" (106).
John Ball, the fiery community preacher whose heretical (in the eyes of traditional Christianity) motivational speeches and letters were a primary stimulus to the 1381 uprising, alludes to Langland's poem, as I have noted above, and to the Piers character by name, in his letters to other leaders of the rebel movement and in his sermons. Justice demonstrates the connection between Langland's text and Ball's speculation, in his Blackheath sermon, that
'all were created to be equal by nature [a natura] from the beginning [a principio], and that serfdom had been introduced through unjust oppression, against the will of God; that if God had wished to create serfs, he would have fixed from the beginning who would be a serf and who a lord. 'In Walsingham's report, Ball theorizes equality by equating the phrases 'by nature' and 'from the beginning' :. . natural, rightly ordered human relations are those God established before social stratification. He drew these two grammatically parallel phrases, and the rudiments of their application, from two grammatically parallel phrases that Wit deploys very differently. Langland's Wit says that from the 'kynde' of wedded folk come the confessors, kings, and knights he lists ('of hir kynde [th]ei come' ) and at the end of the list, he repeats the assertion, with a different inflection: 'out of o man come' (114). By both phrases, Wit means merely that all derive 'from human nature, from undifferentiated humanity,' that there is no ontological difference between a king and a serf: 'kynde' has the meaning 'class' or 'category. 'When Ball said that all were created to be equal 'by nature' (a natura), he borrowed but completely redefined the phrase 'of hire kynde' (112). He fixed on the word 'kynde' and saw there a different, though also conventional, meaning: 'nature' as the normative state that God created. So in the natural order God made, the confessors, kings, knights, emperors, clerks, virgins, and martyrs and the wedded laborers who populate the world are the same.
But if Langland's 'of hir kynde' generated Ball's a natura, how did 'out of o man' generate a principio? [T]he 'o man' that humanity comes 'out of' historically is Adam. And just as Langland makes 'of hir kynde' and 'out of o man' synonymous, Ball equates a natura with in principio. Once absorbed into Ball's understanding of its terms, the rhetorical trajectory of Langland's sentence---from the undifferentiated human 'kynde,' to the differentiations of social status and function, and then back to the unitary 'o man'---practically begs for a different meaning from Wit's, one that sees social difference as a disruption of the fundamental equality God put in place at creation. Distinction of rank, then, is logically and historically subsequent to what God wanted and made, and is therefore unnatural, a human and at best dispensable superimposition . (Justice 109-110; please note: The sermon was transcribed in Latin by the chronicler, Walsingham. John Ball spoke and wrote in the vernacular. ).
Justice furthermore points out that Ball, in the same sermon, uses "Langlandian terms" (110) when he urges his audience to rise up in rebellion and
'. act in the manner of a good paterfamilias cultivating his field, pulling out and cutting down the poisonous weeds that smother [opprimere] the corn: first killing the great lords of the realm; then executing the justices and jurors of the countryside; and finally removing from their land all they know to be harmful to the commons. Thus they would finally bring peace and security for themselves in the future if---once the great were removed---there would be equal liberty, the same nobility, equal dignity, by the same power among them all' (110).
Justice calls attention to the unmistakable allusion in this excerpt to Passus 6 of Langland's poem, in which Piers "announces that he will plow the half-acre, appears as paterfamilias, resolves to use his 'cultour' to 'kerue and [clense the] furwes,' and proceeds to oversee the hoeing up of the 'wedes'(6. 78-82, 103-4, III). " (110)Justice points to the obvious fact that
Ball's meaning is outlandishly different from Langland's; where Piers (in 6) wants the nobles to 'kepe holy kirke and myselue' (6. 27), Ball wants to kill them. But the structure of meaning is identical: both use the concrete vocabulary of labor as a vocabulary of reform. Ball has just substituted one referent of the (allegorical) weeding for another.
His appropriations are willful, at least tangential to and mostly at odds with Langland's purposes; yet his misreading of B. 9 gives the passage a new and persuasive unity. He shows no interest in the enigmas, the shifts of direction and register in Wit's harangue, but cancels or recombines them to derive a command from Langland's underformulated speculations" (Justice 111; italics mine).
The fact that Ball had to work so hard to make the poem suit his own purposes makes it highly unlikely that he either ignored Langland's intent or misunderstood it, so we can dismiss the two possibilities discussed above. He seems deliberately to have reworked sections he considered significant. Why did he do this?
The answer is that his reworking of key passages in the poem and his reshaping of the Piers character were a response to Langland and to anyone who sided with him. Remember that though Langland railed, through his poem, at the injustice he perceived in every segment of society, he didn't want the social system changed. He just wanted everyone to honorably and uncomplainingly fulfill her or his obligations within the current system. For the rebels, this simply did not go far enough. Thus, the rebel letters, Justice writes,
though they invoke Piers Plowman among their own company, they treat him as having the malleability of a fictional creation, available for the creation and elaboration of other fictions, and indeed for his own re-creation: their Piers is their own Piers. . . . Though he is, as Middleton says, a 'source of authority,' he is also a subject, and is subject to command; and what they command him to do revokes both of the enterprises he announces in the visio of the poem. . . .
Choosing (1) to leave home on pilgrimage and then (2) to stay at home but give up plowing, the single action Piers does not consider is the one the letters command: that he stay at home and till his fields. It is also the one that, within the poem, Truth commands, bidding him to 'holde hym at home and erien his leyes' (7. 5) as the condition for the grant of the pardon. The letters in effect ally themselves with Truth against the poet; they enjoin Piers to stop being Langland's creation and become their own (121; italics mine).
This, then, is the secret to the apparently puzzling dichotomy in the Piers Plowman character. The rebels did not misunderstand Langland's intent; they rejected it skillfully and categorically, in the terms of his own poem. They consciously discarded Langland's Piers, created their own Piers, and made him a symbol of their organized revolt against a social system that oppressed them.
Aers, David. "Class, Gender, Medieval Criticism, and Piers Plowman. "Class and Gender in Early English Literature: Intersections. Ed. Britton J. Harwood and Gillian R. Overing. Indiana University Press, 1994. 59-75.
"Anonimalle Chronicle. "The Great Revolt of 1381. Charles Oman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906. 200-203, 205. Online. Medieval Source Book. Internet. April 1998. Available http://www. shss. montclair. edu/english/furr/medieval. html. Link to "Middle English Literature Other Than Chaucer," then to "Langland Home Page. "
Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Langland, William. Piers the Ploughman. Trans. J. F. Goodridge. London: Penguin Books, 1966.
Maddicott, J. R. "Poems of Social Protest in Early Fourteenth-Century England. " England in the Fourteenth Century :Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium. Ed. W. M. Ormrod. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1986. 130-144.