Piers Plowman | Critical Analysis

William Langland's Piers Plowman Critical Analysis

Piers Plowman Analysis


Piers Plowman describes a series of remarkable visions that pass before the dreamer, the poet. He dreams of the world as a Field full of Folk, each at himself appointed task. There as a motley crowd of merchants. pilgrims, friars, ploughmen, anchorites and spendthrifts. There is a king and an Angel. The Field is situated between the Tower of Truth and the dungeon. Clerical characters predominate. Langland does not have any good word for them. But he does have soft corner in his heart for the ploughman and the hermits. Suddenly there comes a host of rats and mice bent upon “belling the cat”. A wise old mouse dissuades them from doing so. He warns them,

“Though we killed the old cat, yet another would come to catch all our kin… “ Then the scene shifts to another part of the field, where may be heard cooks and taverners touting for custom. The prologue ends here. The poem has seven cantos followed by a supplementary poem of “Do well, Do better, Do best”.

Picture of Contemporary Life

The poem is a picture of contemporary life and manners in town and country. It throws interesting sidelights upon medieval life. The tradesmen’s apprentices are shown standing at the shop doors shouting out to possible customers and trying to tempt them in, much as the showman does in country fair. At the tavern door shouts like “White wine of Alsace”, “Red Gascony Wine” could be heard. London haunts such as Cornhill, Tyburn, East Chepe, and Smithfield are referred to by the poet. Other places mentioned are: Law Courts at Westminster, “pryvee parlour” and “Chamber with a Chymenie”. The habits of the clergy and the merchant classes are elaborately described. The chamber was a prominent place in London. It was often used less and less, and the parlour was no longer reserved for special parlance. All this meant less feasting and good fellowship in the big hall, Langland condemns the rich people for buying up provisions and retailing them to the poor at great profit. The bakers are mentioned to be important men.

Piers Plowman As an Allegory of Life

The poem is an allegory. The good and bad qualities of human nature strive for the mastery, and among them moves Piers himself, externally a labourer, working with his hands, essentially a symbol for the Christ. He was meant to typify righteous living. Such places as the Field, the Tower, the Dungeon are clearly as allegorical as the slough of despond, doubting castle, or the valley of shadow. The personages are abstractions with such names Warren Wisdom, Witty, the fascinating Lady Meed (i.e. Bribery), the more gracious figure of holy church. Some of the names excel Bunyan’s in length. There is suffer-till- I see-my time. Others are so long that it is very difficult to member them. The whole theme of the poem has been treated allegorically. Thus, the poem becomes an allegory of life.

Piers Plowman As a Satire

Piers Plowman is a satire upon ecclesiastical abuses and follies and vices of the age. It is a picture of contemporary manners in town and country. It is an allegory of life. Langland braided those who shirt honest work, the drunkard and the oppressor, the tradesman who cheats, and the preacher who counsels one thing but follows another. Many of the sins and frailties he decries are common to no one age moralists of all ages have dealt with them.

Feudalism Church

Langland speaks of some of the abuse which are necessarily connected with the breaking up of feudalism and the corruption of the church. Two things are clear from the tenor of his strictures, he desires better social conditions for the people and less corruption it the church. The spokesmen for the labouring classes favoured the old class divisions. Langland agreed with them. He reviled the insurgents of 1381. Langland wants reforms, but within the church.

Langland as a Reformer  

Langland’s approach is that of a reformer. He is less drastic in his approach for clerical reform than Wycliffe. Though satirizing pardoners and friar, confessors, he expresses belief in penance and absolution, and sighs for the obedience of an age that has passed. Wycliffe’s attitude was much different. He disbelieved in the doctrine of penance and absolution. Langland expressed belief in penance and absolution.

Dislike of Jewish Bankers

Langland had great dislike for Jewish bankers. He was against the great wealth accumulated in church. He decried the knaves who taffies in “pardons”. He denounced the friars who make pretence of religion. He declaimed knights to whom fighting was merely an excuse to express their lust for blood. He criticised the man and women of both the town and the countryside who led life without any principle or ideal.

Conservative Reformer

Langland is a conservative reformer. He was not radical like Wycliffe. He did not favour radical reorganization of the church. He was also not in favour of transformation of society upon the lines of equality. He did not realize that feudalism, was a spent up force and that beneath old the crude violence of the insurrection of 1381 lay a perfectly just demand. Langland’s counsel was to do your duty in whatever state of life it pleased God to call you. Class divisions were to remain, but the rich was to give protection, the poor, service. Then, all would be well.

Satire to Town Country

Langland satirizes the life both of town and the countryside. The scene shifts constantly and unexpectedly from town to country, from London to Malvern. The poet bids us to learn to love as the one cure for the ills of life. This is his final message as a Christian.

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Piers Plowman As a Work of Art

Piers Plowman fails as a work of art. In fact the poem is inartistic. It is a work of edification of moral preaching. Its literary merit is nothing. The form of the room is curious. It is a revival of the old English rhyme-less measure, having alliteration as the basis of the line. The lines themselves are fairly uniform in length, and there is the middle pause, with two alliterations in the first half-line and one in the second. The vocabulary draws freely upon the French.


The plan of the poem is noble is style is vigorous It is lofty in sentiment. It discloses the heart of a fourteenth century scholar who is earnest and plans, a reformer and a good catholic and idealist. Although the poem does not have artistic Qualities, yet its importance as the social chronicle of the age is immense. Its total effect is majestic only because of the force of the imagination behind it. The poem lacks harmonious proportion. But it is probably the greatest piece of middle English literature, except of the Canterbury Tales.

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