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William Langland's The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman

The English poet, William Langland (c.1332-c.1400), was probably born at Ledbury in Herefordshire. He became a clerk but having married early, could not take more than minor orders, and possibly earned a poor living by singing in a chantry and by copying legal documents. He lived many years in London in poverty. His famous Vision Concerning Piers Plowman exhibits a moral earnestness and energy which is brightened by his vivid glimpses of the lives of the poorest classes of 14th century England.

Piers Plowman is an allegorical moral and social satire, written as a "vision" of the common medieval type. The poet falls asleep in the Malvern Hills and dreams that in a wilderness he comes upon the tower of Truth (God) set on a hill, with the dungeon of Wrong (the Devil) in the deep valley below, and a "fair field full of folk" (the world of living men) between them. He describes satirically all the different classes of people he sees there; then a lady named Holy Church rebukes him for sleeping and explains the meaning of all he sees. Further characters (Conscience, Liar, Reason and so on) enter the action; Conscience finally persuades many of the people to turn away from the Seven Deadly Sins and go in search of St. Truth, but they need a guide. Piers (Peter), a simple Plowman, appears and says that because of his common sense and clean conscience he knows the way and will show them if they help him plow his half acre. Some of the company help, but some shirk; and Piers becomes identified with Christ, trying to get men to work toward their own material relief from the current abuses of worldly power. In the last section of the poem, much less coherent than the rest, the dreamer goes on a rambling but unsuccessful summer-long quest, aided by Thought, Wit, and Study, in search of the men who are Do-Well, Do-Bet and Do-Best.

Prologue to The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman (B version)

In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit's unholy in works,
And went wide in the world wonders to hear.
But on a May morning on Malvern hills,
A marvel befell me of fairy, methought.
I was weary with wandering and went me to rest
Under a broad bank by a brook's side,
And as I lay and leaned over and looked into the waters
I fell into a sleep for it sounded so merry.

Then began I to dream a marvellous dream,
That I was in a wilderness wist I not where.
As I looked to the east right into the sun,
I saw a tower on a toft worthily built;
A deep dale beneath a dungeon therein,
With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight
A fair field full of folk found I in between,
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh.
Some put them to plow and played little enough,
At setting and sowing they sweated right hard
And won that which wasters by gluttony destroy.

Some put them to pride and apparelled themselves so
In a display of clothing they came disguised.
To prayer and penance put themselves many,
All for love of our Lord living hard lives,
In hope for to have heavenly bliss.
Such as anchorites and hermits that kept them in their cells,
And desired not the country around to roam;
Nor with luxurious living their body to please.

And some chose trade they fared the better,
As it seemeth to our sight that such men thrive.

And some to make mirth as minstrels know how,
And get gold with their glees guiltlessly, I hold.
But jesters and janglers children of Judas,
Feigning their fancies and making folk fools,
They have wit at will to work, if they would;
Paul preacheth of them I'll not prove it here --
Qui turpiloquium loquitur is Lucifer's hind.

Tramps and beggars went quickly about,
Their bellies and their bags with bread well crammed;
Cadging for their food fighting at ale;
In gluttony, God knows going to bed,
And getting up with ribaldry the thieving knaves!

Sleep and sorry sloth ever pursue them.
Pilgrims and palmers pledged them together
To seek Saint James and saints in Rome.
They went forth on their way with many wise tales,
And had leave to lie all their life after --
I saw some that said they had sought saints:
Yet in each tale that they told their tongue turned to lies
More than to tell truth it seemed by their speech.
Hermits, a heap of them with hooked staves,
Were going to Walsingham and their wenches too;
Big loafers and tall that loth were to work,
Dressed up in capes to be known from others;
And so clad as hermits their ease to have.

I found there friars of all the four orders,
Preaching to the people for profit to themselves,
Explaining the Gospel just as they liked,
To get clothes for themselves they construed it as they would.
Many of these master friars may dress as they will,
For money and their preaching both go together.
For since charity hath been chapman and chief to shrive lords,
Many miracles have happened within a few years.
Except Holy Church and they agree better together,
Great mischief on earth is mounting up fast.

There preached a pardoner as if he priest were:
He brought forth a brief with bishops' seals thereon,
And said that himself might absolve them all
From falseness in fasting and of broken vows.

Laymen believed him welcomed his words,

And came up on their knees to kiss his seals;
He cozened them with his brevet dimmed their eyes,
And with his parchment got his rings and brooches:
Thus they gave their gold gluttons to keep.
And lend it to such louts as follow lechery.
If the bishop were holy and worth both his ears,
His seal should not be sent to deceive the people.
But a word 'gainst bishop the knave never preacheth.
Parish priest and pardoner share all the silver
That the parish poor would have if he were not there.

Parsons and parish priests complained to the bishop
That their parishes were poor since the pestilence time,
And asked leave and licence in London to dwell
And sing requiems for stipends for silver is sweet.

Bishops and bachelors both masters and doctors,
That have charge under Christ and the tonsure as token
And sign that they should shrive their parishioners,
Preach and pray for them and feed the poor,
These lodge in London in Lent and at other times too.
Some serve the king and his silver count
In Chequer and Chancery courts making claim for his debts
Of wards and of wardmotes waifs and estrays.
And some serve as servants to lords and ladies,
And instead of stewards sit in session to judge.
Their mass and their matins their canonical hours,
Are said undevoutly I fear at the last
Lest Christ in his council accurse will full many.
I perceived of the power that Peter had to keep,
To bind and to unbind as the Book telleth,
How he left it with love as our Lord ordained,
Amongst four virtues the best of all virtues,
That cardinal are called for they hinge the gates
Where Christ is in glory to close and to shut
And to open it to them and show heavenly bliss.
But of cardinals at Rome that received that name
And power presumed in them a pope to make,
That they have Peter's power deny it I will not;
For to love and learning that election belongeth,
Therefore I can, and yet cannot of that court speak more.

Then came there a king with knighthood before him,

The might of the commons made him to reign;
Then came Mother-Wit and he made wise clerks
For to counsel the king and the commons save.

The king and the knighthood the clergy as well,
Planned that the commons should provide for themselves.

The commons contrived of Mother-Wit crafts,
And for profit of all they plowmen ordained
To till and travail as true life asketh.
The king and the commons and Mother-Wit too
Cause by law and loyalty each man to know his own.

Then looked up a lunatic a lean thing withal,
And kneeling before the king well speaking said:
`Christ keep thee sir King and thy kingdom,
And grant thee to rule the realm so Loyalty may love thee,
And for thy rightful ruling be rewarded in heaven.'
Then in the air on high an angel of heaven
Stooped and spoke in Latin for simple men could hot
Discuss nor judge that which should justify them,
But should suffer and serve therefore said the angel: `Sum Rex, sum Princeps: neutram fortasse deinceps;
O qui jura regis Christi specialia regis, hoc quod agas melius Justus es, esto pius!
Nudum jus a te vestiri vult pietate; qualia vis metere talia grand sere.
Si jus nudatur nudo de jure metatur; si seritur pietas de pietate
metas.'
Then an angry buffoon a glutton of words,
To the angel on high answered after: `Dum rex a regere dicatur nomen habere,
Nomen habet sine re nisi studet jura tenere.'

Then began all the commons to cry out in Latin,
For counsel of the king construe how-so he would: `Praecepta regis sunt nobis vincula legis.'
With that there ran a rout of rats at once,
And small mice with them more than thousand,
And came to a council for their common profit;
For a cat from the Court came when he liked
And o'er leaped them lightly and caught them at will,
Played with them perilously and pushed them about.
`For dread of divers dangers we dare not look about;
If we grumble at his game he will attack us all,
Scratch us or clutch us and in his claws hold us,

So that we loathe life ere he lets us go.
Could we with any wit his will withstand
We might be lords above him and live at our ease.'

A rat of renown most ready of tongue
Said, as a sovereign help to himself:
`I have seen men,' quoth he `in the city of London
Bearing bright necklaces about their necks,
Some with collars of skilful work uncoupled they wander
Both in warrens and wastes wherever they like;
And otherwhile they are elsewhere as I tell you.
Were there a bell on their collars by Jesus, I think
Men might know where they went and get out of their way!
And right so,' quoth that rat `reason me showeth
To buy a brass bell or one of bright silver
Make it fast to a collar for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck then we may hear
When he romps or rests or runneth to play.
And if he wants play then we may look out
And appear in his presence the while he play Iiketh,
And if he gets angry, beware and shun all his paths.'
All this rout of rats to this plan assented.
But though the bell was bought and on the collar hanged,
There was not a rat in the rout for all the realm of France
That dare bind on the bell about the cat's neck,
Nor hang it round her ears all England to win;
They held themselves not bold and their counsel feeble,
Esteemed their labour as lost and all their long plotting.

A mouse that knew much more as it seemed to me,
Ran forth determined and stood before them all,
And to the rout of rats rehearsed these words:
`Though we killed the cat yet there would come another,
To scratch us and all our kind though we creep under benches.
Therefore I counsel all the commons to let the cat be,
And be we never so bold to show to him the bell;
For I heard my sire say now seven years ago,
"When the cat is a kitten the Court is right wretched,"
As witnesseth Holy Writ whoso will it read: "Vae tibi, terra, cujus rex puer est."
No man can have rest there for the rats by night;
While the cat catcheth conies he covets not our carrion,
But feeds himself on venison may we never defame him!

For better is a little loss than a long sorrow;
He's the fear among us all whereby we miss worse things.
For many men's malt we mice would destroy,
And the riot of rats would rend men's clothes,
Were it not for that Court cat that can leap in among you;
For had ye rats your will ye could not rule yourselves.
As for me,' quoth the mouse 'I see so much to come
That cat nor kitten never shall by my counsel be harmed,
Nor carping of this collar that cost me nothing.
Though it had cost me full dear I would not own to it
But suffer him to live and do just as he liketh:
Coupled and uncoupled to catch what they can.
Therefore each wise wight I warn to watch well his own.'

What this dream meaneth ye men that be merry,
Divine ye, for I never dare by dear God in heaven!

There hovered an hundred in caps of silk,
Serjeants they seemed who practised at Bar,
Pleading the law for pennies and pounds,
And never for love of our Lord unloosing their lips.
You might better measure the mist on the Malvern hills,
Than get a sound out of their mouth unless money were showed.
Barons and burgesses and bondmen also
I saw in this crowd as you shall hear later.
Bakers and brewers and butchers a-many,
Woollen-websters and weavers of linen,
Tailors and tinkers toll-takers in markets,
Masons and miners and men of all crafts.
Of all kinds of labourers there stood forth some;
Ditchers and diggers that do their work ill
And spend all the day singing `Dieu vous sauve, dame Emme!'
Cooks and their knaves cried 'Pies, hot pies!
Good pork and good goose! Come, dine! Come, dine!'

Taverners unto them told the same tale:
`White wine of Alsace red wine of Gascony,
Wine of the Rhine, of Rochelle to help settle your meat!'
All this I saw sleeping and seven times more.

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