Aers, David. Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory. London: Arnold, 1975.
Alford, John A., ed. A Companion to Piers Plowman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988. Baldwin, Anna P. The Theme of Government in Piers Plowman.
Cambridge: Brewer, 1981. Bloomfield, Morton. Piers Plowman as a Fourteenth-Century Apocalypse. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962.
Brewer, Charlotte, and A. G. Rigg, eds. Piers Plowman: A Fascimile of the Z-Text in Bodelian Library, Oxford MS Bod-ley 851. Woodbridge, U.K.: Boydell & Brewer, 1994. Griffiths, Lavinia. Personification in Piers Plowman. Cambridge: Brewer, 1985. Pearsall, Derek, ed. William Langland's Piers Plowman: The C-Text. 2nd ed. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994. Schmidt, A. V. C., ed. William Langland: Piers Plowman: A Critical Edition of the B-Text based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17. 2nd ed. London: Dent, 1995. Simpson, James. Piers Plowman: An Introduction to the B-Text. London: Longman, 1990.
Piers Plowman: Prologue William Langland (ca. 1362-1386) The prologue to Piers Plowman opens with the narrator wandering in the Malvern Hills, where he lies down by a stream, falls asleep, and has a dream. Dressed in sheep-like garments that suggest he is an errant sinner and a penitent, he is tired, having gone astray, implying he is a lost soul. He has been preoccupied with the things of this world. In his dream, he sees "a fair feeld ful of folk" (B-text, l. 17) overlooked by two castles; there is a tower on a hill and a dungeon in a valley, representing heaven and hell. In the A-text, the rest of the Prologue consists of little more than a catalogue of the people present and observations on whether they do or do not fulfill their duties. It discusses those who work and those who laze around, consuming the efforts of others. There is a strong moralizing note, unlike the geniality of Geoffrey Chaucer. In the B-text, lines 31-32, there is a harsh note against cupidity, the desire to acquire riches. Lines 35-36 note that those who lie make fools of themselves.
There is no obvious order in the portraits. There are large numbers of people milling about, good and bad people intermingling. Underlying these seemingly hap hazard portraits is the Parable of the Tares from Matthew 13: 24-30, which advocates the urgency to work, accumulate righteous treasure, and grow in goodness. At the heart of William Langland's vision of society and religion is their corruption by the desire to accumulate wealth. The reader is invited to see all this confusion of people in relation to the tower and the dungeon. The Palmer is a pilgrim who comes back from the Holy Land with a palm. There is no merit in going on pilgrimages unless it stems from an inner impulse. Lines 46-86 in the B-text Prologue provides more examples of money-grubbing by religious orders. This concern with wealth disrupts the possibility of penitence for mankind. Langland uses invective language such as "losels" (wretches) in line 77 and "boy" (rogue) in line 80 to convey this. Cupidity is the route of all evils.
Langland appears to turn the traditional model of society, the Three Estates (peasants, knights, and clergy) upside down. Ploughmen appear to be placed to the fore, created by Kynde Wit (natural understanding) to benefit the community. This is because Langland is interested in each individual's contribution and soul rather than an attempt to promote an alternative social model. He shares the general anticlericism of the time, referring to the schism in the papacy of September 1378 in B-text lines 107-111 and C-text lines 134-188. This has led earlier critics and contemporary readers to associate him with Lollardism and John Wycliffe. In the C -text, Langland tempers his criticism of clerics and condemns vagrants and those who pervert the traditional order of society, possibly in response to such a reception.
In the latter B- and C- texts, there are two additional episodes, a coronation scene and the Rat or "Belling of the Cat" tale, which raise political and historical issues. The coronation scene deals with the question of counsel, who should advise the king. The king is offered various forms of counsel, but only in the B-text is the common populace allowed to proffer advice (B-text, l. 122, 139-142). In the C-text, the monarch relies on Kynde Wit and Conscience (C-text, l. 147, 151). The B-text was written shortly after Richard II's coronation. In the Rat fable, Langland censors the community's attempts to prevent the cat exercising its authority and hindering some of their desires. The cat has been compared to Edward III, Richard II, and John of Gaunt, but it is not definitively linked to any of them.
The poem, particularly the Prologue, has been used extensively as a source of information about social, political, and ecclesiastical history. Earlier studies tend to be limited and to overlook what Langland was trying to achieve. They have also tended to try and reduce everything in the poem to a simple mirror of late 14th-century society.
Piers Plowman has been considered a vision for reform. Critics have investigated its generic influences—satire, prophecy, vision—and tried to establish what it is exhorting us to do. Alternatively, one can take an exegetical approach and access its use of scripture and theology. Piers Plowman is such a complex poem that debates over its text, sources, and the concepts it puts forward are still far from achieving consensus. Current thinking favors looking at Langland's handling of literary, theological, political, and historical sources as well as genres and forms, rather than defining what they are. It is now accepted that Piers Plowman is not merely a compendium of late 14th-century British life and thought; rather, it is an intricate and enigmatic literary masterpiece.
See also "Crowned King, The"; Piers Plowman (overview); Piers Plowman tradition.
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