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Plowman." English Studies 6 (1980): 193-301. Yunck, John A. The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Veniality Satire. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.
Bonnie S. Millar
Piers Plowman: Passus 6 William Langland (ca.
1381-1382) Passus 6 of the B-text (Passus 7 in the A-text) presents William Langland's experiment in solving the problems created by human action and inaction, by human need and greed, and by social forces and social disillusionment. In Passus 5, Piers explains the route through obedience to the Ten Commandments that a person must follow in order to reach Saint Truth. Passus 6 presents a further unfolding of the pilgrimage motif in a nontraditional mode. The scholar J. A. Burrow says the "half-acre episode" of Passus 6 has been called "a kind of pilgrimage" because work, which is given a new status of value in the poem, takes the place of a literal pilgrimage. Though Langland is not opposed to pilgrimage entirely, it is clear that he views it as an intensely personal activity with corporate dimensions.
Passus 6 is rooted in the social problems surrounding the Black Death (1348-49) and the wages paid to the remaining laborers in the initial years following the catastrophic event (the Statutes of Laborers of 1351). The events in this passus display one of the central conflicts at the heart of the poem: the individual versus society. In the poem, Langland asks the essential question about the nature of reform: Can one reform society itself, or can one reform the individual as a key to larger social and spiritual change? As several scholars have noted, Langland appears to endorse the view that social reform can only follow ecclesiastical change.
Passus 6 opens with the pilgrims who are seeking St. Truth in a quandary about Piers's allegorical directions using the Ten Commandments as a road map for travel, as featured in Passus 5. Piers offers to lead them after the planting of his half-acre and the harvest. A faithful member of the feudal order of the manor, Piers must fulfill his obligations, and he engages others in the reestablishment of "truth," which serves as a symbolic image of the feudal order. "Truth," identified with God in Passus 1, is here imaged in the threefold order of society (those who fight, pray, and work). The "noble experiment" of the half-acre continues with Piers putting all people to work, according to their abilities and class pursuits. Noble women sew vestments for clergy; middle-class married women and widows weave cloth. A knight who volunteers to learn aspects of plowing is instructed to "kepe Holy Kirke and myselve (Piers) / Fro wastours and fro wikked men that this world des-tuyeth" (l. 27-28) instead. The knight becomes, for Piers, the representation of order in its most clearly manifested form. In the midst of this activity, Piers adopts "pilgrimages wise" (l. 57)—that is, actual clothing that he wears for planting. Piers next writes his will, a practice common before going on a pilgrimage, in which he leaves his soul to God, his body to the church for burial, and his goods to his wife and children. As he begins his plowing of the half-acre, all seems to be going well, until he stops to survey the work.
At "heigh prime" (l. 112), or 9:00 a.m., Piers stops to survey his half-acre and notices that some have already stopped working and are singing idle songs ("How trolly lolly," l. 116). Their decadent songs and idleness reinforce the images of destruction apparent in society at large. Piers angrily rebukes them and says he will not support anyone who is physically able to work to earn sustenance. Surveying those who pretend to have various disabilities, Piers rebukes their fraudulence. The workers remain indignant toward Piers, especially the Breton Bragger, who tells Piers to "go pissen with his plowgh" (l. 155). Not even the knight, who speaks in mild and ineffectual tones, can get the peasants back to work on the half-acre that Piers holds in trust from Truth. Piers then summons Hunger, who is quite successful in getting the peasant workers to reengage their labor, both out of want and fear. Hunger reduces many to the state of starvation and malnutrition—common images throughout England after the Black Death. Yet summoning Hunger brings its own set of problems. Langland the poet, through Piers, asks Hunger about how to keep people working. Fundamentally, Langland is asking one of the challenging questions about the use of force to maintain social control: What is the appropriate level of force to be applied to make society work?
Hunger suggests to Piers that it is important to distinguish those who are in need from whose who should be punished for their falseness. The truly poor deserve charity, while those who shirk their duties, according to Hunger, may be hit hard with adversity. Hunger's method, however, results in people only working to avoid starvation. In fact, Piers and others must offer a gluttonous amount of food to send Hunger away, only to discover that when Hunger/hunger is satisfied, the people have again become lazy. The passus ends with a warning that in five years, hunger, famine, and flood will return to judge the people.
Readers of this passus will notice a confusing sense of failure and success. Piers has been able to get a new understanding of the social order reestablished, the feudal model. Truth in the form of productive activity reigns for a moment, but it is maintained not by mutual consent, but by force. Scholars continue to debate this ending. Some see Piers as a failed leader, while others view the scene as a whole as a commentary on why corporate failure occurs. Still others see elements of a conflict between Piers as a representation of Old Testament law and New Testament grace. Work alone cannot save, nor can obedience to the Law. If society cannot be reformed from the top down, as noted in earlier passus of the poem, can it be reformed from the bottom up here? Some good, however, has been accomplished because a general lawlessness has been held in check, even if it is only momentarily.
Human needs, wants, desires, and motivations are at the center of Langland's contemplation of society in Piers Plowman, and the plowing of the half-acre episode presents the first installment of that question with its potential answer. Human need can blind people to personal actions and ethics; human need can thwart social responsibility. Reactivity can provide only partial answers. Herein lies Piers's problem in not being able to anticipate the problems of various social schemes. He remains an enigma that demonstrates lack of comprehension.
See also allegory, Piers Plowman (overview).
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