Plowman tradition comprises a large body of mostly anonymous, pseudepigraphic, and often hybrid texts produced over more than 200 years in which fiction and history, text and context cannot be easily differentiated. Its defining feature is the political appropriation of the figure and ethos of Piers Plowman—the character and the poem—as a voice for political and religious dissent during and after the Peasants' Revolt and throughout the English Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt, a priest named John Ball, put Piers and other characters from Piers Plowman into cryptic verses and speeches that were circulated in letters among the rebels. Consequently, the Dieulacres Abbey Chronicle named Piers as one of the leaders of the rising, as if he were a real person. This view of Piers was encouraged early in the history of the poem's scribal transmission, as the character Piers was often taken as an authorial persona, if not the name of the actual author whose name and identity was obscured, remaining a subject of some debate to this day.
In some contemporary chronicles of the Peasants' Revolt, Ball and the Lollards (see Lollardism) were blamed for the revolt, and Piers began to be associated with heresy and rebellion. The earliest literary works comprising the Piers Plowman tradition follow in the wake of these events, although they and their 16th-century successors are not antimonarchical or supportive of rebellion. Like William Langland, who may have written the C-text version of Piers Plowman to disassociate himself from the revolt, they look for the reform of the English church and society by the removal of abuses in what the authors deem a restorative, rather than an innovative, project.
The Piers Plowman tradition proper begins with a body of anonymous poetic and prose compositions circulated by manuscript that have an explicit or attributed kinship with Piers Plowman. They are politically charged, sometimes allegorical social complaints with elements of satire and polemic. These chiefly include Pierce The Ploughman's Crede (1395), The Complaynte of the Ploughman/The Plowman's Tale (1400), The Praier and Complaynte of the Ploweman unto Christe (1400), Richard the Redeless (1405), Mum and the Sothsegger (1405), and "The Crowned King" (1415). Many of these texts have a more or less evident Lollard message and provenance. Richard the Redeless and Mum and the Sothsegger are probably by the same author and may be two parts of a single work.
The Piers Plowman tradition was revived and transformed in the 16th century by the appearance of printed, and somewhat altered, pro-Protestant versions of The Praier and Complaynte of the Ploweman unto Christe (1531/32), The Plowman's Tale (1533-36, 1548), Piers Plowman (1550, 1561), and Pierce the Ploughman's Crede (1553, 1561). The purpose of these books was to support Protestantism, in part by establishing its antiquity and thus its authority. Notably, The Praier and Complaynte was printed with a preface possibly by the reformer William Tyndale. It was attacked by Sir Thomas More, and it appeared in four editions of John Foxe's Actes and Monuments from 1570 to 1610. The Plowman's Tale appeared in four editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's Works from 1542 to 1602. At that time Chaucer was widely considered to have been a Lollard, largely because of his association with poems he did not write, especially The Plowman's Tale, which was thought to correspond to Chaucer's Lollard Plowman in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
There is a considerable body of original 16th-century texts that might be included in the Piers Plowman tradition by dint of their use of plowmen figures or truth-telling characters named Piers in a satirical or critical fashion. For example, Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender has a character named Piers and borrows directly from The Plowman's Tale. Considering only the texts that contain or refer to a "Piers Plowman," the following stand out: A Godly Dyalogue and Dysputacyion Betwene Pyers Plowman and a Popysh Pre-
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est (1550); Thomas Churchyard's The Contention . . . upon David Dycers Dreame (1551-52); Pyers Plowmans Exhortation unto the Lordes, Knightes, and Burgoysses of the Parlyamenthouse (1550), possibly by Robert Crowley; George Gascoigne's The Steele Glas (1576); Newes from the North otherwise called the Conference between Simon Certain and Pierce Plowman (1579), possibly by Francis Thynne; and the play A Merry Knack to Know a Knave (1594), possibly by William Kempe and Edward Alleyn. There is also I Playne Piers which Cannot Flatter—an amalgam of material from The Plowman's Tale and new topical matter added after the 1540s. Unique among these pro-Protestant texts, The Banquet of John the Reeve unto Piers Plowman (1532) is an anti-Protestant work in which Piers defends Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.
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