Piers Plowman (written ca. 1360–1399) or Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman (William's Vision of Piers Plowman) is the title of a Middle English allegorical narrative poem by William Langland. It is written in unrhymed alliterative verse divided into sections called "passus" (Latin for "step"). Piers is considered by many critics to be one of the early great works of English literature along with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
The poem – part theological allegory, part social satire – concerns the narrator's intense quest for the true Christian life, which is told from the point of view of the medieval Catholic mind. This quest entails a series of dream-visions and an examination into the lives of three allegorical characters, Dowel ("Do-Well"), Dobet ("Do-Better"), and Dobest ("Do-Best").
The poem begins in the Malvern Hills in Malvern, Worcestershire. A man named Will falls asleep and has a vision of a tower set upon a hill and a fortress (donjon) in a deep valley; between these symbols of heaven and hell is a "fair field full of folk", representing the world of mankind. In the early part of the poem Piers, the humble plowman of the title, appears and offers himself as the narrator's guide to Truth. The latter part of the work, however, is concerned with the narrator's search for Dowel, Dobet and Dobest.
Memorandum quod Stacy de Rokayle pater willielmi de Langlond qui stacius fuit generosus & morabatur in Schiptoun vnder whicwode tenens domini le Spenser in comitatu Oxoniensi qui predictus willielmus fecit librum qui vocatur Perys ploughman.
(It should be noted that Stacy de Rokayle was the father of William de Langlond; this Stacy was of noble birth and dwelt in Shipton-under-Wychwood, a tenant of the Lord Spenser in the county of Oxfordshire. The aforesaid William made the book which is called Piers Plowman.)
Other manuscripts also name the author as "Robert or William langland", or "Wilhelmus W." (which could be shorthand for "William of Wychwood").
The attribution to William Langland is also based on internal evidence, primarily a seemingly autobiographical section in Passus 5 of the C-text of the poem. The main narrator of the poem in all the versions is named Will, with allegorical resonances clearly intended, and Langland (or Longland) is thought to be indicated as a surname through apparent puns; e.g., at one point the narrator remarks: "I have lyved in londe...my name is longe wille" (B.XV.152). This could be a coded reference to the poet's name, in the style of much late-medieval literature. Langland's authorship, however, is not entirely beyond dispute, as recent work by Stella Pates and C. David Benson has demonstrated.
In the sixteenth century, when Piers was first printed, authorship was attributed by various antiquarians (such as John Bale) and poets to John Wycliffe and Geoffrey Chaucer, amongst others. Some sixteenth and seventeenth-century persons regarded the poem as anonymous, and/or associated it with texts in the plowman tradition of social complaint, particularly the Chaucerian pseudepigrapha, The Plowman's Tale and Pierce the Ploughman's Crede. (The latter was appended to Owen Rogers' 1560 edition of Piers Plowman, a degraded version of Robert Crowley's 1550 editions.) The character of Piers himself had come to be considered by many readers to be in some sense the author.
The first printed editions by Crowley named the author as "Robert Langland" in a prefatory note. Langland is described as a probable protégé of Wycliffe. With Crowley's editions, the poem followed an existing and subsequently repeated convention of titling the poem The Vision of Piers [or Pierce] Plowman, which is in fact the conventional name of just one section of the poem.
Some medievalists and text critics, beginning with John Matthews Manly, have posited multiple authorship theories for Piers, an idea which continues to have a periodic resurgence in the scholarly literature. One scholar now disputes the single-author hypothesis, supposing that the poem may be the work of 2-5 authors, depending upon how authorship is defined. In keeping with contemporary scholarly trends in textual criticism, critical theory, and the history of the book, Charlotte Brewer, among others, suggests that scribes and their supervisors be regarded as editors with semi-authorial roles in the production of Piers Plowman and other early modern texts; but this has nothing to do with Manly's argument.
Piers Plowman is considered to be one of the most analytically challenging texts in Middle English textual criticism. There are 50-56 surviving manuscripts, some of which are fragmentary. None of the texts are known to be in the author's own hand, and none of them derive directly from any of the others.
All modern discussion of the text revolves around the classifications of W. W. Skeat. Skeat argued that there are as many as ten forms of the poem, but only three are to be considered authoritative—the A, B, and C-texts—although the definition of "authoritative" in this context is problematic. According to the three-version hypothesis, each version represents different manuscript traditions deriving from three distinct and successive stages of authorial revision. Although precise dating is debated, the A, B, and C texts are now commonly thought of as the progressive (20-25 yrs.) work of a single author.
According to the three versions hypothesis, the A-text was written ca. 1367-70 and is the earliest. It breaks off, apparently unfinished, at Book 11 and Book 12 is written by another author or interpolator. The poem runs to about 2500 lines. The B-text (Warner's ur-B text) was written ca. 1377-79; it revises A, adds new material, and is three times the length of A. It runs to about 7300 lines. The C-text was written in the 1380s as a major revision of B except for the final sections. There is some debate over whether the poem can be regarded as finished or not. It entails additions, omissions, and transpositions; it is not significantly different in size from B. Some scholars see it as a conservative revision of B that aims at disassociating the poem from Lollardy and the religious and political radicalism of John Ball during the Great Rising of 1381. (Ball appropriated Piers and other characters in the poem for his own verses, speeches, and letters during the Rising.) There is little actual evidence for this proposal, and much against it.
Skeat believed that the A-text was incomplete and based his editions on a B-text manuscript (Oxford, MS. Laud Misc. 581) that he wrongly thought was probably a holograph. Modern editors following Skeat, such as George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson, have maintained the basic tenets of Skeat's work: there were three final authorial texts, now lost, that can be reconstructed, albeit imperfectly and without certainty, by rooting out the "corruption" and "damage" done by scribes.
The Kane, Kane-Donaldson, and Russell-Kane editions of the three versions, published by the Athlone Press, have been controversial, but are considered among the most important accomplishments in modern editorial work and theory in Middle English. A. V. C. Schmidt has also published editions of A, B, and C; the promised second volume containing a full textual apparatus indicating his editorial decisions has not yet been published. For now, Schmidt's edition, while invaluable for classroom use and for a different perspective on the poem's textual history, is of less use to textual scholars working on the poem who require a critical edition.
A. G. Rigg and Charlotte Brewer hypothesized the existence of a Z-text predecessor to A which contains elements of both A and C. The Z-text is based on Oxford MS. Bodley 851, which Rigg and Brewer edited and published. It is the shortest version, and its authenticity is disputed. Ralph Hanna III has disputed the Rigg/Brewer approach based on codicological evidence and internal literary evidence; consequently the Z-text is now more commonly viewed as a scribal corruption of A with C elements. More recently, Lawrence Warner has shown that what was thought thought of as B in fact incorporates matter produced as part of the C-revision: if B circulated before C, it looked nothing like what had been assumed .
There are some scholars who dispute the ABC chronology of the texts altogether, Jill Mann foremost amongst them. There is also a (minority) school of thought that two authors contributed to the three versions of the poem. Neither of these reappraisals of the textual tradition of the poem are generally seen as very robust.
No doubt because of Ball's writings, the Dieulacres Abbey Chronicle account of the revolt refers to Piers, seemingly as a real person who was a leader with Ball in the revolt. Similarly, early in the history of the poem's dissemination in manuscript form, Piers is often treated as the author of the poem. Since it is hard to see how this is credible, to those who read the poem, perhaps the idea was that Piers was a mask for the author. Or, as the ideal character of the poem, Piers might be seen as a kind of alter-ego for the poet that was more important to his early readers than the obviously authorial narrator and his apparent self-disclosures as Will. Ironically, Will's name and identity were substantially lost.
In some contemporary chronicles of the Rising, Ball and the Lollards 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 sixteenth-century successors are not anti-monarchical or supportive of rebellion. Like William Langland, who may have written the C-Text version of Piers Plowman to disassociate himself from the Rising, 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.
Robert Crowley's 1550 editions of Piers Plowman present the poem as a social-gospelling Protestant's goad to the reformation of religion and society. The poem's publication probably did have resonance. Many texts evoke Piers and/or Plowmen for reforming purposes: one of the Marprelate tracts claims Piers Plowman for its grandfather.
Many scholars, and the new ODNB, assert that Piers Plowman was a banned book, that it was published as "propaganda" for reformist interests backed by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset or other high-placed aristocrats, and that Crowley added interpretive glosses and substantially altered the text of the poem for propaganda purposes. These inferences exceed the evidence, even if Piers Plowman was politically sensitive, as many books were in the Tudor period. The political nature of the poem—its mention of and association with popular rebellion—would obviously be unacceptable to the king, Somerset, and others, reform-minded though they were. In the passus summaries in the second and third editions, Crowley emphasizes material in the poem warning of political instability and widespread corruption when the king is a child (as was then the case); hardly state-sponsored propaganda. Other contemporary Edwardian and later Elizabethan publications by Crowley show that he was at this time concerned that the elite were using the Reformation to gain power and wealth, while the common people suffered economic and spiritual malnourishment.
Piers Plowman likely functioned for Crowley as a reformist text with polemic and prophetic qualities (although he denies the latter in his preface), but the text and apparatus do not overtly convey that impression. Some of Crowley's marginal glosses and his passus summaries are clearly polemical, but there are very few glosses (and no passus summaries) in the first edition. The assertion of propagandistic editorial intervention by Crowley exaggerates both his glosses, and the evidence that he deliberately deleted "Catholic" elements of Langland's poem--i.e., a few references to purgatory, transubstantiation, and some praise for monasticism. In the second and third editions, where the glosses were substantially increased, almost half are biblical citations.
Several scholarly sources claim that Crowley deleted 13 lines (N2r, B.10.291-303) praising monasticism. This idea first appears in an unpublished dissertation as a misreading of W. W. Skeat's parallel text edition of Piers Plowman. The error was repeated in John N. King's influential English Reformation Literature, p. 331. J. R. Thorne and Marie-Claire Uhart noted King's error by pointing out that the supposedly deleted passage does not appear in most extant manuscripts of the poem and was in all likelihood not in Crowley's source texts. ("Robert Crowley's Piers Plowman," Medium Aevum 55.2 (1986): 248-55.
Crowley may have made small attempts to remove or soften single references to transubstantiation, the Mass, purgatory, and the Virgin Mary as a mediator and object of devotion. He also appears to have added a line against clerical pluralism--a vice he often attacked and may have eventually indulged in personally--as it appears in no extant manuscripts of Piers Plowman. However, in regard to purgatory, Crowley left almost a dozen other references to it in the poem. And in the case of Mary, Crowley left at least three significant references to her in the poem. He actually added a line to his second and third editions that clearly refers to Marian intercession (F1r). Thorne and Uhart note that in the manuscript tradition, "Christ" frequently replaces "Mary," so again Crowley may be following his source texts rather than deviating from them, though he certainly may have preferred sources that de-emphasized Mary.
Crowley's first edition--aimed at the Latin-reading elite--was followed by subsequent editions. Crowley may have been financed by wealthy and highly-placed Protestants, perhaps even some who had the power to relax restrictions on the press at the end of Edward VI's reign. The first edition may have had little or only partial commercial success with a very small audience, and this would not necessarily preclude the production of further editions. Less than stellar sales and/or the limitations of a small market might have motivated the shift to a different audience in the later editions. It is probable that among the middle and lower classes it had some significance; this is supported by the contemporary proliferation of texts that responded to it; e.g.: Thomas Churchyard's. The poem's obscure record may have had something to do with Crowley's radical politics, and the prophetic/apocalyptic aspects of his edition.
There is, at any rate, strong evidence that Crowley's editions did not have much of an impact on Latin-literate, elite audiences. After 1550, it was not printed again until 1813 except for Owen Rogers' 1561 edition--a cheap knock-off of Crowley's text that omits the preface naming the author while adding--in some cases--Pierce the Ploughman's Crede. The few people who mention Piers Plowman before 1700 usually attribute it to someone other than Langland, and often it is unclear if they are referring to Langland's poem or one of the many other texts circulating in print as part of the Piers Plowman Tradition, particularly The Plowman's Tale. Since Piers was conflated with the author and dreamer-narrator of the poem at an early date, "Piers Plowman" or a Latin equivalent is often given as the name of the author, which indicates complete unfamiliarity with--or else silent incredulity toward--Crowley's preface.
Aside from Raphael Holinshed who merely quotes John Bale, the only sixteenth-century references to "Robert Langland" as the author of Piers Plowman come from Bale and Crowley in his preface to the various impressions. In 1580 John Stow attributed Piers Plowman to "John Malvern," a name that surfaces again with John Pitts in 1619 and Anthony à Wood in 1674. Wood also supplied "Robertus de Langland" as a possible alternative, and Henry Peacham attributed the poem to John Lydgate in 1622. Except for Crowley and Francis Meres (who simply cribs Webbe) William Webbe is the only person to comment on the alliterative Piers Plowman favorably, since he disliked verse with "the curiosity of Ryme." However, Webbe still disparaged the poem's harsh and obscure language. Several other writers regard the poem's matter approvingly, seeing it as anti-Catholic satire and polemic.
The Plowman's Tale was printed more and over a longer period of time than Piers Plowman; it was also printed as a Chaucerian text and included in many editions of Chaucer and mentioned as a familiar text in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Such associations gave it far more exposure--and positive exposure--than Piers Plowman. Yet in many cases it seems that readers read or heard of The Plowman's Tale or another plowman text and thought it was Piers Plowman. (E.g., John Leland, William Prynne, possibly John Milton, and John Dryden.) Given the diffusion of different Piers/Plowman texts, it is usually not possible to be certain about what someone means to refer to when they mention "Piers Plowman" unless they provide specific identifying details--and most writers do not.
When Langland's poem is mentioned, it is often disparaged for its barbarous language. Similar charges were made against Chaucer, but he had more defenders and was already well established as a historical figure and "authority." Despite the work of Bale and Crowley, Langland's name appears to have remained unknown or unaccepted since other authors were suggested after Crowley's editions. Sometimes "Piers Plowman" was referred to as the author of the poem, and when writers refer to a list of medieval authors, they will often mention Piers Plowman as an author's name or a substitute for one. One gets the overall impression that Langland and Piers Plowman had less existence as author and text than did the fictional figure of Piers, whose relationship to a definite authorial and textual origin had been obscured much earlier.
Crowley's (or Rogers') edition may have reached Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, John Milton, and John Bunyan, but no records, citations, borrowed lines, or clear allusions to Piers Plowman exist in their writings. Spenser and Milton do directly refer to The Plowman's Tale. Milton quotes two stanzas from it in Of Reformation, attributing it to Chaucer, and he makes another allusion in An Apology for a Pamphlet that could be to Piers Plowman but is more likely to The Plowman's Tale. Spenser liberally borrows from The Plowman's Tale in The Shepheardes Calendar, also attributing it to Chaucer. Raphael Holinshed briefly refers to it in his Chronicles, borrowing from Bale. John Stow refers to it but attributes it to a John Malvern. William Webbe refers to its "quantitative" meter and language approvingly, but his knowledge of the poem is indirect. Francis Meres later repeated Webbe's remarks. Abraham Fraunce mentions Piers Plowman, but he merely repeats the identifying features printed in Crowley's preface and Bale's indices. George Puttenham, calls it a satire in his Arte of English Poesie, noting its obscure language unapprovingly. Others of this era also regarded Piers Plowman as a satire; perhaps the other plowman texts typically associated with it contributed to this generic classification.
Samuel Pepys owned a copy of Piers Plowman. A Crowley edition owned in 1613 by an educated English Catholic, Andrew Bostoc, has its owner's notes responding to Crowley's in the margins, refuting them from the text itself, discriminating between the editor and the author/text. Milton cites "Chaucer's Plowman" in "Of Reformation" (1641) when he is discussing poems that have described Constantine as a major contributor to the corruption of the church. The end of Piers Plowman, Passus 15, makes this point at length--but it is also made briefly in one stanza in The Plowman's Tale (ll. 693-700). In "An Apology for a Pamphlet..." Milton refers to The Vision and Crede of Pierce Plowman, which might mean one or both of these texts. Perhaps it refers to Rogers' 1561 edition which put them together. Edmund Bolton argued for the language of the court as the appropriate language for writing history. For Bolton, Spenser's Hymns are good models, but the rest of his poems are not--and neither are those of "Jeff. Chaucer, Lydgate, Peirce Ploughman, or Laureat Skelton." John Pitts (1619) attributes Piers Plowman to John Malvern, Henry Peacham (1622) attributes it to Lydgate. Henry Selden (1622) appears to have read the poem closely enough to admire it for its criticism of the church as well as its judgment and invention. He gives the author as Robert Langland. John Weever (1631) also names Robert Langland, as does David Buchanan (1652). Buchanan, however, makes Langland a Scot and attributes other works to him aside from Piers Plowman. Thomas Fuller (1662) bases his remarks about Langland on Selden and Bale, emphasizing Langland's proto-Protestant status. Fuller also notes that The Praier and Complaynte of the Ploweman unto Christe was "first set forth by Tindal, since, exemplified by Mr. Fox." Since the language of this text is similar to that of Piers Plowman, Fuller attributes it to Langland as well. Anthony à Wood mentions both Malvern and Langland as author names. Thomas Dudley, father of Anne Dudley Bradstreet (1612-72), brought a copy of Crowley's Piers Plowman to America. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) owned a copy of Rogers' reprint of Crowley's edition of Piers Plowman with the Crede appended, and Isaac D'Israeli (1766-1848) wrote in his Amenities of Literature that Pope had "very carefully analyzed the whole" of the latter text. D'Israeli also mentions Lord Byron's (1788-1824) praise for Piers Plowman.
With Whitaker an editorial tradition truly began in the modern sense, with each new editor striving to present the "authentic" Piers Plowman and challenging the accuracy and authenticity of preceding editors and editions. Then, as before in the English Reformation, this project was driven by a need for a national identity and history that addressed present concerns, hence analysis and commentary typically reflected the critic's political views. In the hands of Frederick Furnivall and W. W. Skeat, Piers Plowman could be, respectively, a consciousness-raising text in the Working Man's College or a patriotic text for grammar school pupils.
Piers Plowman has often been read primarily as a political document. In an 1894 study, J. J. Jusserand was primarily concerned with what he saw as the poem's psychological and sociopolitical content--as distinct from the aesthetic or literary--in a dichotomy common to all modern humanistic studies. Four years later Vida Dutton Scudder compared the poem with socialist ideas from the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and the Fabians.
Introduced to the emerging university programs for English language and literature, Piers Plowman helped round out the English literary canon.