English Literature for Boys and Girls
by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Chapter 20: "Piers The Ploughman" - continued
WHEN Langland fell asleep upon the Malvern Hills he dreamed a wondrous dream. He thought that he saw a "fair field full of folk," where was gathered "all the wealth of the world and the woe both."
"Working and wondering as the world asketh,
Some put them to the plough and played them full seldom,
In eareing and sowing laboured full hard."
But some are gluttons and others think only of fine clothes. Some pray and others jest. There are rogues and knaves here, friars and priests, barons and burgesses, bakers and butchers, tailors and tanners, masons and miners, and folk of many other crafts. Indeed, the field is the world. It lies between a tower and a dungeon. The tower is God, the dungeon is the dwelling of the Evil One.
Then, as Langland looked on all this, he saw
"A lady lovely in face, in linnen i-clothed,
Come adown from the cliff and spake me fair,
And said, 'Son, sleepest thou? Seest thou this people
All how busy they be about the maze?'"
Langland was "afeard of her face though she was fair." But the lovely lady, who is Holy Church, speaks gently to the dreamer. She tells him that the tower is the dwelling of Truth, who is the lord of all and who gives to each as he hath need. The dungeon is the castle of Care.
"Therein liveth a wight that Wrong is called,
The Father of Falseness."
Love alone, said the lady, leads to Heaven,
"Therefore I warn ye, the rich, have ruth on the poor.
Though ye be mighty in councils, be meek in your works,
For the same measure ye meet, amiss or otherwise,
Ye shall be weighed therewith when ye wend hence."
"Truth is best in all things," she said at length. "I have told thee now what Truth is, and may no longer linger." And so she made ready to go. But the dreamer kneeled on his knees and prayed her stay yet a while to teach him to know Falsehood also, as well as Truth.
And the lady answered:--
"'Look on thy left hand and see where he standeth,
Both False and Flattery and all his train.'
I looked on the left hand as the Lady me taught.
Then was I ware of a woman wondrously clothed,
Purfled with fur, the richest on earth.
Crowned with a crown. The King hath no better.
All her five fingers were fretted with rings
Of the most precious stones that a prince ever wore;
In red scarlet she rode, beribboned with gold,
There is no queen alive that is more adorned."
This was Lady Meed or Bribery. "To-morrow," said Holy Church, "she shall wed with False." And so the lovely Lady departed.
Left alone the dreamer watched the preparations for the wedding. The Earldom of Envy, the Kingdom of Covetousness, the Isle of Usury were granted as marriage gifts to the pair. But Theology was angry. He would not permit the wedding to take place. "Ere this wedding be wrought, woe betide thee," he cried. "Meed is wealthy; I know it. God grant us to give her unto whom Truth wills. But thou hast bound her fast to Falseness. Meed is gently born. Lead her therefore to London, and there see if the law allows this wedding."
So, listening to the advice of Theology, all the company rode off to London, Guile leading the way.
But Soothness pricked on his palfrey and passed them all and came to the King's court, where he told Conscience all about the matter, and Conscience told the King.
Then quoth the King, "If I might catch False and Flattery or any of their masters, I would avenge me on the wretches that work so ill, and would hang them by the neck and all that them abet."
So he told the Constable to seize False and to cut off Guile's head, "and let not Liar escape." But Dread was at the door and heard the doom. He warned the others, so that they all fled away save Meed the maiden.
"Save Meed the maiden no man durst abide,
And truly to tell she trembled for fear,
And she wept and wrung her hands when she was taken."
But the King called a Clerk and told him to comfort Meed. So Justice soon hurried to her bower to comfort her kindly, and many others followed him. Meed thanked them all and "gave them cups of clean gold and pieces of silver, rings with rubies and riches enough." And pretending to be sorry for all that she had done amiss, Meed confessed her sins and was forgiven.
The King then, believing that she was really sorry, wished to marry her to Conscience. But Conscience would not have her, for he knew that she was wicked. He tells of all the evil things she does, by which Langland means to show what wicked things men will do if tempted by bribery and the hope of gain.
"Then mourned Meed and plained her to the King." If men did great and noble deeds, she said, they deserved praise and thanks and rewards.
"'Nay,' quoth Conscience to the King, and kneeled to the ground,
'There be two manner of Meeds, my Lord, by thy life,
That one the good God giveth by His grace, giveth in His bliss
To them that will work while that they are here.'"
What a laborer received, he said, was not Meed but just Wages. Bribery, on the other hand, was ever wicked, and he would have none of her.
In spite of all the talk, however, no one could settle the question. So at length Conscience set forth to bring Reason to decide.
When Reason heard that he was wanted, he saddled his horse Suffer-till-I-see-my-time and came to court with Wit and Wisdom in his train.
The King received him kindly, and they talked together. But while they talked Peace came complaining that Wrong had stolen his goods and ill-treated him in many ways.
Wrong well knew that the complaint was just, but with the help of Meed he won Wit and Wisdom to his side. But Reason stood out against him.
"'Counsel me not,' quoth Reason, 'ruth to have
Till lords and ladies all love truth
And their sumptuous garments be put into chests,
Till spoiled children be chastened with rods,
Till clerks and knights be courteous with their tongues,
Till priests themselves practise their preaching
And their deeds be such as may draw us to goodness.'"
The King acknowledged that Reason was right, and begged him to stay with him always and help him to rule. "I am ready," quoth Reason, "to rest with thee ever so that Conscience be our counsellor."
To that the King agreed, and he and his courtiers all went to church. Here suddenly the dream ends. Langland cries:--
"Then waked I of my sleep. I was woe withal
That I had not slept more soundly and seen much more."
The dreamer arose and continued his wandering. But he had only gone a few steps when once again he sank upon the grass and fell asleep and dreamed. Again he saw the field full of folk , and to them now Conscience was preaching, and at his words many began to repent them of their evil deeds. Pride, Envy, Sloth and others confessed their sins and received forgiveness.
Then all these penitent folk set forth in search of Saint Truth, some riding, some walking. "But there were few there so wise as to know the way thither, and they went all amiss." No man could tell them where Saint Truth lived. And now appears at last Piers Ploughman, who gives his name to the whole poem.
"Quoth a ploughman and put forth his head,
'I know him as well as a clerk know his books.
Clear Conscience and Wit showed me his place
And did engage me since to serve him ever.
Both in sowing and setting, which I labour,
I have been his man this fifteen winters.'"
Piers described to the pilgrims all the long way that they must go in order to find Truth. He told them that they must go through Meekness; that they must cross the ford Honor-your-father and turn aside from the brook Bear-no-false-witness, and so on and on until they come at last to Saint Truth.
"It were a hard road unless we had a guide that might go with us afoot until we got there," said the pilgrims. So Piers offered, if they would wait until he had plowed his field, to go with them and show them the way.
"That would be a long time to wait," said a lady. "What could we women do meantime?"
And Piers answered:--
"Some should sew sacks to hold wheat.
And you who have wool weave it fast,
Spin it speedily, spare not your fingers
Unless it be a holy day or holy eve.
Look out your linen and work on it quickly,
The needy and the naked take care how they live,
And cast on them clothes for the cold, for so Truth desires."
Then many of the pilgrims began to help Piers with his work. Each man did what he could, "and some to please Piers picked up the weeds."
"But some of them sat and sang at ale
And helped him to plough with 'Hy-trolly-lolly.'
To these idle ones Piers went in anger. "If ye do not run quickly to your work," he cried, "you will receive no wage; and if ye die of hunger, who will care."
Then these idle ones began to pretend that they were blind or lame and could not work. They made great moan, but Piers took no heed and called for Hunger. Then Hunger seized the idle ones and beat and buffeted them until they were glad to work.
At last Truth heard of Piers and of all the good that he was doing among the pilgrims, and sent him a pardon for all his sins. In those days people who had done wrong used to pay money to a priest and think that they were forgiven by God. Against that belief Langland preaches, and his pardon is something different. It is only
"Do well and have well, and God shall have thy soul.
And do evil and have evil, hope none other
That after thy death day thou shalt turn to the Evil One."
And over this pardon a priest and Piers began so loudly to dispute that the dreamer awoke,
"And saw the sun that time towards the south,
And I meatless and moneyless upon the Malvern Hills."
That is a little of the story of the first part of Piers Ploughman. It is an allegory, and in writing it Langland wished to hold up to scorn all the wickedness that he saw around him, and sharply to point out many causes of misery. There is laughter in his poem, but it is the terrible and harsh laughter of contempt. His most bitter words, perhaps, are for the idle rich, but the idle poor do not escape. Those who beg without shame, who cheat and steal, who are greedy and drunken have a share of his wrath. Yet Langland is not all harshness. His great word is Duty, but he speaks of Love too. "Learn to love, quoth King, and leave off all other." The poem is rambling and disconnected. Characters come on the scene and vanish again without cause. Stories begin and do not end. It is all wild and improbable like a dream, yet it is full of interest.
But perhaps the chief interest and value of Piers Ploughman is that it is history. It tells us much of what the people thought and of how they lived in those days. It shows us the first mutterings of the storm that was to rend the world. This was the storm of the Reformation which was to divide the world into Protestant and Catholic. But Langland himself was not a Protestant. Although he speaks bitter words against the evil deeds of priest and monk, he does not attack the Church. To him she is still Holy Church, a radiant and lovely lady.
BOOKS TO READ
The Vision of Piers Ploughman, by W. Langland