William Langland's Piers Plowman

William Langland is not a well-known writer due to having spent the entirety of his life working on a single work–Piers Plowman. He did write three versions: A text, B text, and the C text. There were revisions made to each text, but the one text with the most revisions is the C text, in which the political language is toned down.

Many scholars have speculated that C text, written in 1390, was toned done in political language due to the Peasant Rebellion that occurred in 1381. This is due to the rebels actually calling out the name of Piers Plowman while rioting. Piers is a fictional character in Langland’s visionary poem who undergoes numerous tasks in attempting to find the road to salvation, alongside Will. The poem, broken up into 20 passus ("steps") highlights and personifies vices as all powerful, and the virtues are strong, at moments, yet quickly overcome by the battle between the vices.

The poem appears to end on a triumphant note in which Will, the character attempting to find the road to truth and knowledge, learns that caritas (charity) is man’s salvation. Yet, the poem ends with an apocalyptic tone with the vices building in strength and the virtues giving up the fight.

The end of the world in which Piers exists seems doomed…and then the poem ends. Though this is a visionary poem, was Langland more concerned with the sanctity of religion, or with the unsettling state of England? This was at the time when famines and plagues were rampant, and parliament became increasingly greedy and cruel with taxation and land seizure. Or, was Langland simply connecting these two facets to show how the vices of Parliament would eventually lead to the destruction of man as one is left with nothing…there is nothing to lose?

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