ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Middle English II: The Sacred, pt. 2

Piers Plowman

NOTE: YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO READ THE SELECTIONS FROM PIERS PLOWMAN FOR CLASS, AND THEY WILL NOT BE COVERED ON THE MIDTERM EXAM. These study questions are included for those who chose to read these short selections, NA 317-49, on their own. They provide an excellent example of medieval allegory and a useful context for future readings such as the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and the morality play Everyman.

Background:  REREAD NA 11-12 followed by 317-9. Know the meaning of the following: dream vision, allegory, passus, Harrowing of Hell. Know approximate life span of William Langland and dates given in Norton for Piers Plowman. Piers Plowman is written in alliterative verse. Langland and the Pearl-Poet (or Gawain-Poet) are the two master poets of the Alliterative Revival.

Compare Piers Plowman, a dream vision, to The Dream of the Rood and to The Pearl. To what extent is each "true"? What is the attitude towards "truth" in Piers Plowman? Of what forms of falsehood is he critical? What does the Dreamer have to say about the "truth" of other literary forms? Note his attitude toward story-telling Pilgrims (a prominent feature in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales). 

Consider the vision of society in the Field of Folk. To what extent is it an example of "Estates Satire"? (See also NA 210 and Hali Meidhad study guide for explanation of the three Estates and "Estates Satire.") What sorts of persons are described (social class, profession, age, gender)? What sorts of person are treated most negatively? Is Piers Plowman primarily an anti-ecclesiastical satire? What or who is the focus of Langland's criticism? Looking ahead: keep Langland's vision of society in mind when we get to Chaucer; compare/contrast the Field of Folk and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. For example: compare Langland's Pardoner (lines 68-82) with the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales (GP lines 671-716, NA 231-2; see also the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, NA 281-96). Look for other characters or types of person that appear in each work and note similarities and/or differences in their portrayal.

Allegory of Seven Deadly Sins: How are the two confessions (Envy, Gluttony) related to the descriptions in the vision of the Field of Folk? What is the relationship between Envy and various forms of falsehood? Note the description of revelry in a tavern, comparable perhaps to that in Chaucer's General Prologue (GP lines 749-823, NA 233-4). What is the function of the scene? Note the presence of women in the tavern scene. What sort of women are described?

The Image of the Plowman: (NOTE: DON'T WORRY ABOUT ALL THE DETAILS of pp. 263-273--CONSIDER THESE QUESTIONS AS YOU READ). Why do you think Langland makes Piers a Plowman? The first sort of person referred to in the description of the Field of Folk are plowers. What is the significance of that choice? How are they described? With whom are they immediately contrasted? Why is Piers Plowman able to guide the Pilgrims to Truth? What does the plowing of Piers's half-acre symbolize? Who else does Piers come to symbolize (esp. in the Harrowing of Hell passage)? What is meant by the "fruits of Piers the Plowman" in the description of the Harrowing of Hell? Looking ahead: there is also a description of a Plowman in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (GP lines 531-543, NA 228). What are the characteristics of Chaucer's Plowman? What characteristics does he share with Piers?

The Harrowing of Hell: (NOTE: DON'T WORRY ABOUT ALL THE DETAILS--CONSIDER THESE QUESTIONS AS YOU READ). Christ is described like a knight ready to joust for men's souls; later (line 349) he refers to his "liegemen." Compare with the warrior Christ and his "thanes" in the Dream of the Rood; compare also with the depiction of God in The Pearl or Hali Meidhad. To what extent does Langland's vision combine aspects of the religious themes found in both the Old English and the Middle English works which we have read thus far?. The allegorized description of Christ as a knight who will joust with the Fiend is immediately followed by a more liturgical account of the Passion. What is the effect of this juxtaposition? Why do you think Langland would include both? The two sorts of account are combined at the end of the passage, where the "knight's" adversary is not the "Fiend" but Longeus, a historical figure supposedly present at the Crucifixion, who "attacks" Christ with a lance. What is the effect of this blending of two sorts of story? 

Notice the use of allegory. To whom or what does the allegorical figure Love (lines 169-171, 182, 423) refer? Is there any connection with the love mentioned in line 365? What is the significance of the allegorical figure Book (lines 230-257)? Mercy, Truth, Righteousness and Peace represent the four cardinal virtues. Why do they come from the four compass points? Like Repentance in Passus 5, they are female figures. What (if anything) is implied about Langland's attitude toward women? In addition to the allegory, four other female figures are mentioned here--Mary, Eve, Pilate's wife and the "lizard with the lady's face." What is their significance? How do they add to our understanding of medieval attitudes toward women? (Consider also lines 602-4, NA 327-8). Upon awaking from his vision, the dreamer calls to his wife and daughter. Why might Langland have included this detail? Does it change our understanding of his attitude toward women?

The C-Text: Consider the final passage as an example of medieval autobiography. What does it tell us about Langland's view of himself? What does he say (or imply) about his status or activities as poet? Compare/contrast with Bede's view of Caedmon, and with the portrait of the Dreamer-Poet in the Pearl.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2002 

Click here for Background Information on the Alliterative Revival

Click here for Introduction to Medieval Allegory

Click here for The Pearl Study Questions

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