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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Who is Piers Ploughman?

Langland’s Piers the Ploughman [1] is read today for its vivid realistic pictures of medieval life and for it its attacks on church corruption (read by some as early rumblings of the Reformation) as well as on human folly generally. Rooted indeed in realism, as the best of phantasmagorias are, the author’s vision extends to the metaphysical. Though Langland doubtless considered himself altogether orthodox, his marvelous and complex narrative seems at times radical in its theology, often at the poem’s most dramatic moments.

Piers the Ploughman is a dizzying dream vision which provides as many glimpses of symbolic moral and metaphysical propositions as it does genre scenes. Though Langland’s narrative shares with the later masque form the use of allegorical characters, in Piers the Ploughman they move in a lively, almost cinematic movement, in contrast to the hieratic formalism of the later spectacle (performed though it was). Among the elements that keep the text decentered is the dynamic question of who Piers in fact is. [2] He is identified at different times with Christ, St. Peter, and the Good Samaritan. Most often a farmer (and sometimes an overseer of farm laborers), he is more generally considered a type of the worker and at times seems to be instead a tailor, a tinker, or a weaver. In other passages he seems a sort of landlord, a magistrate, or a ruler, even a universal ruler, though he also can appear as a type of the English subject or, in other passages, more a representative of all of humanity.

Some readers have found the medieval system of Biblical exegesis (literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical) useful for sorting Piers’ roles, and many find that a simple division between an earthly Piers, representing an idealized worker in Part One, and a semi-divinized, Christ-like one in Part Two.

There can be no question that Langland foregrounds the laity. The poem consistently privileges charitable works (indeed, work in general), giving little attention to the sacraments or the Papacy. Will’s instruction to seek Do-Well prepares the way for Piers’ marshaling the masses to pursue salvation. Piers is said to discount everything except love. (193) In particular he “shrugs aside” all learning, the means by which a man enters religious orders and masters the sacred spells in Latin. Langland twists scripture to make St. Paul condemn friars. (192)

Not only, though, is the focus of the church decentered from its ordained bureaucrats. More significantly, the title character – Piers – is presented with a shifting and mysterious identity. His complexity has radical theological implications. The essence of Christianity is surely Christ’s mysterious combination of divine and human nature. Though he shares this characteristic to one extent or another with a great many deities, including a whole pantheon from the ancient Near East, including Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Baal, and Dionysos, such a figure is notably absent in Islam, Judaism, and other religions. While the imitation of Christ was an ideal from the earliest Christian times, those who identified too closely with Christ were often, like Meister Eckhart and the Quakers, labeled heretics. The adversarial relationship with the church establishment was sometimes returned by individuals such as Richard Rolle who criticized the church’s corruption and sought a route to salvation/enlightenment outside its organization. Though Langland seems to have been a minor cleric who made a modest living from his humble position in the hierarchy (performing funerals, for instance), the lay Christian is central in his book. While avoiding outright dissent from dogma, Langland’s poem places its central drama far closer to home than Rome, in the soul’s psychomachia.

Piers’ and even Will’s conflation with Christ appears in various forms. Will says, “I have never seen [Christ] in person – only His reflection in myself, as in a mirror.” (221) Christ’s coming is associated with the ripening of Piers’ fruit. At one point, Piers fights the devil using Christ as a weapon. (239) At another a rider resembles the Samaritan and also Piers, but is greeted by Faith as the Son of David, simply wearing Piers’ human nature like armor for the showdown with Satan. (255) Will questions whether this Christ in human garb is in fact Piers. (269) Most tellingly, Piers is given custody of the pardon [3] Christ won for humanity (274) and given the power to make communion bread. (279) Piers even goes about the business of constructing the institutional church. (278) Yet the same status seems available to all. Holy Church herself tells Will “He who speaks nothing but the truth, and acts by it, wishing no man ill, is like Christ, a god on earth and in Heaven – those are St. Luke’s words.” (72) (Tellingly, the Biblical citation is untraceable.) Most striking of all is the claim that charity can be discerned “only by knowing the heart. And no one on earth, not even a priest, can know that, but only Piers the Ploughman – Peter, that is, Christ.” (223)

Langland does not claim union with God as some mystics of all traditions have. The implications of the character of Piers fall far short of the thundering revelation of the Chandogya Upanishad: tat tvam asi; That art thou; atman = Atman. While to Eckhart “God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less,” [4] Langland not only stops short of identifying Piers with God, he also includes another layer of separation with his persona Long Will. Nonetheless, the book powerfully expresses the potential for the individual to find salvation/enlightenment, to pursue a righteous path through life, and to lose ego in the divine, all without benefit of the Catholic church whose officials tend here to appear most unchristian. The dance of Langland’s characters, the assertively vernacular language, and the originality of the poem’s imaginative invention while treating the most commonplace of medieval topics make Langland’s poem convincing and compelling.

1. References here will be to the translation into modern English by J. F. Goodridge in the accessible Penguin edition.

2. See Howard William Troyer’s PMLA article “Who Is Piers Plowman” (Vol. 47, No. 2, Jun., 1932).

3. Oddly the pardon is good for all sins except debt. This principle is repeated that there may be no misunderstanding. See pages 274 and 292. Is this a sign of Langland’ loyalty to the merchant class?

4. p. 180, Meister Eckhart, translated by Raymond B. Blakney, Harper & Brothers, 1941.

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