Title Background

<i>Piers Plowman</i>

Piers Plowman

Begins with a brief account of what is known of L’s life and a synopsis of the poem. The A-B-C model of the versions offers the best idea of the stages of composition, though no MS likely represents L’s final, or even provisional, intentions in a pure form. The Ilchester MS, preserving authorial passages from C in their pre-publication state, demonstrates that readers were eager to secure L’s material even before it was finished. The A text is more obviously rooted in a West Midlands alliterative tradition and rural perspective, and founders on questions of salvation. In B, L’s world is now firmly in London, and the revision exhibits a new audacity in political allusion and urgency in denunciation of ecclesiastical abuse. Will’s encounter with predestination in B.11 is resolved by the Bernardine image of Jesus as mother, calling all who thirst for salvation. In C, L’s latent social conservatism is more apparent, the political edge is softened, and the apocalyptic prophecy is heightened. Piers charismatic conversion to the evangelical life of holy carelessness, signaled in AB by the tearing of the pardon, is replaced by the disparagement of lollers–peasants who take on the outer garments of the contemplative life for the wrong reasons–and a description of the lunatic lollers, the only lay charismatics who can really be trusted, since no one would be tempted to emulate them. L shared with his audience a primary concern with pastoral care and the moral, social and legal issues it raised, and manuals of pastoral care provide L with both ideology and elements of plot. He seems also to have participated in some form of academic reading community, though his composition habits reflect less of dialectical systems of thought than to an older monastic habit of mind. Latin religious visionary writing, chronicles, Latin satirical literature, and early alliterative poetry–all monastic genres–had a powerful impact on him. His method of “shifting allegory” probably derives from Mechtild of Hackeborn’s Liber Specialis Gratiae, which circulated in England, and is rooted in a monastic meditative tradition of exegesis which involves loose association of symbolism, further encouraged by the development of concordances and other tools for biblical study.


David Wallace, ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. 513-38.


Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn