Plowman Traditions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Writing
For the two centuries following the appearance of L’s plowing episode, the figure of the righteous plowman protesting the abuses of the age was a mainstay of satire. It is possible that his appearance in John Ball’s letters alludes to the A version, but more likely that both Ball and L are alluding to a known folk figure. With the appearance of Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede and The Plowman’s Tale, interest turned to the question of whether all three works were by a single poet. ‘Piers Protestant’ came to the fore in a series of sixteenth-century pamphlets such as I playne Piers and Crowley’s edition. The choice of the plowman as voice of authority put these authors in a paradoxical position: salvation was by faith alone, but L’s allegory is all about action, ‘doing well’. Non-Protestant Piers was equally prominent, if ignored by scholarship: he utters prophecy in a Catholic miscellany produced in the 1530s, joins ‘John the Reeve’ in defending transubstantiation, and represents the Catholic martyrs burned at Tyburn in 1582. In the age of Elizabeth, Piers has become a figure of comedy (News of the North), or an ecclesiastical insider (Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar). The chapter concludes in the mid-20th century, with the New Zealand poet James K. Baxter’s ‘Letter to Piers Plowman’ – Ball’s figure, that is, not L’s – and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, whose affinities with L’s poem via a sophisticated programme of plowing imagery are pervasive, even if accidental. The question of influence seems less important, in light of all this material, than that of what local events and mindsets bring about the desire to invoke the figure of Piers the Plowman.
The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman, ed. by Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 198-213