Title Background

Poverty and Poor People in <i>Piers Plowman</i>.

Poverty and Poor People in Piers Plowman.

WL’s concern for the poor is remarkable when seen in the context of the age, which for the most part mentioned the poor for philosophical or ideological reasons and rarely depicted the real lives of poor people. Langland’s depiction moves uneasily between old and new values: he views wage-claims in the aftermath of the Black Death as a disturbance of divinely ordered hierarchy, but looks seriously at the problem of the chronic poor (including the able-bodied unemployed). In the half-acre scene, WL highlights the need for both justice and charity; in B.9 he condemns professional begging, but in C.9.70-87 he adds a probing meditation on the needs of the real poor. But WL has no specific plan or reform of the existing order in mind beyond the principle that “Those who have must give so that those who have not need not ask.” He settles in 9.175-86 on the reinstatement of the traditional spiritual ideal of poverty as purgation and, in passus 11-13, on patient poverty as a strengthening of the moral life. This orthodox statement is not, however, presented with a blind eye to uncomfortable realities. Rather than representing a retreat before an insoluble social dilemma, his emphasis on patience and humility shows the degree to which for him questions of the outer life inescapably become questions of the inner life.