Spiritual and Earthly Nobility in Piers Plowman.
WL frequently describes spiritual realities by means of metaphors drawn from earthly institutions. Often the effect of such descriptions is to undermine or negate the value of the literal institution used as the basis for the metaphor (e.g. “craft” in passus 20 or “pilgrimage” in passus 6). In the case of earthly nobility, however, WL seems more conservative. Not only does he criticize actual feudal institutions by means of an austere, idealistic application of chivalric principles to man’s relationship with God (e.g., the satire aimed at Edward III’s mercantile relationship with his army alluded to by Meed in B.3.201 ff.; the insistence in C.3.314 ff. on love as the motive for proper feudal endowments); he also uses the ideal of true spiritual nobility as a means to justify loyalty to the existing earthly hierarchy with all of its imperfections. Hence the Knight offers to plow in passus 6 because of an awareness of his own inferiority to Piers in the scale of true nobility. The Plowman, however, acknowledges the value of the inferior order by graciously refusing the offer and urging the Knight to fulfill his proper earthly role of protecting the half-acre while he himself plows for both.
NM 86 (1985): 467-81.