Inner Contradictions and the Precariousness of the Christian Community in William Langland’s Piers Plowman–By Clémence Cornuz

Nothing about William Langland’s Piers Plowman is simple and straightforward. As Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd point out in the preface to their critical edition of the B-version of the text, the poem resists categorization even on a purely formal and technical level:

It is difficult to follow the plot . . . and once a thread emerges, it then leads nowhere in particular or digresses into new sets of ideas and narratives. Nominally, the poem is a dream vision – but it proves to comprise not one, but eight dreams, with two additional dreams within dreams. It is also a pilgrimage that has several protagonists and multiple quests. It resists closure, ending with the search with which it began. Although it is known as a personification allegory, it refuses to keep the allegorical and the literal separate. . . . It is written in conventional alliterative medium, but it does not always conform to the technical expectations of that medium.[1]

Giving an overview of this narrative is not an easy task. In short, the poem, which is comprised of a Prologue and twenty Passus, narrates a series of dreams in which the first-person narrator, Will, tries to find out how a good Christian ought to lead his life. He meets the personifications of several vices, virtues and institutions in the process, but the most notable character is Piers the Plowman, who seems to be assimilated to Christ because he is, to quote E. Talbot Donaldson, “human nature at its best, historically, the human nature which craved redemption and which Christ took upon himself when he became man.”[2] The narrative starts off as a pilgrimage to the place where Truth lives, but shifts after Piers explains that he actually lives in each person’s heart: Truth then tells Piers that the people God saves are those who “do wel” [do well] (VII, 116), which leads the narrator on a quest to discover what exactly Do-Well, and the corollary concepts Do-Better and Do-Best, consist of.[3],[4] At the end of the text, Will dreams that Piers, to whom Christ has delegated his powers after being resurrected, founds the Holy Church (represented by a barn, the Barn of Unity), which is then degraded by friars and finally attacked by the Antichrist and his army; the poem thus ends on an apocalyptic note.

One of the poem’s primary themes and concerns is therefore the definition of what being a Christian means, entails and necessitates. However, the text is frustrating, as the simple questions which underlie it are given numerous answers which are generally complex, occasionally veiled or incomplete, and sometimes contradictory; in short, Langland does not offer solutions, but food for thought. It is not surprising, then, that there is a major contradiction in the way the Christian community is represented, especially in terms of spatial metaphors. Indeed, as this article will show, Christians are depicted as forming a safe and stable community separated from the tumultuous mass of non-Christians; inclusion in and exclusion from this community are regulated through food consumption as a common metaphor for social incorporation. But the boundary between Christians and non-Christians is also represented as tenuous, and even meaningless, as it is blurred not only by non-Christians, but also by Christians themselves. Piers Plowman therefore depicts the impossibility of the ideal it supports. This contradiction is symptomatic of the pessimistic outlook Langland had on the society in which he lived and ultimately shows what a problematic figure the narrator is, as he does not seem able to live according to the precepts about which he himself wanted to learn.


In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that “our conceptual system […] plays a central role in defining our everyday realities”: it “structure[s] what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we relate to other people.”[5] However, we are not aware that there is an entire conceptual system underlying the way we think and that our perception of the world is not necessarily ‘natural’ and could be extremely disparate. Lakoff and Johnson also claim that this conceptual system is “largely metaphorical” and that “most of our fundamental concepts” are based on what they call “spatialization metaphors” (up/down, in/out, front/back, center/periphery, etc.), which are in turn based on the way our bodies function and interact with our environment.[6] It is the use of one of these metaphors in Piers Plowman that this paper examines: the inside as a metaphor for one’s community and the outside as a metaphor for otherness. In From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation, Maggie Kilgour describes the inside/outside opposition thus:

As a spatial metaphor, this opposition has the illusion of stability and substance, but it is in fact totally relative, as it depends on where one is standing. The model for the antithesis is based on bodily experience and the sense that what is “inside” one’s own body is a coherent structure that can be defined against what lies “outside” of it. It is the most basic of oppositions . . . . It is also the foundation of a crude system of values in which what is “outside” the territory of the self is bad, and what is “inside” is good, a schematization that underlies many more sophisticated notions of individual and corporate bodies.[7]

In Langland’s text, the distinction between Christians and heathens is frequently expressed through the opposition between the inside and the outside. In keeping with Kilgour’s explanation, the inside is positively connoted while the outside is associated with instability, insecurity and wilderness – a representation which is in keeping with the wariness of limitlessness and disorder expressed by the belief that “Hevene hath evene noumbre and helle is without noumbre” [Heaven has even number and hell is without number] (XX, 270).[8] The outside is so vilified that it is even occasionally linked to suffering and death, as in the extract of Gregory the Great’s Moralia quoted by Clergy:

Whan fisshes faillen the flode or the fressh water,
Thei deye for drought, whan thei drye ligge;
Right so by religioun, it roileth and sterveth
That out of convent and cloister coveiten to libbe (X, 301-304).[When fishes leave the salt flood or the fresh water, they die for drought, lying on the dry ground; right so religious, they rot and die when they crave to escape life in cloister or convent.]

The way space is most frequently used to depict the Christian community and its relation to the rest of the world, though, is illustrated by the parable from Matthew 22.1-14, told by Scripture to Will in the first dream-vision:

Multi to a maungerye  and to the mete were sompned,
And whan the peple was plenere comen the porter unpynned the yate
And plukked in pauci priveliche and lete the remenaunt go rowme.”
Al for tene of her tyxte trembled myn herte
And in a were gan I waxe and with myself to dispute
Whether I were chosen or nought chosen (XI, 112-117). [Multi (Many) were bidden to a marriage, to take meat at the feast, and when the folk were fully assembled the porter unfastened the gate and passed pauci (few) in privately and let the rest go packing.” All troubled by her text I trembled at heart and grew gloomy in mind and began to argue with myself whether I was chosen or not chosen.][9]

Will’s reaction shows that, for him at least, the possibility of being excluded is to be dreaded. However, two other elements make this scene especially interesting. On the one hand, in the Bible, when Jesus tells this parable, he explicitly says that the wedding is a metaphor for Heaven; this is therefore an image of salvation, which shows that, in Piers Plowman, the Christians who are not saved are not considered true Christians and are grouped with the heathens. On the other hand, this parable features an idea closely connected to the spatial division between Christians and non-Christians: the association between not being (a good) Christian and roaming. Scripture indeed portrays those who are not accepted at the wedding as a group which lacks direction and guidance, and therefore cohesiveness and unity (“lete the remenaunt go rowme” [let the rest go packing] [XI, 114]); this forms a stark contrast with the “chosen” [chosen] (XI, 117), who form a group which is clearly delineated and solidified by its isolation. This idea reappears a few lines afterwards, in Will’s description of a Christian man who renounces his faith: “Ac he may renne in arrerage and rowme so fro home / And as a reneyed cait yf recchelesly rowmeth aboute” [But he may run in arrears and go roving from home / And roam around recklessly like a runaway prisoner] (XI, 129-130). The verb used on line 114, rowmen, reappears twice in this passage; however, in this case, the notions of homelessness and danger (“recchelesly” [recklessly]) are added to that of aimless wandering, which makes the Christian community even more appealing: in addition to structure and stability, Christendom brings safety and a sense of belonging.

In some cases, lack of direction and cohesion is associated with beastliness, thus dehumanizing those who are not part of the Christian community. For instance, the sinners who look for Truth in Passus V have absolutely no idea where to go, and they are compared to animals (F. R. H. Du Boulay even describes them as “a leaderless herd” in The England of Piers Plowman): “Ac there was wyghte non so wys the wey thider couthe, / But blustreden forth as bestes over bankes and hilles” [But there was no one so wise as to know the way thither, / But they blundered forth like beasts over banks and hills] (V, 513-514).[10] Heathens are described in the same way: “‘Hethene’ is to mene after heth and untiled erthe, / As in wilde wildernesse wexeth wilde bestes / Rude and unresonable, rennenge without keperes” [“Heathen” has its meaning from heath and untilled earth, / As wild beasts wax in the wilderness / Rude and unreasonable, running without keepers] (XV, 459-461). Finally, animality and roaming are closely connected in the extremely negative portrayal of children conceived outside wedlock:

That othergatis ben geten for gedelynges ben holden,
As false folke, fondelynges, faitoures and lyars
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Wandren as wolves, and wasten if thei mowe;
Ayeines Do-Wel thei don yvel and the Devel plese,
And after her deth-day shulle dwelle with the same,
But God gyve hem grace here hemself to amende (IX, 195-201, my emphasis).[Those conceived outside wedlock are considered worthless, false folk, foundlings, fakers and liars . . ., wander like wolves, wasting what they may; against Do-Well they do evil and give the Devil pleasure, And after their death-day will go dwell with him, unless God gives them grace to amend themselves here.]

Although the text does not refer to these children by using a spatial preposition (such as outside wedlock), it does imply that they are not created within a specific unit (the married couple); consequently, their exclusion of the Christian community mirrors the fact that they have been conceived outside the limits set by God.


            Piers Plowman does not only depict spiritual communities – or rather, the Christian community and the mass of non-Christian people –, but also describes why and how people are included in or excluded from Christendom. This is mostly done through images of eating and drinking, which are common metaphors for incorporation: according to Kilgour, “the most basic model for all forms of incorporation is the physical act of eating, and food is the most important symbol for other external substances that are absorbed.”[11] This connection was especially important in medieval, Christian societies: as Geraldine Heng explains in Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy, in a medieval society, “what one ate, how much and how little, and when, distinguished between sin and grace, orthodox and heretical practice, inclusion or exclusion in the fellowship of God and of Christian humanity.” [12] This logic is certainly at work in Piers Plowman, in which eating occupies an important place.[13] One of the most notable passages related to this theme takes place at the beginning of the fourth dream, in Passus XIII, when Will is invited to dine with Conscience, Clergy, Patience and an academic Master (also called Doctor): while the latter feasts, Patience and Will eat a frugal meal literally made of the Word of God, thereby proving that, unlike Doctor, they are true Christians. This passage encapsulates the two crucial aspects of eating which determine people’s inclusion in Christendom: the condemnation of gluttony and the idea of literally incorporating God.

Eating with moderation is advocated several times in Piers Plowman; Hunger himself, after he is summoned by Piers to force the slackers and wasters to get back to work in Passus VI, asserts that not eating too much is the best way to remain healthy, thus conflating healthy eating habits and Christian precepts. Fasting is positively depicted too, as attests the recurrence of the idea that God feeds fowls in winter, when they have nothing to eat, and by analogy people who abstain from food. For instance, both are mentioned together in Passus VII, when Piers resolves to plow for penance rather than for food, and in Passus XIV, when Patience advises Active Life on how to keep his coat of Christendom clean.

Excessive eating and drinking, on the other hand, are qualified as unchristian through Master: according to Patience, he would have no qualms justifying the immoderation of his meal by manipulating the Christian doctrine and transforming the food he just ate into “fode for a penaunte” [food for a penitent] (XIII, 93). Likewise, Glutton’s day at the pub is presented as a perversion of the Mass, and as such is, according to James Simpson, “defined against the ecclesiastical forms that could release him from [his sin]”[14]:

Gluttony [sic] is diverted to the pub on his way to church, “his coupe to shewe” (ll. 297-300). His (drinking) “cup” takes precedence over his “coupe” (culpa) of sin. The pub scene itself is partly a parody of the ecclesiastical forms from which Gluttony has been diverted: the drinkers “seten so til evensong, and songenunwhile” (l. 339); Glutton “pissed a potel in a Paternoster-while” (l. 342), and “blew his rounderuwet at his ruggebonesende” (l. 343), which concludes the pub-scene proper, and as such seems to parody the blowing of the horn of Hope at the end of the confessions (ll. 507-8).[15]

It is Wit’s description of gluttons in the third vision, however, that features the most explicit criticism of gluttony, and consequently encapsulates the prevalent point of view of the poem regarding food and its influence on people’s identity and religious affiliation:

Moche wo worth that man that mysreuleth his inwitte.
And that be glotounes, globbares – her god is her wombe.
            Quorum dues venter est.
For thei serven Sathan her soule shal he have;
That liveth sinful here, her soule is liche to the Devel;
And alle that liven good lyf aren like God almighty (IX, 61-65).[Much woe has that man who misuses his inwit, and such are gluttons, guzzlers – their god is their belly. (Quorum deus venter est.) Since they serve Satan he shall have their souls; those who live sinful lives here, their souls are like the Devil; and all who lead good lives here are like God almighty.] [16]

These lines also provide a justification of the condemnation of gluttony, since they assimilate over-eating to the worship of a deity, which is a heretical act.

Piers Plowman also features a specific meal that both symbolizes and effectively operates inclusion in Christendom, a ceremonial meal which, in the words of Heng, “created and bound the identity of the individual Christian to a symbolic community that crossed divisions of country, region, ethnicity, family, tribe, cast, and race” and can as such be considered “the apotheosis” of a culture which assigned “sacramental, ritual, and symbolic significance” to eating: the Eucharist.[17] This sacrament played a crucial role in the definition of the Church and of the Christian faith in the fourteenth century, and Kilgour explains its centrality in a way which especially emphasizes the connection between this rite and the focus of this paper:

The definition of the Eucharist was a means of establishing the unity of the Church through the removal of different interpretations inside it and through the exclusion of the pagans outside it. A central goal of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 was to define Christianity as a coherent body, a unified faith as it was ultimately defined through Boniface VIII’s credo of unam sanctam in 1302, separated off from others who were pushed to the outside as heretics or infidels. As is typical of definitions of social bodies, the difference between two groups – those who are inside and those who are outside – is defined by what they eat.”[18]

This ritual consists in outright incorporating Christ and thus entering the community he founded: to quote Kilgour again, “the individual bodies of the members of the community are identified with the corporate body of the Church, which in turn is identified with the individual body of Christ.”[19] Indeed, this sacrament:

sets up a . . . complicated system of relation in which it becomes difficult to say precisely who is eating whom. . . . Both man and God play “host” . . . . Man is a host in that he literally takes God, in the form of the Host, into himself. But the Host is the kind of food that converts the feeder into himself. . . . The act is one of reciprocal incorporation, . . . so that the absolute boundary between inside and outside, eater and eaten, itself appears to disappear.[20]

The bi-directional incorporation which characterizes this sacrament is discreetly present in Langland’s text through two descriptions of Jesus’ blood. On the one hand, it is presented as the birthplace of Christianity: “For on Calvarye of Crystes blode Crystenedom gan sprynge, / And blody bretheren we bycome there of o body y-wonne, / As quasi modo geniti gentil men uche one” [For of Christ’s blood on the Calvary Christendom sprang, / And we became blood brothers there in the body that won us, / As quasi modo geniti (newborn babes) gentlemen all] (XI, 201-203).[21]  On the other hand, at the end of the poem, it is used to make “a maner morter” [a kind of mortar] (XIX, 324) which serves to build “a good foundement” [a good foundation] (XIX, 325) for the Barn of Unity, in which all Christians are to take refuge when they are attacked. Christ’s blood is hence presented as both the core and the delimitation of the Christian community, which highlights the complex symbolic process of reciprocal incorporation entailed by its consumption.

The Eucharist need not be restricted to the partaking of the consecrated bread and wine taken during Mass; it is actually more often pictured as the direct consumption of Christ’s blood, as in the scene Will thinks of just after Scripture tells him the wedding parable:

Cryste cleped us alle, come if we wolde,
Sarasenes and scismatikes and so he dyd the Jewes,
         O vos omnes sicientes venite, etc.
And badde hem souke for synne saufté at his breste,
And drynke bote for bale, brouke it whoso myghte (XI, 119-122).[Christ called us all, come if we would, Saracens and schismatics and also the Jews, (O all ye that thirst come, etc.) and bade them for their sins suck safety at his breast, and drink remedy for wrong-doing, revel in it who would.][22]

Although it is not stated explicitly, it is clearly his blood that Christ invites people to drink from his breast, given that he is wounded at the chest after his death, which naturally causes him to bleed (this is even narrated in the poem, in Passus XVIII, lines 83 to 86). The idea that Jesus offers the blood he shed while he was on the cross as a drink is corroborated by the fact that this gesture is explicitly mentioned elsewhere in the poem. Indeed, after having described Christ’s crucifixion and death during a prayer, Repentance says: “Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse” [Thou feddest with thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness] (V, 493). These Eucharistic scenes have a specific purpose: they emphasize the strength and intimate nature of the bond which unites Christians – not only together, but also to Jesus, and therefore to God. Indeed, in addition to eliminating the intermediacy of the priest, whose task it is to consecrate the bread and wine during Mass, they portray Jesus as a maternal figure – a common representation in the Middle Ages: as Caroline Walker Bynum explains in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, Christ’s stigmata were thought to be “not merely wounds, but also breasts,” and his blood was frequently equated to maternal milk and viewed as “the food of the soul.”[23] The fifth stigma was notably often likened to the Virgin Mary’s lactating breast, especially in paintings:

The parallelism of Christ’s wound and Mary’s breast . . . is sometimes made explicit in medieval art. An image of the Virgin presenting her breast often accompanies the figure of Christ exposing his wound, to form the so-called Double Intercession.[24]

The connection between the maternal image of Jesus offering his breast to be suckled in the extract quoted above and the stable, reassuring nature of Christendom is strengthened by line 121, in which Jesus’ blood is assimilated to “saufté” [safety]; all in all, this reinforces the idea that Christendom is “home” [home] (XI, 129) and that Christians form a large family.

The logic of reciprocal incorporation characteristic of the Eucharist can be extended to non-Christians, in that the exact opposite happens to them: some people are not part of the Christian community because they keep God outside themselves. For instance, while talking about supposedly Christian lords and learned men who misuse their knowledge, make blasphemous jokes and put the Bible into question, Dame Study says that “God is moche in the gorge of thise grete maystres, / Ac amonges mene men his mercy and his werkis” [God is much in the gullet of these great masters, / But among lowly men are his mercy and his works] (X, 67-68), for “mene men” [lowly men] have Him “in herte” [in heart] (X, 71) rather than just “in the gorge” [in the gullet]. This is also conveyed by the recurrence of the verb dryvelen in their portrayal. Indeed, they not only “Spitten and spewen and speke foule wordes, / Drynken and dryvelen and do men for to gape” [Spit and spew and speak foul words, / Drink and drivel and draw men’s guffaws], but also “dryvele at her deyse the Deité to knowe” [drivel on the dais a definition of Godhead] (X, 41 and 57, respectively); as drivel can mean either to drool or to talk nonsense, these lines combine the idea of an inside-out motion and that of blasphemy.

Another of Dame Study’s remarks suggests that these men are excluded from the Christian community not only because they keep Christ outside themselves, but also because they keep poor people outside their homes:

Ac the careful may crye and carpen at the yate,
Bothe afyngred and athurst, and for chele quake;
Is none to nymen in ne his noye to amende,
But hunsen hym as hounde and hoten hym go thennes (X, 59-62).[But the care-worn may cry and clamor at the gate, famished and faint with thirst, and freezing for cold; there is no one to ask him in nor offer help for his harm, but they curse him like a cur and bid him clear out.]

In the following dream, Patience indirectly confirms the sinfulness of such behavior by explaining that changing this attitude would lead to salvation: “Ac if ye riche have reuthe and rewarde wel the pore, / And lyven as lawe techeth, done leuté to alle, / Criste of his curteysie shal conforte yow atte laste” [And if you rich people have pity and keep the poor well fed, / And live just as law enjoins, doing justice to them all, / Christ of his courtesy will comfort you in the end] (XIV, 145-147). Incidentally, these lines imply that secular, everyday food can have the same effect as Eucharistic food, provided it is used in the opposite way: instead of consuming it, one should give it to somebody who has nothing to eat – an idea which is in keeping not only with Langland’s positive depiction of moderate meals, but also with his advocacy of kind, charitable acts (being charitable is, according to Du Boulay, what Do-Well, Do-Better and Do-Best mean, the only difference between the three concepts being the reach of the charitable acts).[25] This opposition also appears when Dame Study criticizes the blasphemous, gluttonous masters’ selfishness by saying that they “brekennoughte to the beggar as the Boke techeth” [break no bread for the beggar as the Book teaches] (X, 85, my emphasis). Indeed, in addition to its evident secular meaning, breken can also refer specifically to the act of breaking bread for the Holy Communion; this comment thus subtly but unequivocally excludes them from the Christian community.


When he is attacking the Barn of Unity, at the end of the poem, Pride paints the following picture to Conscience:

And Pieres berne worth broke; and thei that ben in Unité
Shulle come out, Conscience, and yowre two caples,
Confessioun and Contricioun, and yowre carte the Byleve
Shal be coloured se queyntly and kevered under owre sophistrie
That Conscience shal noughte knowe who is Crystene or hethen (XIX, 344-348). [And Piers’s barn will be broken down; and they that abide in Unity shall come out, Conscience, and your two cart-horses, Confession and Contrition, and your cart the Faith shall be camouflaged so cleverly and covered by our sophistry so that Conscience will not be able to discriminate between a Christian and a heathen.]

What Pride is threatening Conscience with is, in effect, the destruction of the Christian community: should the distinction between Christianity and other faiths crumble, then the community which has been so carefully delineated throughout the poem would disappear, dissolve in all the other (inferior) existing religions and beliefs – which would leave Christians “rennenge without keperes” [running without keepers] (XV, 459-461), just like heathens.

The poem ends before the reader can know if Pride succeeds; the outcome of his attack is not important, however, for the boundary which is supposed to ensure the existence of Christendom is actually already meaningless by that point. Indeed, throughout the poem, several passages discreetly but unmistakably show that a world in which there is a clear-cut distinction between Christians and heathens is neither possible nor tenable, for the Christian community can be, and indeed already is, infiltrated.

One of these passages is Wrath’s confession in Passus V. Wrath’s presence in convents is best qualified as an infiltration: he is not a friar by vocation, but aims to make other friars “by [his] spiritualté libben” [live by his spirituality] (V, 150). He has thus successfully penetrated places which are the physical manifestations of the spiritual community threatened by Pride. This is mirrored by the fact that, while he was a friar, he grafted not only trees, but also people:

On limitoures and listres lesynges I ymped
Tyl thei bere leves of low speche, lordes to plese,
And sithen thei blosmed obrode in boure to here shrifts.
And now is fallen therof a frute that folke han wel levere
Schewen her schriftes to hem than shryve hem to her persones (V, 139-143). [I grafted lies in limiters and lectors too till they put out leaves of lowly speech, pleasing to lords, and then they blossomed abroad in bedrooms to hear shrifts. And now a fruit has fallen from this that folk had much rather show their sins to them than be shriven by their parsons.]

Indeed, grafting is a technique which consists of breaching a barrier and placing a foreign body inside a space which would otherwise have remained closed. In addition, when he was the cook of his aunt’s convent, Wrath took advantage of his position to infiltrate the nuns’ minds with his “jangelynge” [juicy suggestions] (V, 158) and thus sow discord among them; he explains that he did so by mixing his own “wykked wordes” [vicious verbiage] to the nuns’ “wortes” [vegetables] (V, 162) – a play on words which emphasizes the subtlety of his deception, since “wordes” and “wortes” are almost identical, phonetically as well as graphically. The nuns therefore realized neither who the person preparing their meals really was, nor what they were actually eating. Furthermore, the mere fact that Wrath’s aunt is a nun implies that there can be strong links between people who are part of the Christian community and people who not only do not belong to it, but also actively try to dismantle it.

Other passages which indirectly deal with the issue of infiltration are those which mention disguises or the idea of a discrepancy between the inside and the outside of a person, between their appearance and their true motives and beliefs. This is the case of the following explanations, both given by Anima to Will at the beginning of the fifth dream:

[…] ypocrisie in Latyn is lykned to a lothelich dongehul
That were bysnewed with snowe, and snakes wythinne,
Or to a wal that were whitlymed and were foule wythinne.
Right so prestes, prechoures, and prelates manye,
Ye aren enblaunched with belles paroles and with belles clothes,
Ac yowre werkes and yowre wordes thereunder are ful wolveliche (XV, 111-116). [(…) in a Latin text hypocrisy is likened to a loathsome dunghill spread over with snow outside, and snakes inside it, or to a wall that’s been white-washed and is foul underneath. Just so priests, preachers, and many prelates too, you appear bleached with belles paroles (lofty, fine words) and with belles (beautiful) clothes, but your works and your words are most wolf-like underneath.][26]

“For there are beggeres and bidders, bedmen as it were,
Loketh as lambren and semen lyf-holy,
Ac it is more to have her mete on such an esy manere
Than for penaunce and parfitnesse, the poverté that such taketh” (XV, 205-208). [For there are beggars and prayer-bidders, beadsmen as it were, who look like lambs and seem life-holy, but it’s more to get their meals in a manner so easy than for penance or perfectness, the poverty they adopt.]

Infiltration is not mentioned in these extracts, but the implication is that disguises and duplicity allow people to become part of a group they do not actually belong to. Interestingly, although they are separated by about one hundred lines, these two extracts seem to be connected because lambs (“lambren” [206]) are traditionally opposed to wolves (“wolveliche” [116]). The latter extract also shows that, in terms of identity, and more specifically of religious identity, food is a double-edged sword: it may make one part of a community, but it can also prompt one to be duplicitous, and therefore imperil Christendom by making its delimitations meaningless. In other words, it enables both transparency as well as deceit.

The first two lines of the first extract are also interesting because they evoke another disguise: Lucifer taking on the appearance of a snake to tempt Eve. Although the Bible does not state that the snake was indeed Lucifer, Piers Plowman does, as the following lines (spoken by Satan and addressed to Lucifer) indicate:

[…] thow gete hem with gyle and his gardyne breke,
And in semblaunce of a serpent sat on the apple tre
And eggedest hem to ete, Eve by hirselve,
And toldest hir a tale, of tresoun were the wordes;
And so thow haddest hem oute, and hider atte laste (XVIII, 287-291). [(…) you took them by trickery and trespassed in his garden, and in the semblance of a serpent sat upon the apple tree and egged them to eat, Eve by herself, and told her a tale with treasonous words; and so you had them out, and hither at the last.]

This passage associates false appearances and words to intrusion (“his gardyne breke” [trespassed in his garden]); the consequence of this intrusion also revolves around a boundary and is formulated in terms of the inside/outside opposition, as Adam and Eve are forced to get “oute” [out] of Eden. Thus, the hypocrites’ real face (the snakes in the snow) seems to refer to Satan’s “deceyte” [deceit] (XVIII, 333), which positions them firmly in opposition to the Christian community and implies that their duplicity is extremely dangerous.

Passus XIX and XX put into question the possibility of keeping Christians separate from heathens in an even more problematic way: this time, the existence of Christendom is put in jeopardy by some of the Christians who have taken refuge in the Barn of Unity. First, dissent arises in Unity after a brewer refuses to eat the Eucharistic bread (XIX, 396-402); he even describes Conscience’s sermon as “janglynge” [jangling] (XIX, 397), which is the word Wrath uses to qualify his own lies during his confession (V, 158). Secondly, Passus XX introduces an allegory whose mere existence proves how rampant and powerful the anxiety concerning infiltration is in the poem: Friar Flatterer, who introduces himself as Sir Penetrans domos (Sir House-Penetrator).[27] However, contrary to what his name suggests, Sir Penetrans domos does not try to invade Unity; rather, he is altogether invited in the Barn because Courteous Speech, who is already inside, requests his presence in spite of Peace’s disapproval. Once inside Unity, he gives the Christians a drink which renders them useless in the fight against their attackers because it makes them “drede no synne” [dread no sin] (XX, 379) – in other words, makes them forget about contrition, “the sovereyne salve for alkyn synnes” [the sovereign salve for sins of every kind] (XX, 372). These scenes imply that danger does not only come from outside the Christian community, but also from inside it: it invites external danger into itself.

It is striking that, while the vulnerability of the Christian community to infiltration is present from the beginning of the narrative, the threat posed by its own members only appears at the end of the poem. David Aers considers that the poem’s apocalyptic ending (along with other passages that he deems apocalyptic) “springs from unresolved social and ecclesiastical tensions at the heart of the poem.”[28] Indeed, as he explains in Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination, Piers Plowman explores the tension between how Langland thinks the Christian community should be and how it actually is:

Langland was wedded to that traditional ideology which presented society as a static fixed hierarchy of estates (usually tripartite – knights, clergy, peasants), organically related, mutually beneficial and harmoniously ordained by God . . . . Nevertheless, . . . major developments in late medieval society (economic, political, ideological) made the model less and less illuminating. . . . Langland actually presents us with a powerfully realized version of these developments, against which his received social scheme turns out to be a most fragile barrier.[29]

Du Boulay is among those who share this opinion, asserting that:

Langland shared a common medieval sense that the world was rightly ordered only when people followed their vocations, and that both aimless movement and unchecked numbers who lived by their wits were signs of folly and disorder. The world he saw was not going the right way, either in the behaviour of individuals or in the earth-tremors of a shifting society. Langland’s mentality could only be happy with a society composed of ordered degrees and fixed numbers.[30]

The contradiction between Langland’s actual environment and his ideal society is present from the very beginning of the poem. Indeed, when Will begins dreaming, he sees “alle maner of men” [human beings of all sorts] who are “Worchyng and wandryng as the worlde asketh” [Working and wandering as the world requires] (Prologue, respectively 18 and 19, my emphasis); however, people with various occupations are then criticized, which shows that, although Langland acknowledged the changes that were happening around him, he certainly did not approve of them.

However, I would argue that the end of the poem is much more catastrophic than any previous section and that there must therefore be more to it. Indeed, Will’s last two waking moments are significantly more troubled than the previous ones, and his faith neither helps nor comforts him. At the beginning of Passus XIX, he falls asleep during Mass and consequently does not take the Eucharist; in his subsequent dream, the Christian community is put in peril precisely because some of its members refuse to participate in the consumption of the Eucharist – a disagreement which marks the first time Christendom is depicted as threatened by its own members. Then, at the beginning of Passus XX, after Will wakes up, he seems to be completely lost and does not know “where to ete ne at what place” [where to eat nor at what place I might] (XX, 3), just like the sinners in Passus V and the heathens who are “rennenge without keperes” [running without keepers] (XV, 461). He also meets Need, “a menacing apparition who mocks [him] for his stupidity in not begging a living in return for nothing” and “pl[ies] him with the temptation not merely to beg but to feel humble in doing so, and to imagine his likeness even to the Saviour.”[31] This encounter is very significant, not to mention rather ominous, for two reasons. First, the two characters meet at noon; this makes Need appear as the replacement of Christ, since the latter is said to have offered to feed people with his blood at that time too: “Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse” [Thou feddest with thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness] (V, 493). Secondly, this is the only time Will meets a personification in reality rather than in a dream; this explains why Need is the only character to whom Will does not answer, “instead . . . start[ing] at once on his vision of the Antichrist.”[32] Strikingly enough, in this last dream, Kind must tell him go into the Barn of Unity (XX, 204) as he has not done so spontaneously. Even more problematic is the fact that, as Aers points out, his “only motivation” for going into the Barn of Unity is “terror” at the “physical and material suffering” Old Age might cause.[33] Furthermore, it is after he joins the Christians in the Barn that Friar Flatterer is invited inside, which endangers the whole of Christendom.

Will’s last waking moments also show that, despite his numerous lengthy dreams about how to be a good Christian, which culminate in him finally learning what Do-Well, Do-Better and Do-Best are, Will does not seem to improve at all. Indeed, at the very beginning of the text, he is not a positive figure, since the first lines of the poem depict him roaming and suggest that he is very similar to the people who look like lambs and the hypocrites who are wolf-like beneath their charming facade: “I shope me in shroudes as I a shepe were; / In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes / Went wyde in this world, wonders to here” [I clad myself in clothes as I’d become a sheep; in the habit of a hermit unholy of works walked wide in this world, watching for wonders] (Prologue, 2-4). He also states that he falls asleep because he is “wery forwandred” [weary of wandering] and, when his dream starts, is “in a wildernesse” [in a wilderness] (Prologue, respectively 7 and 12). In other words, apart from the apparent disguise, he is in the same situation as in Passus XX, both when he is awake and in his dream. Thus, like the narrative, Will ends up exactly where he started; he even seems to be (in spite of his good will and intentions and of his eagerness to learn how to live a life in accordance with the Christian doctrine) a liability for the Church.[34],[35]


Examining the consistency of Langland’s spatial metaphors and the duality of his images of food consumption, which illustrate charity while at the same time constituting an image of social regulation, reveal a contradictory depiction of Christendom and heathens. On the one hand, they are often represented as two distinct groups with the former being characterized by stability, order and safety and the latter by disorder and aimlessness. On the other hand, the poem also shows that it is actually impossible to keep Christians separate from other existing faiths and beliefs: both Christians and non-Christians render the border which should keep them apart pointless.

This discrepancy reveals not only that Langland acknowledged – and regretted – how obsolete his world view had become due to the numerous changes English society had gone through during the fourteenth century, but also possibly that he questioned the capacity of even well-intentioned people to be good Christians and live by the standards he saw waning around him. In other words, Piers Plowman is not just an anti-clerical poem or a criticism of what Langland’s society was becoming, but a work which develops a deep reflection on Christian faith and identity; although it starts off with a didactic purpose, it concludes in a way that contradicts its initial premise (“I can be a good Christian, I just need to know how”) and is, at the core, a very pessimistic poem.

According to Simpson, Piers Plowman was “one of the most widely read late medieval poems from the time of its composition until at least the early Elizabethan period.”[36] Its popularity undoubtedly means that it echoed the concerns and fears of the time, which suggests that desperation and self-doubt were, if not as widespread as distrust in institutions and some categories of people, then at least far from uncommon. Additionally, the extensive use of food imagery suggests that food consumption was a familiar or at least easily understandable metaphor for Langland’s contemporaries, which testifies to its symbolic importance in medieval society.

Clémence Cornuz

Clémence Cornuz holds a B.A. in French and English literature and is currently working on an M.A. in English literature at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research interests include incorporation, transformation and re-appropriation, both as themes and at an inter- or meta-textual level. She thanks Marco Nievergelt for mentoring her during the writing of this paper

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Inner Contradictions and the Precariousness of the Christian Community in William Langland’s Piers Plowman by Clémence Cornuz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

[1] Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd, “Preface,” in William Langland, Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation, Middle English Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. xi.

[2] E. Talbot Donaldson, “The Poem,” in William Langland, Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation, Middle English Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), p. 501.

[3] To avoid any confusion between concepts and their personifications, the latter are capitalized and italicized throughout the article. It should also be noted that the word truth did not have the same meaning in Langland’s time as it does today: “In modern English ‘truth’ is more frequently used to mean veracity, or factual accuracy, than faithful or honest behaviour. . . . The fourtheenth-century [sic] was more accustomed to the ‘truth’ which signified a fidelity to lords, friends, promises and so on.” (F. R. H. Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman: William Langland and his Vision of the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991), p. 103)

[4] All quotations in Middle English come from the following edition: William Langland, Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation, Middle English Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006). References indicate first the Passus (in Roman numerals), then the lines (in Arabic numerals). Italics are not mine unless specified as such. Except when stated otherwise, translations are E. Talbot Donaldson’s and come from the above-mentioned edition as well.

[5] Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 3.

[6] Ibid., respectively p. 3, p. 17 and p. 14.

[7] Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 4.

[8] “Indefinite number was perceived in the Middle Ages as imperfect and threatening; Job 10:22 describes limitless number as being orderless, and Rev. 20:8 calls the number of the devil limitless. Matt. 10:30 and Rev. 7:4-8 describe God’s providence as numbering everything precisely.” (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 357, footnote 3)

[9] Multi and pauci are translated by Robertson and Shepherd; the words appear in Matt. 22.14 (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 169, footnote 6).

[10] Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman, p. 112.

[11] Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism, p. 6.

[12] Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 26.

[13] For more on food in Piers Plowman, see Jill Mann, “Eating and Drinking in Piers Plowman,” in William Langland, Piers Plowman: The Donaldson Translation, Middle English Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 533-544.

[14] James Simpson, Piers Plowman: An Introduction, 2nd, rev. ed. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007), p. 60.

[15] Ibid., p. 60, italics in original. Simpson’s edition of Piers Plowman is not the same as the one I use; as a result, there is a one-line difference between his references to Langland’s text and mine, and the Middle English spelling occasionally differs.

[16] “Quorum dues venter est” is a quote from Phil. 3.19. Biblical quotations in Latin like this one are not included in Robertson and Shepherd’s line numbering. I have slightly modified Donaldson’s translation by putting them in brackets to ensure that their particular status would be conveyed even when the translation is in prose rather than in verse.

[17] Heng, Empire of Magic, p. 26.

[18] Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism, p. 80, italics in original.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 15, emphasis in original.

[21] Quasi modo geniti comes from 1 Pet. 2.2 (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 173, footnote 7).

[22] “O ye all the thirst come, etc.” comes from Isa. 55.1 (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 169, footnote 7).

[23] Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), respectively p. 273 and p. 271.

[24] Ibid., p. 272.

[25] Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman, pp. 107-111.

[26] The words in French are translated by Robertson and Shepherd (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 247, footnote 1).

[27] Translation by Robertson and Shepherd, who relate it to 2 Tim. 3.6 (Langland, Piers Plowman, p. 361, footnote 1).

[28] David Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 73.

[29] Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination, p. 63.

[30] Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman, p. 12.

[31] Ibid., p.132.

[32] Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination, p. 132.

[33] Ibid., p. 36.

[34] For more on the cyclical construction of the poem, see for example Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman, p. 14.

[35] The aim of this article is not to explain why Langland represented the potentially auto-biographical narrator of the poem in this way; readers who want to explore this issue can turn to the last chapter of Du Boulay, The England of Piers Plowman, for instance.

[36] Simpson, Piers Plowman: An Introduction, p. 2.


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