Piers Plowman

Piers Plowman Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Langland's Piers Plowman. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Langland

Not much is known about William Langland, the supposed author of Piers Plowman. In fact, even his name is just a speculation, hailing from passus XV, line 152 of Piers Plowman: “‘I have lived in land,’ said I, ‘my name is Long Will.’” Many critics consider this line to be a play on the name William Langland, though it can’t be considered solid proof. Langland was probably born around 1325 and died sometime after 1388. Based on the form and content of Piers Plowman, Langland likely lived in the western Midlands, near the Malvern Hills, though he was also familiar with London. Langland was likely well educated, considering his intimate knowledge of a myriad of topics, spanning from law to politics to religion. He probably was a cleric, although if he was married (like the narrator and dreamer, Will, in Piers Plowman), Langland likely served in minor orders. Alongside the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (known as the Pearl Poet), Langland is considered one of the greatest alliterative poets and a catalyst for the alliterative revival—an influx of works written in English alliterative verse in the mid- to late-fourteenth century. In his work, Langland explores some of the most pressing religious, political, and social issues of fourteenth-century English life.
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Historical Context of Piers Plowman

Part of what makes Piers Plowman so important (and sometimes difficult to understand) is the way that it encapsulates and responds to nearly every element of life in mid- to late-fourteenth century England. The poem was penned in the years following the Great Plague of 1348-1349, during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II and in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, a century-long struggle over the French Throne between two British and French noble families. The first two versions of Piers Plowman, referred to as the A-text and B-text, were written just before the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which was the peasantry’s impassioned response to high taxes and, more generally, a revolt against the ceaseless suffering that British peasants endured as serfs dominated by noble masters. Leaders of the revolt used snippets of Piers Plowman as soundbites to motivate and empower the peasants. Although it is unknown whether or not Langland supported the revolt, the third version of the poem, the C-text, dated in the years following the revolt, removes a particularly ambiguous and impassioned event, where Piers Plowman gets into a heated argument with a priest and then tears up a pardon. This moment may have served as a particular kind of inspiration for the peasantry and its feelings about the clergy, which many felt were corrupt. Piers Plowman was used in similar ways in the sixteenth century, following the Protestant Reformation, when early Protestants used Langland’s pointed criticisms of the clergy to further their own agendas.

Other Books Related to Piers Plowman

As an allegorical poem, Piers Plowman is similar to the late-fifteenth-century dramatized allegory, Everyman, which boasts of characters like Knowledge, Confession, Five-Wits, and Discretion. Both allegorical works also center on religious quests that are undertaken by everyman figures—Will in Piers Plowman, and the aptly named Everyman in Everyman. Similarly, Piers Plowman also bears resemblance to the 1961 children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, which also centers on a quest and contains allegorical characters, such as the princesses Reason and Rhyme, and places, such as the Kingdom of Wisdom. Langland’s Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales also contain several similarities. Though written in different forms—Piers Plowman in alliterative verse, and The Canterbury Tales in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter—both works belong to a genre of writing called estates satire: each work seeks to illustrate and criticize the different estates (similar to social classes) that made up Medieval society. Thematically, both works are concerned with corruption in the Church, seen in similarities between the friars that populate Piers Plowman and the Friar in The Canterbury Tales.
Key Facts about Piers Plowman
  • Full Title: Piers Plowman
  • When Written: Last third of the fourteenth century (three versions of the poem were penned sometime between 1365 and 1387)
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: Last third of the fourteenth century
  • Literary Period: Medieval
  • Genre: Allegorical poem
  • Setting: The western Midlands
  • Climax: When Antichrist and his evil forces attack Unity, which represents the Christian community; Christ’s Crucifixion
  • Antagonist: The Devils (Lucifer, Satan, the Devil, and the Fiend) and Antichrist’s followers
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Piers Plowman

The More, The Merrier. Piers Plowman features over 100 characters, many of which only appear for a few lines. Also, some characters go by several names, like Piers Plowman, who is also called Peter and Perkin.

Popular Poetry. Despite its complexity, Piers Plowman was hugely popular in its day. The fact that there are more than fifty surviving manuscripts today, around seven centuries later, attests to that popularity.