Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus I Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Still in deep sleep, Will sees a beautiful woman (who later introduces herself as Holy Church) dressed in linen and departing from the castle on the hill. Holy Church approaches Will and speaks to him gently, explaining to him that the hilltop tower is home to Truth, who is “father of faith” and creator of the world. Out of compassion for his creation, Truth has deemed “three things common to all” to keep humans comfortable: clothing, food, and drink. However, says Holy Church, these things must be consumed in moderation. Those who don’t drink in moderation, for example, will end up like Lot from the Bible, who “Did with his daughters what the Devil found pleasing.” Holy Church warns Will to listen to his soul, not his body.
Will’s first allegorical teacher is Holy Church—the Church in its purest form, unpolluted by human sin and corruption. She descends to the “field full of folk” from the castle on the hill, which represents Heaven, revealing that the Church is a gift from God to help guide the people on earth. Holy Church introduces one of two representations of God in the poem, Truth (the other being Kind). In her lesson on the importance of moderation, Holy Church draws upon the biblical story of Lot from Genesis 13. Instead of choosing moderation, Lot drank gluttonously, leading him to fall asleep and be vulnerable to his daughters, who, in an effort to continue his lineage, slept with him.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Will asks Holy Church about the dungeon in the valley that sits on the other side of the field of folk. She says the dungeon is founded and ruled by Wrong—the very being who “egged to evil” Adam and Eve, Cain, and Judas. Wrong is “a molester of love” who “lies to every one.” 
The dungeon in the valley symbolizes Hell, as it lies opposite of the castle on the hill (Heaven), and is governed by a character named Wrong, otherwise known as Lucifer. Just as the dungeon lies opposite of the castle, so is Wrong the opposite of Truth.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Holy Church finally introduces herself by name to Will, telling him that he should already recognize her, for “I befriended you first and taught the faith to you.” Kneeling out of respect and admiration, Will asks her to pray for his sins and asks her how to save his soul. Holy Church responds that Truth, a “love-gift” declared by Deus caritas, is the answer.
Holy Church’s comment to Will is almost suggestive of Sunday school that a child attends: “I befriended you first and taught the faith to you.” In this way, Will is cast as spiritually a child who has much to learn. Holy Church complicates the idea of Truth being a person, as Truth is also a gift given by God, whom she refers to as Deus caritas, God is love.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Penance and Repentance Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Holy Church briefly teaches Will about the beginnings of Heaven and Hell. She explains that Christ created ten orders of heavenly beings, gave them power, and taught them to obey Truth. However, Lucifer, “the loveliest of light after our Lord,” refused to obey Christ, causing him to fall from God’s graces and from Heaven, where he landed in “a deep dark hell, to dwell there forever.” Thousands of other heavenly beings were damned as well, since they wrongly believed Lucifer when he told them that he will be “like the most high.” However, Lucifer is the most sinful of them all and he suffers the most. Holy Church says that all people who choose to “work with wrong” will find themselves in Lucifer’s company, but those who “work well” will go to Heaven.
Holy Church’s teachings are directly biblical, particularly drawing on Isaiah 14:13-14. Her lesson points to the way that corruption and selfishness erode and eventually destroy society—an idea that reverberates throughout the text. In addition, it’s important to note that Holy Church refers to the devil in question as Satan—even though she previously said that a devil named Wrong was the founder of Hell. Although the two are used somewhat interchangeably, the two names point to the medieval tradition that Hell is inhabited by many different devils.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
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Holy Church explains to Will that Truth is the “trustiest treasure on earth,” and that this idea is imbedded in all people, whether those people are learned or unlearned. Will objects, claiming he has no “natural knowledge” and needs to be taught “more clearly.” Reprimanding him, Holy Church calls Will a “doting dolt,” and explains that all people are instilled with “natural knowledge” in their hearts to love God more than they love themselves and to turn away from deadly sins.
Will claims to not have the “natural knowledge” to understand Holy Church’s teachings—meaning that he doesn’t have the experiential knowledge that would help him absorb the lesson. Once again, Will emphasizes his spiritual youth and naiveté (and perhaps, the fact that he is a “doting dolt,” as Holy Church says). At this point, religious teachings are just words to him.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
While Truth is “trustiest” on earth, love is “trustiest” in Heaven, as love erases sin and establishes peace. Holy Church explains that Love took on “flesh and blood” on earth, and is now the “leader of the Lord’s people in Heaven,” serving as a point of contact between the God and his people.
Holy Church’s teachings about love morph from being about a concept to a person, Jesus Christ. In her explanation of Love, Holy Church emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, revealing that he is both God and man.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Holy Church also teaches Will that “faith without works is worse than nothing, / And as dead as a doornail unless the deed goes with it.” She says that many people on earth seem pure and faithful, but they are lacking charity. She declares that people should treat one another with love, since love is “the strait street that goes straight to Heaven.”
Drawing upon James 2:26 from the Bible, Holy Church emphasizes one of the cornerstones of the Medieval Church, good works, the practice of selflessly doing good within the world, which is still important in the Roman Catholic Church today. Holy Church refers to love, both as a feeling and the person of Christ, as the “strait” path that leads directly to Heaven. The word “strait” means narrow, as it appears in Matthew 7:13-14.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
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