Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus III Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The King decides that he will simply ask Meed which man she would like to marry, Truth or False, “And if she works with wit and follows my will / I will forgive her her guilt.” Meanwhile, Meed is shown to her room by a clerk and several minstrels who promise to help Meed marry False. As a thank you, Meed showers them with jewels. A priest disguised as a friar also visits her, promising to absolve her “for a seam of wheat,” even though he knows that “learned men and unlearned had both lain” with Meed. He adds that her salvation will be guaranteed if she also pays for a window that is getting installed at the local church.  
Once Meed is at court (meaning the King’s kingdom, not yet the legal court), she rapidly gains a following, even receiving loyalty from clerks and priests. Meed’s quick popularity shows the danger of rewards, since in practice they often take the form of bribery. The clergy’s devotion to Meed shows their greed and corruption, seen by the priest who promises Meed will be saved if she pays for a new window to be installed at the Church.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
The King calls for Meed to be brought before him. When she arrives, he tells her that it was unwise of her to try to marry False, but that he forgives her. He asks if she will take a knight named Conscience as her husband instead. Meed readily agrees. However, when Conscience is called in and is asked the same question, he strongly objects. Conscience knows Meed is dangerous, declaring fervently that “She makes men misbehave many score times,” regardless of if they are peasants or nobles. She has even “Poisoned popes” and “impaired Holy Church.” 
Instead of forcing Meed to marry Truth or allowing her to marry False, the King gives Meed a third option—marrying his knight, Conscience. This is interesting considering that Truth is good, False is evil, and Conscience is the ability to discern good from evil. In this way, the King is trying to give Meed the ability to judge where and how to use her services. However, Conscience’s firm rejection of Meed reveals his belief that although she has the power to do good, she is ultimately corrupt. 
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Contesting Conscience’s charges, Meed argues that gifts are a good thing. By giving meed (rewards), a king can honor those who serve him loyally and entice young knights to undertake quests. In addition, meed is helpful for maintaining laws, helping beggars, and preserving peace. The King is thoroughly convinced by Lady Meed’s argument but allows Conscience the chance to respond.
Although Meed’s argument is meant to illustrate all the ways giving rewards is good and helpful, it’s easy to see the way each of the examples she gives can, in fact, be instances of bribery. The King is easily swayed by her argument, revealing that although he is mostly good, he is still human. 
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Conscience explains that there are two types of meed— rewards given from God to those who “work well” on earth, and the bribery that men on earth give and receive. He explains that what priests get for singing Masses is the latter kind of meed, meant to support their “pampered lives.” He points out that this is different from the “measurable hire” that peasants receive from their masters in exchange for hard work. Conscience asserts, “Each man shall play with a plow, pickax or spade, / Spin or spread dung—or spoil himself in slot,” claiming that bribery has spoiled the priesthood.
Conscience brings labor into the conversation, claiming that those who don’t work dutifully for wages, as peasants do, are slothful. Priests who charge for their services gain wealth from lack of work—they gain “meed” or undeserved gifts. Conscience, then, connects the ideas of honest labor and morality, seeing the former as necessary for the latter. This theme of labor and idleness points back to the “field full of folk,” where the clergy was slothful and greedy, while the peasants worked hard and honestly. 
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
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Quoting the Bible, Meed retaliates by reciting, “He will acquire honor who gives gifts.” Conscience is quick to point out that Meed has intentionally left out the second half of the verse, which reads, “But he steals the spirit of those who accept.” Thus, argues Conscience, those who accept meed are “enslaved.”
Meed uses scripture selectively to defend herself— she quotes half of Proverbs 22:9, while leaving out the rest. Conscience then quotes the other half to provide the true meaning. The way that Meed makes “glosses of the Scriptures” to make herself look good is similar to what the friars did in the “field full of folk,” and suggests the way that clergy who are immoral but knowledgeable can use their knowledge to enrich and empower themselves, and further asserts that the members of the clergy are doing exactly that.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon