Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus IV Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Sick of their fighting, the King orders Conscience to kiss Meed, but Conscience refuses to do so without permission from a man named Reason. The King respects Conscience’s wishes and tells him to fetch Reason and bring him back to court as soon as possible. Conscience rides out to find Reason and hastily fills him in on the goings-on at court. Reason agrees to return to court and prepares his two servants, Cato and Tom-True-Tongue-Tell-Me-No-Tales-Nor-Lies-To-Laugh-At-For-I-Loved-Them-Never, for the journey.
Although for a brief moment, the King tries to use force to get what he wants (the union of Conscience and Meed), he ultimately chooses justice when he listens to Conscience and promises to heed to Reason. Reason’s servants’ names are one of the subtle moments of humor in the poem, as the succinctly named Cato is accompanied by the long-winded Tom-True-Tongue-Tell-Me-No-Tales-Nor-Lies-To-Laugh-At-For-I-Loved-Them-Never.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
The group departs for court on horseback, and two men, Wisdom and Wit, follow behind closely. They, too, are headed to court but “to be charged of suits.” Conscience knows that Wisdom and Wit are greedy and potentially dangerous men, so he warns Reason to ride faster as to not get tangled up with them. Conscience and Reason arrive safely to court, where they are greeted warmly by the King.
Wisdom and Wit seem like decent people, since it seems a good thing to be wise and witty. However, Conscience knows that the men are greedy. Like Meed, Wisdom and Wit are ambivalent characters, meaning that they have the capacity for both good and evil, just as human wit and wisdom can lead people either toward or away from true Christian and moral behavior.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Before dealing with Meed and her marriage, the King must first oversee a legal case. A man named Peace accuses Wrong of three crimes—rape, theft, and murder. With help from Conscience, the King knows that Peace is being honest and that Wrong is “a wicked wretch.” Wisdom and Wit, serving as Wrong’s lawyers, try to bribe the King, but the King is adamant that Wrong must be punished. Meanwhile, Meed intervenes and tries to bribe Peace into dropping the charges by giving him gold. Peace hastily accepts the bribe, but the King does not allow the charges to be dropped, asserting that if Wrong “got off so easily, then all he’d do is laugh.”
Even though Wrong is charged with three serious crimes (rape, theft, and murder), his lawyers try to persuade the King to let Wrong buy his way out of punishment. This moment points to the Medieval Church’s practice of distributing indulgences—a decreased punishment for sin. In practice, indulgences quickly became corrupt, as people saw them as an easy out from punishment and even a justification to continue sinning, while clergy saw them as a quick way to make money. The King highlights the problem with indulgences when he warns that if Wrong could buy his way out of punishment, he wouldn’t be remorseful about his sins.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Penance and Repentance Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Reason agrees that Wrong should be punished and declares, “by the Rood, I shall render no mercy / While Meed maintains her mastery in the court of law.” The King is furious at Meed for almost interfering with the law with her bribery.
The Rood refers to Jesus’ Cross (like in the other popular medieval dream vision poem, “Dream of the Rood”). Thus, Reason solemnly promises Christ that he will not let Meed corrupt the justice system.  
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
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When the King demands that Wrong face punishment for his crimes, Conscience warns him that unless the common people are obedient, “It’s very hard…actually to effect this.” The King asks Conscience and Reason to both be permanent fixtures on his council. 
Conscience’s warning to the King shows the way that society in the Middle Ages was built on community and obedience—a theme visited in depth later in the poem. The King’s request to Conscience and Reason indicates that any well functioning society, or individual, requires both Conscience and Reason to be active and present.
Themes
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon