Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus V Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Will wakes up from his dream only to drift back to sleep moments later. Once again, Will sees the “field full of folk,” but this time he also sees Reason preaching to all of the people in the field. Reason urges the people to see their sinful ways and repent. After admonishing the common people, Reason turns his attention to the priests, advising them, “What you preach to the people, practice it yourselves, / …Live the lessons you teach us: we’ll believe you the more.” Reason also has words of wisdom for the King, telling him to treat his people with love. Lastly, Reason addresses those who “seek Saint James and saints at Rome,” telling them to instead “Seek Saint Truth, for he can save you all.”
Will’s second dream vision begins. Reason morphs into a bishop who preaches to society (symbolized by the “field full of folk”). Although Reason’s criticisms particularly target the priests whose sermons don’t align with their own lives, all people are reprimanded for something, stressing that everyone can fall into sin and corruption. Reason’s teaching for pilgrims—to “Seek Saint Truth” instead of “Saint James and saints at Rome”—foreshadows one of the main quests in the poem, the quest for Truth.
Themes
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As Reason’s sermon comes to a close, a man named Repentance enters. When Repentance speaks, his words make Will “weep water from his eyes.” One by one, each of the Seven Deadly Sins come forward to repent. Parnel Proud-Heart confesses first, followed by Lecher, and then Envy, who confesses to living “loveless like a loathsome dog.” Envy is distraught by his sinful life, but Repentance teaches him that “sorrow for sins is salvation for souls.”
Although Repentance’s actual words to the crowd are not recorded, they’re clearly impactful enough that they make Will cry. This moment offers another interpretation as well, as the name Will can also refer to the human will, as in one’s willpower and decision-making facilities. Will, here, himself emerges as an allegorical character who represents all individual people. Will’s search for Truth and for the way to be a good Christian is all people’s search.
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Envy is followed by a friar named Wrath, whose “vicious verbiage” gets him into trouble. He admits that when he drinks wine, “All the nastiness I know about any of our brothers / I cough it up in our cloister so the whole convent knows it.” Repentance tells the friar to keep tight-lipped about any secrets he knows and to be moderate when he drinks.
Although most of the Seven Deadly Sins are of unspecified social class and profession, Wrath is clearly a friar. This specificity in the poem shows Langland’s view that hypocrisy particularly pervades among friars, who are supposed to be godly and pure but instead are often marked by overindulgence in alcohol, anger, and gossip.
Themes
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Covetousness, whose real name is Sir Harvey, comes next. When Repentance asks him if he has ever made “restitution,” Covetousness says yes, and launches into a story of when he “rifled” through a group of peddler’s bags. Repentance quickly explains to him that “restitution” and “rifling” are not the same thing, but Covetousness claims to not know the difference since he never learned how to read. After enduring further admonishment by Repentance, Covetousness wants to hang himself, but Repentance comforts him, saying, “…all the wickedness in this world… / Is no more to the mercy of God than a spark amid the sea.”
Covetousness is one of the few sins who has a real name—Sir Harvey. His title (“Sir”) suggests that he belongs to either the first or second estate, as a member of the clergy or the nobility. This detail makes Covetousness’ religious ignorance all the more concerning, as his title suggests that he should be learned in theology or at least literate.
Themes
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After Covetousness comes Glutton, who claims he was on his way to the Church when the women working in the tavern talked him into skipping confession to drink with them. After a nasty hangover that lasts two days, Glutton finally wakes up, and his first question is “Where is the bowl?” After being reprimanded by Repentance for this behavior, Glutton promises to fast until his much-hated aunt, Abstinence, tells him he can eat and drink again.
Glutton scapegoats the tavern women by accusing them of tempting him into sin—perhaps implying the way Adam blamed Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit. Glutton’s sin is so persistent that even after a horrible two-day hangover (a consequence that should have left him with an aversion to alcohol), he still asks for the “bowl”—that is, a container of more alcohol.
Themes
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Sloth, “beslobbered with two slimy eyes,” enters, claiming that he must sit down to give his confession or else he will fall asleep. He only speaks a few words before he begins to snore—consequently receiving a sharp wake-up call from Repentance. Continuing his confession, Sloth admits, “What I tell with my tongue is two miles from my heart.” His life is comprised of “idle tales over ale,” lying in bed instead of going to Mass, and being suspicious of any man who is kind toward him. Repentance teaches Sloth how to repent, and Sloth promises to attend Mass every morning for the next seven years.
In the Middle Ages, the word sloth meant laziness, as it does today, but it also carried connotations of mooching. Thus, Sloth is lazy (as seen by his tendency to fall asleep during his confession) but also benefits from what honest, hard workers make without offering anything in return. Because Sloth is so used to taking without giving, he is suspicious of all people who give without taking. In this way, sloth stands as the exact opposite of the way that good works should be freely given.
Themes
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Weeping, a Robber named Robert also confesses his sins. Repentance pities the entire group of sinners and has them all kneel. As Repentance prays to God to forgive all of the sinners, the group multiplies, and “A thousand men then thronged together.” Seeking Truth, the massive crowd “blunder[s] forth like beasts over banks and hills.” The crowd soon comes across a pilgrim, adorned with souvenirs from his many travels. The crowd asks the pilgrim if he has ever met a saint called Truth and where the crowd might find him, but the pilgrim is clueless.
The Robber is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins but confesses right after them, serving as a link between the sins and society. Robber’s confession inspires society (depicted by the thousand men) to repent and seek Truth. The pilgrim’s cluelessness is significant because it highlights the way that pilgrims—supposedly on religious journeys—are preoccupied by earthly shrines and touristy souvenirs rather than actual spiritual things like Truth and repentance.
Themes
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A peasant named Piers Plowman suddenly appears, claiming to know Truth intimately. As Truth’s follower, Piers works in Truth’s fields, “sow[ing] his seed and oversee[ing] his cattle.” He says that Truth is a good master and always pays his workers on time. When Piers offers to show the crowd how to get to Truth’s palace, the crowd offers to pay him for directions. Piers quickly declines payment, exclaiming that if he took their money, “Truth would love me the less a long time after.”
Unlike the pilgrim, Piers hasn’t been on impressive journeys to important religious places. Instead, he dutifully plows the fields and looks over the cattle for Truth himself. Piers, then, is a peasant—he belongs to the third estate, the lowest section of society. Piers, though, is immediately revealed as humble, loyal to Truth, and morally upright. Even though he’s an impoverished peasant, he turns down the opportunity to make a little extra money when society offers to pay him for directions to Truth. Piers, then, while peasant, is also held up as a true Christian, and of course it is no coincidence that Jesus was also born not into the nobility or clergy but rather the peasantry.
Themes
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Piers Plowman gives the crowd an overview of the directions to Truth. The crowd must first go through Meekness until they know to love God and love others—this means they’ve arrived at Conscience (here, Conscience is a place, not a person). Then, the crowd must then follow the riverbank, called Be-Modest-Of-Speech, until they reach a crossing called Do-Your-Fathers-Honor. After wading into the stream and bathing themselves, the group will enter Swear-Not-Unless-It-Is-For-Need-And-Namely-Never-Take-In-Vain-The-Name-Of-God-Almighty. Then, they are to journey alongside a field called Covet-Not-Men’s-Cattle-Nor-Their-Wives-And-None-Of-Your-Neighbor’s-Serving-Men-So-As-To-Harm-Them. At this point, the crowd should see two statues on their left, Steal-Not and Slay-Not. Once the crowd passes by a burial ground called Bear-No-False-Witness, they will see Speak-The-Truth-So-It-Must-Be-Done-And-Not-In-Any-Other-Way-Nor-For-Any-Man’s-Asking.
Just as Truth takes on several meanings throughout the poem, so does Conscience. Here, Conscience is not the King’s knight but is a place that the people must arrive at before they can continue their quest. Conscience, then, is a pre-requisite for the quest for Truth. When the people implicitly realize they are meant to love God and love other people, they know they’ve reached Conscience—a moment that points back to Holy Church’s teachings that all people are instilled with the understanding that they must love God. The rest of Piers Plowman’s directions have the crowd navigate through the Ten Commandments, such as the field called Covet-Not-Men’s-Cattle-Not-Their-Wives-And-None-Of-Your-Neighbor’s-Serving-Men-So-As-To-Harm-Them.
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Finally, the group will arrive at a castle surrounded by a moat of mercy. The castle itself is composed of several structural elements, including a buttress called Believe-So-Or-You-Won’t-Be-Saved and a roof made of Love-And-Lowness-As-Brothers-Of-One-Womb. The gatekeeper is a man named Grace, and his assistant is Amend-Yourself. Piers Plowman tells the crowd that to enter the gates, they must recite a specific sentence of repentance to Amend-Yourself. If the crowd does so correctly, Amend-Yourself will ask Grace to open the gate. Inside the gate, says Piers, “You shall see in yourself Truth sitting in your heart.”
The castle refers back to the castle on the hill from the “field full of folk,” emphasizing that Piers’ directions are for an inner spiritual journey leading not just to a person named Truth but to salvation. In addition, although earlier in the poem, Grace was a messenger of God, here, Grace is a gatekeeper who allows people to enter into Truth’s palace if they repent and change their ways.
Themes
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Piers Plowman warns the people to be on the lookout for Anger, who may try to ambush them. Piers says that besides Grace and Amend-Yourself, there are also seven sisters who guard the gates: Abstinence, Humility, Charity, Chastity, Patience, Peace, and Largesse. If the crowd can “claim kinship” with the sisters, they will be allowed past the gates.
The seven sisters who guard the gates of Truth’s palace  accord to the fruits of the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23. The fruits refer to attributes that a Christian should cultivate (or, as the poem states, “claim kinship” with), including love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and abstinence.
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A pickpocket, ape-trainer, cake-seller, pardoner, and common woman all object to Piers Plowman’s complicated directions. The pardoner and common woman run off in search of a papal bull with bishop’s letters, but Will never sees them again.
The wide variety of people who object to Piers’ directions reveals how all people—not just the rich nobility or corrupt clergy—have the capacity to reject Truth and choose evil. The way that the pardoner and the common woman fall back on their perceived safety of papal bulls—edicts issued by clergy that could lessen punishment for sins—rather than embarking on the difficult journey to Truth marks another moment when the poem identifies such easy “sin-pardoning” as antithetical to true Christian practice.
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