Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus VI Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The crowd says that Piers Plowman’s directions to Truth are too complicated to follow on their own—they need a guide to help them every step of the way. Piers offers to be their guide if they first help him plow his half-acre of land.
The crowd’s inability to embark on such a complicated journey on their own shows that they need spiritual guidance. Once again, this supports the idea that the poem isn’t advocating for an upheaval of society, but rather for the members of society to remain in their estates but to follow Christian and moral behavior. But it also highlights how the Church is failing to provide guidance to its members.
Themes
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
Piers Plowman instructs the women to sew clothing for the workers and sacks to hold grain while the men plow the land. A knight asks Piers to teach him how to plow, but Piers tells the knight to focus on protecting the people. If the knight protects everyone “Against wasters and wicked men,” Piers and the other plowmen promise to “sweat and strain and sow” for him.
Like Grace in the Prologue, Piers Plowman here establishes an idealized, perfect feudalism, where everyone works together to support the community. Here he describes the second estate—the nobility—protecting and maintaining order so that the third estate can safely focus on growing food. William Langland, the writer of the poem, seems to imply that such a perfect feudal society is possible so long as people act morally. Modern readers might respond that of course people will never always act morally, but Langland seems to believe that with a proper Christian outlook such behavior is possible.
Themes
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Piers Plowman promises that whoever helps him work will be provided for. His wife is Dame-Work-When-It’s-Time-To, his daughter is Do-Just-So-Or-Your-Dame-Will-Beat-You, and his son is Suffer-Your-Sovereigns-To-Have-Their-Will-Condemn-Them-Not-For-If-You-Do-You’ll-Pay-A-Dear-Price-Let-God-Have-His-Way-With-All-Things-For-So-His-Word-Teaches. All these family members also help with the work.
Similar to Reason’s servants’ names, Piers’ family’s names are outrageously wordy, adding humor to an otherwise-serious and sober scene of field-plowing and cloth-making.
Themes
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
Although most people help Piers Plowman work, some people pretend to be blind or crippled to be excused from labor. Their dishonesty and idleness anger Piers, who asks the knight to reestablish order. The knight gently asks the fakers to return to their work, but the fakers still refuse.
When the knight here actually has to act on his duty as the restorer of order, he is too docile to do so effectively. His failure, and the subsequent social breakdown, shows how Medieval social hierarchy was only functional when every faction of society is committed to community.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
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As a last resort, Piers Plowman calls upon a man named Hunger for help. Hunger punishes the fakers harshly, and they quickly begin to work and do as they’re told. Piers knows that the victory is short lived—once Hunger disappears, the fakers will misbehave again. Despite his frustrations, Piers knows he needs to love the fakers, since “…they’re my blood brothers, for God bought us all./ Truth taught me once to love them every one.” Hunger agrees that Piers must show them love and tells him that if the fakers misbehave again, Piers must leave their punishment up to God. Hunger also teaches Piers that “The fellow that feeds himself with his faithful labor” is blessed according to God’s word.
Hunger’s teaching to Piers about leaving the fakers’ sins up to God (and showing love to the sinners instead) may be a suggestion that the Church tries to intervene too much between God and man by selling indulgences—instead they should focus on loving, helping, and guiding sinners. Hunger also stresses the connection between working hard and receiving salvation—a person who “feeds himself” (a subtle pun, since it’s coming from Hunger) with “faithful labor” is favorable in God’s eyes.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
Hunger refuses to leave until he is fed, forcing Piers Plowman and the other poor peasants to scrape together what food they can find and work rapidly to keep up with Hunger’s appetite. Eventually, Hunger falls asleep after drinking ale. The fakers, no longer intimidated, return to their old ways and stop working.
Although Hunger initially seems evil, he is an ambivalent force much like Wisdom and Wit. Hunger has the capacity for good (forcing the fakers to start working again) and bad (forcing everyone to work at a frantic pace to keep up with their appetites).
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon