Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XII Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Imaginative teaches Will that an explanation of Do-Well is found in Paul’s Epistle when he writes, “Faith, hope, charity, and the greatest of these.” Imaginative also teaches Will about the nature of salvation for learned versus unlearned men. Imaginative tells a story of two men who are thrown into the Thames—one has learned how to swim, and one has never swum before. He asks Will which man is more threatened by the river, and Will responds with the man who doesn’t know how to swim. Imaginative teaches that just as a man who knows how to swim can better survive in the river, “he that’s had a clerk’s education can sooner arise / Out of sin and be safe, though he sins often.”
Imaginative quotes 1 Corinthians 13:13, where Paul writes that love is even greater than faith, hope, and charity. Reiterating much of what Will’s other allegorical teachers have taught, Imaginative explains that love is the most important value for a Christian to cultivate. Imaginative is one of Will’s only teachers to defend the clergy, noting that “a clerk’s education” means that a clergy member can better recognize sin and save himself from it than an unlearned peasant can.  
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Penance and Repentance Theme Icon
Imaginative points out that although Trajan, the non-Christian Roman Emperor, was saved from Hell, “he is lodged in the lowest part of Heaven” and “loosely…loiters there.” He also teaches Will that rich, sinful people who wait until the very end of their lives to repent “will sound in our Lord’s ear like a magpie’s chattering.”
Imaginative seems somewhat critical of Trajan and annoyed by Will’s admiration of him. Perhaps this is why Imaginative points out that Trajan is barely in Heaven (he “loosely…loiters” in the “lowest part of Heaven”). Imaginative’s comment is based on the common medieval understanding that non-Christian “prophets and patriarchs,” while not sentenced to Hell because of their goodness and morality, also couldn’t fully be allowed into Heaven because they were non-Christians, and so existed in the afterlife on the edges of heaven.
Themes
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
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Will asks why so many clerks teach that no one can be saved without Christianity. To this, Imaginative exclaims in Latin, “Salvabitur vix Justus in die judicii; / Ergo salvabitur.”  As for why Trajan was saved from Hell even though he was not a Christian, Imaginative explains that “there is baptism both at the font and by blood-shedding, And through fire there is baptism.” Without giving Will an opportunity to respond, Imaginative vanishes.
Quoting 1 Peter 4:18 in Latin, Imaginative explains a new concept: that humans are given salvation even though they are unworthy of it: “The righteous man will scarcely be saved in the day of judgment; therefore he will be saved.” In other words, humans must live a life of love in order to go to Heaven, but they must still understand that their salvation comes entirely from the goodness and sacrifice of Christ. He also explains that non-Christians can become Christians by traditional baptism (“at the font”), martyrdom (“by blood-shedding”), and by the power of the Holy Ghost (“through fire”).
Themes
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
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