Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XIII Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Will wakes up from his dream and wanders for many years like a friar. He thinks about the way Fortune abandoned him, how friars disregard the poor and instead pursue the rich, how Kind loves all creatures, “And how laymen are led…/ Through incompetent curates to incurable pains.” Will is especially curious about the way Imaginative exclaimed “Vix salvabitur justus” before disappearing. Will ruminates on this particular thought for so long that he falls asleep.
This passage shows the power of the dream vision. Will’s allegorical dreams impart him with truth and understanding (along with many questions) that he doesn’t have access to in his waking life. Here, he briefly thinks about what he’s learned thus far about love, corruption, and salvation—all things he was naive about prior to his dreams.
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Conscience appears to Will in another dream and invites him to a dinner with Clergy, Scripture, Patience, and a Master of Divinity. At the feast, the Master sits at the place of honor, while Will and Patience are seated alone at a side table. The food is served, and the Master gorges himself on expensive, rich foods like “thick soups” and “eggs fried in fat.” Meanwhile, Will and Patience are served a sour loaf of bread and a few simple dishes named in Latin.
Will’s fourth dream vision begins. A Master of Divinity is both a friar and a theologian (an intellectual who studies God and Christianity in an academic setting). The Master is clearly gluttonous and eats like a rich noble, while Will and Patience are fed like lowly peasants. Will and Patience’s food is sour and named in Latin after the sacrament of penance, suggesting that penance may feel difficult or uncomfortable but is (spiritually) healthy. Meanwhile, the Master’s gluttony is incongruent with his status as a friar since friars were supposed to live humble lives and beg for their food. The Master of Divinity, then, is yet another symbol of the corruption of the church in general, and friars more particularly.
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Will is distressed by the way the Master of Divinity drinks excessive amounts of wine and stuffs himself with food. He tells Patience that he heard the Master preach four days ago on penance, but that the Master omitted the verse from Paul’s Epistle that states, “There is danger in false brothers.” 
This passage is one of many moments throughout the poem where friars alter the scriptures when they preach in order to look good (the first instance of this was in the “field full of folk”).
Themes
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Will thinks that the Master of Divinity “Has no pity on us poor.” Angrily, he wishes that the food placed in front of the Master “Would turn to molten lead in his midriff.” He tells Patience that he wishes to “prate to this pisspot with his plump belly, / and press him to say what penance is, of which he preached earlier.” Patience tells Will to be patient—that the Master will soon be full, and Will can challenge him about Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best.
Will demonstrates a sudden change in temperament. Although he has been well mannered throughout the poem, faced with the obvious corruption of the Master of Divinity Will gets angry and wishes physical harm to the man. Will’s distaste for the man seems justified, but Patience’s advice that Will be, well, patient, also suggests that to act on such anger in a physical would be a moral mistake.
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Will finally has his chance to ask the Master of Divinity his questions. Between gulps of wine, the Master answers that Do-Well is to try not to harm your fellow Christians. Will immediately challenges the Master, saying that the Master does not Do-Well, since he ate so much food that there is none leftover for Will and his companions. Gesturing to Patience to keep Will quiet, Conscience asks the Master to continue explaining Do-Well and Do-Better. The Master continues, saying that Do-Well is to “do as clerks teach,” Do-Better is to teach other people, and Do-Best does what he teaches.
The only other time Will has been combative was with Reason, when Will felt that Reason abandoned humankind. Will’s qualms with the Master center on the Master’s own hypocrisy but perhaps also point to the way the Master has also abandoned his commitment to humankind in favor of a life of leisure and gluttony. Once again, Will is directed to be patient and less combative in his anger.
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Conscience asks their other dinner companion, Clergy, to put in his two cents about Do-Well. Clergy admits that he doesn’t know how to define Do-Well, although he heard Piers Plowman once say, “…no study is worth a straw except for love alone.” Conscience and Clergy are confused about what Piers could have meant, but they decide to shelve the matter until Piers Plowman can explain it to them in person. In the meantime, they ask Patience for his thoughts. Patience says, “Disce and Do-Well, doce and Do-Better, dilige and Do-Best.” Patience said he learned this lesson from someone named Love, who also taught that one must love God, oneself, and one’s enemies “With words and with works.”
It is interesting that Clergy shows uncertainty about defining Do-Well, since he showed no hesitation in explaining Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best to Will in another dream. Perhaps this suggests that the clergy is quick to teach others how to live a Christian life but that the clergy is actually uncertain as to what this means. Meanwhile, Patience explains Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best in terms of learning, teaching, and loving. He explains that love is shown “with words and with works,” meaning that Christians should do good works because they love God and love other people—not because they feel obligated to do good works to get to Heaven.
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Related Quotes
The Master of Divinity interrupts Patience’s teachings, claiming that nothing can “…produce a peace between the Pope and his enemies” or between two kings. He calls Patience a liar, but is unsurprised, “for pilgrims often lie.” Angered, Conscience declares that he will become a pilgrim like Patience in order to experience and learn more. Clergy is shocked at Conscience’s decision and offers to bring him a Bible to teach him things “That Patience the pilgrim never perfectly knew.” Conscience declines the offer and mutters to Clergy that he would rather “Have Patience perfectly than half your pack of books.” Clergy bitterly says that once Conscience is tired of wandering, he’ll wish he had Clergy to turn to.
The Master of Divinity’s objection likely refers to the Papal Schism of 1379, when there were two (and later, three) different men who claimed to be Pope. The Master pompously belittles Patience, claiming “pilgrims often lie.” Ironically, the life of a friar wasn’t all that different from that of a pilgrim (living a humble life focused on God), so the Master unknowingly implies that he, too, is a liar. Clergy also acts self-important when he claims to know far more than Patience possibly can. It is no accident that the two arrogant characters at the feast, the Master and Clergy, are tied to the Church.
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Patience packs his bag with food, including “sobriety and sincere speech and steadfast belief.” Not long after embarking on their journey, Patience, Conscience, and Will come across a wafer-seller named Hawkin, or Activa Vita. Hawkin’s coat is splattered with stains, like a “spot of insolent speech” or “stubborn will.” Conscience politely asks Hawkin why he hasn’t washed it.
Hawkin represents the active life (“Activa Vita”), meaning that Hawkin’s life is marked by the happenings of the secular world rather than the contemplative life of a monk. Hawkin’s coat, which represents the Christian life, is covered in stains, which represent his sins.
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