Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XIX Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Will writes down the contents of his dream and leaves for church. In the middle of Mass, however, he falls asleep once more. In his dream, he sees Piers Plowman coated in blood, carrying a cross. Will calls out to Conscience to ask if the man before him is Jesus or Piers Plowman. Conscience appears and responds that the man is Christ, but he is dressed in Piers’ armor.
This passage begins Will’s seventh dream vision. The connection between Piers Plowman and Jesus is strengthened here. The poem’s tone dramatically shifts from the celebratory ending of the Harrowing of Hell to a dark, somber image of the Crucifixion. Back-to-back, these two events emphasize that Christ suffered terribly for the sake of the world. 
Themes
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Will asks why Conscience refers to him as Christ, not Jesus. Conscience says that Will should already know “That knight, king, conqueror can be one person.” He explains that being called a knight is “fair,” since people respect him. Being called a king is “fairer,” because a king can make knights. But being called a conqueror is even better, because a conqueror can “…make lads lords of the lands he wins / And foul slaves of free men who will not follow his laws.”
Conscience’s explanation, “That knight, king, conqueror can be one person,” refers to the way that God the Father, the Son of God (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost are all God (the Trinity). He also suggests that Jesus is a protector of the people, the King of Heaven, and a conqueror of sin and death.
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Related Quotes
Conscience explains that when Jesus turned water into wine, he began to Do-Well. When he fed more than five thousand people with two fish and five loaves of bread, he began to Do-Better. When he was crucified and resurrected—appearing to his apostles—Jesus “put Do-Best in train.” Conscience explains that in doing so, Jesus also gave power to Piers Plowman to absolve people of their sins, “To bind and unbind both here and elsewhere.” 
Conscience explains Do-Best in terms of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection—Jesus’s sacrifice of himself is the ultimate good work. Here, Piers Plowman is briefly associated with Peter, whom Christ deemed the head of the earthly Church. This passage draws on Matthew 16:19, when Jesus tells Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven.” 
Themes
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Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Will witnesses the Holy Ghost descending upon Piers Plowman and his companions at Pentecost. The men begin to “speak and understand all sorts of languages.” Will is frightened by the bright light, but Conscience explains that what he is witnessing is a messenger of Christ, named Grace.
Will here witnesses the Pentecost, detailed in Acts 2 in the bible, when the Holy Ghost descends upon the apostles (in the poem, described as Piers and his followers). Now that Jesus has been Crucified and Resurrected, the earthly Church begins to take form. 
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Grace counsels Piers Plowman and Conscience to gather up the common people so that Grace can distribute among them “Treasure to live by to their lives end, / And weapons to fight with that will never fail.” Grace explains that Antichrist and his followers will try to destroy Conscience and the rest of the world. If Antichrist succeeds, Pride will be the Pope, guided by his cardinals, Covetousness and Unkindness.
The Antichrist comes from 1 John 2:18, 22, which warns the Christian community about a false Christ, who denies God and will oppose Christ at the end of time. The concept of the Antichrist was important in Medieval Christianity. In the poem, Antichrist has already come, and as later events in the poem will suggest it seems as if the poem sees a connection between the Antichrist and the corrupt clergy. 
Themes
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Grace gives all people “…a grace to guide himself with / So that idleness would not overcome him, nor envy or pride,” and Grace assigns a multitude of skills, including wisdom, understanding, and courage. To Piers Plowman, Grace gives four oxen—a large ox named Luke, two “mighty” oxen named Mark and Matthew, and a “gentle” ox named John, who is the most prized of them all. Grace also gives Piers four horses, named Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome, as well as two harrows, one old and one new.
Grace’s distribution of gifts follows that of 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Interestingly, the biblical passage explains that each different gift from the Holy Ghost “is given for the common good,” which ties into the way that Medieval society required each estate (social class) to work together for the sake of the community. The gifts are also symbolic: Grace gifts Piers with four oxen (the four gospels), four horses (the four Fathers of the Western Church), and two harrows (the Old and New Testaments) to help with his labor—establishing the Church. Piers here is again being connected to Peter, the founder of the Church. Note how Piers himself and the gifts also connect the Church to farming. While the peasants in the third estate physically farm, the poem describes the proper function of the Church as being a kind of spiritual farming.
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Along with these gifts, Grace also gives Piers Plowman four types of seeds: the cardinal virtues, to sow in mankind’s soul. The seeds are called Spiritus Prudentiae, Spiritus Temperantia, Spiritus Fortitudinis, and Spiritus Justitiae. Piers sows each of the seeds and harrows them “With Old Law and New Law so that love might increase / Among the four virtues, and bring vices to destruction.”
The four seeds Pier must plow are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The two harrows—the Old Testament and the New Testament—are both important for cultivating these virtues. Grace also refers to the power of love to blot out evil.
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Labor vs. Idleness Theme Icon
Grace instructs Piers Plowman to build a house to store his crops in. When Piers asks for wood with which to build it, Grace gives him Christ’s cross and crown of thorns. Piers and Grace build the house together and call it Unity, or Holy Church. Grace also constructs a cart called Christendom, which will be pulled by two horses, Contrition and Confession. 
By giving Piers the Cross when he asks for wood, Grace suggests that the Church is built on the Cross, meaning that the Crucifixion is central to Christianity. Here, Holy Church is no longer a person but a structure—the barn, Unity, that will house the Christians.
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Once construction is complete, Piers Plowman and Grace depart to plow the entire earth. Seeing his chance, Pride gathers his followers and prepares them to attack Conscience, the Christian community, and the cardinal virtues. He instructs his followers to, “Blow them down and break them and bite the roots in two.” Pride sends his sergeant-at-arms, Presumption, and a spy named Spoil-Love to approach the Christian community. Presumption and Spoil-Love tell Conscience and the Christians that they are under attack and that “…Conscience will not be able to discriminate between a Christian and a heathen.”
Pride’s main goal is to target Conscience, which means that pride and egotism can confuse one’s conscience (integrity) about right and wrong. Pride’s instruction to his followers to “bite the roots in two” refer to the cardinal virtues grown by Piers Plowman. The concept of roots also refers back to the numerous times in the poem when a tree’s rotting roots represented the sinful clergy. Thus, Pride also wants his followers to infiltrate and break down the clergy (which much of the poem seems to suggest has already happened). 
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Conscience tells the Christians to take refuge in Unity, since the group isn’t strong enough to fight against Pride and his followers without Grace there. Kind Wit instructs the people to dig a moat around Unity. Conscience instructs the people to confess their sins and receive the Eucharist, but a brewer objects, accusing Conscience of speaking nonsense. A vicar and a lord follow suit. An arrogant also refuses to obey Conscience and instead asserts his superiority over the entire Christian community. As the vicar abandons Unity, Will wakes up and writes down his dream.
Here, a person from each level of Medieval society refuses to listen to Conscience: a brewer from the peasantry, a vicar from the clergy, a lord from the nobility, and a king. This widespread rejection of Conscience shows that the clergy isn’t solely to blame for society’s ills. The poem emphasizes that all people are susceptible to sin, especially if they choose to ignore their conscience.
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Corruption Theme Icon