Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XVI Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Still dreaming, Will thanks Anima for his teachings but admits that he still is confused about Charity. Anima responds with an explanation of a tree called Patience. Its roots are made of mercy, its leaves are the laws of the Church, the flowers are “…obedient speech and benevolent looks,” and the fruit, grown by “God and good men,” is Charity. Will says he would travel hundreds of miles to see this tree and taste its fruit. Anima says the tree can be found in a garden “that God made himself”—the heart of the human body. Anima mentions that Piers Plowman oversees the garden. At the sound of Piers Plowman’s name, Will “swoon[s]” with “pure joy,” and falls into another dream.
The tree of Patience contrasts with Anima’s first tree example, the tree with the rotten roots. The tree of Patience represents the ideal Christian community, marked by obedience to Church law, kindness, mercy, and charity (in this passage, Charity refers to the fruit of the tree, rather than to a person). In contrast, Anima’s first tree example represents the reality of the Christian community, which is marked by sin and spiritual rot.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Piers Plowman appears to Will and shows him the tree called Patience. Will notices the tree is propped up by three wooden poles, which Piers says is to keep the tree from falling over when the winds come. Piers explains that he uses the first pole to protect the tree from Covetousness. The second pole protects against the flesh, which introduces “worms of sin” to the tree. Sometimes, the Devil also tries to attack the tree. He uses a ladder made of lies, and often has help from flesh. When this happens, Free Will uses the third pole—with help from Holy Ghost—to “dash down the Devil directly through grace.”
Piers Plowman defends the Christian community from sin, which takes the form of Covetousness, the flesh, and the Devil. In this instance, the Devil, one of the many devils in the poem, seems to refer to a figure who embodies Satan, Lucifer, and the Fiend. Free Will, different than the protagonist, Will, refers to mankind’s ability to make their own decisions, guided by Christian spirit, rather than being bound by fate.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Will asks Piers Plowman about the three wooden poles, noting that they all seem to have come from the same tree. Piers explains that the poles “betoken the Trinity,” and also explains the three types of fruit on the tree: Matrimony, Maidenhood, and Widowhood. Will notices the Devil positioned at the bottom of the tree, waiting to snatch any fallen fruit. When fruit does fall and the Devil tries to collect it, Piers beats him with one of the poles.
The three wooden poles represent the Trinity. The three poles all hail from the same particular tree, reflecting the way that the Trinity is both three (God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost) and one (God or the Trinity). The three types of fruit on the tree are the three feminine estates (social classes) in the Middle Ages, which defined a woman in terms of having (or lacking) a husband.
Themes
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
A woman named Mary appears and explains that “Jesus should joust for it [the fallen fruit] by judgement of arms / Which one should fetch the fruit, the Fiend or himself.” Will suddenly sees visions of Jesus healing the sick. Although some people recognize Jesus to be “lord of high heaven,” some people think his healing abilities come from witchcraft or the Devil.
The fallen fruit represents mankind in its fallen, sinful state. The joust between Jesus and the Fiend refers back to the landscape from the Prologue: the “field full of folk” wedged between the castle on the hill and the dungeon in the valley, reflecting the human capacity to earn Heaven or be damned in Hell, and Jesus’s willingness to fight for and save humanity.  
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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Sitting at dinner on a Thursday evening, Jesus tells his followers that one of them will betray him for money. Although Judas objects to this, he later meets with the Jews and establishes with them the signal of a kiss. Later, Judas walks up to Jesus and greets him with a kiss, and Jesus is captured and crucified.
Judas chooses money over love, loyalty, and, of course, Jesus. By recounting this event, the poem may suggest that the clergy’s greed aligns them Judas.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Will suddenly wakes up from his dream—but is still in the midst of another. He can no longer find Piers Plowman, so he wanders through the country looking for him. One day, he meets a man named Abraham, who initially introduces himself as Faith. Faith tells Will that he’s looking for a man whose shield has “Three beings in one body, none bigger than the others” on it—one is called Pater, one is Filius, and the third is Holy Ghost. He explains to Will that the nature of God is threefold, comprised of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, “…and all are but one God.”
Abraham is a key figure in the Old Testament. Abraham is looking for a knight whose shield illustrates the Trinity (“Pater” means father, and “Filius” means son), who clearly is Jesus. The fact that Abraham doesn’t seem to know Jesus’ name is reflective of Abraham’s status as a figure from the Old Testament, thus preceding Jesus’ life and death. Like Mary, Faith describes Jesus as a knight, suggesting that Jesus is a protector.
Themes
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Faith tells the story of the time when God told him to kill his son, Isaac, as a test to find out if Faith loved his son or God more. Will notices that Faith has a multitude of souls under his coat. As Faith talks about how he is now seeking Jesus, Will sees another man running down the road. Will asks the man who he is, where he is coming from, and where he is going.
Faith’s story about almost killing his son, Isaac, as a demonstration of faith to God comes from Genesis 22:1-19. The souls in Faith’s coat represent the Bosom of Abraham from Luke 16:22. The phrase refers to what was an ancient Jewish belief: once in Sheol (Hades), the righteous dead did not dwell in a place of suffering but lived in bliss alongside Abraham.   
Themes
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon