Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XVIII Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Will continues to wander around the world, now “Wool-chafed and wet-shoed.” He trudges around “Like a careless creature.” Growing weary, Will lies down to rest and sleeps until Palm Sunday. In his dream, he sees Jesus, who looks like both the Samaritan and Piers Plowman, riding barefoot on a mule’s back into town. The crowds sing joyfully that Jesus has come in the name of God. Will asks Faith what is going on, and Faith tells him that Jesus has come to joust in Jerusalem “and fetch what the Fiend claims, the fruit of Piers the Plowman.” Will asks if Piers is also in attendance, and Faith tells him that Jesus is going to joust wearing Piers’ coat of arms. Faith says Jesus is to joust the Fiend.
Will’s chafed skin shows how long he’s been wandering in his waking life. Although his shoes are soaked, Will is “Like a careless creature,” because Jesus is now on the forefront of his mind. In his sixth dream vision, Piers Plowman is identified with Christ again, but this time, the Samaritan is added into the mix. This comparison suggests that Christ embodies the Samaritan’s empathy and charity, as well as Piers Plowman’s humility.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Pontius Pilate appears at court, where everyone is crying “Crucifige!” The people place a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and shoot him with small arrows. After nailing him to a Cross with three nails, the people yell, “If you are Christ and a king’s son, come down from the Cross!” Eventually, Jesus “swoon[s]” and says, “Consummatum est.” As Jesus’ eyes close, the earth quakes and the skies darken. Even after his death, some people call him the Son of God, while others call him a sorcerer.
The people yell “Crucify!” and demand that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, put Jesus to death—a scene that appears in John 19:6. Jesus is nailed to the Cross with three nails (instead of four), and in Latin, utters, “It is finished,” as written in John 19:30. The entire earth reacts to Jesus’ death, revealing Jesus’ power.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
A blind knight named Longeus is sent to spear to Jesus, since no one else is willing to touch Jesus’ dead body on the Cross. Blind Longeus spears Jesus in the heart but immediately kneels and weeps, asking Jesus for mercy. Meanwhile, Faith scorns the Jews for making “…the blind beat the dead.” However, Faith says that Jesus has still won, “For your champion jouster, the chief knight of you all, / Weeping admits himself worsted and at the will of Jesus.”
Longeus’ lance accounts for Jesus’ fourth wound in the poem but fifth wound according to tradition. This event is detailed in the Gospel of Nicodemus—a gospel that was widely circulated but didn’t have enough authority to be included in the bible. Longeus’ immediate, impassioned response to spearing Jesus is an example of contrition—genuine, overwhelming regret for one’s sins.
Themes
Penance and Repentance Theme Icon
Will descends with Christ to Hell, where he sees several women approaching. The first is a young woman named Mercy, who is gentle and kind. The second is her sister, Truth, who is beautiful and fearless (in this instance, Truth is now the female daughter of God rather than God himself). Truth is confused about “…gleam and glint [that] glowered before Hell.” Mercy explains to her that Mary’s son has died and descended to Hell in order to rescue the patriarchs and the prophets. Truth rejects Mercy’s explanation, claiming that “For whatever is once in hell, it comes out never.” Mercy kindly refutes Truth’s point, reminding her that “…venom destroys venom.”  Mercy believes that Christ’s death has the power to “beguile the beguiler.” Mercy and Truth see their two sisters, Peace and Righteousness, approaching, and decide to ask them if they know what is going on.
Truth, who now refers to one of the four daughters of God, draws upon Job 7:9 to prove to Mercy that Hell is permanent: “As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so one who goes down to the grave does not return.” In response, Mercy recites a Medieval Latin hymn that explains how Jesus “beguile[d] the beguiler.” It is interesting to note that Truth uses the Old Testament to bolster her argument, while Mercy uses a Medieval Christian hymn. This means that Mercy already knows the significance of the Crucifixion. While both Truth and Mercy are daughters of God, in the case of this debate Mercy ends up having the right of it: Jesus does release the prophets and patriarchs from Hell. This suggests the critical important of Mercy to Christian life.
Themes
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
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Peace, dressed in clothes of patience, is joyful, as she has just received word from Love that Christ has won the joust and that Peace and Mercy are going to save humankind. Righteousness accuses Peace of being drunk for saying such a thing, echoing Truth’s claim that Hell is permanent, even for the prophets and the patriarchs. Peace explains that it is important that the prophets and patriarchs experienced Hell, “For had they known no woe, they’d not have known well-being; / For no one knows what well-being is who was never in woe.” Peace explains that through Christ, God became man in order to save mankind.
Peace’s explanation of why it’s good that the prophets and patriarchs have experienced Hell—“For had they known no woe, they’d not have known well-being”—seems to point back to the considerable attention the poem has given to poverty. The prophets and patriarchs’ experience in Hell means that Heaven is an even greater joy, just as a poor peasant’s suffering on earth makes Heaven all the sweeter. 
Themes
Good Works and Salvation Theme Icon
Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
A person named Book appears with “two broad eyes.” He affirms that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to eventually “…save man’s soul and destroy sin.” He explains that all the elements of the earth have revealed that Jesus is the Son of God—first, the star that shone over Bethlehem when Jesus was born, then the water Jesus walked on, and finally, the darkness that cloaked the sun and the earthquake when Jesus was crucified. Book says that Jesus has now come “…to have out of hell every one he pleases.” Truth tells the group to be silent, for she sees a spirit calling for the gates of Hell to be opened.
Book’s two eyes represent the Old Testament and the New Testament, which are both necessary to understand Jesus and Christianity. Among Book’s examples of the way nature revealed Jesus’ status as the Son of God, is the time when Jesus walked on water (and then allowed his disciples to do so as well), which is recorded in Matthew 14:28. Book also affirms that Christianity is about love between Jesus and his people, which is the reason that Jesus has descended into Hell.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Several devils, including Satan and Lucifer, bicker about if Christ can actually steal their prey from them. Satan knows that if Christ is allowed to enter the gates of Hell, he will “…carry off mankind / And lead it to where Lazarus is.” He says that patriarchs and prophets have been boasting of this day for a long time. Lucifer says he’s known Christ for a long time, and so he knows that “No death may do this lord harm, nor any devil’s trickery.” However, Lucifer says that it is his right to lay claim to the souls in Hell, since long ago, Truth told him that “If Adam ate the apple, all should die / And dwell with us devils” (this time, Truth refers to God, not the daughter of God). Lucifer thinks Jesus will therefore not be allowed to enter the gates.
In modern-day Christianity, Satan, Lucifer, and the Devil are seen as the same being. Langland adheres to an early tradition that considered each of these devils to be separate entities, which is a traditional also adhered to by John Milton in Paradise Lost. Lucifer is the ex-heavenly being who, out of pride, disobeyed God and was kicked out of Heaven. Satan refers to John 11, when Christ raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. The devils are fully aware of Jesus’ power and status of Son of God—they are clearly trying to find a loophole that will keep Christ out of Hell.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
Satan points out that because Lucifer trespassed in the garden disguised as a serpent and tricked Adam and Eve into eating the apple, the devils don’t have a true claim to the souls in Hell. Another devil, Goblin, agrees with Satan, affirming that God can’t be tricked. Goblin says that as for the souls in Hell, “We have no true title to them, for it was by treason they were / damned.” A fourth devil, the Fiend, says that for the past thirty years, he’s tried to tempt Jesus into sin. He admits that when he realized Jesus would not give in, he went to Pontius Pilate’s wife in a dream to tell her to persuade Pontius Pilate to not harm Jesus. The Fiend says his goal was to keep Jesus on earth so that we would not descend to Hell and take the devil’s prey. 
Here, the devils are aware of the power of justice, since they know that their evil trickery was “treason” and legally means that they “have no true title” to the souls in Hell. The devils are also afraid of Jesus and his power, implying that they are no match for him. Fiend admits to actually trying to keep Jesus alive on earth (so he wouldn’t ever come to Hell) by appearing to Pilate’s wife in a dream, alluding to Matthew 27:19 when Pilate’s wife begs Pilate, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
The Fiend suggests that all the devils flee. He blames Lucifer and his lies for the whole thing, claiming, “Because we believed your lies we all leapt out [of Heaven]. / And now for your latest lie we have lost Adam, / And all our lordship…on land and in Hell.”
The Fiend refers back to when all of the devils were heavenly beings, unspoiled by Lucifer’s lies. He almost seems regretful for following Lucifer in the first place.
Themes
Corruption Theme Icon
A bright light calls for the devils to unlock the gates, to which Lucifer answers, “Who is that?” The light answers, “The King of Glory,” and commands the devils to unlock the gates so that Christ can enter. To the devils’ horror, the gates break open, “And those that our Lord loved his light caught away.” The patriarchs and prophets sing praises, while Lucifer is blinded by light.
This dialogue comes from the Old Testament, in Psalm 23:8, suggesting the importance of reading the Old Testament in hindsight to understand Jesus, since Christians believe that the Old Testament prophesizes and explains Jesus and his ministry. This is why Book, with his eyes representing the Old Testament and the New Testament, knows that Christ’s love will rescue souls from Hell.
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Christ tells Satan, “…here’s my soul in payment / For all sinful souls, to save those that are worthy.” Christ asserts that although the law states that those who ate the apple would die, it was Satan’s trickery that manipulated them into eating it. The law also states “That guilers be beguiled,” so Jesus coming to Hell to retrieve the worthy souls is lawful. Christ explains that to save humankind, he became human himself, ultimately telling Lucifer, “…what you got with guile through grace is won back.” Christ refers to Lucifer as “…doctor of death” who brews a drink of bitterness. Christ, as “…Lord of Life,” brews a drink of love. Christ binds Lucifer in chains—as the other devils hide.
Just as Mercy (one of the four daughters of God) believed that Jesus had the power to “beguile the beguiler,” Jesus explains that it is lawful for “guilers [to] be beguiled.” Although Jesus isn’t an allegorical character in the poem, his interaction with Satan emphasizes what most of the allegorical characters have in common: they are all concepts that can be used for good or evil. Here, Jesus uses trickery (along with God’s grace and love) to rescue the souls that the devils’ trickery damned. 
Themes
Love Theme Icon
Corruption Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As Christ leads the worthy souls out of Hell, hundreds of angels sing, and Peace declares that the sun is always brightest after a storm. She says, “There was never war in this world nor wickedness so sharp / That Love, if he liked, might not make a laughing matter.” Peace, Truth, Mercy, and Righteousness reconcile and kiss one another. As music begins to play, Will wakes up and calls for his family to get ready for Easter Mass.
Peace contrasts weather and war, alluding to Psalm 84:11, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield,” showing that God’s love can overcome evil. The kiss between the four sisters alludes to Psalm 85:10, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”
Themes
Love Theme Icon