Piers Plowman

by

William Langland

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Piers Plowman: Passus XX Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In his waking life, Will wanders the world feeling “Heavy-hearted” and doesn’t know where to find food. Will meets a man named Need, who scolds him and tells him to not “…be abashed to abide and to be needy,” and to instead let neediness be an excuse for begging. 
Will meets the allegorical character, Need, outside of the context of his dreams. This is a fitting time for Will to meet Need, since Will spends his waking life wandering and hungry—which makes it more difficult for Will to resist the temptation of Need’s suggestion to embrace being a beggar. In other words, Need is advising Will to ignore the importance of labor and to be one of the “fakers” who ruined Piers Plowman’s perfect feudal state earlier in the poem. 
Themes
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Will drifts asleep again, this time dreaming that Antichrist, appearing in human form, destroying the tree of Truth all over the world (here, Truth is a tree, not God or God’s daughter). In every place that he tears out Truth, Antichrist plants Guile in its place. Antichrist develops a large following, including many friars. Once again, Conscience calls out to the Christian community to take refuge in Unity. Conscience tells the people to cry out to Kind to defend them. Kind sends down Death, Old Age, and the forces of sickness, including “fevers,” “cardiac ailments,” and “toothaches.” Eventually, Conscience asks Kind to call back death and disease to see if the people will now reject Pride and “…be proper Christians.”
Will’s eighth and final dream vision begins. The Antichrist appears, just as Grace told the Christian community he would. Antichrist replaces Truth with Guile, who represents trickery and deception (suggestive of the “beguiling” done by the devils). At first it might seem confusing why Kind would send down Death, Old Age, and disease to humanity in its hour of need. That action hardly seems kind at all. But this moment is similar to when Piers Plowman called in Hunger earlier in the poem to try to get the people of his feudal state to work again. The poem, and the Christianity it inspires, holds to the idea that suffering can lead to enlightenment and improved virtue. And so the “kindness” here rests in the hope that the suffering sent down can shock people into being “proper Christians and, in so doing, save their souls from the Antichrist.
Themes
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Despite the momentary peace, Fortune, Lechery, Covetousness, and Simony resume their attack on Conscience and Unity. Simony talks the pope into appointing bishops who are allies of Antichrist.
Simony was one of the two characters who conducted Meed’s thwarted wedding to False. His allegiance to Antichrist shows that the concept of simony (buying or selling Church offices, documents, or privileges, like indulgences) is immoral and corrupt.
Themes
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In the chaos, Old Age beats Will, leaving Will bald, nearly deaf, toothless, and inflicted with gout and impotence. When Death comes close to Will, Will cries out for Kind to help him. Kind tells him to hide in Unity until Kind comes back for him. Kind also tells Will to learn to love, for if he “…love[s] folk faithfully,” he will always be provided for.
Another moment of comedy arises in the accidental fight between Old Age and Will that leaves Will bald, toothless, and impotent. However, this brawl also shows that Will has been on this spiritual quest for so long that he’s now elderly. His quest in the poem has spanned his life. Meanwhile, Kind’s teaching mirrors one of Trajan’s earlier teachings to love “folk of all factions,” meaning that Christians must love all people from all walks of life, as represented by the “field full of folk.” 
Themes
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Antichrist’s followers also include seven “great giants,” and hundreds of “Proud priests” dressed as soldiers and carrying large knives. In desperation, Conscience cries out to Clergy for help, saying, “…I’ll fall / Because of imperfect priests and prelates of Holy Church!” A group of friars hear Conscience’s call and go to help him, but Conscience sends them away “…because they did not know their craft well.” Need convinces Conscience to let the friars into Unity. Meanwhile, Envy instructs the friars to go to school.
The priests, overcome by pride, are dressed as dangerous, deadly soldiers, not religious leaders who should be committed to Christ and helping to community. This may suggest that in its current state, the priesthood is more of a danger to the community than a help. The detail that Envy instructs the friars to pursue higher education shows that the clergy is rife with ill intentions, emphasizing Anima’s earlier teaching that friars go to school “more for pomp” than to help people.
Themes
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Social Hierarchy, Community, and Selfishness Theme Icon
Hypocrisy wounds many of the Christians, so Conscience calls for a doctor, who gives the patients “a sharp salve” and makes them do penance. Some of the Christians dislike the doctor and ask if there is a doctor who applies “softer compresses.” Someone recommends Friar Flatterer, but Conscience objects, declaring that the best doctor is Piers Plowman. Conscience eventually complies, and Friar Flatterer is sent for.
The people don’t like the doctor because he is too hard on them—suggesting that many people prefer the ease of indulgences (the “softer compress”) to the uncomfortable, guilt-ridden, spiritually difficult experience of actual rigorous penance, which includes contrition, confession, and satisfaction (prayers or deeds a person is instructed to do by a priest).
Themes
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When Friar Flatterer arrives at the gates of Unity, Peace asks him for his reason in coming to Unity. He says that he is a doctor here to heal the sick that Hypocrisy inflicted. Before giving him entry, Peace asks what his name is. Friar Flatterer responds, “Sir Penetrans domos.” Peace immediately tells the friar to leave, but Courteous Speech intervenes and welcomes Friar Flatterer inside Unity.
Friar Flatterer introduces himself in Latin as “Sir House-Penetrator,” referencing 2 Timothy 3:6: “For of these [men] are those who penetrate house and lead captive simple women burdened with sins, who are led to manifold desires.” In one simple phrase, Friar Flatterer reveals his ability to lead people directly to sin. Peace sees through the Friar to his evil motives, but Courteous Speech, more attuned to surface behavior than deeper intentions, has no such understanding.
Themes
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Conscience welcomes Friar Flatterer and asks him to heal his cousin, Contrition. Friar Flatterer promises to heal Contrition and the rest of the sick and injured people “for a little silver” and comforts them until Contrition forgets how “to cry and to weep.” Realizing their chance, Sloth and Pride attack Conscience, who calls out again for Clergy’s help. Conscience also calls for his cousin Contrition, but Peace delivers the news that Contrition “…lies drowned in a dream…and so do many / others.” Peace says that Friar Flatterer “…has enchanted the folk here, / And given them a drugged drink: they dread no sin.”
Conscience and Contrition are related as cousins, showing how one’s conscience (integrity) is directly tied to the experience of contrition (guilt for sin). However, Friar Flatterer’s “drugged drink,” which represents indulgences, makes Contrition dazed and emotionless—meaning that relying on indulgences to ease punishment for sin makes people numb to the severity and consequence of sin. The story here is an allegory for the practices of the Church that the poem sees as plaguing Christian society.
Themes
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Conscience vows to become a pilgrim and search for Piers Plowman, for he is the only one who can destroy Pride and “see the friars had funds who flatter for need.” Conscience cries out for Grace, and Will wakes up.
Although Conscience is severely critical of friars throughout the poem, his closing thought suggests that what is needed is not to change the structure of society but rather some way to reform the friars from greed so that they perform their function as they are supposed to. It is easy to read this last section of the poem as being dark and pessimistic: here is Conscience, after all, fleeing a battle that seems to have been lost to Antichrist. At the same, time, though, the poem is offering hope. After all, despite the attack by the forces of Antichrist, Conscience still has the ability to tell right for wrong, and the conviction to go in search of Piers Plowman, who has the ability to destroy Antichrist. In this ending, the poem offers two allegorical meanings, one at the level of the individual and the other at the level of society. First, it suggests that any person through conscience can seek Christ and become a good Christian (as Will has demonstrated). Second, it suggests that despite the Church’s current corruption it also can be reformed and once again become a force for Christian virtue in the world.
Themes
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